KOLIADA: IT IS IMPORTANT FOR ME NOT TO BETRAY UKRAINIAN INTERESTS
Exclusive interview of the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine Oksana Koliada to the Interfax-Ukraine Agency
In terms of how the past four and a half months have passed, do you regret agreeing to head the Ministry?
This is my conscious choice and desire to have a more serious tool in my hands for implementing those things that I have been working on for many years.
How would you rate your current results as the Minister?
Perhaps the main results are the development of our “veteran constitution”, this is the Law “On the status of a veteran”, and it is ready for registration. It is also a definition of the procedure for granting the status of a combatant to volunteers. The issue has not been resolved for five years, so it is a good result. In addition, the developments to a certain extent of a whole series of standards, which we will then implement in life. Actually, this is the main function of the Ministry - the development of policies in the veteran sphere, and in the field of internally displaced persons, and in work with temporarily occupied territories. Well, the development of our strategic goals set out in the Government’s Action Program and a huge five-year Action Plan to achieve these goals. Thus, we got a good enough foundation to move on. Another serious result is that we were able to find an effective team and delve into the new issues as much as possible. I think we are on the right track.
After the appointment, you spoke critically about the merge of the two Ministries into one and declared the need for reorganization. Why didn’t they listen to you?
Despite the fact that we really didn’t perceive the merge properly, because of the hard-to-combine audiences, our team is responsible for the tasks assigned. During all this time, much has been done both in the direction of veterans affairs, and in the direction of activities with temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced persons. In fact, even international partners point out that in a few months we have been able to do more than has been done by the relevant Ministry in recent years. The logic of the merge was to typologize administrative processes and reduce the cost of the state apparatus.
In addition, why they did not listen, they heard the President; he said that the Ministry would still be reorganized. And here is my key message that we have been able to convey information about the enormous volume of tasks that lie in the plane of the entire Government and make it clear to the leadership of the state, that this requires a separate unit of work or a separate Ministry, possibly even headed by a Deputy Prime Minister. But we understand that instead of reviving the Ministry for Occupied Territories we should change the paradigm and speak about the effective work of the Ministry for Reintegration. Our team is generating its suggestions and we will present them soon.
Isn’t that because of the negative experience that the joint Ministries did not cope with their responsibilities?
This is the first thought that came to everyone’s mind. But now I realized that we needed to strengthen communication about the results of our work, in particular, in the direction of the occupied territories and internally displaced persons. We managed to create a powerful Interdepartmental group, which I led. This group is divided into many thematic subgroups on various issues: ecology, restoration of infrastructure, education in the occupied territories, social protection, and restoration of residence of persons living in the Crimea, restoration of the right to religion and issues of sanctions policy. We have shown with this scale of interdepartmental activity, that this area requires a separate Ministry and Deputy Prime Minister. The issue of reintegration does not fit into the functionality of a single, even a merged Ministry. There is a need for cross-sectoral cooperation. But the main thing is to make the right accents and determine an effective strategy. This does not mean that we have worked inefficiently.
After the President’s statement, there have already been consultations with the Government on this reorganization; can we assume that the decision has already been made?
Officially, it has not yet been made public. We have consultations inside of our Ministry in order to be prepared for this reorganization. I will also note that one part of the Ministry did not stop. We have in terms of directions and strategic goals the distribution between the profile deputies and the state budget programs. Therefore, the work of both parts will not stop. More to the point, we will convey a holistic concept of reintegration and reform of this area of work. I am sure we will have an effective dialogue and further cooperation.
And purely technically, how will this happen, will they abolish the liquidation of the MTOT and create a new department?
There are several options, including the abolition of the decision that merged the two Ministries. There are a bunch of technical issues, but we are not sitting aside, but already getting ready. I will note again that the reality is constantly changing. The Ministry for the Occupied Territories in the format it was before our merge was a structure that works in firefighting mode. We need a fundamentally new approach and strategic vision. We need to be proactive and propose long-term solutions. Awareness of this was one of the results of the work of our team in this direction.
Do you know the name of the new Minister for the Occupied Territories?
No, I do not. It will be the Prime Minister's decision.
Veterans greeted your appointment very warmly and with great support. Has the level of support of the veteran community changed?
Nothing has changed in my work with the veteran community. We do absolutely everything with them. Everything is fine with my communication with the veterans.
In general, do veterans trust the state today?
It is a tough question. In general, any category of people, any target audience is sceptical of state institutions. And the Minister who becomes a quality communicator between his target audience and the state is successful. It is my task to convey to the state, in the form of systemic changes, what people want, for whom I came to the Government, and accordingly inform them about what we are doing, on their advisory participation. But as for veterans, there is another feature. They may not trust government officials or individual institutions, but they fought for their state. It seems to me that this is the best indicator of their “loyalty.”
Can we say that Ukraine has a strategy for state policy on veterans?
Of course, Ukraine has a strategy for state policy on veterans; moreover, it is outlined in the Government's Action Plan for the next 5 years. And there you can see that two of the three strategic goals that our Ministry faces are related to working with veterans - returning them to a peaceful life and honouring the image of a veteran. We are saying one important thing: we cannot be considered solely as a social Ministry, we are a Ministry that directly influences the situation in the security and defence sectors. The country’s defence capability depends physically and mentally on how we will restore the reserve the first and second phases. And the prestige of the military profession depends on how effectively we work with society and with veterans in building respect and attitude towards veterans in the state, as a result of the state of manning of contract army or the number of applicants to military higher educational institutions.
When will the new Law “On the status of veterans and family members of deceased (fallen) veterans” be submitted and adopted by the Parliament?
The draft bill will be submitted, I think, within two weeks. We always adhere to the principle of not hanging any achievement in the form of adoption of the law, but focus on the result. Therefore, we went along the path of uniting a group of authors, among which are veterans, the Public Council, and the Council of families of the deceased and the People's Deputies from different factions who could advocate this draft bill in the Verkhovna Rada. It is interesting that every block of the law was agreed on with our beneficiary. That is, we worked out the bloc with regard to the families of the deceased, with the families of the fallen in the Revolution of Dignity, and of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes. Therefore, I can say that we have discussed it with the public and enter into the process of its adoption with them. I hope that we will accept it during the first quarter, although it is impossible to predict how it will be held in the Committee.
When will the Unified State Register of War Veterans begin to function, as well as when the E-Veteran electronic platform will be implemented and operational?
Will there already be a register in 2021, as well as every veteran will be able to log into their personal account on the online platform?
Yes, they will. To date, the technical task is ready, there are finances provided to us by international partners, and we are just entering the practical stage of fulfilling our task. We will not invent a new bicycle in this regard, we will take the bases and registers that our colleagues already have, and for example, there is a good enough base of people with disabilities in the Ministry of Social Policy. We will take it, upgrade with our specifics and go the faster way. Therefore, I hope that by 2021 or the beginning of 2021 veterans will already be able to use online services.
When will the regional centres for the psychosocial adaptation of the veterans “Veteran HUB” appear in each Oblast?
They will appear in 5 years in all Oblasts. I am not saying that it will last for all 5 years. If we succeed in doing this in 2020-21, it will be wonderful; we will try to speed it up. We currently have methods; there is an approved standard for providing such assistance, as well as four pilots. Now they need to be tested, and throughout this year, make sure that these veteran hubs are already opened at the expense of the budget, and not donor funds, as they are today. I have great hope for people who will work in the regions. These are the people who should have one hundred percent information about everyone: both veterans and the people of the deceased and the services that will be provided. “Veteran HUB” conceived as a place where our territorial division will be located, so that they understand what we are developing in the centre and can successfully implement it locally. This is our strategic priority and we will try to speed it up.
Is the issue of conducting a mandatory annual free medical examination for veterans still relevant?
This question is urgent; it is the first one that we raise in terms of medical support. Those veterans who do not pass this free medical examination will not be eligible for paid medical care from us. It is important for us to deal with prevention; we don’t want to overcome the consequences, because now we are more likely to overcome the hard consequences. We need to understand how we can help in the earlier stages of the disease, or to prevent it. I think that these mandatory medical examinations will be introduced with the start of the second phase of medical reform, from April 1, 2020, when we switch to payment for medical services through the National Health Service of Ukraine.
Earlier it was about developing a package of additional services that would be provided free of charge to veterans in healthcare facilities, would that work?
Everything is in force. We continue to work with the Ministry of Health to improve this approach, and now we are actively working with those institutions that will potentially provide us with these services.
Will it not be like this in all medical institutions?
We have met many times with the chief doctors of veteran hospitals. These institutions were founded after the Second World War, and not all of them provide services to veterans, especially to participants in the hostilities of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Some of them, in their statutory activities, for example, provide services to people who have the status of children of war, which means that they are more likely to serve older people. Therefore, we have agreed with them that if they want to provide services to veterans in their regional centre and to receive financing from us and from the Ministry of Health for an additional package of services, then they must comply with the requirements of the National Health Service of Ukraine and want to provide services to our beneficiaries. We have agreed that we will help them meet these requirements in terms of some equipment or functional ability, despite the fact that we have certain international partners who agreed to support medical facilities that will continue to serve veterans.
Last year, a Law was adopted imposing administrative responsibility for the illegal wearing of military uniforms and falsification of awards. Did it work, and do you have statistics?
I do not have statistics, maybe I need to initiate and get it, but for us this law is important. We need to shape the image of a veteran as a defender and a hero in society, and this can be done in different ways. For example, good television and radio projects about the right story or you can fight against such illegal wearing of uniforms. As a former serviceman, it also offends me, because we have to wear the uniform with dignity.
The same question about the increase in fines for the denial of preferential transportation of a veteran, did this solve the problem?
No, it did not. It was an important draft bill for us, but it did not solve the problem. I believe that introduction of the registry and the online system for obtaining services by veterans will solve the problem. We recently spoke with the Mayor of Zhytomyr, where an electronic card reader system is already runningin public transportation; we want to test the use of a veteran card in this city. When we create the register, we will update the information about each veteran and each of them will receive their own electronic cards, which will be both a certificate of participation in the combat actions and a card for using the benefits, including free transportation. This will solve absolutely all issues with carriers, because they will be clearly reimbursed for the amount of travel of our beneficiaries that they will carry out. Because today's uncertainty leads to the human factors and conflict situations, when drivers refuse to drive veterans.
But this will solve the problem only in cities where the electronic system works in all types of public transport. What about private carriers?
It is the issue of Interdepartmental cooperation. If the carrier wants to be a subject of service providers and be reimbursed for such services from the state, he should meet certain requirements, and such a requirement will be an electronic card reader.
How many women-veterans of war in Donbas are in Ukraine?
I will not tell you the exact number, but approximately 16 thousand. If we talk about the percentage ratio in the European armies, then we are in the first place, since we have more than 10% of women in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I want to say that women-veterans have become much more active, they are consolidating, and we have created several unions and movements of women veterans. They are active in terms of implementing projects, in particular projects of an international educational nature. They are actively working on communication with the international community and reporting on the war in Ukraine. For example, a good project "Ambassadors", which was founded by women-veterans who travel the world and talk about the situation in the country. Women-veterans occupy in the general veteran movement not a large, but rather active position in terms of promoting veteran projects.
What are the specifics for reintegration of this category of veterans?
There are certain gender specific medical issues, there are certain issues in psychology, but in the end, these are the same issues of professional and social adaptation as well as retraining. But in general, women are probably more motivated and active in the issue of reintegration.
Do you know statistics on suicides among veterans and their causes?
There is no data on suicides and there are no such statistics, because no mark is put anywhere. But we rely on the empirical data and evaluative judgments of psychologists.
Why so? Isn't it important to know?
Of course it is important. There is some statistical data about the active duty servicemen, they keep it. And we tried to get such statistics from those who record the death, the medics, but they do not point out that this person is a participant of hostilities, so today there are no such statistics. But we understand the severity of the problem and are working on a system of emergency psychological assistance that would produce results in suicide prevention. The Mental Health Protection Centre in Pushcha-Voditsa was established. There is work in three areas, such as the treatment of addictions that veterans have, the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders and the treatment of post-concussion conditions. We have the problem that we have many cases of unrecorded concussion, and it is important for us now to diagnose it and to understand that what happens to a veteran is the result of the concussion. Also, a training centre has been set up on the basis of it, which works with specialists and teaches, among others, persons who work with those who could potentially commit suicide.
The third direction is within the framework of the "Veteran HUB", which will be in every regional centre, the launch of emergency psychological assistance in the form of mobile groups. We have good examples in some areas where psychologists work together with veterans within such groups, they go home to a veteran in a suicidal state, work with him and take him to their centre to restore his normal state, and if necessary send him to the hospital. It works. For example, in 2019 there were no suicides in Volyn Oblast, due to the work of such groups, although in 2018 there were eight. It is important for us to scale this experience to other areas. And here the issue of the peer system is also relevant. Veterans in this state are more likely to contact their brothers or sisters in arms, because they perceive them more calmly.
Does Ukraine have a state policy strategy on temporary displaced persons?
Good question. To make a story short, yes, Ukraine has, but for the sake of understanding it is necessary to be more detailed. For a long time, the state acted as an ostrich in painful issues for the TOT and IDPs, resorting more to imitation than to real, perhaps unpopular, actions. When we say that it is necessary to change the principle of work, to focus on the concept of reintegration, we must understand that we are talking primarily about the reintegration of people, consciousness, and then territories.
Localization of IDPs in local communities is part of reintegration. Such a strategy is to reintegrate them, if possible, into host communities. Also, first of all, we need to deal with the mental reintegration of those who, unfortunately, reside in temporarily occupied territories. We have identified for ourselves in this short period of time the main tasks that have already been accomplished, namely, we simplified access to services in the Government controlled area of Ukraine, changed approaches from permitted to prohibited goods for transportation, and simplified crossing of the EECP by children.
As for Crimea, we gave one of the parents the right to cross the administrative line with the child, gave the right to children who have reached the age of fourteen to independently travel to study in the territory of mainland in Ukraine. In addition, the obvious is that we need to work with young people and children. Our first priority is to ensure that young persons and children living in the occupied territory grow up Ukrainians. In order to receive distance education at school, to be prepared to enter higher education institution, and make sure that they go to study in Ukraine, and not go to Russia.
Will a register of temporary displaced persons be created to automate and simplify relations between displaced persons and the state?
There is a registry, but here is the issue of data verification. We are aware that, according to the Ministry of Social Policy, we have about 1.4 million of internally displaced persons. Due to the fact that we have imperfect legislation that is aimed at receiving one or another service that we are actively changing, we received inflated data from displaced persons. For example, we are now addressing the issue of allowing Ukrainians living in the occupied Crimea to be residents and to use banking services. By this time, in order for them to open an account with a Ukrainian bank, they had to take a certificate of an internally displaced person, but they were not internally displaced persons. Or, people who have lived in Kyiv for 10-12 years but who have a residence permit in Donetsk, in order to receive a certain service, they again have to take a certificate of an internally displaced person. Therefore, we are now doing everything we can to determine how many internally displaced persons we actually have to work with.
International partners are constantly raising the issue of pension payments in the non-Government controlled areas of Donbas. At the end of last year, the Verkhovna Rada registered a draft bill on this issue. How realistic is this initiative? What solution do you see to resolve this situation?
The issue of social payments in the occupied territories is a topic for the work of one of the thematic groups within our Interdepartmental Commission. The Ministry of Social Policyand the Pension Fund are working on this, and as far as I know, they have submitted a bill to extend the verification deadlines. We, in turn, have increased the number of mobile banks at the EECP so that people can receive all the social payments faster. There is no way for our structures to work in the occupied territory now. Our task is to simplify the receipt of payments in the Government controlled area of Ukraine as much as possible. And here are also quite specific intermediate results. It is about working with low-mobile groups. We work with international partners to verify data for these categories. We need to understand how many people there are that are physically unable to move and receive social payments.
What happens when you obtain such data?
Then it will be necessary to work out mechanisms with international partners who are having access to carry out activities in the occupied territory, so that we can make such payments.
The Head of Donetsk civil-military regional administration stated that the OSCE could assume the function of delivering pensions to the occupied territories. Can this idea be considered?
I will ask the head of administration, maybe he was negotiating. At the level of our Ministry we are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross on the data verification, and we will work on the delivery mechanisms step by step.
Tell us, are there any red flags that will force you to resign?
I came to this Ministry to protect the legitimate rights and interests of those who once stood up for our country - these are veterans, active duty servicemen, families of the fallen defenders and the like. If my attempts to introduce any changes in the state are blocked in some way, or if I am ineffective in this position, I will resign. It is important for me not to betray the Ukrainian interests, not to betray the memory of those who died for Ukraine in the war, and also to be able to be effective in the future.
What are your top three goals for 2020?
The law “On the status of veterans” and the implementation of this law, the system of medical support for rehabilitation, as well as the dignity of our heroes, including the introduction of the burial ceremony for the defenders of Ukraine in the war. But truly, all other problems are just as relevant to us. This is the creation of a registry of veterans, the launch of the E-Veteran platform. Modernization of the mechanisms for working with our beneficiaries through the single window principle, which we plan to implement through the network of veteran hubs. The direction of development of the veteran's business and change of the paradigm of employment of veterans is extremely promising. It is very important for us to generalize and share our experience and best practices for reviving of the new Ministry for Reintegration. Believe me, there are many of such priority tasks. We are working!