Left-wing German lawmaker Stefan Liebich: ‘We’re not Putin promoters’
When German parliamentarian Stefan Liebich came to Ukraine earlier this month, it wasn’t just for the country’s biggest international policy conference, Yalta European Strategy, known as YES.
He also came to create a better relationship between the party he represents, the left-wing Die Linke, and the Ukrainian government and society.
Raised in East Berlin, Liebich is familiar with Ukraine’s post-communist legacy. When he visited Crimea in 2006, he said it reminded him of his past. But he is also a modern leftist politician, one keen to break with old-school Sovietism.
“For me, coming from the left side of the political landscape, it is nearly impossible to find parties who are compatible with us in an Eastern European state,” he said. “Because of the communist past, no one is interested in being a leftist. But I think it is a necessary part of the political landscape.”
Such a perspective is particularly important, he believes, in a country where the majority of viable political forces now agree on European integration and NATO membership, and pay lip service to reform.
However, Liebich believes that, contrary to the prevailing view in Ukraine, not all reforms are positive.
Born in 1974 in the northern port city of Wismar, Liebich grew up in the Soviet-aligned German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, Liebich studied business administration at the Technical University of Berlin and received a job offer from multinational IT corporation International Business Machines, or IBM.
Then, in 1995, he was elected to the Berlin House of Representatives, where he served as the leader of the Party of Democratic Socialism parliamentary group (the party would later merge with another to become Die Linke). In 2009, Liebich was elected to the German national parliament, the Bundestag.
Liebich’s current position as his party’s foreign affairs committee spokesperson gives him a greater role in international affairs, including in Eastern Europe. And he wants to use this opportunity to change how people in Ukraine perceive Die Linke, which has some members — “a minority,” Liebich says — who remain pro-Russian.
He also wants to offer some of Germany and Europe’s experiences to Ukraine as it moves toward greater European integration.
“Being at the conference, it was very difficult to hear the differences between the different political actors here in Ukraine,” he told the Kyiv Post during an interview at the Premier Palace hotel on Sept. 17.
Unlike their German counterparts, Ukrainian parties aren’t so easily distinguishable from one another. It is not clear what they stand for. In fact, Liebich got the impression that they are only fighting against each other about who has more power.
And while most mainstream parties support reform, it’s not clear what that means.
“What I miss... are the consequences of reforms,” Liebich said. “If someone is seen by Western liberals as a good one, he’s a reformer, (if not), he’s an anti-reformer.”
Liebich says some reforms may have adverse effects on Ukraine and its people. He is quite critical of the European Union and International Monetary Fund’s demands for reform of the gas sector by raising prices to market levels. He stresses that higher prices will put financial strain on people who cannot afford to pay more for gas. (Currently, Ukraine plans to give subsidies to those unable to pay the new price for gas.)
He is also critical of the accepted wisdom that privatization is always the right approach for Ukraine’s 3,000 state-owned enterprises. Privatization supporters argue that these companies have served for decades as cash cows for corrupt schemes, pumping money out of the state and into shady businesses.
“I wouldn’t say that privatization is a good idea every time,” Liebich said. “It depends. We’ve seen a lot of privatization in ex-Soviet states that created a class of oligarchs.”
Liebich cites the case of Greece’s Port of Pireaus as another clear example of privatization gone awry. During the 2009 Greek government debt crisis, Athens decided to privatize the port to raise funds. Later that year, it leased Pireaus to China’s COSCO Group, a state-owned shipping and logistics firm.
Soon after, the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee had a debate on China’s growing influence in European infrastructure.
Liebich describes the tension between these two issues as “crazy”: if countries like China or Russia owning key infrastructure is a concern, then the infrastructure should not be privatized.
“If you decide to have an open market… then it is part of this openness that even communist-ruled countries with their state companies can be part of it,” Liebich says. Europe cannot ask them to privatize, because market openness is not part of their state ideology.
If there is a central idea guiding Liebich’s view on reforming Ukraine, it is that the country should carefully choose the best option forward. Not all Western policies are good and not all work for a specific country, he says.
“If you see problems here and want to change your system, don’t just follow the first advice,” he said. “But look what all the 28 (EU) members have done, and then have a discussion about what fits best in your situation.”
IMF and World Bank advice — in Ukraine, essentially the accepted wisdom — can be a solution, but it is not the only one, Liebich said.
Germany and Ukraine
While Ukraine may have a choice in how it reforms and develops, Kyiv should also remain aware of how Germany views the process, Liebich said.
After the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2014, most of the German political class was “in euphoria,” he said. They were excited to see the country shift to the West.
Four years later, however, the mood is changing. German politicians are getting tired of Ukraine’s slow progress. Their patience is growing thin.
“There are real fans of Ukraine, who would defend everything,” but the group of skeptics is growing, Liebich said.
However, Germany is partially to blame for this problem. Liebich thinks German officials should visit Ukraine more.
He believes that Kyiv should place a higher priority on developing its relations with Berlin than with Washington, due to Ukraine and Germany’s proximity and common challenges.
After all, Ukraine is angling for EU and not U.S. integration, he said.
Kyiv and Berlin also have more similar understandings of the political situation. It’s natural for Western Europe — and Ukraine — to have a different view of Russia from that of the United States, because Russia is a neighbor, Liebich said.
“If we have problems in security issues, in economic issues, then the consequences will be on our continent,” he added. “So I’m not sure if good advisors from the United States are helpful for that.”
German member of parliament Stefan Liebich speaks with the Kyiv Post during an interview at the Premier Palace hotel on Sept. 17. (Pavlo Podufalov)
General view shows the Bundestag (Germany's lower house of parliament) plenum before the election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 14 in Berlin. (AFP)