Remarks by Vice President Joe Biden at a Meeting with Ukrainian Legislators
10:03 A.M. (Local)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. And I want to thank my colleagues for bringing me back home. For 36 years I sat in our legislature, and I used to actually have this seat in our -- I was the chairman of our committee. Thank you for making me feel relevant again, back in a legislative body.
I’m honored, and I mean this sincerely, I’m honored to be with you all, all members of the Rada representing the whole of Ukraine.
I signed the book in the hotel as I was leaving today. The management asked me to sign their book, and I signed, “Ukraine united, Joe Biden.” And as I look here, this is Ukraine united -- center, south, east, west. And as someone who has held high public office in my country for now 40 years and just because I’ve been around, literally met every major leader in the world in the last 40 years, I don't -- I want you to know I do not underestimate the incredible pressure you all are under. I do not underestimate the challenge that you all face. And I do not underestimate the frustration you must feel when someone like me comes along and says this is a great opportunity for you. (Laughter.) As my mother would say, but for the honor, I’d just as soon as pass the opportunity.
But the truth of the matter is your fellow countrymen expect a whole lot of you right now. Their expectations are high. The demands on you are -- my guess is are fairly extreme. And in addition to that, we have -- there is -- John Kennedy, President Kennedy wrote a book that became very famous called “Profiles in Courage,” and it listed those men and women in our country who had taken political positions that were overwhelmingly interest of the United States of America, but not in their personal interests. That's a profile in courage. I hope none of you have to appear in the first edition of the “Profiles in Courage in Ukraine,” but my expectation is some of you are going to have to make some really difficult, difficult personal decisions.
But you’re facing such unrest and uncertainty, and we can speak a little bit more about that today. But I also think -- it’s easy for me to say -- there’s an expression in English, it says, an expert is anyone from out of town with a briefcase. Well, I don't have a briefcase, and I’m not an expert. But I have an opinion, and I speak for the President of the United States, and he shares the same opinion. And that is that this is a second opportunity to make good on the original promise made by the Orange Revolution. This is a genuine opportunity to get right what is always difficult to do the first time when coming out from under the oppression or control of another power.
You’re a month away from -- I would respectfully suggest, although I will be probably criticized by the press for saying it, what hopefully will be and may be the most important election in Ukrainian history, and that is that you have an opportunity, a chance to bring about an era of reform and democratic renewal that you all hoped for two, five, 10, 15 years ago to lay the groundwork for an even more united and more prosperous Ukraine.
In speaking with your acting President, I was referencing the personal bravery and heroism of Ukrainians is well known. You are a strong, strong, strong people. And I’m not being solicitous. I mean it is real. And you face very daunting problems and some might say humiliating threats that are taking place indirectly. And -- but the opportunity to generate a united Ukraine, getting it right, is within your grasp. And we want to be your partner, your friend in the project. And we’re ready to assist.
I have an expression I use as I’ve gone around the world through my career is you never tell another man or woman what’s in their interest. They know their interest better than you know their interest. And so I want you to know that we are not suggesting we have the answers for you, but we’re merely suggesting that we stand ready to stand with you in every endeavor that you undertake to generate the united prosperous and coherent Ukraine you’re all fighting for.
And to the extent that we can be of small assistance in you holding a free election on May the 25th, we want to be part of that. To the extent that we can help in stabilizing and strengthening Ukraine’s economy by helping you withstand the unfair economic pressure being thrust upon you, we stand ready to do that, and I say the American people stand ready -- not just Barack Obama and Joe Biden -- but the American people.
As you all know well we have a significant Ukrainian-American population. We stand with you. And it is not just a foreign policy judgment, it is a personal -- it’s an emotional commitment, as well, by millions of Americans.
And as you attempt to pursue energy security, there’s no reason why you cannot be energy secure. I mean there isn’t. It will take time. It takes some difficult decisions, but it’s collectively within your power and the power of Europe and the United States. And we stand ready to assist you in reaching that. Imagine where you’d be today if you were able to tell Russia: Keep your gas. It would be a very different world you’d be facing today. It’s within our power to alter that. It will take some time, but it’s within our power. Very difficult decisions, but within our power.
Also to be very blunt about it, and this is a delicate thing to say to a group of leaders in their house of parliament, but you have to fight the cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now. It’s not just the United States. You need a court system that not only you and your people, but the rest of the world assumes can actually adjudicate fairly disputes among people. But you have a chance. You have a chance. The constitutional reforms that you are envisioning now are ones that some of you have fought for in various ways your entire career, a balance of power between the parliament and the President. You’ve tried it two different ways. I think you’ve figured it out for you -- not what we think -- what you think is the correct balance.
The decentralization and empowering of local communities -- we call that devolution of power back home -- local communities able to elect their own local officials, control their own budgets, elect their councils. And as I said, maybe if you look around the world at every country that has in the last 30 years come out from under the yoke of another, the hardest thing to put in place is, as I find it around the world, is a court system, is a judicial system. In a sense it maybe is the single most important thing that can occur in any country. And it’s hard. It’s really difficult.
But it’s totally within your power, and sometimes -- presumptuous of me to say this -- but sometimes it’s -- a crisis spawns the commitment, and the desire, the willingness to make some of these bold decisions.
So it is -- I don't want to exaggerate our role or exaggerate what we -- how strongly we feel, but the United States supports the rights, the freedoms and the fundamental dignity of the people of Ukraine, all the people of Ukraine.
And you may have different traditions. It’s not quite the same, but we understand different traditions in our country -- not as deeply as you do, but we are the most heterogeneous democracy in the world. We’re soon going to get the point where over 50 percent of the United States of America is made up of people of non-European stock; the majority of the American people are not of European origin in 2020. We understand. We have millions of Muslims. We have hundreds -- but it’s not quite the same. We’re not up against a border. We’re not sitting against a border of another powerful nation.
And so -- but, we, in fact -- these different traditions, different languages, and sometimes different perspectives, but the one thing I’ve observed, even with what’s going on in the east, is that there is a much greater desire to call oneself a Ukrainian than to call oneself anything else. And that’s a major, major, major unifying power, no matter how different the traditions are.
So I’m confident -- presumptuous of me to say this -- I’m confident that in your constitutional reforms, you will find a way to guarantee those traditions and at the same time strengthen Ukrainian unity. And to the extent that the United States of America can be of assistance in that effort, we stand ready to do that.
I thank you -- and I mean this sincerely -- for the honor of being able to speak here in the Rada, or at least a committee room of the Rada.
10:15 A.M. (Local)