Ex-Professor Upsets Ukraine Politics, And Russia Peace Accord

KIEV, Ukraine -- When she moved into her office as deputy speaker of Parliament a little over a year ago, Oksana I. Syroyid hung a large oil painting called “The Edge of the Sky Is Glowing.” It shows a man turning his back on the viewer while flames burn on the horizon.

“Men by definition are treated as the appropriate specialists, but a woman has to prove herself as a super-specialist, just to be treated as a normal specialist.” Oksana I. Syroyid

“This,” she said, “is every oligarch and every Russian agent who is still in Ukraine.”

With her own fast burn of ambition, ferocity and style, Ms. Syroyid of the center-right Self-Reliance party, a former law professor, has shot to the top of Ukrainian politics.

A political insurgent, she has made a signature issue of derailing a peace agreement with Russia and, in the process, may have eclipsed the former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, as the most powerful female politician in Ukraine.

A 39-year-old native of the Lviv region in the country’s nationalist west, Ms. Syroyid talks boldly about Ukraine acting in its own interests, not those of outside powers.

“We need to stop thinking of how to counter Putin, or how to please all our partners,” she said in a recent interview.

The question many here ask is whether Ms. Syroyid, a relative newcomer, can somehow master the byzantine structure of Ukrainian politics and emerge as the one to lead the country out of the morass of corruption and government dysfunction that threatens its future.

Or, is she just another in a line of ambitious upstarts causing Western governments their latest headache in Ukraine and, possibly, taking the country down with her?

One thing is certain: She is not afraid to take a stand.

To the dismay of Western diplomats, Ms. Syroyid (pronounced “Seer-o-Eed”) has blocked Parliament from passing a constitutional amendment granting virtual autonomy to the separatist regions in eastern Ukraine — a central element of the Minsk II peace accord that ended the hot war in Ukraine a year ago.

Last month, she pulled the Self-Reliance party out of the ruling coalition, inviting new parliamentary elections despite strong feelings in Brussels and Washington that Ukraine is too unstable to go through another round of voting.

“We have to be ourselves,” she said in a recent interview.

“And only if we are good at that will we have partners and friends.”

A bookish, bespectacled expert on the Ukrainian Constitution, Ms. Syroyid put away her professorial turtlenecks when she entered politics and now dresses to the nines, saying she is taking a cue from Ms. Tymoshenko, the braided, crusading pioneer of female politicians in this patriarchal country.

“She definitely is the brightest person in Ukrainian politics, and not only among women,” said Ms. Syroyid, who earned a law degree in Canada.

“She is very stylish, and has a very feminine look. At the same time she is known for her tough decisions.”

None have been tougher than Parliament’s de facto rejection of Minsk II, which takes its name from the capital of Belarus where President Petro O. Poroshenko and Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, signed it, with French and German mediation.

Ms. Syroyid, who entered Parliament in 2014, has emerged as the face of this rejection, unabashedly rallying her fellow members of Parliament to stand fast against Western pressure.

While politicians in Russia and Ukraine have taken turns blaming one another for stalling the implementation of Minsk II, Ms. Syroyid has proudly taken credit.

After visiting Ms. Syroyid last month, and again hearing she would not budge, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said this week that the credibility of the Minsk process was threatened.

“Both sides need to perform,” he said.

Under paragraph 11 of the accord, Ukraine was supposed to adopt the constitutional amendment by the end of last year, but did not, as Ms. Syroyid worked tirelessly to dissuade her colleagues from voting for it.

The change, Ms. Syroyid said, would allow the Kremlin to regain a foothold in Ukrainian politics by requiring the central government to recognize, and integrate, the Russian-backed leadership in the east.

It would, for example, allow the rebel leadership, with a track record of holding sham elections, to fill 14 vacant parliamentary seats in Kiev.

Until Russian soldiers leave the Donbass region, she says, Ukraine should refuse any integration and call it an occupied territory.

“Russia wants to destabilize Ukraine,” she said.

“This paragraph 11 of the Minsk agreement is an instrument just like the war. This is not for the sake of resolution of the conflict; it is for the sake of destabilizing Ukraine.”

Passage of the amendment requires a supermajority of 300 of Parliament’s 450 members, an all-but-impossible vote now that Ms. Syroyid has unified the country’s nationalist parties against the measure.

To her critics, the obstinacy of Ms. Syroyid and her like-minded supporters in Parliament is mind-bogglingly irresponsible, the tantrum at the children’s table after the adults of European statesmanship had prepared a healthy settlement.

“This position stems from pure populism,” Oleh Voloshyn, a consultant for the Opposition Bloc political party, said of her tactics.

He said Ukraine had to face the reality that it was in the weakest possible position, having lost the war to Russia and surviving on a financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund.

“There are two options: You win the war, or you lose the war. And when you lose the war, you have to negotiate. That is the problem. You don’t have any other alternative.”

Supporters say Ms. Syroyid has the backing of Ukrainian voters, whose anger at Putin is often evident.

Any rejection of his demands is likely to win the voters’ favor.

Besides, they say, Putin needs a peace agreement now more than ever, to get the West to lift economic sanctions that are hurting his energy-dependent economy.

“It‘s a difficult process not because of Syroyid per se, but because the Ukrainian public doesn’t accept it,” said Tymofiy S. Mylovanov, the president of the Kiev School of Economics.

“The price is too high.” 

Mr. Poroshenko agreed to the terms as Russian Army units and Russian-backed rebels were closing in on a Ukrainian force of about 5,000 soldiers cut off from resupply in Debaltseve, a town in eastern Ukraine.

In the talks mediated by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Fran├žois Hollande of France, the soldiers’ lives were weighed against the cost of longer-term political concessions, some of which required passage in Parliament.

But Ms. Syroyid said that the Russians never observed the cease-fire in Debaltseve, and that Ukrainian soldiers were forced to flee under fire three days after it was to have taken effect.

The government has said 179 soldiers died in the battle, 81 went missing and 110 were captured, and Ms. Syroyid says Ukraine is on the moral high ground today in stalling on the political demands.

Ms. Syroyid advocates abandoning the Minsk deal and declaring rebel zones occupied territory, for Russia to finance and feed, without a chance for integration until the Russian Army leaves.

“This is not a victory; it is just common sense,” she said.

It was not easy, she said, finding a voice as a woman in Europe’s gravest military crisis in a decade.

The ambassadors of the United States, Germany and France all pleaded for her to carry out the accord, lest war begin again.

“Men by definition are treated as the appropriate specialists, but a woman has to prove herself as a super-specialist, just to be treated as a normal specialist,” she said.

“But I knew all that before I came to Parliament.”

Source: The New York Times


George Woloshyn said…
At last.....a politician of whom all Ukrainians can be proud! Ms. Syroyid is saying openly what all diplomats and politicians think and talk quietly among themselves. Minsk II was stillborn and has never experienced a miraculous recovery. The best that can be said about it is that it has bought some time for Ukraine to build up its military (and that is not insignificant) but at the price of a continuing loss of lives and delays in other critical areas awaiting reform.

Yes- without a doubt Ukraine must think exclusively of what is in its own best interest. Although Europeans act as if they are doing Ukrainians a favor with sanctions against Russia and financial support, they are simply paying a bargain-rate premium to insure themselves - at least temporarily - against further Russian aggression. If Ukraine collapsed tomorrow or, even worse, cut a deal with Russia that would leave Russia free to devote its attention to the restoration of the old socialist bloc and dominate Europe (not improbable with all the internal stresses that Europe is now experiencing and its low level of military preparedness) Europe would go into a panic mode and NATO would fall apart as each country seeks its own security at the expense of its neighbor.

There must be a "new deal" between Ukraine and Europe - other than the tattered, discredited Minsk II. It can begin (and probably need go no further) with pulling Russia out of SWIFT and imposing a host of additional sanctions - much tougher - that have been held back to date. At the same time Europe must threaten and be prepared to send Ukraine advanced military equipment, particularly that needed to defend itself from Russian air power and advanced armor.

Russia will, of course, bluff and bluster (as it always does) but - despite it all - the Kremlin knows that it is not ready for a show-down with the West.....militarily or economically. At the center of Russian power is a cabal of very greedy, very self-serving, and very frightened corrupt oligarchs and wealthy KGB and military who can never be certain about control over their own citizens and who have every reason to fear that they will lose all.

Bravo for Ms, Syroyid! Sometimes it takes a woman - a Margaret Thatcher type - to see through the lies, pretenses, and mutual back scratching that men in power often do without regard to the cost.