By Sylvie Kauffmann (Davos, special correspondent). 26 January 2014 at 11:26 • Updated 26 January 2014 at 1:29 p.m.
Ukraine: “It’s not a question of Russia, but of escaping injustice and corruption”
Nataliya Gumenyuk, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said she would return to Ukraine to monitor the protest.
On Sunday, Nataliya Gumenyuk returned to Kiev. At the beginning of the week, when the protest movement on the Maidan recorded its first deaths, and she was at Davos she asked herself: “If she could be away from Ukraine during the critical time?” Finally, her friends, and especially the colleagues with whom she created the independent online television station Hromadske.TV last year, convinced her that at that moment she could also have some impact being shortly away and talking directly to those in power.
Small, thin, her eyes red from lack of sleep, Nataliya Gumenyuk (30) speaks quickly but accurately, as if every minute counts. She was invited to Davos as part of the Global Shapers group, young elites whom the World Economic Forum believes are already shaping the world of tomorrow.
A LIFE OF ‘UPHEAVALS’
On Thursday night, at one of those very ‘Davos’ dinners whose theme was the future of Europe, by chance she found herself sitting at the table of José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission. He listened to her carefully. “I don’t know if your life has changed since last Sunday,” she told him, “but mine has been turned upside down. The country that I will find after I get back from Davos is not the same as the one I left.”
Nataliya Gumenyuk was born in Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East, where her father, a Soviet military man, had been stationed. She was seven years old when Ukraine became independent. Another thing which changed her life, in 2005, was a grant from the Swedish government, which allowed her to do a Masters in Journalism at the University of Örebro, Sweden. When she returned to Ukraine, she was a European. Here is her story:
“I used work at Ukrainian mainstream media for a decade as an international reporter. But I found the structure to be too oppressive. With some colleagues, we decided to create an Internet TV station based on the principles of public broadcasting. By chance, we launched it on 24 November 2013… the day of the first EU demonstrations on the Maidan. So, we became the main source of information about what happens, being professionals who use cheap citizen journalists tools.
“Most of my colleagues in the media, culture, the social sciences, have studied in Europe. They are not different from my European friends. We don’t see Europe as something that is beyond our borders. There is a strong bond.
“ADOPTING THE RULE OF LAW”
“For us the Association Agreement with the EU was not a choice between Europe and Russia. It was a way for us to move, little by little; to adopt the rule of law, government accountability. It’s not a question of Russia; the question is to dig deeper into a system where justice is corrupt, where people are tortured in police stations. A question of getting out of this grey area of injustice, corruption, nepotism and intolerance.
“When the government rejected the Association Agreement, we understood that if we did not stand up, the moment would pass very quickly. So we stood up.
“In the morning of 30 November, the first day of the repression, I wondered whether Ukraine would became Belarus. But no: in the evening, the people took to the streets. As one of my friends told “it was not us who had to leave the country, but the government which had to leave”.
“FOR US, THE PRIORITY IS TO INFORM PEOPLE”
“I don’t agree with this interpretation opposing the two parts of the country, a Russian-speaking east and a pro-European west. When you talk about corruption with people in the east, or about police brutality, you see that they think like us. But often they don’t know what’s happening. So for us, the priority is to inform people.
“At first, the protesters did not trust the opposition, there were no leaders. The opposition had no idea of the strength that all these people represented. Its only vision was: OK, there is no agreement with the EU, now it’s all about the presidential election of 2015. Over the past two months, little by little, the opposition leaders have learned a lot from the people on the Maidan. But they still don’t have a plan.
“THE TRIGGER WAS THE LAWS OF 16 JANUARY”
“Then, on 16 January, there was this strange vote in parliament, by a show of hands, on a budget bill which had 28 amendments stuffed with repressive measures hung onto it. We said, ‘This is a copy-and-paste of the Russian legislation and even more ruthless, it won’t be applied.’ But some protesters were angry, they threw stones, and the police responded very harshly. Now there have been the first deaths. And violence breeds violence. Everyone is afraid, but people are continuing to demonstrate. I covered the Arab Uprising and also conflicts, I know what violence is. But in Ukraine, people had never seen that before. We did not even have the experience of urban riots like France or Greece. I had never imagined that the Ukrainian government could kill its own citizens in the streets.
“There is a section of the opposition which is right-wing, neo-Nazi, around Svoboda; that is a question which needs to be raised. Those people don’t share European values, they have nothing to do with the EU. I’m thinking of the scenario of the Arab Uprings, where the revolution was hijacked by Islamists. Yet later on they were stopped.
“YANUKOVYCH IS ONLY LOOKING TO HANG ONTO POWER”
“Yanukovych, the President, doesn’t really have a logical policy, he’s only looking to hang onto power. I don’t really know what foreign leaders can do about him. We have to think strategically. We could bring about the resignation of key figures, regional governors, ministers, MPs. There are some very important businessmen, such as Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash, who have a decisive influence on dozens of members of the Party of Regions (the ruling party). They have a lot of assets in Europe. It’s not in their interest for Ukraine to be immobilised. These are the levers which we have to think about. A lot also depends on what happens in those areas in the west of the country, where people are beginning to rise up.
“Here in Davos, I haven’t felt any great concern for Ukraine. Sympathy for us, yes, a lot of cynicism too. Of course, there is Syria, the world… But if the EU fails to respond, we’ll be so disappointed! We’ve reached a decisive moment in the case of Ukraine. Representatives of the EU must talk to the people around Yanukovych, with officials in the regions, members, we have to get them involved, it is their responsibility. There is a chance to stop the violence.”
Great thanks to Jim Todd for the translation.