AP Interview: Savchenko calls for early elections in Ukraine

AP News
Posted: Jun 10, 2016 3:13 PM
AP Interview: Savchenko calls for early elections in Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Pilot Nadiya Savchenko on Friday called for early parliamentary elections to "infuse fresh blood" into Ukraine's politics, a call that could send shock waves across the volatile nation.

Savchenko, 35, who has become a national icon in Ukraine after spending two years in a Russian prison, told The Associated Press that the "Ukrainian people deserve a better government that they now have."

She said that the Ukrainian government has failed public expectations raised by the ouster of the country's former Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven from power in February 2014 after months of massive street protests on Kiev's main square, the Maidan.

"The longer this dishonorable government leads us, the further back toward a precipice it will drive us," Savchenko said, speaking with emphasis. "People believed in it after the Maidan; they gave a big credit of trust to the government, which it has failed."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his allies in the ruling parliament coalition strongly oppose early elections, arguing that they would only foment instability and deepen the country's economic crisis. With the popularity of Poroshenko and his coalition partners sinking amid economic troubles, an early vote would likely leave them with far fewer seats in parliament.

"This government is sinking like the Titanic," she said. "The more people see that this government is hurting them, the quicker they will ask it to step down."

Savchenko voiced hope that voters next time will make a more thoughtful choice and won't sell their votes.

Savchenko's broad popularity, energy and charisma could help rally those unhappy with the status quo and raise pressure for an early election. She also already has declared presidential ambitions, aspiring to become a voice for the many people angry with plummeting living standards and endemic corruption, which has continued to run amok despite official promises to eradicate it.

"I can honestly tell you that I don't want to be president, I have no ambition to be president for the sake of it," she said. "If I see that I can do it better than anyone else and people need it, I will be president."

She didn't say when she thinks the early parliamentary election should be held, and described her relationship with Poroshenko as "business-like."

Savchenko was elected into parliament on the ticket of Yulia Tymoshenko's political party in 2014 months after her Russian ordeal began. She was captured by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 while serving in a volunteer battalion, and ended up in a Russian jail soon after.

In March, she was convicted of acting as a spotter for mortar fire that killed two Russian journalists and sentenced to 22 years in a Russian prison following a trial in which she wore an embroidered Ukrainian shirt, sang the national anthem and raised her middle finger in a show of contempt for the Russian authorities.

Savchenko was released last month after being pardoned on humanitarian grounds by Russian President Vladimir Putin — he said at the urging of the journalists' relatives — and traded for two Russian military men convicted in Ukraine. She received a hero's welcome in Kiev and started working in parliament.

She said Tymoshenko's party "isn't the worst one" and "still has some conscience," adding that she will stay with it for now and try to learn more about politics. She wouldn't say if she might create her own party.

Savchenko told the AP that the U.S. and its allies should exert more pressure on Russia to make it honor a Ukraine peace deal to avert what she described as the danger of another world war over Ukraine. She spoke about Ukraine as the last frontier protecting Europe from Russia's "imperial tyranny."

"The international community must show Russia its place," Savchenko said. "If it doesn't happen, Russia will show its ambitions to the international community, and it may slide into a third world war."

At the same time, Savchenko said she believes it's possible to hold talks with separatist leaders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky. "If there are no such talks, we will never have peace on our Ukrainian land," Savchenko said, adding that the withdrawal of Russian soldiers and the sealing of Ukraine's border with Russia must precede such negotiations.

"We have an open border," she said. "I was abducted through those holes in the border. I have seen loads of Russian weapons, Russian instructors, Russian mercenaries, Chechens flowing in."

Russia has denied that it had sent any regular troops into eastern Ukraine, saying that Russian citizens who fought alongside the rebels there were volunteers. The Kremlin also likes to emphasize that the February 2015 Minsk agreement, which was brokered by France and Germany, envisages giving broader powers to rebel regions and holding elections there before Ukraine moves to re-establish full control over the border with Russian in those regions.

That deal has been widely criticized in Ukraine, where nationalist forces have seen it as a betrayal of Ukrainian interests.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine erupted after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, leaving more than 9,300 people dead since April 2014.

The Minsk agreement has helped reduce fighting, but regular clashes have continued. Savchenko said that both warring parties have continued to use diversionary units, and stressed that the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission is needed to fully restore peace.

She also argued that rebels who haven't committed war crimes could be amnestied.

"It won't refer to looters, brutal killers or rapists who broke the boundaries of humanity," she said. "Some people have fallen under the spell of the Russian propaganda and have gone to fight for those ideas. Those people, who haven't crossed the boundary, naturally should be amnestied."

"We must learn to forgive, otherwise we won't be able to exist as a single country," Savchenko added.