Natalie Jaresko is the former finance minister of Ukraine. Born in Chicago, Jaresko graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 1989 and moved to Ukraine in 1992. She played a large role in reorganizing Ukraine’s debts and helped secure a $17.5 billion loan program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Jaresko is currently chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Aspen Institute, Kyiv. Jaresko visited the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics on January 24 and spoke with the Gate’s Ashton Hashemipour about President Donald Trump, foreign policy, and her position as an immigrant in politics.
The Gate: Do you think President Trump’s pro-Russia comments and [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson’s warmth toward Putin will cause Russia to be more aggressive with Ukraine and with Eastern Europe as a whole?
Natalie Jaresko: I think it’s too early to tell what the actual foreign policy of the Trump administration will be. I think we don’t yet see a full national security group. We don’t see who’s going to be in positions two and three [in Trump’s inner circle]. I think the statements made by General Mattis, the statements made by Mr. Pompeo—I think statements even made by Mr. Tillerson during confirmation—are actually quite hopeful in their understanding of what happened in Ukraine, the Russian aggression, the annexation of Crimea, and the occupation of the East. So, I think we have to wait and see to a large extent. I think there’s no question that in Eastern Europe, the Baltics, and in Ukraine, people are nervous about some of the comments made. The comments about NATO being obsolete, if I’m paraphrasing correctly, worry NATO members. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but the Baltics are NATO members. So that makes them worry. Also, what exactly does “obsolete” mean? Does it mean it could be better? We could all agree that any institution can be better. Does it mean it needs to be shut down?
“Obsolete” is a particularly forceful word in this case. I think there’s definitely nervousness—a nervousness because of the comments in a recent interview where Trump said he has the same level of trust for Chancellor Merkel as for President Putin. And given what the Kremlin has done, not only in Ukraine, but in Syria, in Aleppo, and their disregard for human rights, their disregard for freedom of speech, freedom of media, to say that you have the same level of trust in those two does concern people. I think that Ukraine counts on a very significant level of bipartisan support in Congress, and that’s very important. Both parties deeply support Ukraine. I think there are also checks and balances in a worst-case scenario, but I believe that over time, the administration will understand that although you can and you must have a dialogue with the Kremlin, and you must talk to them about issues where you can cooperate, that doesn’t mean that you have to trade in other interests.
Gate: Is there a feeling of nervousness among politicians, too—those with whom you worked and those under the Groysman Prime Ministry?
Jaresko: I can’t tell you what the new government is thinking, but everyone is watching. Everyone is watching very carefully. The United States is the greatest single ally and supporter of Ukraine in its twenty-five years of independence and history. In particular, after this period where we’ve been attacked [by Russia], the United States has been—you can say many things about whether you wish there was more support, whether you received lethal weapons, which we didn’t get from the Obama administration—but regardless of that, there was a great level of support. If that goes down, that’s certainly going to concern people. Right now, there’s definitely a wait-and-see attitude. Nobody’s making any decisions yet. There is strong bipartisan support—just on New Year’s Eve, Senator McCain, Senator Graham and Senator Klobuchar came to Ukraine, and visited with the boys on the front. Again, two Republicans and a Democrat. I don’t think anyone’s worried right now, but I think everyone’s going to wait and see. You want to know the difference between campaigning and governing.
But I think that’s global—it’s not just Ukraine.
And again, the comments of Pompeo, the comments of Tillerson under confirmation and the comments of Mattis have all been very supportive. That would lead you to believe that there’s going to be a serious understanding of national security.
Gate: How do you see Ukraine’s financial relationship with the IMF and the international community as a whole changing as we go forward, especially now that you are not the finance minister?
Jaresko: I haven’t been finance minister since April 2016, and Ukraine remains in the IMF program. Ukraine is close to hopefully concluding this next memorandum. This is the longest period of Ukraine being in an IMF agreement consistently—it’s been since April 2016. So I think the government under Prime Minister Groysman—and the country under the president—are committed to staying in the program. I think they’ve done some extraordinarily different things that no one expected them to. They [the prime minister and the IMF] raised gas tariffs, and in my government we raised them eleven times. We were unifying them, which Mr. Groysman has done since then, into one tariff. The e-declarations of government officials—103,000 public servants have had to declare their wealth and assets and that of their families. That doesn’t exist in any country, we know that here. The gas tariffs and the e-declarations have all been conditions of the IMF, and Ukraine sometimes would delay, because you can imagine there’s great pushback on many of these rules. But they [Ukraine’s government] get it done. The political will continues to be there even as it gets more and more difficult.
Gate: To clarify, do you think that the work you were able to do during your tenure will be continued?
Jaresko: I think so. I think that the pace has slowed, and I think that’s natural. When I went into government, we were in a major crisis—financial and fiscal, the war, the occupation of the territory. It was a post-revolutionary period. There were massive crises, we had everything you could imagine. We had cyberattacks on our electricity systems from the Kremlin. We had banks failing rapidly. We had a currency fluctuating between twenty and forty hyrvinia in a day. When you have that kind of crisis, there is great political consensus to do whatever it takes to save the country, to not fall off the fiscal cliff. And so, we stabilized the economy, and now we’ve turned from -10 percent to GDP to 1.5, 1.8 percent positive growth in 2016. As the central bank reserves went from less than one month’s import coverage to over three months’ import coverage, as the budget has now been, relatively speaking, fixed. We went from over 10 percent of public spending deficit to just 2 percent.
Then the political consensus starts to break because you’re not in a crisis. At this point you can debate things longer, and you have longer debates on every action you want to take. At the same time, I would argue that the success of the early reforms also scares some of the vested interests or oligarchs. Oligarchs makes it sound like there are seven of them, but there are many more vested interests. And as many of the things that have been done and continue to get done in this new government attack or eliminate some of their power and some of their cash flow, they fight back. And so the more you do, the more success you have in the reforms, the more they fight back. So those two trends have slowed the pace, but I think the political will is still there to continue. I’m quite certain that they’ll get this reasonably soon.
Gate: Do you see yourself assuming any positions within Ukraine’s government in the future?
Jaresko: I think it’s too hard to say. I was called on to serve at a particularly unique moment. The president granted me Ukrainian citizenship in order to serve. I am a student of public policy; I went to the Kennedy School of Government and seriously in my heart and soul believe in serving your country. I will do whatever I can to help Ukraine in its relationship with the United States. Right now, I’m chairman of the Aspen Institute in Kyiv, which gives me an opportunity to help broaden the side of leaders who have value-based leadership skills, whether it’s young leaders or middle-aged leaders or even people as old as me. But the point is to broaden the base because when you’re in government and you find that like-minded people are far and few between often, in the issue of values, you realize that you need a broader base. Programs like the Aspen are really important on the leadership side and on the policy side—we do both. I mentor a number of young government officials. I still work with deputies and other parts of the political system to try and urge certain policies. So I’m going to be as helpful as I can, but it’s hard to predict in this environment what happens next politically.
Gate: Could you talk a little bit more about the Aspen Institute?
Jaresko: Aspen is a US organization, originally. Actually, the initiation of the concept came from a Chicago businessman right after World War II. We were just given the opportunity to open the ninth Aspen Institute in the world. And the institute in Kyiv is the farthest east in Europe. One part of it is building leaders, not only in public policy but also in civil society, in journalism and business, and bringing them together. Our leadership seminars are always very, very diversified. The methodology of Aspen is to have a mix of men and women, geographical coverage, and, to some extent, age. But more importantly, we need a mix of professions. So you have journalists, you have civil society activists, you have parliamentarians, you have government officials, you have businesspeople. You want that dialogue. You want journalism, business and government all saying, “What does good society mean? Well, we want freedom. What does freedom mean?” And having a dialogue, a very civilized dialogue, based on the great writings. It goes from Plato through Marx to John Locke and everything else, which many people have never read, have never had access to, especially in their own languages. So they’re translated, they’re available. You use these to have a dialogue, not to craft an answer but to hear one another and hear the questions. It helps a society to find the solutions.
On the policy side, right now we have two areas. We’re doing justice and judicial reform because that is critical for Ukraine to succeed—rule of law. And the other is education, which is absolutely important from a development standpoint. And again, in these policy discussions, it’s not about lobbying. It’s about having people from different parts of the society come together and talk about these issues. So if you get a bunch of general prosecutors, which is the Office of the Attorney General, coming to a room and talking, they all think the same way. But put them in a room with lawyers, human rights officials, judges, and government officials and have that dialogue, they’ve never done it before. They don’t talk to each other—they stay in their own little worlds. Bring everyone together, not to debate, but have a dialogue, and listening to one another helps everyone to come to a better understanding of how you move forward.
Gate: What was the response to your assuming your government role in Ukraine?
Jaresko: I think it’s important to note that I went back twenty-five years ago when Ukraine became independent. I went back with the American embassy. So I built a twenty-year history of doing business there and, after that, being in the US government. I had a twenty-year reputation. And the Ukrainian president asked me to serve; I wasn’t picked up from abroad. The question of whether I was viewed as a true-blue Ukrainian is asked very often, and I would argue that it varies. But the bulk of people will say no. One reason for this mindset is that you didn’t live through what other people, even your own age, have lived through. You don’t share that history, those pains, those gains. In some cases, you don’t know the songs that they sang, you don’t know the movies they watched. So there’s a social part, a historic, cultural part that I just don’t share. I don’t remember the Soviet period because I didn’t live there.
At the same time, being raised in the United States is quite unique. We’re blessed. We’re raised in a very free environment. The system is of a rule of law. It’s not that people don’t break the law, but generally speaking, you pay your taxes in the United States. Those values and those systems, which are second nature to people who were raised here as I was, are not a part of many other societies. They have a different set of values. I use taxes because I was minister of finance and tax evasion is rampant there. It’s going to take time and mechanisms, both sticks and carrots, to change that.
So as an emigrant, you are different. At the same time, sometimes I believe that as an emigrant you embody some of the best of that country. I was raised with an incredible love, a fondness for the best of whatever that country represents to your family, to your history, to your culture. So in a way, you have the best of both worlds. You have this love for your home country, for the country of your ancestors and all that was ever right about it. You know, I used to go to Saturday school here in the city and listen to everything about my history. It’s very much a glorified version.
When you have that, the positive of what I think are a very good set of values and rule of law, characteristics from the United States, I think you can be a great benefit to your home country, to your ancestral country. Right now there’s an American serving as minister of health. She’s doing an outstanding job. She is fighting the good fight. She loves Ukraine, like the most patriotic Ukrainians, as I do. But I also love the United States. You love both countries—it’s a unique combination. In the Baltics, an American was the president of Estonia. You had a Chicagoan who was president of Lithuania.
Families that emigrated for political reasons didn’t leave because they wanted to leave. They left because they had to leave. And emigrants of that category in particular—I can’t speak for others—but that category have such a desire to help their country be better afterwards when there is an opportunity for it to be better. I think it draws many people back, whether it’s the Baltics or maybe someday, Iran. It’s different for economic emigrants. Even many Ukrainians who come to the United States want to work for seven to ten years and then they want to come back. They don’t have that same passion that I was raised with because my family couldn’t go back to the communist Soviet Union. We built this pride to take the place of not being there.
Gate: When you went back, when the Soviet Union fell, did you see that there were a lot of Ukrainians who were raised in the US or other countries returning to their homelands?
Jaresko: It wasn’t as great as when the Balts became free. There was a large group in the beginning, then there was disappointment because the reforms didn’t happen as quickly as they should have. There was also, until I became minister, zero willingness to put, let’s call it diaspora, in positions like that. So there is only a handful today of people who have stayed there more than just a couple of years—who have, you know, done their tour of duty type of thing and gone back. But to reside there, I’ve lived there twenty-five years, and my former business partner, who is Canadian-Ukrainian, lived there for twenty-two years. There are a handful of people, but it’s not hundreds, it’s not thousands.
Gate: Have you had any experiences in Ukraine that have allowed you to reconnect with the country?
Jaresko: I’ll tell you the story of when I first arrived in May 1992. I had heard these stories from my grandmother growing up about how she traveled by horse and wagon from central Ukraine to Kyiv to light a candle at the big cathedral, Saint Sofia. And as I was driving, with the embassy driver pointing out to me that that was Saint Sofia, it was magical. It was something I had heard of from my grandmother Sunday after Sunday after Sunday and had never seen. And to be able to go back …
Even in business, the whole twenty-five years has been about trying to get Ukraine out of this post-Soviet transition, to be able to enjoy the freedom the blessings of that country, because it’s an extraordinarily well-endowed country, resource-wise—human capacity, very educated, entrepreneurial people, incredible geographic location. It’s just a wonderful place that has enormous potential, and “opportunity” and “potential” are words that you start to dislike after twenty-five years because you just want it to be there. But if you could be the bridge, it’s a really special feeling. You get to bring your ancestors’ world to your current world and bring it together.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.