Kremlin critic Maria Gaidar upbeat after Ukraine switch
She has long been a figure within Russia's liberal opposition. And then came the war with Ukraine and a divorce with her homeland which saw her taking Ukrainian citizenship and a top post in Odessa.
Maria Gaidar — the 32-year-old daughter of Yegor Gaidar, Russia’s Yeltsin-era former premier — tells AFP of the difficulty she had in being accepted by Ukrainians, even as an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Her appointment in July as deputy head of the key Ukrainian coastal region of Odessa under arch-Kremlin foe Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, caused uproar in Russia.
And earlier this month, she was granted Ukrainian citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko, prompting further cries of betrayal from Russia, which is locked in a bitter feud with Ukraine over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its alleged support of the pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s east.
But Gaidar’s nomination has also stirred controversy in Ukraine — mostly because she once said that Crimea, the contested peninsula on the Black Sea, belongs to Russia.
She has also been reluctant to denounce Russia’s alleged intervention in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, in which Moscow denies playing a military role.
In a recent interview with AFP, Gaidar said she had expected her transition into the turbulent world of Ukrainian politics would be challenging.
But she hadn’t expected it would cause such an uproar.
“It’s like jumping into icy water,” she said, wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with a trident — the symbol of Ukraine.
“You know that it’s going to be cold, but you still go ‘brrrr’ anyway.
“It’s alright. It just makes you feel like working and reaping results,” she added.
– ‘Change is possible’ –
Gaidar said that by waging an undeclared war in eastern Ukraine, the Putin regime was also exposing Russia to violence and repression.
“We have a common enemy, and Putin is not the whole of Russia,” she said, adding that her move to Ukraine was a way of expressing her stance on a conflict that has cost more than 6,800 lives since April 2014 and driven at least 1.4 million people from their homes.
Gaidar said the team assembled by controversial reformer Saakashvili — who lost a brief 2008 war against the Kremlin — was creating a “substantial alternative to Putin” in the Odessa region, a system where reforms would be transparent.
“We have to show that change is possible, that we can beat corruption, offer good social services, build quality roads,” she said.
Mandated with overseeing social reforms in the mainly Russian-speaking region, Gaidar has pledged to find suitable homes for orphans — something she said Russia has been unable to do.
The success of a new Ukraine, one devoid of corruption, would serve as an example for some Russians, she said.
“Russian official discourse is telling the population that everything has gone badly since Maidan,” she said, referring to the popular uprising that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-backed government last year.
“If we succeed here, this will have a huge effect on the Russians who think.”
– Changing the system –
Much remains to be done to revamp the Odessa region, one of Ukraine’s most corrupt.
Some members of the current regional administration have been reluctant to revise old institutional practises and are trying to hinder the changes introduced by the Saakashvili team, Gaidar said.
Although Ukrainian society has been demanding change since the Maidan protests, many officials are unwilling to give up their lifestyles, she claimed.
“They paid bribes to be in their position… this would ruin their lives,” Gaidar said.
Although her liberal ideals have not yet taken hold in Russia, Gaidar worked hard to challenge Putin’s regime.
Since entering politics in 2005, she founded a liberal youth movement and served as deputy head of Russia’s Kirov region, where she spearheaded health reforms. She has also supported the political party of slain Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.
Gaidar said she was particularly proud of an audacious protest in 2006 during which she unfurled a banner reading: ‘Give back elections to the people, bastards!’ while hanging from a bridge opposite the Kremlin.
The protest was organised after the Russian parliament voted to scrap the minimum turnout requirement for elections to be declared valid.
“When I started my career, I was told that I couldn’t work in politics in Russia because of my name,” Gaidar said.
“But in Kirov, my liberal positions were the least of my problems. People were mostly preoccupied with the fact I was a young woman who had hung from a bridge.”