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Congressman Ben Cardin on Ukraine

Interview transcript:

Congressman Ben Cardin on Ukraine

(conducted by Natalia Leonova)

NL: You were elected in 1987 and you remember the times when the Soviet Union collapsed. What are you memories about those times and what was the mood in the Congress?

BC: You’re correct. This is my nineteenth year in the Congress of the United States, and a lot has happened in those nineteen years. When I started, there was the Soviet Union, and I was active in the Helsinki process with the OSCE. And I remember meeting with our Soviet counterparts and talking about human rights, the rights of the people to be able to determine their own government, and freedom of expression, and reporters being allowed to report what was happening. A lot has changed since that day and it has been an exciting part of history. I will never forget the discussions that I had with Soviet parliamentarians about just their lack of commitment to an open society and to allow people to determine their own future.

NL: What were your hopes for the newly emerging states?

BC: We wanted to see these countries let their people elect their own government, fulfill self-determination, to really have free, open and transparent elections. Secondly, we wanted to make sure that their leaders respected the human rights of the people with their country, to allow people to live their own lives and not to be harassed by their government. We wanted to see the institution of democratic principles. We wanted to see corruption end so that their economies could take off. And I must tell you, considering that it has only been, in Ukraine’s case fourteen years since their formal independence – and, by the way, congratulations on the Independence of Ukraine – a lot has happened during that period of time. I must tell you, I think that there has been more progress than any of us would have anticipated fourteen years ago.

NL: The West was very active in supporting Ukraine during those times. Do you think that assistance was effective?

BC: Yes, we used different strategies for different countries or different republics within the former Soviet Union. There was different expectations. Quite frankly, we were disappointed by the early progress in Ukraine. Obviously, we were very upset about the election process – the failure to have open and free elections. But the process worked, the people spoke, the Orange Revolution took place, and it was respected by the people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine. We now have a freely elected government that understands that they must deal with the problems of self-determination and corruption, deal with a more open society. And so yes, I think the way that the United States helped to bring that about was the right way. We don’t want to elect the government of the peoples of different countries; they have to elect their own government. But we want to have open and transparent elections, and that’s exactly what took place in Ukraine after a fixed election.

NL: You visited Ukraine after the Revolution. What did you think had changed in Ukraine?

BC: When we were in Kyiv and we saw the area that was filled with people just a few months earlier – they did not know about their own safety at the time when they were in the streets, but after knowing that they had to be there and being part of history, seeing the change of their country, there was a lot of pride. There was a lot of pride in bringing about the right change in the Ukrainian government. And then I met people who were charged as elected officials, part of the new parliament, part of the new ministers. And the excitement in the country – they new they were starting a new chapter in the history of Ukraine. Everybody was just excited. It’s such a wonderful country. And to see that it is now going to be able to reach its potential, it’s just exciting.

NL: Now the excitement is winding down a bit.

BC: Hard reality is setting in. These are hard issues. When you had a country that depended upon corruption, because by a large extent it was financed through corruption, and now you have to say – “we are not going to do that any longer.” It can cause difficulty in transition. So it’s not going to be easy. You also need to develop an economy that will sustain the type of standard of living that the people of Ukraine expect. That’s not going to be easy. So, the types of changes in the economic institutions, in the political institutions are going to be difficult to accept, but the fruits of this labor will be well worth it.

NL: What do you think Congress can do now?

BC: There is certainly going to be an economic challenge, and Congress has to be prepared to help – whether it’s direct assistance or through the international monetary institutions. We need to be supportive of those procedures. One area where we could help -- which, I’m sure you would mention if I didn’t mention it – is the normal trade relations, the Jackson-Vanik, the elimination of Jackson-Vanik. Not only is that important form the point of view of its own right – there is predictable trade between our countries on a level playing field, but secondly it’s a signal – a signal to the entire region that Ukraine has graduated to full participation in the international community. So, that’s another thing that we could clearly do and that we need to get done.

NL: Why is it not getting done?

BC: In my view, the reason why it has not been accomplished is that there is a line, a queue, of trade issues that need to be taken up by Congress. There is the issue of Jackson-Vanik with Russia, and whether Russia should come before or after Ukraine. So there are, I guess, a backlog of issues that need to be taken up. There are a few technical issues that need to be resolved – respect for intellectual property, things like that – that need to be dealt with in Ukraine. Quite frankly, I think we could deal with that if we knew that we were on track by a specific date to get it done.

NL: You mentioned Russia. There is a feeling in some quarters that Russia is a priority to the United States in terms on international relations and in terms of foreign policy. Do you agree with that?

BC: Russia presents a dilemma for the United States. Obviously, it’s a major country in the region. It’s a country that the United States has had close relations [with] on a lot of different issues, but it does present for us certain challenges, because in certain respects they are moving in the wrong direction on reform. And we cannot let that happen. We need to continue along the path for the type of democratic reform that is essential within Russia and with all of the republics of the former Soviet Union. So it does present a challenge for us. It’s obviously the largest of the economic powers and political powers in the region, so we don’t want to lose sight of the reforms that are necessary within Russia itself, but if we wait for Russia and we say that we can’t move forward with other countries that have actually accomplished a lot more than Russia on political and economic reform, that’s not right either.

NL: A lot of effort and political will is now going into fixing the problems in Iraq, in Afghanistan, the war on terror. Do you think that all of this being done at the expense of the former Soviet republics and that whole region?

BC: I hope not. The United States is committed in its was against terror and that will take it course. We had to be in Afghanistan, because of the attack on our country on September 11th. The course that we have taken in Iraq is controversial in the United States, let alone the rest of the world. So, there is different views as to whether we have proceeded appropriately in Iraq, and clearly there is a heavy cost – the heaviest cost is with the loss of life of our soldiers, but also with the taxpayers. The budgets that we are considering in Congress, though, really do not, are not dependent upon the defense budget or the Iraq budget as it relates to what we are doing in Europe and in trying to reach out in building the type of international cooperation and partnership that the United States should be doing. We spend a lot of money in absolute dollars on dealing with the problems in other parts of the world, including Europe and Asia, but in relative dollars these are not burdensome to our overall budget. We could be more aggressive, there is an ability to do that, both in foreign assistance and our State Department budgets, in trade – there is other things that we can certainly do to assist in the development of the republics of the former Soviet Union.

NL: The current government of Ukraine is being accused by some internal political forces of being a puppet of the United States government because of accepting American assistance.

BC: A nation in its development needs to develop relationships with other countries. Ukraine desperately needs to reach out beyond just its region as far as developing its economy and developing its economic system, and they’re doing that. Ukraine is a great country. It’s good great people, great resources, and it needs to be able to have the type of international credibility that comes with relationships with the Western world. So, I think that is an important point. What you need to be careful about is that those who try to undermine this through a new form of nationalism, that to me is – that they are trying to go back. They are trying to go back to how things were when the Soviet Union controlled the economies. That’s not good for Ukraine. That’s not good for the people of Ukraine, and it is something that needs to be watched very carefully. Those who favor nationalism as a way of going backwards will use any way to make their point, including relationships, international relationships as compromising the independence of a country, when it does not do that at all.

NL: Where do you see Ukraine in the future, internationally?

BC: I see it as one of the great powers of the region. It’s a country that has tremendous resources and most valuable are her people. It has a proud history. It has a reason to be optimistic about its place in the future. I’m very optimistic about Ukraine. I think it’s going to be one of the great powers of that region.

NL: Do you have a large Ukrainian community

BC: We have a large Ukrainian community in Maryland that has been here, in many cases, for many generations, but we do have a large population whose roots are in Ukraine, and of course we know the whole history – the problems in its relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union, the genocide that took place within Ukraine. So the Congress, of course, has a close relationship, because we made determinations about the genocide that took place in Ukraine. So there is a close tie between the people I represent in the Congress of the United States and the people of Ukraine.