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In an exclusive interview with VOA Ukrainian Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), a 14-term congressman and ranking member of the US Helsinki Commission, shared his views on how Senator John McCain might shape US policy toward Ukraine and the region if he were to be elected the next US president. The interview was conducted by Tetiana Vorozhko-Koprowicz.
On how US policy toward Ukraine and the region might change if John McCain where to be elected president and how it would be different from that of Senator Barack Obama
Well, I think Senator McCain, perhaps more than anyone else on the scene, truly recognizes the absence of freedom. Having spent five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, knowing what torture and the denial of fundamental human rights is all about, having lived it and overcome it, he can identify with oppressed peoples. So, my belief is that he will be very robust in promoting human rights in Ukraine, realizing that Ukraine is a tremendous country that faces some real threats from their neighbor, Russia, and that we need to continue to build the institutions of the rule of law, free press, and, in Ukraine’s situation, we have to go very aggressively and help the Ukrainians combat human trafficking. I wrote the Trafficking Witness Protection Act and remain very concerned about the number of Ukrainian women and girls who are bought and sold like slaves to be abused all over Europe, in the United States and elsewhere. You know the [Ukrainian] government has taken some very good actions, but we need to do more. That remains mine and, I believe, Senator McCain’s high priority.
I actually sat with Senator McCain when he was elected to Congress – in his second term he was on the Foreign Affairs Committee – so we sat right next to each other. So, when it came to Eastern Europe, when it came to Central Europe, Russia – back then the Soviet Union – and Ukraine, he was a student of history who, I believe, really gets it when it comes to the excesses and brutality of Communist dictatorships. Dictators need to be spoken with, but not coddled. And I am always concerned about people that feel that they can just talk their way through a policy and think that somehow the despotic leader will respond. That’s not the case. I myself spent virtually all of the 1980s meeting with Soviet officials, trying to get people out of prison, arguing with Ukrainian Communist officials as well, and I believe we need to stand with the oppressed people, not with the oppressors. When it comes to Ukraine, it has suffered enough – from the terrible famine imposed on them by Stalin, where eight to ten million people died in a breadbasket area. It should have never happened. It was by design. Those kinds of memories need to help shape the future so that never again means never again. That’s why I believe in forging that bond with Ukrainians every day of the week.
On whether countries like Ukraine and Georgia face the risk of becoming bargaining chips in relations between the United States and Russia
There is no acceptable loss. We know at Yalta when Eastern Europe was literally given up by FDR as well as by Winston Churchill and Stalin was able to garner huge amounts of land and people – that was unconscionable, that was a give-away, and people went from one captivity to another seemlessly. And I don’t think these countries are bargaining chips – whether it be Ukraine or Georgia or anyone else. We need to deal with Russia – eyeball to eyeball – as a great power as it is and not throw countries and the interests of countries that are not ours to give anyway away. So, we should learn from the lessons of Yalta when Stalin, unfortunately, went away with huge whole countries.
On whether a McCain White House would support, as the Bush Administration has, Ukraine’s accession to NATO’s Membership Action Plan
Without a doubt. I believe McCain – and I feel strongly myself – that the faster we matriculate from being in the process to being actually bona fide members of NATO, the better. It helps create a larger shield and level of protection, but it also helps to integrate the militaries to get a much closer cooperation among all of the countries and I think it is foolhardy in the extreme to delay. Of course, Russia does not like it. When have they ever liked any NATO expansion? But I think they have to realize, as in all of the decades previously, NATO was always about defense, not about offense. Even when the war games occurred during the coldest and bleakest times of the Cold War – our war games were scenarios whereby what happens if the Russians were to invade by land, by sea or by air and what scenarios could be put into place to protect – it was never and offense-minded organization and it remains so. It’s all about defense, protecting the institutions of democracy and freedom-loving peoples. And Russia needs to get that. If they are students of history, they need to know that that is not an offense-minded organization. They have nothing to fear from NATO enlargement, and I hope that they will, too, become more democratic, cease their persecution of journalists, which they have unfortunately done with earnestness, and allow much greater freedom.
On the role of diaspora organizations in the policy-making process
I thing the diaspora organizations, the emigre organizations have been a critical feature in informing, motivating and providing very prudent suggestions for lawmakers in the West, including the United States. I know that I meet with the diaspora members and organizations all the time. They are a font of information about what’s really going on on the ground, they have contacts with relatives and friends; their knowledge of the language, the customs and the culture help provide insightful information so that when we do confront politicians – and, in the past, dictators – we were much better informed and could speak truth-to-power with authority. Without it, we’d be grappling, trying to figure out what this is all about. And I always make it my business to listen intently when they speak. As a matter of fact, this organization [the Central and East European Coalition, at whose recent function the interview with Rep. Smith was conducted] and the collection of all the other organizations have made it possible for us to be effective. Even the Belarus Democracy Act which I am the prime sponsor of – it’s a law and we will be authorizing it, and we’re working with the coalition here and especially the Belarusans to get input into language and text and what is really needed. And I do that on all the bills – when we did the trafficking legislation we had input from the emigre communities about what is really going on, for example, in places like Ukraine.