Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Olena Sotnyk
Featured image: World Fellow Olena Sotnyk.
By McKenna Christmas
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
A Conversation on Human Rights, the Impeachment Scandal, and the Future of Ukraine with World Fellow Olena Sotnyk member of the Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada
Olena Sotnyk is a Ukrainian politician, lawyer, and human rights defender. As a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, she is a well-known legislator and public policy maker in areas such as rule of law, judicial system reform, anti corruption, and youth policy. Olena also represents Ukraine in the international arena—she is one of the leading voices of Ukrainians against Russian aggression. She holds prominent positions in the working bodies of several international organizations, including the Council of Europe, and focuses on issues including Euro-integration of Ukraine and female empowerment. Prior to her political career, she was a lawyer and served on the board of The Ukrainian Bar Association and Aspen Ukraine Alumni. Olena has degrees pertaining to law, economy, and psychology.
What led you to your current career path? What made you want to become a human rights lawyer and become involved in legislation?
I think that we need to divide [this question] into two different parts because to become a legislator, a member of the Parliament is one thing and to become a human rights lawyer and human rights defender is another thing. Both are connected by accident, because like many things in our life, one situation or just one person can change it.
If we are talking about becoming a human rights defender, I used to work as a lawyer in a company, and I was earning money. One day, I just felt that it was not fulfilling enough for me, and so I started some projects in the area of protecting children’s rights, especially orphans. This was the beginning of my career as a human rights defender, because in Ukraine, we have a lot of challenges with these children. There are a lot of problems that are not given attention. So working on these projects was part of my pro bono work. Then Maidan started. I remember one morning, my friends and I—all lawyers around the same age—we decided to meet because it was the first day and everybody had gone down to Maidan, the central square, in order to protest against our president and declare that we are a nation of dignity, and that we want changes. We met in a cafe and decided that because we were lawyers, if there was any abuse of human rights, we would help people in any way possible, whether that meant dealing with police, courts, etc. We established a Human Rights Center and we protected human rights during the protest for months on Maidan. We saw a lot of abuses.
After Maidan finished, it was early elections, and a new political party proposed a parliamentary position to me. They asked me because of one reason. They told me, “You are not happy with everything that is happening in Ukraine and you are not happy with the lack of justice. So now you have the chance to change something.” So that is how I switched from [being] a human rights defender to a legislator, because I really believe and still believe that Parliament is the best place where you can change the rules. The problem is that when you are in the minority, it’s very hard to change the rules, and we have been in that position. That is why [even though] I know a lot about what changes need to be made and how to make those changes, I could not always succeed. I believe that someday, with my colleagues, we can enter into the Parliament with a majority, then we can change the rules and make a difference.
What were your thoughts when you were asked to join Parliament? Was there a part of you that was not sure?
I used to be a lawyer, a partner of a legal company. It was a rather successful career with a good salary. Members of Ukraine’s Parliament earn rather low salaries compared to a lawyer’s salary… So it is not a great job if your goal is to earn money, but it is an opportunity to change your country, to help it continue to become more successful, and to help your people. It is not about money at all. And of course, at the time, I was thinking “What should I do?” Early elections mean you do not have much time to decide, because it is a very short campaign. So the political party gave me 24 hours to decide. I asked for advice from the people close to me like my mother, and everybody said, “Of course try.” They were super skeptical about the success of this campaign, and so they did not expect that I would enter parliament… Two months later, I entered the parliament. I think it was the best decision of my life. When you are young, it is the best time to make such a decision. Even if you are risking everything, you still have time. Even if you are going to make mistakes, I think that when you are young it is a time when you need to risk, a time when you need to change your life. It is the time when you can really impact any place you want or any position you want if you have the chance. So maybe this is my best advice to young people: take risks, because you still have time. When you are 40-45 you are not going to take risks, because you will have your family and you will have your responsibilities, but when you are in your twenties and early thirties this is the best time.
Working in human rights, what is one of the most pressing issues that you see, such as an issue that is not given as much attention that you believe is important?
…In my country, the main challenge is a lack of justice; there is a lack of emphasis for the protection of human rights. I also see this all over the world…People do not care about human rights anymore. Even in developed countries like the United States or Europe, there are less and less voices advocating for human rights. I think we really need to come back to wanting to build a peaceful and stable world. First, we must start with human rights because they are the basis. I believe this is what makes people equal to each other and in turn respectful to each other. That is why, from the point of view of global tendencies and global challenges, we really need to come back to this principle. Whenever you are making decisions, such as deciding about new norms or laws, you need to remember that human rights is a basic thing which is making this world civilized.
You also served on the Parliament’s Committee of European Integration. What were the challenges you experienced there?
First of all, I need to tell you why I decided to go into European Integration because it was expected that I would go into a different committee—for example, legal community where they just work on legal issues. I believe that the European Union with its values, principles, and established structure, can still be a very optimistic thing for the whole continent. I believed and I still believe that for Ukraine, Euro integration and just the European direction, it is the only direction to become civilized and also to help our citizens to be [viewed and treated as] equal to other Europeans and to live better lives. European norms, values, principles, and standards are good because it is at least some kind of predictability and stability. It helps different institutions and even citizens to know what direction they are moving. It also helps with cooperation between the countries. Countries are becoming more developed, stable, and more predictable for their citizens. That is why for me, Euro integration was some kind of scenario or action plan for Ukraine to become more stable and more developed and maybe even to bring more prosperity to the country. This is the best way to have rules to have standards to have procedures that are equal for everybody.
The next thing that I wanted to talk about, as you previously mentioned, is how you got involved in human rights, and that was serving as a lawyer for the protesters. That is obviously a very heavy subject. Do you mind talking about your experience? Is there something about those events that you would want either the international community or the community at Yale to know?
I think this is a problem which also concerns the most recent scandal [ the leaked transcript between the President of Ukraine and the U.S] as well, I feel that there is a lack of understanding concerning Ukraine, specifically: the understanding that there is a war; Russia started this war against Ukraine; what the reasons are and why they are important for the United States. I also think there needs to be an understanding of why Ukraine itself is important for the United States, what was happening in Ukraine, and also why Ukraine is important for the European Union and for European countries. It is many things and it is very complicated, but I will maybe try just mentioning one by one.
So the first thing, what was the most difficult during this protest? I told you that in Ukraine, there is a problem with justice. We are still struggling to have courts. I would say we have rather corrupt courts and so people feel unsafe. And for me as a lawyer and human rights defender, it was and is very important to bring people justice, because if you have justice, at least you are guaranteed protection. I think this feeling of unsafety and insecurity is the main problem for Ukraine. It was the main challenge during the days of protests—even for me because I was not guaranteed that police would not arrive one day to take me to prison. It was very risky. But we had been ready to risk. We wanted to live in another country. By another country I mean Ukraine, but with values, dignity, justice, rule of law, equality, human rights, and with respect.
I think the most important thing for [the] international society to know is that the days when we were protesting and struggling, many people were killed and still nobody has answered. There is no punishment or notice for criminals. For example,our former president, Yanukovych, ran away to Russia. He stayed there and lives there calmly with all his money and there is no punishment for him. That is why I think what is very important to know is that it is not just about Russians that they, for example, may have intervened into your elections or that Russians are involved in Middle Eastern conflict. You need to know that Russia is a very dangerous country, especially [with] a leader who is really trying to destabilize many countries in the world and who really does not care at all about law—about the rule of law involved in international order, or about world order.
In Ukraine, the Russians invaded and they annexed Crimea almost immediately after Maidan. Within months they had annexed Crimea because they were afraid that new elites would come to Ukraine, and they would not have control in the Ukraine. It was the first time after the Second World War when one country openly annexed the territories of another country and nobody did anything. This is a problem, because it is very risky. Europeans and people from many countries have learned this lesson because of the Second World War. If you are doing nothing, then the scales of the tragedy can be even bigger. If you are not going to punish the abuser, he is going to continue to destabilize the world. And what is Russian doing? They are doing the same things in many other areas they occupied and they started a large scale war with Ukraine in Donbass. We have the issue in Syria. What they are trying to do is they are just testing the world order, and there is no appropriate response. Now, after five years, of course, I can understand that nobody is going to talk about the Russian-Ukrainian War each day in the newspapers. But, it seems as though everybody has forgotten about it, but each day in Ukraine, people are dying in this war and it continues [without] resolution. Without international pressure, I am afraid that Russians are going to continue to destabilize the world order. And who knows, someday we might wake up in this multi-polarized world if we do not continue to respect at least international law and human rights.
Maidan is not a separate thing. Maidan happened because for 24 years in Ukraine, Russians had been trying to control our politicians. They had been trying to control all the processes inside Ukraine. And they did not want Ukraine to be a really independent country because it is one of the biggest countries in Europe. It has around 40 million people. It is a huge market. It is super rich with natural resources. We have gas deposits, we have oil deposits, and many other things. 80% of Ukrainians, have higher education, so they are very talented and skillful people. And of course, Russians did not want Ukraine to become European and also a member of NATO, because they felt like it can be a threat for security and I think this is the main mistake of Russia and Russians elites: they feel like to have a developed and democratic neighbor is a threat. But in reality, you should also think about this: if you are going to become a democratic and developed country, it will be for the better and for a better future of your people. This is the main reason, I think, as to why the United States should view Ukraine as an important regional partner, because if Ukraine becomes a developed democracy, It could lead to the beginning of the same transformation in Russia.
As far as addressing Russian aggression within the Ukrainian parliament, what are the divisions concerning how to address the issue?
It was mainly the divisions between what we should do: the question of if we were going to declare war and what we were going to do if our international partners did not support us. And we did not feel that the international community was really ready to support us in this issue. Everyone understood [the challenges posed by lack of international support] and we made many decisions in efforts to counteract Russian aggression. I would say everybody absolutely agrees that the Russians introduced war, that we need to continue our Euro-integration, and also that we need to move towards NATO because there is no other way to solve our future security issues.
I think the problem was mainly in the international community. There were sanctions, which were helpful. I believe that sanctions are the best way to solve this problem, but I think that they should be more tough. They should be stronger, because there is only one way to solve a problem when you have somebody who spends a lot of money on defense and on weapons: economic sanctions. So I think that it was lack of response, [but] not inside Ukraine because we had a lot of different movements and we had volunteers. The moment the Russians invaded many people went to the war. When the Russians invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea, we had a very weak military. We did not have equipment, we did not have weapons, we did not have almost anything. But then in two years, volunteers, people from abroad, a diaspora of people from many countries, helped us to build an army and to build some kind of defense, so we could oppose the Russians. But still, of course, it is not comparable. It [Russia] is one of the most powerful, from the matter of defense, countries in the world. Without the international sanctions, it would be very hard to win. So my feeling answering your question, is that it is not about the parliament and making decisions because in Parliament we have been trying to do a lot even though it was a crisis. Ukraine lost much of its GDP during the war, because of annexed territories. Yet despite these poor conditions, lack of budgets, lack of money…We have been trying to solve it inside the Ukraine. The problem is that the international community should be more tough on Russia and stop them immediately, rather than waiting for five years.
Going on to something else that you are very passionate about: I know that you founded two organizations Business Angels, and Youth Impulse of Change. Why did you establish these organizations?
I founded Business Angels when I started human rights defense for orphans and for children. It was based on the idea to create a special program with different companies, different productions and just owners of businesses to give them [orphans] the opportunity to have scholarships and internships…This allowed them to gain training in their profession and if they were successful, the company can hire them. I finished with this project when I became a member of the Parliament, but during my mandate in the Parliament, I worked a lot with young people. I felt there was a lack of involvement and lack of their participation in different social issues, movements, and also [in] making decisions…That is why we established Impulse of Changes. We decided that we were going to educate young people about how to participate in politics. For example, how to participate on the local level in making decisions, controlling the budget, and dealing with anti-corruption issues in Ukraine. We also help them to find their way if they want to be activists, politicians, or if they want to work as officials…
You started the Youth Wing of your party. Did you find that there was any sort of pushback when trying to get young people more involved in politics? For example, people who maybe did not want the younger voice in the political system?
It is very interesting because I think the Ukrainian parliament now is the youngest parliament in the world. There are a lot of young people that have entered the parliament, and I am very happy because I was in the minority when I started to talk about this issue four years ago. I told them [fellow members of the Verkhovna Rada], “ We need to have a balance. We need to have both people who have experienced and people who are young, energetic, really ready to risk, who have a lot of energy, and who want to change something.”
Now I am very happy that so many things in Ukraine are changing, but I still believe the voice in Parliament should be of all categories. It should be women’s voices. It should be people with disabilities, for example. It should be the voice of young people. It should be the voice of older people. It should be the voice of everybody. It should be balanced, because the Parliament is the place where we have our representatives. They represent our interests…
If you do not have these kinds of members of Parliament, it is very difficult, because of course, it will always be one-sided. That is why I was very inspired to work with young people. They really had an impact on a lot of things in Ukraine. All our revolutions—
like Revolution of Dignity, the Orange Revolution—the majority of those were [by] young people. So there is only one very important thing I want to mention. We must have this mix of the energy and inspiration of young people and also experienced people who are older and who have some kind of institutional memory. If you can combine them, you are going to have the best parliament in the world. If they can listen to each other and respect each other. It is always very important to have mutual respect and no ageism. I think that [ageism] is the worst thing you can have in a company, in politics, everywhere. Age does not matter. I think that the main things are values, principles and motivations. If people believe in one in the same thing, they can do a lot together.
You did a lot of election oversight in the parliamentary assembly. Based on your knowledge from this experience and having done extensive observations on various elections throughout the world, what did you think of Ukraine’s?
Ukraine’s elections were always a challenge because of three things. I think, the first one, we do not really have political parties. I mean, ideological political parties, like you have in United States: Republicans and Democrats. In Ukraine, if you are considering to the least of political parties in Ukraine, it would be more than 100. It is different, and sometimes you are not even going to find the office of this political party. The problem with Ukraine is that it was always more about political projects or political leaders, like you are going to have one guy or lady who is well known in Ukraine, and you are not even going to ask, what the idea is or what is the ideology? You are just going to vote for this person. That is what happened with the last elections. People mainly voted for Zelensky, and then they voted for his political party. They did not even think about who the members are of this political party and what this political party is about. So they mainly voted for the person. This is the first problem.
The second problem was financing [in Ukrainian elections and political parties]. Political parties are mainly financed by very rich people: oligarchs. Of course, if you finance political party, if you finance politicians, then you are going to demand decisions. You are going to demand that they lobby in favor of or defend your business. I do not think that is very different in the United States, but still you have checks and balances, you have the opportunity of oversight, and it is more transparent. The decision making is more transparent. In Ukraine, it is a huge challenge and it is super difficult. For example, now I want maybe to establish with my colleagues, also young politicians, to have a real political party and not of twenty people but of thousands of people—thousands of Ukrainians with particular ideology with representation on different levels, with participation of just ordinary citizens, Ukrainians making decisions. I really believe that it is possible but it is a huge challenge because you are not going to find finance without these rich guys. I think this is the main challenge, who is financing political activity in Ukraine.
The third challenge is media. Media is very important for democracy. Particularly, who is owing media their influence concerning what people think…[and ]… how people vote. That is why if you do not have rather independent media, it is very hard to talk about free and fair elections. In Ukraine,we have free media, but we don’t have independent media…all TV channels are owned by oligarchs. So if some of these guys decide that you are not going to talk on his TV, then people are not going to know about you and you are not going to be elected. And if you want to be on TV, you need to pay a lot of money…So it is very difficult with Ukrainian political system. [There are] no ideological parties, no transparent financing of political parties and no independent media. That’s why it is very hard if you really want to be a politician with new values, principles and transparent one. It would be very hard for you to break through this wall.
Since the election of the new president and of this new, younger parliament, what are some of the biggest changes that you have observed within the government as well as among society?
I think the main problem [is] that these people do not have experience and mainly do not realize that politics is also a special, professional activity. They are still studying what to do and [their] decision-making is questionable. But what changed? I do not know… a lot of the expectations Ukrainians have are very romantic. That is why they voted for a political party without asking who the members of this political party were…I think this is because they are really dreamers. This is also the problem—I think that many people all over the world are following popualistic tendencies. A lot of politicians are just promising things that they are not going to deliver and then people vote for them. But the problem is that people should remember that if they really want something to be changed, they need to also be involved in all the processes [besides just voting]. To develop society, it all [depends on] each citizen’s participation. So that is why I think that in Ukraine in reality, nothing [has] changed. Because Ukrainian citizens did not change. They expect miracles, but first of all [these] miracles will [need to] start from them. When they realize this, that [they are] the owners of their country and they want to change this country, they will be ready to do it together. And they will find the political party, or maybe political leaders to whom they are really going to trust, you know, and to work together.
I do not know if you ever read about Churchill. When the war started and he became prime minister, he told his citizens: I do not promise you anything ;I just promise you that it is going to be a lot of work. It is going to take blood, sweat, and tears… I think this is a truth. This is real leadership, which is really lacking now in the world—not just [in] Ukraine. This is one of the main problems of this century. We do not have political leaders [like this] anymore, ready to come up to the citizens and tell them it is tough times [and that] if you really want to change something, we need to work together, sacrifice together. A leader should also be an example, not like [hypocritical] political leaders, who tell the people to sacrifice and then buy expensive things…. No, of course not. You should be an example. You should be a responsible leader — One that tells people the truth.
When you worked in the parliament what were some of the biggest divisions or points of disagreement you found prevented or made it hard to pass certain bills or legislation?
Mainly because of two reasons. Firste, all decisions, especially hard reforms, [were] always opposed [by] oligarchs and businesses. If you have politicians who [are] supported or financed by these people, it is very hard to get votes for [these reforms]. Second, reforms in society and in states need a lot of money. It is maybe difficult to explain [but] the United States already has institutions, [so] it is rather stable. You have, for example, your security services [and] taxation—everything is more or less fixed. In Ukraine we still have a lot of struggles with establishing institutions. Each area needs a lot of efforts and a lot of resources. That is why the second obstacle and the second challenge was always about [how] to find the resources, how to implement the reform. [To resolve this issue, we need] the support of people. [We need to communicate to the ordinary citizen] what is going to be changed and what would be the effect of these changes. And if you have them on board, it is very helpful because mainly all the changes in the parliament [have been due to] the support of people and because of civil society pressures….
You worked a lot on anti-corruption. When the news broke about the phone call between Trump and Zelensky here, there was a lot of tension; people were upset, many believe it was corrupt, and it has ultimately led to an impeachment trial. How did people react in Ukraine and what did you observe both in the parliament and the attitude of the people towards the situation?
I think that the main worries of Ukrainians now is that because of this internal scandal, Ukraine’s reputation might suffer. The second [worry is that] we feel like it is now very unsecured and also unpredictable how the United States is going to behave with respect to its support of Ukraine, especially [with] Russian aggression. [The] United States still is a main global player. We still think that the United States is the main Ukrainian partner. Without the support and super direct foreign policy, super direct messages against Russian aggression [and] against abuse and of international law on behalf of Russian state, it would be very hard for Ukraine to fight. And that is why I really hope that domestic issues is not going to affect affect foreign policy.
…And the last thing I want to tell you [is that] it is very important to understand that strategically, [this issue is] not just the issue of Ukraine. Strategically, it [concerns] security of United States too,… [With] global Internet, cyber security, hybrid war, [issues of security] are everywhere. So you are not secure anymore [and are] threatened the same as other countries. And if you are not going to stop them together with us, who knows how it will continue?
Do you think because President Zelensky ran on a platform mainly stressing anti-corruption that this [the impeachment scandal] hurt his own reputation among the people?
I think not, because of one thing: if you look through the transcript. I was worried, of course, because he mentioned General Prosecutor as his guy, like somebody who he is going to control. Of course, for me as a lawyer and person, [I] really believe that justice is a part of rule of law and the President can not influence it. I have a lot of worries, but mainly, I would say that our president is not a politician. He does not have experience in politics. And that is why in Ukrainian society, people still think he is not experienced…. So mainly in Ukraine people [are] more focused [on] how the United States is going to react globally in its messages and especially concerning support of Ukraine against Russian aggression, and they really follow what is happening with all of these things. And I think our president told [the public] directly afterwards,“I am not going to be involved. If there is a case to investigate, we are going to investigate…I am not going to be influenced.” I think this was the right answer. He is not policeman. He is not prosecutor. He is the president and he should follow the Constitution.
How has the World Fellows Program been? What is your take on it? What have you learned here? How will you apply what you have learned going back home?
It was a life-changing experience. [When] you have 15 people in the program and they come with very different backgrounds and perspectives from all around the world, they influence even your habits.
For example, I am now becoming more [conscientious] about food because of Rebecca [Sullivan] and because of Alex [Muñoz]. I am becoming more aware of the rights of indigenous people and different cultures because of Diego [Tituaña]. I am becoming more [aware] of what is happening in other countries because they [the World Fellows] are talking about about their countries. What is amazing, is that we were brought together [because of the program] and the scandal involving Ukraine happened…after this [protests in] Ecuador Diego’s home country, then Chile, then Iraq, Syria, and Turkey we have Burçak she is from Turkey. Now I am not just absorbing this from [the] news. I know what is really happening, because I have people who can tell me, who can explain to me deeply.
I have a better understanding of the reasons, the preconditions, and how people inside these countries feel. I think the main lesson, what I am going to bring back, is that there are no more domestic politics. Everything is so connected and countries do not exist separate from each other…If you want to be a good society, we need to support each other. We need to decide on general values. And we really need to commit to these general values and help each [country] become [a] better place to live. Because…if something is going to happen— any ecology [catastrophe] or something in technology—[it] influences all of the world…There is no more separate countries of separate continents.
The last thing: I did not agree with the President of the United States when he tried to separate [being] a globalist or a patriot. I think it is super connected. If you want to be a patriot, it means [you care about your country, and] if you care about your country, you need to think globally. You need to think about what is happening in other countries, and to find a way to take the best things in different countries, to connect them, and to make a better world for everybody.
McKenna Christmas is a first year in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.