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.

Left­ist vi­sion

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.

Ukraine’s choice

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)

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