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Mykola Tomenko — a romantic revolutionary, rationalistic vice premier, investigative political scientist, and researcher of Ukrainian love
Mykola Tomenko, vice premier of Ukraine for humanitarian and social issues, is well known as one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution. He was instrumental in working out the revolutionary strategies and at the same time he took an active part in actually applying these strategies in practice. He was often referred to as “a field commander” who combined rational approaches of a shrewd politician with romantic vigour of a revolutionary.
He is also known as a brilliant political scientist who is particularly good at predicting problems and even preventing them from actually emerging.
Mr Tomenko says that in his childhood he dreamed of becoming “a man of great consequence,” basing his hopes in the fact that it was his native Land of Cherkashchyna that gave Ukraine Taras Shevchenko, a great poet and cultural figure, and Vyacheslav Chornovil, a great champion of Ukraine’s independence.
When asked to define himself, he says, “First of all, I am Mykola Tomenko; then I am a vice premier; then a director of the Institute of Politics, and then deputy head of the Nasha Ukrayina Party.
His style of talking to people is “simple and always to the point”; he deals with problems to be solved in a brisk and purposeful manner; he acts decisively and resolutely, but never losing his head. After being appointed vice premier, he does not seem to have lost his democratic and romantic ways.
Mr Tomenko was interviewed exclusively for Welcome to Ukraine and Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazines by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor.
Mr Tomenko, I know that you wanted to take part in scything the wheat in a sort of back to the roots democratic gesture? Have you done it?
Yes and no. Yes, I did some mowing but it was the grass in my mom’s backyard, and no, I did not do any wheat mowing in the field. In fact, grass mowing and wheat scything are two different things, but I have professional skills to do both.
What’s the attitude of the villagers from your native village to you now when you come for visits? Do they address you still on the first-name basis? Mykola? Or in an official manner?
The older people still address me as Mykola, and if it’s not an official occasion, people in my native village do the same. I use every opportunity to socialize with people, particularly with those of older generations… But official occasions happen as well, like, for example, the Day of the Village. We organize volleyball competitions, and this year the team I played for lost — for the first time, incidentally, in several years. I could not play too well because the injury I have suffered some time ago playing beach football, still bothered me… There are things that have hardly changed in my socializing with people which remains, at least in my native village, rather informal. But many people seek me out in order to get my help in solving their problems, and these days my visits to my native village can hardly be called “days of relaxation.” My mother has become a sort of my secretary — people bring her letters and requests addressed to me.
Which events or periods in your life would you call as most important for forming Mykola Tomenko the politician and public figure?
Firstly, my enrolment in the Kyiv Shevchenko University. Before I actually began studies there, I had thought it was a stronghold of the Ukrainian national spirit, of progressive science and education. I was disappointed in many of my expectations but at the same time the circle of people I socialized with gave me a great incentive to develop and educate myself. I always kept in mind that many prominent figures of Ukrainian history, politics and culture used to walk the corridors of the university, used to study or teach there…. Secondly, it was the service in the army during the war in Afghanistan that strengthened my will power to a great extent. Thirdly, it was a period from 1989 to 1991 which came to be called “the national revolution” with its student rallies, emergence of the Narodny Rukh (People’s Movement) of Ukraine — I was very much in all of that. It was during that period that I fully realized what I must do for this country… And it was the Orange Revolution that contributed to shaping me as a politician and public figure. Actually, it was a great test, a trial of strength and determination. There were moments when decisions of great importance had to be taken quick and with no time to consult anybody else. For example — somebody calls on the phone and says that a ten-thousand strong crowd is on its way from the railroad station to the centre of Kyiv. Hundreds of people must be told how to act — either to organize a defence, or try to engage them in negotiations, or to ignore them altogether…The feeling that you bear an enormous responsibility was extremely intense — millions of people awaited your decisions. But this feeling of responsibility gave me enough self-assuredness to believe that I would make the right decisions.
As director of the Institute of Politics, do you have time for doing research?
I do my best. I poke fun at those politicians who behaved in such a manner as though they thought they would stay in active politics forever. And when they fail to be elected to parliament, or to be appointed to important posts in government, they do not know what to do with themselves, and are resigned to becoming humble assistants or advisers. I’m sure I will not have such a problem — I’ll always find what to do. I keep doing research, I write scientific papers, I deliver lectures at universities. Incidentally, recently the Uryadovy kurier newspaper has published my paper dealing with current issues of Ukrainian patriotism.
I know that your research also deals with Ukrainian perception of, and attitude to love.
Right. I’ve even published a book, Teoriya ukrayinskoho kokhannya (Theory of Ukrainian Love). As far as I know, it was well received by the readers and I’m planning a second edition. In that book I wanted to show, using the material derived mostly from the classics of Ukrainian literature and philosophy, that romanticism played a great role in shaping the Ukrainian culture. Simplified, “pragmatic”, as it is often called now, approach treat romantic relations mostly as sexual. In the Ukrainian language there are two words that define love — kokhannya and lyubov. Kokhannya denotes passion, desire and lust. Lyubov is love that emerges as a result of two people coming to know each other, and also includes love of the world, and love of people in general, and love of God or of your country. Here lies the key to the Ukrainian notion of love which may become central in the Ukrainian world outlook. In the Ukrainian system of values, the family occupies the central place and I would like to restore in Ukraine the great importance of that link — kokhannya -lyubov-family.
Do you regard yourself a pragmatist or a romantic?
At work I am a pragmatist and rationalist. Off work, I do my best to be a romantic and it helps a lot. Otherwise, it’d be very difficult not to get bogged down in all this political filth and brutality… Incidentally, I do not have bodyguards escorting me all the time, though as vice premier I’m entitled to it; I often use public transport… The Orange Revolution was so far the sole and ideal example of a situation, in which all the people who came to Maydan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv felt equal — it did not matter whether you got there by expensive foreign-made cars or just walked. It is a romantic model of relations which I would like this country to follow. I hope that respect for others and tolerance, which are characteristic features of the Ukrainian people, will always predominate, and that such features of the Ukrainian character will make the politics cleaner. The programme of our government proclaims, for the first time in so many years, that the strategic aim is not the increase of the gross domestic product and not the social and economic development at an increased pace , but the improvement of the quality of life of everyone through attaining social, economic and spiritual standards at the European level.
I just wonder how people around you behave when they see vice premier Tomenko riding in a subway train…
You should know at what time it’s safe (at this point Mr Tomenko gives a laugh). Usually, I take the Metro to work on Saturday morning when there are not too many people… I work on Saturdays too, you know. Sometimes commuters just stare, sometimes they say hello, but very rarely they vent their grievances or ask help in solving their problems.
Does it ever happen that somebody starts scolding you as a representative of the government?
On Saturdays, practically never, but on weekdays, in the rush hour after the working day the situation gets to be more complicated. People are tired, annoyed, many men are tipsy, but they can’t be described as aggressive — I’d rather call them active — they are activists in giving advice (Mr Tomenko says it with a smile), and it’s no good riding in the subway without anybody by my side. In most cases, I invite journalists to take subway rides with me…
I’ve become even more confirmed in my belief that everything is relative in this life. Not everything is determined by your post or rank or money, and that is why I want to preserve my attitude to people and my basic character traits unchanged. Stripped of vice-premiership, I remain a regular Ukrainian. Unfortunately, in this country when a high-ranking official goes somewhere, he or she is to be escorted by bodyguards, and the place where this official goes to is thoroughly searched, with specially trained dogs used. It should not be that way and I wish journalists would write about it. This country is changing and I would like to see European standards of people’s attitude to each other implemented.
Which problems did you have to deal with first when you were appointed vice premier?
I started with working out the strategy and ideology of work. Both in the President’s and in the government’s programmes people and society are the priorities which are followed by everything else. Today, the idea of preserving our nation may become the central national idea. Demographic problems, health care, social standards, poverty are the issues we are dealing with, and in the past six months we have achieved certain successes.
Our strategic aim is to rise to the European standards in science, education, health care, sports and some other spheres. Recently we have concluded necessary agreements and have become legitimate participants of the Bologna process in education. And that means that Ukraine is doomed, as it were, to reach the European standards in this sphere. There are two problems in the system of Ukrainian education which cause the greatest concern — quality of education and corruption. It will take a long time to raise the quality of education and a long-term programme is needed. As far as stamping out corruption is concerned — I hope that introduction of a new, unified system of testing knowledge of secondary school leavers may help bring cardinal changes into the university enrolment procedures.
In the sphere of science, it is of a principal importance to do away with the authoritarian model of science management and to decentralize it. So far, all the decisions are taken through the presidium of the Academy of Sciences and a researcher at the bottom of the existing hierarchy is left out. I would like to curb the power of the bureaucracy and give more power and independence to research centres, and even more weight to concrete scientific projects. Also, it is urgently necessary to improve the way scientific discoveries and projects are dealt with, and to deal with the problem of their financing. We are planning to set up a consulting agency which would coordinate the relations of the researchers and those who commission research. Probably, we shall sell part of the property of the Academy of Science — the part that is not used to benefit science — and use the revenues from the sale for new research.
In the field of public health care what we must urgently do is to study carefully the state of things in, for example, the purchasing of medicines done by the state. We have already gained 20 million hryvnyas through applying more economical approaches and improving the purchasing schemes. We are also studying the centralized system of financing public health care — we find it is no good or even absurd that about 80 percent of the money that goes into the state health care system is spent on investments and on the wages and only 20 percent is used for the actual treatment of patients.
The whole humanitarian and social sphere is a chaos which is due to the much too complicated system and to the existence of too many centres where decisions are made. In order to radically change the situation, inventory is to be taken, new principles and values and new policies established, and then new projects can be launched.
What about tourism — is the tourist industry also in a sorry state?
Yes, to a large extent, though tourism could become one of the most profitable industries. Ukraine’s potential in this sense is just fantastic thanks to the richness and picturesqueness of Ukraine’s natural conditions and to its long eventful history. But the tourist infrastructure is not properly developed. Rural tourism, social tourism, cultural and historical tourism are developing but slowly. The development of tourism should be done in coordination with the government and should be given the mass media support.
But there is a government programme of tourism development until the year 2010, isn’t there?
Yes, there is such a programme but the mass media pay little attention to it.
Recently, I took a trip to place associated with Mykola Gogol (Nikolai Gogol, one of the most remarkable Russian writers of the nineteenth century of Ukrainian descent — tr). I was accompanied on this trip by a group of journalists, and for them most of what they saw came as an unexpected discovery, in spite of the fact that Gogol’s writings are studied at school. Incidentally, the controversy around Gogol being a Russian or a Ukrainian writer seems to have been resolved in favour of Gogol being a Ukrainian writer in spirit in spite of using the Russian language in his writings. There is so much of Ukrainian outlook, of Ukrainian style in his books, and his protagonists are living heroes of Ukrainian history… It pained me to see the run-down state the writer’s estate, the park, the legendary village of Dykanka are in. What a wonderful tourist route it could be, with stops to see historic sights, to enjoy the wonderful scenery and to meet interesting people. It’s not so much infrastructure that should be greatly improved — it should! — but the creation of such conditions that a tourist would feel safe, comfortable and in the atmosphere of Gogol’s world. History should be made alive and vibrant. A holistic approach is needed in dealing with the development of tourism.
I think declarations to that effect were made by the previous governments as well but it falls to us to actually carry out these plans. In my opinion, the holding of the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv in May 2005 was a good start. I can’t remember any other event that would attract as many tourists to Kyiv.
You’ve launched an interesting project — to increase the number of Ukrainian pop and rock songs played on air by the FM radio stations which play mostly Russian pop songs. It’s a good move, but wouldn’t it be better if the vice premier developed strategies rather than dealt with separate actions of such kind?
We have discussed this issue with representatives of show business and of radio stations more than once — the amount of time given to Ukrainian music should be increased. Theoretically, the currently available legislation protects “Ukrainian producers,” and Ukrainian musicians are “producers of music,” but the situation, in which Russian pop music continues to dominate, is such that it is necessary to create somewhat artificial conditions under which Ukrainian performers could be promoted.
The project you called “interesting” can be regarded as a result of the strategy that has been worked out — and it was originally not my initiative but that of the radio stations. Of course, I support such initiatives, though I cannot say that I share the tastes of those who chose which Ukrainian singers should be represented.
If you listen to the FM radios, you must have noticed that the number of Ukrainian songs played on air has considerably increased. Probably, among other things, it reflects a growing interest of Ukrainians in their own country. Now we have a chance of making Ukrainian culture popular and competitive by combined efforts of the mass media, show business and the government.
I find it paradoxical that though there are so many new people in the government, all the leading mass media continue to be in the hands of media magnates from the camp of opposition. Does it bother you? Can such media be objective enough? Don’t they tarnish the image you want to project?
Practically all the time I’ve been in politics I was promoting the freedom of speech and in cooperation with the workers of some of the mass media and with the help of the general public we have achieved considerable successes. Today, most of the journalists understand that it is not “fashionable” any longer to lie because the people of Ukraine have changed and they immediately feel when they are being fed false information.
On the other hand, with the parliamentary elections drawing closer, there is a growing temptation to use TV stations as a means for politically damaging this or that parliamentary candidate. That is why I think it is extremely important that all the owners of TV stations, their top managers and their journalists sign agreements on their editorial policies, the way the 1st National Channel has recently done, concluding such an agreement with the government.
At the same time, we observe a tendency when journalists rely only on their tastes and leanings, and if such journalists like — or dislike — Yushchenko, Tymoshenko or Tomenko, or any other politician or official, they openly express these likes and dislikes in their writings or in TV shows. It is a situation in which we should be concerned with ethical issues in journalism.
You have a reputation of a politician who foretells and prognosticates political events and moves almost always correctly. What are your prognostications for the next few years?
I can tell you that the confrontation between the new central government and remnants of the previous regime at the local level will continue all throughout the period preceding the election, but if the parliamentary election is democratic and honest as I hope it will be, a social, economic and political stabilization will begin in Ukraine starting from the spring of 2006. Only then we’ll be able to start talking seriously about Ukraine’s entry into Europe — first we should join the World Trade Organization, then take other steps, and only after all that we can develop a realistic plan of joining the European Union.
Photos are from Mykola TOMENKO’S archive[Prev][Contents][Next]