(With introduction by Viola Gienger)
Kira Rudik, leader of the liberal party Golos, or “Voice,” in the Ukrainian Parliament, has a striking backdrop for her Zoom calls. It’s an array of four flags, with the now-iconic blue and yellow bicolor of Ukraine and the red flag with white emblem of her party in the center, flanked by the flags of NATO and the European Union. She calls the latter “the two institutional requirements of the Ukrainian people that are written in our Constitution — to join the EU and NATO.”
“This is not like a political statement of somebody,” she says. “It is something that we have all agreed on…And I do hope it will happen really, really soon.”
In the interview below, Rudik, a former tech entrepreneur, describes the harrowing year in Ukraine’s Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada, or “Rada” for short) since Russia’s full-scale assault, including periodic bombings of the capital Kyiv, and far worse massacres and leveling of entire towns, cities, and swaths of countryside in the east and south. Even as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy captures the world’s attention – and admiration — for staying in the country during the war and for his inspirational rallying cries to Ukrainians and the world, the Rada has labored mostly behind closed doors. News cameras and reporters are largely absent as the Parliament meets without public notice, for security.
Still, Rudik says, the Rada has played a crucial role in supporting the Ukrainian people, adopting legislation needed for wartime – up to and including the particularly grim requirement for local governments to set aside property for cemeteries. With regular trips around the country and abroad to garner support for Ukraine, members have been unified and focused on meeting the country’s singular goals of defeating Russia’s aggression and gaining EU membership. Ukraine is due for parliamentary elections this year, but under martial law, if the Rada’s term expires, it remains intact until after the emergency is lifted.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How has the Rada functioned under the extreme conditions of the past year, in practical terms — operational logistics, security, members and staff facing personal difficulties and tragedies, resources, etc.?
On Feb. 23, 2020, we were in the Rada until late at night. We had some information that Russia may push forward in the [already partially occupied eastern Ukrainian area] Donbas, but nobody expected that they will attack the next day. So we were negotiating whether we were going to call for some extra measures in the east of Ukraine. We left late that night. At 5 a.m., we woke up with the sound of explosions. Kyiv was under bombardment. I checked my phone and saw that the full-scale invasion had started.
The main obligation and responsibility of the Parliament at a time like this is to gather in the chambers of the Verkhovna Rada and vote for martial law to begin. This is basically our main mission. We have to do it according to the Constitution. So we started calling each other, as parliamentary party leaders, to see how many people we could get into the chambers. Generally, there was lots of panic and traffic, and people didn’t know what to do and how they are going to get there. And then we started hearing from security – at first, they said absolutely no gathering in the chambers. If you have ever been to Ukraine, you will see that the Parliament building is located in the middle of a park, so it’s like a no brainer to hit it if you’re flying over. But at some point, security said that we may have, like probably 10 minutes in the chambers. And then the question was how many people would actually gather, and will they be physically able to be present. So we agreed on a certain time, and we started gathering our people.
So imagine what was happening: The bombardment was still going on, and in this building with no lights and many military people in it, and of course, windows covered with bags of sand, all of us trying to get in, knowing that we have a very short time until the next attack. When we got into the chambers, there were many people who were already wearing military uniforms because they were going to the front from there, or people who had their clothes with them and their suitcases because they would be traveling to be with their families. And even though we hadn’t been sure how many would come, when we looked around, we saw that, of about 420 members of Parliament, hundreds came.
And for the next 10 minutes, we were desperately clicking our buttons [to vote on legislation] calling for the whole world to help us stand against the aggressor, calling for martial law to begin. and showing to the Ukrainian people that we are not running and that we will be executing our duties, as we have since then. And during those 10 minutes, we also sang the National Anthem — it was one of the most emotional moments of my life. We also made a vow between political parties that we will try to stay united for as long as it takes, and no matter how painful it could be — we will be acting as Team Ukraine, and not just political parties. And right now, almost a year in, I can tell you that, no matter how painful it was, we never regret this moment.
After that, we left the Parliament. And since that time, basically every single morning when you are waking up, you are asking yourself a question: `Where or how should I be the most useful to my country to be able to bring the victory closer.’ It has been not an easy year for us as a Parliament, but it also has been incredibly productive. Since that time, we have gathered almost every other week — gathering in secrecy, but in the chambers, according to the Constitution. We prepare everything and conduct all the negotiations in advance, to minimize the amount of time people have to be in the chambers. There have been many times when the air raid sirens sounded and we had to go to the shelters and wait there until we could continue our sessions.
What I can say that we are super, duper proud of is that we fulfilled our strategy, which was that we would be acting in service to our military. And there has not been a time when they asked us something and we did not deliver on that. A second priority was, of course, logistically making sure that people can get out (of Ukraine) if they needed to, and that international support could get in with minimal issues. A third priority was to make sure that the country can operate in terms of business and that what remains of the economy can somehow work. A fourth priority was that we will clean up everything that we did not clean up previously, in terms of collaborators with Russia who have committed treason and in terms of Russian influence that we had in our country.
The second-most emotional time I had occurred a few days before the [June 23, 2022] European Council vote to grant Ukraine candidacy status for the European Union. Ukrainian soldiers, when they went to the front, had two flags tied to their backpacks – the Ukrainian flag and the EU flag. The EU flag is because there are so many people who truly believe in seeing that we are in the EU — that we should be there really soon. And my main fear during all these international negotiations on giving Ukraine EU candidacy status was, if we do not get it, how would we explain that to our soldiers and to the people who went to the front as volunteers? I mean, they could ask, “Did we fight under the wrong flag?”
So as the EU was making its decisions and we were in negotiations with them, we met with some of those involved, and they advised us that Ukraine needed to take some huge step to persuade the final skeptics. And they asked us whether we thought Ukraine might ratify the Istanbul Convention [formally the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence]. As leader of the first liberal party to ever win seats in the Ukrainian Parliament, one of the promises that we made to our people was to have the Istanbul Convention ratified. This simple convention calls for equal rights and for specific rules and processes to prevent and fight violence against women and special measures to ensure equality. But when our party entered the Ukrainian Parliament, we were not able to get even 150 signatures to bring it to a vote for ratification, because Ukraine was — and still is — a pretty conservative country, with huge influence by the Orthodox church, and church leaders didn’t support ratification.
So it was a really tough fight. With the EU decision pending, the question for many members of Parliament was whether they would put their political careers on the line to deliver EU candidacy status. In the end, we voted with an overwhelming majority for the Istanbul Convention, something that was unbelievable for this Parliament just a few years ago.
So once we were granted EU candidacy status, we got another task – a huge task – and that was to fulfill the conditions [for reforms, such as anti-corruption measures]. And I can tell you, without bragging, that we fulfilled all seven of those conditions before the new year. Now, there will be a lot of questions about implementation, but when we needed to go into the Rada chamber, create the legislation, and pass it, we did it.
So I think this is something we can all be proud of, especially considering that this all happened while members of the Rada were relocating their families or going to the front to volunteer and so on; we were still standing up to do everything we could for EU membership, to remove all obstacles, all the potential questions that might be raised. So when the EU-Ukraine Summit happened [in February 2023], we were coming as a good student who had fulfilled all their homework and were expecting a good grade. Now, what we are expecting is a concrete plan for next steps.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between the Rada and the Zelenskyy administration in the past year, in terms of cooperation and checks and balances?
Well, it is hard, because under martial law, we deliberately gave up many parliamentary powers. For example, we meet in secrecy for security, so the Ukrainian people don’t really know what we are doing. We have given lots of control to the military and to the Cabinet of Ministers, including budgetary oversight so that they can spend according to the needs. We know that, for the situation as it was, it was the right thing to do. I think for the most part, the relationship is one of collaboration between the administration and the Parliament. However, as I said, it’s also very painful for us not to have the usual parliamentary oversight, not to have the ability to be vocal about things that are going wrong or what should have been done differently.
We know that political unity is one of the things that the world and our partners admire, so we are keeping it, because we know it’s for the good. But of course, we hope that the limitations on our powers are temporary, and we will be able to restore the democracy as it should be the minute the war is over.
Q: Understanding the extreme conditions of wartime, what have been the main obstacles to getting things done in Parliament?
Honestly, we are super happy about the results we have delivered. I can’t say that there have been obstacles. In 95 percent of cases, we reach agreement among the heads of the parliamentary factions [one kind of formation in Parliament], even on legislation where we have a right to a veto. That allows us to move forward pretty quickly on things that we all agree on. It has also been interesting that, because we’ve agreed not to conduct the usual public politics where we need to establish differences with others, it turns out that there are many things that we do agree on – like EU integration, like supporting our army, like making sure our economy doesn’t completely die, like supporting small businesses.
Also, in many cases, the things that we had to get done, to develop and pass legislation on, were things that nobody ever taught you to do. For example, we had to pass legislation requiring local councils to allocate land for cemeteries. This is something that no local council would ever want to do deliberately. Or we had to figure out what to do with children who were left with no paperwork, no information, and no adults. We had to define these cases of children of the war. We had to do so many things that do not call for controversy – you just have to do it.
Q: Ukraine is facing significant pressure to deliver effective anti-corruption reforms. How well do you think the Rada is doing on that score, and what are the obstacles to faster progress, in specific terms, other than, of course, the pressures of the war itself?
This is something that we, as a country and a society, have been fighting not for the last two years, but for the last 30 years, with different levels of success. Among the key things that we were able to do during this time was voting for certain legislation on transparency of military purchasing, and on a general anti-corruption strategy.
On the other hand, we had to weigh the need to make people’s lives easier during martial law and wartime against the need for anti-corruption safeguards. A good example is procurement regulations for local councils. People working in those councils were calling and saying most of the staff were gone to the front lines, fighting, or they had moved their families to safer areas in other parts of Ukraine or abroad. “How do you expect us to continue operating, much less deal with this too?”
I think right now the main issue for us is to ensure that our processes and procedures are being harmonized with EU legislation, in terms of anti-corruption oversight as well. This is something that we should and can do, so that the amount of money that we hope will be brought into Ukraine for reconstruction will be spent in the most transparent way.
What scares me the most is that we may end up in a situation in which we just grow another batch of oligarchs instead of building a new, progressive country of the kind we want. And for that, it will not be enough to just have parliamentary legislation, because we have passed legislation previously that was needed to fight corruption and reform the judiciary. But there was not much movement in executing on that legislation. So right now, we are calling for the President to show the political will to make sure that it’s not only on the paper that we are fighting corruption but also that we’re showing results from it.
And it’s impossible to fight corruption just from the top down. There are institutions that you have to build – for clean elections of judges, for transparent hiring and firing of prosecutors,
Q: What does Ukraine’s Parliament need from the international community?
We need the international community to respond to our calls for certain action. We are being very careful with what we are asking, and almost every time we meet, we call for the next step of what we need. These are requests that also are coming from our Cabinet of Ministers or from our political leadership and sometimes from our military. So when we are saying, please, designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, and we are sending that to all the parliaments of the world, we have been very clear on why it needs to be done. Or when we are saying please confiscate Russian assets and use them for the sake of Ukraine, it is the result of long deliberations. Or when we are saying please forbid Russian athletes from participating in the Olympics, we are expressing what Ukrainian society needs from the international community.
And of course, we are calling right now to clear the way for us to join the European Union. This is a priority of the whole Ukrainian leadership, so tell us what we need to do – 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on – and it will be done. We are very good in doing our homework right now. We still have this window of opportunity when we are acting united, have political will, and have like the ability to push for things that were unspeakable before – like the Istanbul convention, but not limited to that.