Ukraine Optimism: My Interview in Kyiv
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Feature Interview: Award winning author, journalist Diane Francis Tells Bohdan Nahaylo why she’s Investing in Ukraine and more.
Nahaylo: Well I’m very honored to have a very special guest with us. A very distinguished journalist, author, academic, public figure in Canada and the United States. It’s Diane Francis. She is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and also is an award-winning author, the editor-at-large of Canada’s National Post, writes for the Huffington Post, is a star on Al-Jazeera, etc., etc. So welcome Diane to Hromadske Radio’s program Ukraine Calling.
Francis: I’m very happy to be here.
Nahaylo: Diane, you’ve achieved so much. When I look at your CV and the list of publications the obvious question is: Why is Ukraine so important to you? Why have you come here so often? Why do you write, for instance for the Atlantic Council, so often on Ukraine?
Francis: Well I think it’s interesting because I came from the United States originally at 19 as a bride from the United States with a British husband. We went to Canada because it was the Vietnam War and he did not want to go in the US Army, to be blunt, so he wasn’t quite a draft dodger, but he was British and they were drafting immigrants. So we came there and I had really not known that much about Ukraine or its culture. But Canada’s Ukrainian diaspora is enormous and so I made lots of friends and lots of my friends were Ukrainian, and I had a housekeeper for many years who helped me raise my children — she was Ukrainian. So I got very engaged in the stories, the culture, loved the music, loved the food, loved the people. And I would guess, really that—they came in three waves to Canada, they’re still arriving in Canada from Ukraine, Ukrainians—I would guess that probably ten percent of the population of Canada is either fully Ukrainian, half Ukrainian, or married to one. That’s three and a half million people. That’s the biggest diaspora apart from in Russia of Ukrainians. So as a journalist and running a national newspaper, you always look for audiences and you look for stories that your audiences are interested in. And so the minute that the Soviet Union dissolved, the first place I went—I had a trip with a photographer for ten weeks, my newspaper sent me all over the Soviet Union—the first place I went in the first week was Ukraine. And I went to Ukraine because I had friends who could speak and give me introductions and help me with it, and I adopted it journalistically. Why? Because there is a huge appetite for Ukrainian news in Canada just because of the size of the diaspora.
Nahaylo: But Diane even so, you’re an expert on energy security, global business and economics, technology, and you’ve written so much—books not just articles—how have you found the time to keep up with events?
Francis: Well I guess you’d call me an autodidact; I just absorb information, I’m a junkie. I do really well at Trivial Pursuit, the board game where you have to have alot of useless information at your fingertips. Its just sort of my nature; I’ve always been like that. So thank goodness I became a journalist because of that, combined with a nosiness and a gossipy nature, is a perfect skill set to do what I do. And so it’s not a job, it is my lifestyle; it is a personality disorder. if you like. I’m always snooping and asking and analyzing, and so it’s just natural that I do all this work.
Nahaylo: Amazing. Such a good example for all of us. But let me ask what brings you to Ukraine this time around?
Francis: Well this time around I’ve come with friends and also a small delegation from the Atlantic Council where I’ve been attached for about three years and a Ukrainian friend, and I’m also now investing in Ukraine. I have a piece, a partnership, in a small software development company. We’re developing a software tool here because I think what I’ve found as a journalist—and I’ve covered the IT industry in Ukraine, I was one of the first to write about how explosive and dynamic and world-class it is—and so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the players in the IT sector. So I came up with an idea for a software development tool and we’re doing it here. We’ve got a small team and we’re going to raise more money and we’re going to have a big team, and we’re going do something that I think might really change things worldwide. And, you know, this is a country that has a lot of brains because, I didn’t realize and it took me many years to understand, that this was the Silicone Valley of the Soviet Union. The space program, aerospace, sciences, weaponry, all of that stuff was principally developed by Ukrainians in Ukraine, or sometimes they relocated to Russia, but this was the Silicone Valley! So it isn’t a big leap for them to have gotten involved in the tech movement and in tech development, which is exploding right now all over the world. And that’s another one of my passions, Silicone Valley.
Nahaylo: Right that’s a very interesting observation, thank you for pointing that out to us and to our listeners. You’ve just been in L’viv at the opening of a brand new, very modern, library at the Ukrainian Catholic University [UCU], the Sheptyts’kyi library. Any impressions you want to share with us on that?
Francis: Well UCU is something that is very important to friends of mine in the diaspora and a lot of them were there. It was like old home week. A lot of Canadians were at the cocktail party, the dinner, the banquet, the celebration, the wonderful religious service, and I met the Bishop for the first time, and he is one of the founders and he really is an impressive fellow.
Nahaylo: Bishop Boris Gudziak.
Francis: Yes exactly, very impressive fellow, and a fellow American so we sort of connected on a number of levels right away. It was a great experience and I’m trying to set up a joint venture project between UCU and Ryerson University in Toronto which I’m affiliated with. I’m not an academic but they call me a professor, I lecture there. And we’re trying to set up an incubator, a technology partnership, and we’re exploring how we can do that so I’ve been talking to the UCU people and I’ve been talking to the Ryerson people and both the presidents of the two universities want to collaborate. So we’re going to do something interesting there, and if we do that we’ll take that template and maybe go to Kyiv Polytechnic and try and spread it around.
Nahaylo: And the library itself… impressive?
Francis: Library is magnificent! I think Behnisch—the architect from Germany did a wonderful job—he really gets it. The building is interesting and multi-purpose. The reality is as libraries of physical books on bookshelves become less and less important, this can be repurposed and they’re planning to repurpose it. Libraries are going to become virtual and accessible by computer so you’re going to see this library with a lot of screens, with a lot of meeting rooms, and repurposed perhaps into a computer science incubator.
Nahaylo: Right, and L’viv itself, you like?
Francis: I loved it. I love that city. I could live there!
Nahaylo: Look, let’s move on and at least share with our listeners some of your thoughts that you’ve recently expressed in your most recent articles for the Atlantic Council. I see that your very latest publication is called “How Famine Shaped Modern Ukraine and Russia,” and I presume it’s a review of Anne Applebaum’s new book.
Francis: Her new book Red Famine, and I think she did a terrific job. I’m a fan of hers and she really does understand, of course, the region, and her body of work shows that. This book is good because, yes, we all know about the famine, and a friend of mine Ian Ihnatowycz did a very good movie called Bitter Harvest about the famine. So there is a lot of concern that people understand that this was a political genocidal act, one of the worst stains in history, and it was perpetrated by Stalin and the Communists. What she (Applebaum) does though is she just doesn’t go over the same old ground, but what she does is she is able to extrapolate what the famine did to shape the current attitudes of Ukrainians and Russians, and that’s what I found intriguing about her book And I think she’s a good person to have been able to do this. Basically, there’s the victimization and the attitude on the part of Ukrainians—which is valid of course—but there’s this superior, patriarchal almost, attitude of the Russians toward Ukrainians, and it’s a little deeper than that, but I think the book is very good.
Nahalo: Okay, and before that something very very pertinent, topical, especially as you were in L’viv and also I happened to be there at the same time and we both saw Saakashvili’s arrival…
Francis: I was at the same hotel!
Nahaylo: After his controversial crossing of the border. I won’t comment on that myself but your article before the one of the famine was titled “How Healthy is Ukrainian Democracy?” So how healthy is it in your view and in the light of the most recent developments?
Francis: Well I think Ukraine is transitioning, and I’m an optimist by nature and I think this country would and can become the most dynamic, the biggest country in Europe. But people are voting here with their feet. The census hasn’t been taken for a long time, there are fewer than 40 million people now living in Ukraine, and we see them popping up in the United States, in Australia, certainly in Europe. I understand there is something in the order of 125,000 Ukrainians students studying in Warsaw alone. It is enormous and this is ruinous. The corruption has to be addressed and fixed. A lot of people say, “well its in the DNA.” It is not in the DNA. I grew up in a city called Chicago which was notoriously corrupt. When I was a child my father would be stopped by a policeman in the car for speeding when he wasn’t speeding and have to give a ten dollar bribe to be able to proceed. Judges were crooked, politicians were crooked…
Nahaylo: Mayor Daley.
Nahaylo: The untouchables of their day!
Francis: We grew up in that. My father wasn’t in business, but I’m sure businessmen had to pay extortion money. I know they did. There were big scandals. To the fire inspector, the building inspector, the police. And this went on until some major investigative pieces were done by the newspapers.
Nahaylo: So what lessons can we draw from that? I’m very glad that you brought that up.
Francis: The lesson to draw from that is simply this: transparency. These situations have to be openly discussed and known. And I think that’s the case already in Ukraine. However, you have to have judges who will put people in jail. And police who will investigate. Now we have NABU here [National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine], and they’re investigating, and they’ve made two very high-profile arrests. But nobody, nobody, believes that even if those people are found guilty, that they will ever pay a punishment. Because the judges are all crooks here. And that’s very upsetting.
Nahaylo: We have this attempt to overhaul the legal system—
Francis: Supreme Court.
Nahaylo: …to create an independent judiciary.
Nahaylo: But we’re still a long way from it.
Francis: Well you have eight thousand judges and you have fifteen thousand prosecutors and all of those people have to be dismissed. And all new people, who are vetted properly, who are of the same moral compass. You see this is not just about good vs bad. The most important is infrastructure, if I can use that term, the most important is the architecture to build a healthy economy, and therefore a healthy society. Because if the economy is rich and producing taxes you can fix things in society and look after the less fortunate. You can’t-do that without the rule of law. If there are no rules then only the thugs win. Only the people who are corrupt, who bribe people, only the people who threaten people, only the people who lie to people, those people succeed. So you end up with an economy full of those kinds of people running it, and preventing other people from enterprise. The same situation also existed in the United States during the Robber Baron Era, the late 19th century. Rockefeller and all these people. Well, they passed – they had the rule of law, and the president stared down these people and said, ‘you will break up your empires!’
That has to happen here. You can’t have ten people, ten oligarchs, running an entire economy. And they run just about every sector. So if someone wants to come in like Ryanair, Kolomoisky [one of Ukraine’s most powerful oligarchs], vetoes it. Because he controls the airport, and he controls the political system. [See Ukraine Calling 14 July 2017] And so Ukrainians, therefore, are deprived of more jobs because they [Ryanair] would have hired people. A $20.00 airfare to Paris. And now they’re paying $200.00 to Mr. Kolomoisky, or whoever else is involved in it. That is not a healthy economy. That is not necessarily corruption, but in the United States, it is illegal for a monopoly to exist like that and keep out other people. And that’s a good thing.
So anti-trust activity, anti-monopolies. Europe is doing it. The United States did it first. And the reason the United States surpassed Britain in economic power during the industrial revolution in 1880’s-1890’s and then at the turn of the century is that they broke up the oligarchs. They broke up Rockefeller. And what happened to Rockefeller? He had control over 90% of the world’s oil industry. He had to break up his company into five or six pieces and he could only own one of them. He did that because that was the law. And Rockefeller went on to be a very good guy. Philanthropic. And the family. There’s two Rockefellers sitting in the US Congress. They’re admired. And so that’s what you have to do. You don’t get rid of the oligarchs. You get rid of the practices.
Nahaylo: I want to remind listeners that I’m speaking with Diane Francis, Senior Fellow, at the Atlantic Council, and the editor-at-large at Canada’s National Post, and a very distinguished figure in the world of journalism and publishing. Diane, you point out all the shortcomings and the huge tasks that remain to be done. And yet I sense your optimism…
Francis: Totally optimistic.
Nahaylo: Where do you see the basis for optimism? Is it coming from the younger generation? From the changes that are already underway? The momentum that has been started, the Revolution of Dignity? What is it that fires you with this passion and belief in Ukraine?
Francis: Well, the IT industry is, of course, the leading edge for all of this. And they are unscathed in terms of corruption because they’re dealing with Western clients, they sign contracts in the West. And they’re paid in US currency. So they’re not being leaned on or taken over by some of these forces. They’re not being forced and extorted at this point. Because they’re offshore. I would say that every young Ukrainian, who had the gumption to say I’m going to emigrate, is participating in an entrepreneurial act. They’re entrepreneurs. They voted with their feet. They’re studying in Paris or Poland or wherever they’re going. They’re working in kitchens in Toronto. They’re doing what they need to do. I went to a UCU graduation this summer, a graduation ceremony. And most of the kids who graduated in computer science couldn’t attend their own graduation, they’d already been placed. That’s tragic. You fix Ukraine, and a lot of them will come back. There is a natural entrepreneurial spirit in human beings, but you have to guide it and make sure. For instance, I would even say, the oligarchs here are very talented business people. But let’s make them do it properly. Let’s make them break up their empires, and grow them, and let other people in to compete, and everybody gets smarter and better. There is a huge amount of talent and entrepreneurship in the Ukrainian personality. So I see that there will be, before long, some companies that are going to be started. Software companies. I’m involved in one. We’re going to come up with things that are going to rock the world and maybe turn into gigantic corporations.
Nahaylo: Well, let’s hope so. And thank you for giving us this optimism, which I think is quite often lacking here. There is sometimes a feeling of despondency that things aren’t happening fast enough.
Francis: It grinds you down
Nahaylo: Especially if you live here. But looking in from the outside, what could Ukrainians without the government, the civil society, the media, do to be better understood, to acquire more support, in the context of hybrid warfare, disinformation, fake news, etc.? Do you think that Ukrainians, generally, do a good enough job in the challenging situation that we are in?
Francis: I think the journalists are very courageous in Ukraine. There’s freedom of speech, freedom to assemble. This is not Poland of 20 years ago, and it certainly isn’t Russia. It’s a hybrid media situation. One of the first reforms you have to do and should have been done a long time ago, is make all the oligarchs divest their ownership in the media. You cannot have a free media if it’s connected to the power base, either the political or the business power base. So that has to happen. They have to be unfettered and independent. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be owned by businesspeople, but they can’t be owned by politicians, in my opinion. That is a very important thing. But within that context, there are some really terrific journalists in this country who fight for it. Facebook is utilized very nicely. The Maidan was launched through Facebook. You’ve got a lot of the reformers that are in the Rada [Parliament] now are ex-journalists, investigative, Leshchenko and…
Francis: Nayyem. And so this is important. I see the spirit. But what young people have to do is they have to get involved in civil society organizations. They have to get involved in NGO organizations, not necessarily getting paid by them but helping them raise money, raise awareness. They have to start to run for political office or help people who are willing to do that. And they have to speak out to the extent they can against corruption. And that’s a little difficult for everybody in any walk of life.
Nahaylo: I traditionally ask my guests, any final messages that you’d like to pass on to our listeners about Ukraine, about where it’s going? Although you’ve been very clear about how you see Ukraine’s potential. If there was one message that you would want to convey, what would it be?
Francis: I would say remain optimistic, but work for earning that optimism. You have to work toward it. And if you can’t change the system, I encourage you to emigrate. You shouldn’t spend your life in a system that grinds you down. So get out! Go! Or start your own business in Ukraine. Or get into an IT business, or a related industry, where you don’t get ground down. There’s a lot of people who are not in IT who are great businessmen in this country. And they’re doing a good job. So you’ve got to do those things.
Nahaylo: Thank you, Diane, for this refreshing, new look at things, a new approach and your and message. Very few people would dare to say such things openly, to express the option of remaining or going. I’ve been talking to Diane Francis, celebrated the author, journalist, a leading figure in that sphere in North America, and, as you’ve now gathered, a very good friend of Ukraine. Thank you for the interview.
Francis: You’re welcome.