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Zelensky is right in his attempts to initiate contact with Putin – British politician

Brooks Newmark believes Ukraine will not be able to handle Russia without Europe

In his interview to “Apostrophe”, British politician, former MP and former Minister for Civil Society BROOKS NEWMARK shared his opinion on President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian politics and the situation in the East, the relationships between the UK and Ukraine and the UK and Russia, as well as spoke of the Brexit perspectives for fall 2019.

- So, let us start with questions about Ukraine. It is very interesting to know what your first impression was when you found out about the election results in Ukraine – found out that Mr. Zelensky became the president. Do you believe that someone who is not a professional politician can be a truly effective president in a country like Ukraine, with many problems?

- Yeah, I mean, I think what has happened in Ukraine is part of a broader trend throughout Europe and the rest of the world. We have seen in the European elections, for example, the more populist parties doing increasingly well at the cost of the establishment parties. And so the evidence would seem to be that rather than complaining when outsiders do well in politics is to understand why ordinary people are disillusioned with the establishment parties. There is no point in establishment parties, business, the media complaining that we cannot have this result, we do not like this result, because you insult the intelligence of the people that voted for them. It’s far better that the establishments understand why it is in the UK that the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage does well, why Salvini in Italy does well, why Le Pen in France does well, why Donald Trump in the US does well. I mean, to sort of say it’s an aberration, I think the evidence would be to the contrary. Increasingly populist parties are doing well because ordinary people feel there is a disconnect between the establishment politicians and the way they lead their lives.

- Could you say that people elect actors and other media people because they get disappointed with establishment parties?

- They do, but there must be something that the actors or whoever they may be are saying that appeals to people. I mean, don’t forget one of America’s greatest presidents, Ronald Raegan, was an actor before.

- Yes, but before that he had experience...

- Yes. Yes, you’re right, he was the governor of California, which is a very good point. But people, when he became president, said oh, he’s a B-rate actor. So I think it’s always worth giving somebody the chance. We’re lucky that we live in a democracy. You may say democracy is a little less perfect in some places than others, but we do live in a democracy. When you elect somebody, you give them a chance to deliver on what they say. If you don’t like what they say, and if they don’t do what they say they’re going to do, then at the next election you have an opportunity to get rid of them. That is why I think democracy is a good thing.

You may say democracy is a little less perfect in some places than others, but we do live in a democracy Photo: Evgen Kotenko / Apostrophe

- Can you imagine the same situation in Great Britain? Because I think Great Britain is very conservative, and I can’t believe that British people could vote for comedians, for actors. On the other hand, maybe I am wrong?

- No, I think it's different because the way your system is structured, the way the US is structured politically, is you have a separate vote for the executive versus the legislative. So, in the UK, first you have to be elected a member of parliament, then you’re a part of a party group, and that party then elects the leader. There is a Latin expression primus inter pares, which means first among equals. So, the leader of my party is primus inter pares. He or she is first among equals. We are all equal in that we all are members of parliament, but this person is elected as the number one. Over here and in the United States, for example, you have a separate vote for the president and then for the MPs. Therefore, there is a much greater connection between the members of parliament in the UK and their leader.

- And do you think that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will be able to establish an even better relationship with the European Union? And generally, what perspectives do you see for Ukraine with the European Union and NATO?

- Well, as a country you’re sort of split as to those who want a closer relationship with Europe versus a segment of your population which are ethnically Russian speakers, who have a different view on that. You know, I would argue that you live in a democracy, and the majority should prevail. And if the majority wishes to have a closer relationship with the EU or NATO, you are entitled to do that because you’re a sovereign nation. What I find that I don’t like is interference from a foreign power, in this case Russia, who thinks that they can try and influence what is going on nationally. To the extent that they arm Russian speakers in this country, they have up to two thousands of their own soldiers in your eastern front, they have GRU and FSB – maybe 2 or 3 hundred of them. And so they have a bad influence on what’s going on; they refuse to let democracy play out. And I think it’s one of the great challenges your president is facing – is that you have much more instability than we do in Europe and the UK. Now, can he pull it off? You know, I don’t know, but clearly with 70ish percent of the vote, and I suspect when the members of parliament are elected he will also get a large percentage of that, that clearly the people are saying let’s give him a chance. If he fails to deliver to hopefully bring peace within your country, improve the economic lot of people outside of the capital here. You know, the poor people who have not done economically as good as people here in the capital. If he fails to deliver on that, in all likelihood he will get defeated in the next elections.

- As we’re talking about Russia here, I have one question about the mechanisms you see to end this conflict between Russia and Ukraine. We have a few points on how to stop it. One point is that we should talk with Russia face-to-face and Zelensky should talk with Putin without any other countries, and another point is that we should talk with other states – for example, Germany, France. What is the best way to stop the war?

- Well, there was a US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who said diplomacy becomes a little lazy if all we do is talk to our friends. So, you, or I, or Mr. President may not like Mr. Putin, but in diplomacy it’s important that you engage with people and you talk to them. So I think he is absolutely right to try to engage with him, but I think in terms of making any headway with him – I think it’s unlikely because he is a much weaker partner. Ukraine is a much weaker partner in those discussions versus Russia, so I do think it’s important that the Europeans, NATO, the US in particular get engaged in this to support the Ukrainians. Because I think that without a strong partner, Ukraine is unlikely to have a balanced negotiation, and nor is Putin likely to take Ukraine seriously, unless there is stick and carrot, as the expression is. It’s unlikely an individual who believes that brute force is a solution to problems – it’s unlikely that you’ll make much headway.

I think when the negotiations or discussions start, it’s not just Ukraine in isolation – it’s what’s going on in each of those areas with respect to Russia and what they’re up to. Photo: Evgen Kotenko / Apostrophe

- Speaking about the United States, the relationship between Russia and the US is crucial for Ukraine. How do you see that dynamic developing? Will they come to agreement regarding Ukraine? Or how do you see the United States’ position?

- Well, there is a number of dynamics going on. There are three different areas globally where the Americans, perhaps, and the Russians are coming head to head. First, if you want to look locally, there is Ukraine and the illegal acquisition of Crimea by Russia. Secondly, there is Syria and what’s going on there in the Middle East. And the fact that Russia has been an accelerant to deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians there. And the third area, South America with Venezuela and Maduro. So, there are three areas in the world where the Americans and the Russians have different interests. I think when the negotiations or discussions start, it’s not just Ukraine in isolation – it’s what’s going on in each of those areas with respect to Russia and what they’re up to.

- I just remembered that Mr. Zelensky had an opinion that we should hold a referendum on the questions of what we should do with Russia. Do we need some negotiations, or maybe – He wants to know what Ukrainians think about it. I remember that Great Britain is a good example in questions of a referendum. What do you think, do we need a referendum? Is it a good way of voting on important political issues?

- I think referendum is good with key constitutional issues, but a decision to engage and talk to somebody shouldn’t necessarily be put to a referendum. Because people tend to vote much more emotionally, how they feel at a particular time. Part of the reason to electing a president is that you expect some form of leadership. And leadership means sometimes doing things that are not necessarily always popular. So, if the president believes that it is in the national interest to engage with Russia, he should go ahead and do that. He shouldn’t need to ask the people’s permission to do that. I would hope that with foreign policy advisors around him, he could begin, at least, a dialogue. But I don’t believe that dialogue should necessarily be in isolation. As I said, I think it’s important that if he wants to go in with some strength on these discussions, he should have the Europeans and certainly Americans covering his back.

- Doesn’t it look like the President would just be putting the responsibility on people instead of himself?

- Yes, I would say that. I think if he uses referendum as a way of making up his own mind on things – that’s called followership, not leadership. And if he wants to be a leader, he has to make tough decisions that he thinks are in the best interest of the country. As I said, I think referendums are important for constitutional issues, but not on day-to-day policy issues.

- And moving a bit to Great Britain… With Theresa May’s resignation, there are currently 10 candidates for the Prime Minister’s position. How would you evaluate Boris Johnson’s chances?

- I would say fairly high. I think that the worse Theresa May did in the polls, the more MPs worried about their seats. It goes back to the beginning of our discussion of who is a populist and who is attractive to the most amount of people. In my party, there are many smart, qualified candidates, but the question is who can beat Corbyn, who is the leader of the Labour Party – our opposition in the UK. In my view – and I think in many other MPs’ view – Boris Johnson is the strongest candidate to take on Jeremy Corbyn in a leadership election. But you have to remember that the way the leadership works is chosen in the UK. It’s two stages: first stage is to narrow the field down – I think there are 12 candidates today – to 2 candidates. And those final two candidates go out to the membership of the Conservative Party. The ordinary people, who are not MPs but members of the Conservative Party, about 140,000 in the country, will choose who is the next leader and therefore the Prime Minister. Now the politics of the grass-roots are much more pro-Brexit than the MPs. I think that even if the MPs push at least one candidate who is likely to get through, I suspect the other person will be a Brexit candidate. That could be Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, or possibly Michael Gove. But whoever is in the final two, the most pro-Brexit candidate I think will win.

- There is also an opinion that the party might delay the decision on their candidate in order to delay Brexit decision. That would lead to general elections. Do you think this scenario is at all possible?

- There is an expression “turkeys don’t vote on Christmas”, and I don’t think any of the MPs today, in either party, particularly want general elections. Because as we saw on the European elections, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party did very badly.

- If Boris Johnson becomes the Prime Minister, how do you see the development of Brexit?

- He has said that he will deliver Brexit by the end of October. If he makes a statement and a promise like that, he either delivers on it or his fate will be the same as Theresa May’s.

- And how can he do it by October? It’s not that much time.

- That’s right. There is a possibility that we cannot make the changes that we want to in what’s called the withdrawal agreement, where we leave both the customs union and the single market, which is what Brexit is – you can’t fudge that. That’s what Theresa May tried to do, and that’s what Jeremy Corbyn has tried to do, and they paid a heavy price for that in the elections. You either have to decide “I am going to remain, I want to remain, that’s where I’ll take my party” or “I’m going to leave”. I am hoping that if we say we’re going to leave, we either have a deal by 21st of October, which is acceptable to the majority of Parliament, or we leave without a deal. Now, leaving without a deal doesn’t necessarily mean we have no deal. It just means our negotiating position is different. If I say to you in the negotiation “I won’t leave the table without a deal”, you know you have leverage over me. And that I think was the weakness of the government’s position. If you’re not prepared to walk away from the table in the negotiation, you are vulnerable. I think the next leader must be prepared to walk away from the table. We’re leaving, and once we’ve left the chances are we will have an agreement because the EU needs to trade with us. We’re the 5th largest economy in the world. German manufactory needs to sell their Mercedes, Audis and Porsches to the UK. I think they sell 20% of their high-end cars to the UK. French farmers need to sell their goods to the UK. I don’t think there will be no deal forever; it just means we will have a different deal.

Photo: Evgen Kotenko / Apostrophe

- Theresa May has also had rather strict policies regarding Russia. She supported sanctions against Russian oligarchs. If Boris Johnson is elected, will he continue the same policy? What could Ukraine expect?

- I think that, hopefully, Boris Johnson – if he was a Foreign Secretary – he was privy to information that showed that unfortunately Russia has become a much bigger threat to the West than it used to be. That is a function of the paranoid dysfunctionality of President Putin. Putin thinks everybody is out to get him, and therefore behaves in a way where he ends up hurting other people. Now, I suspect we will retain having a fairly robust policy not against the Russian people, but against the Russian government – we should make a distinction there. None of us have any problem with Russian people, it’s just their government that I think we have a problem with. And you can’t go around assassinating people as Putin has done on the UK sovereign territory. You know, using very strong weaponized chemicals to kill people. In the case of Skripals and Novichok, which I am sure your listeners and readers will know about, where he sent over some assassins to kill somebody who had been a Russian citizen and has settled in the UK by bringing a weapon’s grade chemical into the UK, and using it to try and kill two people. That to us was beyond the pale, and no amount of dissembling or anything else… When you have weapon’s grade chemicals, like he was using, they can come only from certain laboratories. Think of this as of fingerprints. When you use something as strong as that, you know exactly where it was made. No one can really replicate your fingerprints or my fingerprints – they’re ours, they’re unique. It was quite easy to trace it back. The second problem for Russians, I think, was that they have a lot of CCTV in the UK. People can see very clearly who these people were, as they were caught on CCTV and through facial recognition our intelligence services were able to identify exactly who these people were, where they came from and so on. It made it really hard, at the end of the day, for Russia to defend indefensible.

- And what kind of support Ukraine could hope for from Great Britain?

- Well, if I get engaged again politically, with whoever the next leader is, hopefully a lot stronger. You will find that in the UK Parliament in particular the vast majority of MPs are hugely sympathetic to the Ukrainian people. There are very, very few of those I’d call Russia sympathizers.

- One more question about sanctions against Russia. Do you think these European and US sanctions influence the Russian economy?

- They have an influence, but they can be stronger in my view. It’s not enough because the bad behavior of Putin continues until it’s extremely painful not just for the Russian people. The problem with these very wealthy oligarchs is, of course, that they have a lot of money, which is why when I was an MP I said we shouldn’t be targeting Russian people. We should be targeting the oligarchs. We should be targeting their bank accounts, restricting their travel. Certainly into EU, the UK, the USA, we should stop their wives’ shopping in our high-end stores, we should stop their children being educated in our countries. The more pressure we put on people around Putin, the more likely it’s to lead to change in his behavior than simply economic sanctions that just hurt ordinary Russians, not Putin and not people around him.

- I read in the media that many European companies don’t like sanctions as they negatively influence the European business. Some of them want to have a good relationship with Russia. Is it true?

- Yeah, I think there are. I think you see, in particular, French and German companies that don’t like that. You can see it with Iran as well. There are two ways we can go about it. There is war, and nobody wants to go to war, so therefore the other tool that we have at our disposal is economic and diplomatic sanctions. I much prefer to use economic sanctions than using military solutions to problems. And we have a lot of power to do that. We’ve seen an impact by examples where there were effective sanctions, like in Russia and Iran, to change their behavior in the past. It’s just that we’ve slightly taken our foot off the throat of both, which has led to them suddenly revering back to the bad behavior.

There is war, and nobody wants to go to war, so therefore the other tool that we have at our disposal is economic and diplomatic sanctions. Photo: Evgen Kotenko / Apostrophe

- Why do many Europeans invest in Russian companies instead of Ukrainian ones? Why is it kind of on the quiet that Ukraine could be a good partner as well?

- Because Russia is a bigger country. They have more economic power, particularly in the energy sector, so people want to take advantage of that. I don’t necessarily think it’s the right thing to do, and I think if we want a good partnership with Ukraine, we should be doing more to support Ukraine more militarily as well as economically. And economically means supporting business. I guess I would agree with your question. I think that, again, if we start doing business with Russians, it sends a very back signal that we think they’re actually okay. But the problem is that in Russia today there are 500, in a broad sense, key business people, oligarchs, and it is a combination of a mafia-gangster state. When you’re doing business with gangsters and the mafia, generally at the end of the day there is only one person that wins.

- And if Boris Johnson in particular is elected, how do you see the development of the relationship between Great Britain and Russia?

- I think if Boris Johnson is elected, Boris Johnson was in the Foreign Office, and therefore will be privy to the behavior of the Russians. I think he’ll trade very carefully. Notwithstanding that I do think it is important that we engage in dialogue with Putin. Because you never want to get into a situation when someone says “No one has actually spoken to me, no one has tried to speak with me”. It’s very important that we always try our best through dialogue. If dialogue does not work, then we use other means.

- And a very important question to all Ukrainians. Currently, Ukraine has a free-visa regime with the European Union countries except for Great Britain. Do you see any potential possibility of having a visa-free regime between the two countries or maybe you have an idea how to make it easier? Now it is truly hard to even get a tourist visa.

- It’s not just Ukraine, it’s a lot of countries that are finding this. I think, because one of the touchstone issues in the public dialogue is immigration, that the Home Office is tightened up in a lot of areas. And I think it has impacted our economy in a negative way. I would much prefer us to be a little easier with tourist visas, but to be stricter on the penalties for people who overstay their visas. The big worry is that people tend to use tourist visas to find a way to more permanently settle in the UK, and then try and get work. And I understand that because in the UK we have like 2,5% unemployment today. Incredibly low unemployment and very high employment, so we need people, but I think we need to have an improved system in deciding who comes in and doesn’t come in to our country.

- And the last question is: it is often heard in the media that Europe is already tired of Ukraine and Ukrainian topic. Could you confirm it?

- No, I think that there have been other issues that have been emerging more on the domestic agendas of all European countries, and that is the challenge of populist parties. So, if you’re a mainstream party, you always look over your shoulder at what’s going on domestically. It’s not that people are getting tired of Ukraine, it’s just that a bigger pressure point in politicians’ lives is a domestic political scene. I think that’s what it is.

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