Remarks by Ambassador Yovanovitch at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy

January 28, 2019
Ukrainian Leadership Academy

Thanks, Roman. I am thrilled to be here. The last time I was here was for graduation, so I look forward to coming back when all of you graduate. But in the meantime I really appreciate you taking time out of your studies to spend an hour with me on a really important issue, which is, of course, Ukrainian elections and U.S. policy toward Ukraine. And, I wanted to do this, as Roman said, with a group of Ukraine’s future leaders.

So we immediately thought of all of you – the young leaders in Kyiv, — and I understand we’re tuned into other cities — Lviv, Mikolayiv, Poltava, Kharkiv, and Chernivtsi. So hello to everybody, I don’t know if I’m looking at you properly, but hi to everyone out there, and I hope you’re going to be able to participate in the question and answer session, which I hope will be a vigorous one.

I don’t need to tell anybody in this room that Ukraine is entering a really critical period with the elections that are coming up. And that 75% — I think that three quarters of people in this room and at the Leadership Academy in general — are old enough to vote. You know, this might be your first time voting and so I congratulate you on that. Because it’s a really important responsibility to help choose the next President of Ukraine, to help choose members of the next Parliament.

I also hear that you are planning a “get out the vote” project, so I want to hear more about that, hopefully in the Question and Answer session. I think that that’s — you know, whether it’s the U.S., Ukraine, other places in the world — getting out to vote, making sure that as many people vote for the future that they want for their country –it’s really, really critical.

I’m often asked which candidate the United States supports for the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election. And as the campaign season gets underway, I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the election and about its consequences for Ukraine’s future.

Sometimes to me it feels a little presumptuous to offer opinions on your country’s future. After all, you are Ukrainians, and you know most about where Ukraine should go. Ukraine has had a thousand years of history and an enviably rich cultural heritage. And the other reason is that the U.S. is not perfect. We sometimes fall short in trying to live up to our own values and aspirations. And I think everybody’s been seeing over the last five weeks that there’s been a struggle between our executive branch and our legislative branch over the budget and over constitutional prerogatives. But I think that what our experience also shows that it is only through a sustained commitment to basic principles that we can find the strength to advance them. And that’s true here as well.

The U.S. has worked through many challenges over the years. And just as it’s only the American people who have the right to choose our path forward, it’s only the Ukrainian people who should choose Ukraine’s path.

And I think that since the Revolution of Dignity, not to mention the Orange Revolution, the results of public opinion polling have been crystal clear. A large majority of Ukrainians are united in their enduring support of three priorities:
• a successful end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine;
• a prosperous economy;
• and a government that works for Ukrainians, respects their rights, and treats all citizens equally under the law.

The U.S. stands firmly alongside the Ukrainian people and believes that you – like individuals all around the world – deserve those opportunities.

And not only do we stand with you; we have invested heavily in the success of those priorities. Since 2014, the United States has provided more than $2.8 billion in security and other kinds of assistance to Ukraine.

Just last month, we committed to providing an additional $10 million to further build Ukraine’s naval capabilities, in response to Russia’s attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s re-launching of the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission in November is further testament to our steadfast and ongoing support for Ukraine’s security, economic, and political reforms.

I would like to discuss each of the shared priorities for Ukraine’s future.

So first, ending the conflict.

Of course, the war in eastern Ukraine dominates many conversations between our two nations’ governments – and for good reason.

Your fellow citizens – brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins – are being killed and wounded on a nearly daily basis while fighting for your – and your country’s – freedom.

Violence has uprooted 1.5 million Ukrainians from their homes in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Education has been disrupted for a generation of youth in these areas.

And businesses in the conflict-ridden region have struggled to stay afloat.

And amid all of this, a web of Russian disinformation is being spun across eastern Ukraine – in fact, across all of Ukraine – to confuse ordinary citizens about the cause of Ukraine’s challenges.

We stand by the brave men and women of Ukraine’s armed forces and will continue to invest with you in a strong defense. We also believe that there is no military solution to the conflict with Russia. The only way forward is a political solution.

As you know, the Secretary of State named a special envoy, Kurt Volker, who is working with Ukraine, European partners, and, whenever possible, with Russia to find that diplomatic solution.

The cornerstone of our diplomatic strategy are the Minsk Agreements.

Some skeptics, and I know there are many, say the Minsk Agreements can’t work, because Russia is not fulfilling its commitment to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

We hope one day Russia will fulfill those commitments.

However, because Russia is not fulfilling those commitments, we have been able – and when I say “we,” the international community, the U.S., the EU, and other likeminded countries – have been able to impose, maintain, and strengthen sanctions against Russia.

These sanctions exact a serious cost for Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. They also provide an incentive to resolve the conflict by peaceful means.

Ukraine’s partners in America, Europe, and beyond are committed to this approach.

Rejecting the Minsk Agreements approach would mean rejecting our ability to impose significant economic consequences on Russia, an important tool in influencing Moscow’s behavior.

Secondly, I’d like to turn to economic prosperity and opportunity for Ukrainians. That is a key part of your agenda.

I know the past several years have been challenging. The war in the East delivered a huge setback to Ukraine’s economy, and although the economy and wages have been growing since 2015, many families still feel they are struggling to make ends meet.

As I travel around Ukraine, I’ve met with many students, young professionals and others who just want to create a better future for themselves and their families, without having to resort to bribery and other schemes, and also without having to go abroad in search of better career opportunities. They want to stay here and build the new Ukraine. I hope all of you want to do the same.

With all of Ukraine’s amazing natural resources and human talent, Ukraine’s economy should be thriving, and well on its way to catching up with the rest of Europe.

So what is holding Ukraine back?

I think all Ukrainians know the answer to that question. Ukraine still lacks a free and transparent market economy governed by laws and rules that ensure economic opportunity for all, not just for a handful of elites.

The old oligarch system is still clinging to life, and corruption is its life support. While the few are getting richer, many Ukrainian families are struggling just to get by.

The record is very clear that countries that seriously undertake reforms can create the kind of economic boost that improves the daily lives of all citizens.

Economic reforms promoted by the U.S. and organizations such as the World Bank and IMF have helped lead to a dramatic decline in poverty worldwide.

In 1992, Ukraine had a higher per capita GDP than Poland, but today Poles make more than three times as much as Ukrainians in real terms. The key difference is that Poland undertook comprehensive economic reforms and successfully enforces its laws and regulations.

Despite the challenges that Ukraine faces, I am convinced that what happened in Poland is possible here as well – and if the result of these elections is to accelerate reforms, real improvement will come sooner rather than later.

Those of you who know me, know I am a huge optimist about Ukraine’s future.

I mean, just look at the record: Ukraine’s economy plunged by 16 percent in 2014 and it’s rebounded to show 3 percent growth last year. Nobody expected that in 2014! Nobody. Ukraine was up against a wall and found the political will to make necessary changes. So I really believe that the Ukrainian people can do anything if they were able to do that.

And I think Ukraine’s institutions deserve substantial credit as well for this turnaround – especially the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance, where there has been a series of strong Ministers. So do the IMF and other international stakeholders.

I know that reforms are not always popular – and for many Ukrainians they have been painful. But reversing the reform process will not bring greater prosperity.

What’s making – this is kind of counterintuitive – but what’s making the lives of Ukrainians difficult is not the reforms, but the fact that more reforms are still needed. Reforms still need to be completed [regarding] the continuation of the old economic ways, particularly pervasive corruption, that have kept Ukraine too poor, for too long.
Entrepreneurs and investors – both domestic and foreign – thrive when governments provide a predictable, transparent, and fair environment. They go elsewhere if bribes and kickbacks are necessary to do business.

Ukraine must continue to pursue economic reforms in line with European standards and fully empower all of its anti-corruption institutions.

I say this as a friend and as a representative of a country that I believe is Ukraine’s best partner. If Ukraine fails to do this, the country’s economy will continue along the path it has been on for the first two and a half decades.

So last – but certainly not least – let’s talk about western values, which is the cornerstone of every democracy. Democracies value freedom of speech and expression, a free press, and the belief that citizens have the right to hold their government accountable through free and fair elections.

Ordinary Ukrainians – like ordinary Americans – want to be governed by leaders who represent their interests – and not leaders who pursue narrow personal interests, or work at the behest of foreign powers.

They want a government that treats all citizens equally and fairly, whether they are high-ranking officials or hard-working citizens. That’s what the Revolution of Dignity was all about.

These are the goals that Ukrainians bravely proclaimed and sacrificed their lives for on the Maidan five years ago. And you – and your relatives and your friends – inspired the world.

Successful anti-corruption reforms are critical to achieving this goal. Only empowered, independent anti-corruption institutions can apply the law equally to all citizens, regardless of their wealth or power.

With proper support and leadership, these institutions – The Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutors Office, the National Anticorruption Bureau, and the High Anti-Corruption Court, which is being set up now – can ensure that those who break the law – no matter who they are or who they know – will be investigated, prosecuted, and punished.

But we can see what is happening when elites across the political and economic spectrum:
• undermine NABU;
• roll back good corporate governance at state-owned enterprises;
• hinder the privatization of state-owned enterprises;
• give preferential treatment to businesses and individuals with connections.
• And create an inhospitable environment for civil society activists and journalists.

These actions undermine Ukraine’s economic and political development. They undermine Ukraine’s security, because the more vulnerable an individual or institution is to corruption, the weaker that society, the weaker that democracy. They are open to other influences that are not yours.

These actions, that we can all see, shape a perception of Ukraine. Investors, other nations, and most importantly, Ukraine’s own citizens, see what is happening.
So as Ukraine’s leaders work to strengthen their strategic relationships with the EU and NATO, it is important to remember: the criticism and oversight provided by civil society and journalists make democracies stronger. And it is a democratic government’s responsibility to respect those voices, even if they don’t agree.

As the presidential elections season moves forward, we in the U.S. share the expectations of the Ukrainian people. That “titushki” won’t be a part of those elections, that campaigns’ staff should not be worried about getting beaten up or harassed, that money doesn’t buy votes in the villages, that disinformation is not used by the Russians or any other candidates to undermine the truth. And that full participation by all Ukrainian citizens is facilitated.

Elections are one of the sacred rights and responsibilities in a democracy. Ukraine, all of you guys, deserve an election process that your citizens are proud of and that lives up to the promise of the Revolution of Dignity.

Ensuring average citizens – people like you and me – have a say in how their communities are governed and how their tax dollars are spent is also critical in successful Western democracies.

And in our view, decentralization has been one of the most consequential reforms in Ukraine during the past five years.

By providing real resources directly to local governments, decentralization has helped to start to create a local democracy for the first time in Ukraine since the days of the Cossacks.

As I’ve traveled across the country, I’ve seen firsthand the profound effect decentralization is starting to make – and will continue to make – on Ukraine’s future.

Communities are building roads and ensuring that infrastructure is repaired, businesses licensed, and routine government actions are implemented close to home.

And community members – who know best what they and their families need – are providing input for these decisions.

Local leaders in these communities are also gaining firsthand governing experience that will help them advocate more effectively for the Ukrainian people as they advance into higher, national-level roles.

Ukraine’s success in decentralization reform gives me hope that Ukraine will achieve greater success in fighting corruption and empowering civil society as it continues to move closer to the EuroAtlantic community.

So in conclusion, I’d like to come back to the initial question: Who does the United States support in these elections?

So I don’t think you are going to be surprised when I tell you – we support the Ukrainian people.

We have stood by you, shoulder to shoulder, through 27 years of independence, five years of revolution and war.

Your goals are our priorities.

Why? Because a stable, economically strong, democratic and inclusive Ukraine – which is what I think all of you probably want for Ukraine – that kind of a country will make a strong and self-sufficient partner for the United States.

As you prepare to vote in March and then in April in the second round and again in October, I ask that you think about those goals, your goals and the most effective policies to achieve them.

What’s making the lives of ordinary Ukrainians difficult is not reform, it’s that the reforms have not been completed.

And reform does not happen overnight; it takes time and commitment for the results to be fully realized.

Ukraine has to remain resolute on its path toward peace and reform, with stable and strong foundations for its economic growth, and secure in principled and uncompromising western values.

These are the goals. We know this is not easy. But we also know the Ukrainian people can accomplish great things – because we have seen you do it.

The only alternative is the path offered by Russia, a kleptocracy, which seeks to divide Ukraine as the price for peace, to use its control of energy resources as a tool to isolate your nation, and to manipulate you and deprive you of independence in a system based on corruption.

You know what that system looks like: golden toilets, pirate ship restaurants, and brutal repression against those who speak out against the abuse of power.

You rejected it clearly before. Now is your opportunity to reaffirm that choice.

People here in Ukraine, in the United States, and around the world have fought hard – and in some cases even died – in pursuit of the right to take part in free and fair elections.

As in any democracy, the future is yours to make.

So I’m here to ask all of you to take that opportunity, the privilege to shape your future.

So thank you and I’m looking forward to hearing your questions.