Applause, ovations, more ovations, laughter in the sessions hall, one or two challenges, and applause at the end. That’s more-or-less the picture of reactions among MPs in the Verkhovna Rada to the President’s annual State of the Nation address. Despite it’s official name, “The President’s Annual Address to the Verkhovna Rada,” the President spoke and the legislature “responded” not at all for each other’s benefit. Both sides were addressing Ukrainian voters. Voters will give their response to what they heard and saw only two years from now—provided, of course, that everything goes well for today’s speaker.
The President spoke for a long time, a speech that contained 9,340 words, compared to 2016’s 5,885 and 2015’s 7,603. During his 90-minute address, President Poroshenko covered almost everything that involved the country. The question is whether he was able to place the right accents and underscore the most important details. After all, this is what makes a speech a call to specific actions and not just a collection of words.
Poroshenko earned his first applause when he mentioned the new challenges that face Ukraine. “One of the most dangerous challenges is populism,” he said. “The electoral niche vacated by the communists did not stay empty for long: a number of parties that not so long ago were part of the pro-European coalition very quickly took it over. The blue-and-yellow flag waves above their headquarters, but their social slogans have been borrowed from the files of the communist and progressive-socialist parties. Presenting themselves as ‘defenders of the people,’ they look fairly convincing until you take a look at their election promises,” the President said to loud applause.
Interestingly, this is the second time that Poroshenko has made this comparison. “Decommunization, when it comes down to it, is not just about taking down monuments,” he said in his first annual address in 2015. “Communism has to be aired right out of our heads. Unfortunately, I see too many in this hall who are quite happy to take over the hopefully dead Communist Party of Ukraine and its leftist slogans.”
After this first applause, there were two standing ovations in the hall. But not for the president himself. The first time the hall took to its feet was after he said, “The reason why the line of contact is near the Siverskiy Donets River and not along the Dnipro is largely thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. They are the real guarantors of our freedom.” The second time was after he mentioned the head of the Defense Ministry’s Special Intelligence Reserves Maksym Shapoval and awarded Shapoval the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously. Shapoval was killed when a bomb blew up his car in Kyiv in June.
The one moment that seemed the most genuine on both sides was when President Poroshenko called on the Rada to remove deputy immunity, a move that has been promised over and over again since the Orange Revolution but never actually been acted upon, adding: “In order to make it easier for you to take this step, so that you don’t feel that it’s aimed specifically at you all, I propose a very simple solution. Let’s approve this and have it come into force on January 1, 2020, for the deputies who are elected to what will then be the new Rada.” At this, the deputies all began to laugh and the President laughed at their response. “Maybe this will be more effective,” he added, between laughs.
Next, the President spoke about land reform. The issue of setting up a land market comes up in almost every presidential address. Year after year, different presidents have called on the Rada to finally institute a free market and every year, the reform has been postponed. “Why, then, do we allow people to sell apartments?” Poroshenko asked, using an interesting parallel. “Somebody could buy them all up, too.” Then he added that here he had to depend on public opinion, which he said, was currently “shaped by the populists” and won’t therefore push for reform. Still, he asked the MPs to approve “at least by your words, in your minds and your hearts, a policy in its favor” and set a date in law for the market to be introduced, even if it is delayed. At this point “radical” leader Oleh Liashko tried to protest this and to make it very clear that he was firmly against.
The next ovation. The President appealed to Constantinople Patriarch Bartholomew to recognize a national church in Ukraine. “May the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate also hear us,” he said. “Once more, I’d like to draw the attention of His Holiness to the seriousness of our intentions. There is genuine political will among Ukraine’s leadership to resolve this problem, which has unfortunately been on the agenda since 1991. Ukraine has the right to a native church and we must defend this right.” The room of deputies stood up and applauded.
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The next time deputies reacted vocally was when Poroshenko called for the scandalous laws on e-declarations for civic activists to be rescinded: “Instituting declarations for this group was our joint mistake and mistakes need to be corrected.” Here and there, you could hear a voice saying “No, no, no.”
The President’s speech can be looked at from the point-of-view of language. If we count how many times he used certain phrases and words in his speech, then we see little that is unusual. As in most of the previous speeches, the most frequent word is “Ukraine.” With Poroshenko, we also see a lot of use of the word “Russia,” which is clearly not surprising. This year, in contrast to his two previous addresses, the words “weapons” and “army” figured somewhat less. Still, one striking point is that the President used the term “unfortunately” three times more often: 17 times compared to 6 times in the previous two annual speeches.
“Unfortunately,” Ukraine remains in deadly danger to this day. “Unfortunately,” there is enormous evidence that Russia is getting ready for a big war. “Unfortunately,” the aggressor country is still ahead of us in terms of modernizing its army. “Unfortunately,” the country’s leadership under Yanukovych can only be sued in absentia for now. “Unfortunately,” many Ukrainian MPs are working to chill relations between Ukraine and the US, not on improving them. “Unfortunately,” the story of the fight against corruption “has no happy ending” in the form of sentencing and imprisonment. “Unfortunately,” Ukraine ranks only 20th out of 30 countries in a survey of successful reforms in Central Europe and Asia. And so on and so forth.
Of course, for every “unfortunately,” the President had an explanation for why things were so, but he did not propose concrete steps to resolving those problems. Sometimes it was just a matter of stating a fact. In other cases, the President called on deputies to deal with well-known issues. For instance, when it came to fighting corruption, he asked for the State Bureau of Investigation and the special Anti-Corruption Court to be set up.
In the case of the army, a really important phrase came up. Poroshenko acknowledged that most of the equipment that the army was given in the last three years was “physically new but technically outdated” and served only to provide for the most basic needs. The President then announced a program to modernize the army to “bring Ukrainian weaponry to the level of the 21st century.” The purpose is clear and understandable. Now we need to hear the details of this program and how the objective will be reached. In addition, there is someone who is responsible for it all if things go wrong or the announcement turns out to be a fake.
As it turned out, however, there were very few clear and understandable goals in the rest of the President’s speech. He spoke about the goal of membership in the EU and NATO. He even named the steps needed to move integration forward, but he said nothing about how to persuade many existing members of these alliances who in principle do not wish to see Ukraine join them. A referendum on NATO membership? The President “does not exclude this option,” but he mentioned no timeframes.
As Poroshenko himself put it, “Finally, we come to the main point. About peace and the prospects for returning Donbas and returning Crimea.” He spoke about occupied Donbas and once again emphasized the need to implement the Minsk accords. “Unfortunately,” there is no peace because of Russia’s complete recalcitrance, while Ukraine is not strong enough to fight off its army, said the President, stating the obvious. He returned to the idea of “blue helmets, without explaining how to get around Russia’s position on this issue. Meanwhile, he offered no word about the currently debated bill on the occupied territories, which is regularly announced but not brought up in the Rada.
The President moved on to Crimea. “Unfortunately,” Russia will not leave the peninsula of its own accord and taking the territory back by force is not an option. Poroshenko then listed what Ukraine has done in this arena: lawsuits in international courts, pressure through the UN and UNESCO. But no new ideas came up. The President also said nothing about the fate of an earlier idea he had proposed of changing the status of the peninsula in the Ukrainian Constitution and establishing a national autonomy of Crimean Tatars.
On the other hand, is it really possible to offer a society a clear goal in a single speech? Probably not. Especially if we take into account that the electorate is tired of this government and does not trust, which the President himself mentioned in his address. This state of affairs can only be changed by deeds, not words. At this point, Petro Poroshenko proposed yet again that Ukrainians all unite and “keep Ukraine from falling apart.” At the end of the speech, he repeated the now-traditional “Slava Ukraini!” Applause.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj