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Ukraine's Savchenko: Without Peace, The War 'Will Last Forever'

Former Russian captive Nadia Savchenko told RFE/Rl's Ukrainain Service that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has "become a burden for everyone."
Former Russian captive Nadia Savchenko told RFE/Rl's Ukrainain Service that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has "become a burden for everyone."

KYIV -- Since her release from Russian captivity last month after nearly two years, Ukrainian airwoman Nadia Savchenko has called for talks with Russia-backed separatists about the war in eastern Ukraine and further prisoner exchanges.

And to the critics who have dismissed prospects of such talks as impossible, she has a message: Try a stint behind bars.

"I have spent two years in jail for nothing," Savchenko told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in an interview. "Try to do the same. If you want to persuade people that you are right, try to spend time in jail."

Savchenko, 35, has raised hackles among some Ukrainian officials for saying she is willing to negotiate directly with separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine, where more than 9,300 have been killed since hostilities erupted in April 2014.

But after her experience on the frontline of the war, in Russian captivity, and visiting eastern Ukraine recently, she says such direct talks are crucial, as are conciliatory steps like an amnesty for locals who took up arms against Kyiv but did not commit serious crimes.

"If we can't make peace, then [the war] will last forever," she said. "And that has already become a burden for everyone. Everybody is fed up with that. People are tired. People want to live in peace."

А Russian court in March handed Savchenko a 22-year prison sentence after finding her guilty of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists covering the conflict. She denies the charges and says she was abducted in June 2014 by separatists in eastern Ukraine and smuggled into Russia.

She was freed last month in a prisoner swap for two Russians alleged to be military intelligence officers who were convicted in Ukraine of fighting alongside the separatists.

Since returning to Ukraine following 708 days in Russian custody, Savchenko has been hailed as a hero.

She has since taken her seat in the Ukrainian parliament that she won while jailed in Russia in 2014 on the party list of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party.

​So far, Savchenko has appeared intent on building on her political capital as an outsider in Ukraine's rough-and-tumble politics, which has long been plagued by rampant corruption and cronyism.

"Our politicians still behave as if they are kings as it used to be in the Soviet Union and as it is still in Russia," she said. "I want ordinary people to see me, and therefore I will continue traveling across the country, visiting villages."

WATCH: Savchenko On Meeting Ordinary People Across Ukraine

Savchenko Ready To Take Polygraph Test To Silence Critics
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While lobbing broad criticism at her fellow lawmakers and government officials, Savchenko said that for the time being she will refrain from criticizing Tymoshenko and pro-Western President Petro Porosehnko, who was elected following the ouster of his predecessor, Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych.

"I think it is easy to criticize, standing on the Maidan," she said, referring to the Kyiv square where mass protests culminated in Yanukovych fleeing to Russia. "Now I am a politician myself. And I understand that it is not an easy job. But I will not criticize either Yulia Volodymyrovna [Tymoshenko], or Petro Poroshenko, before I am better than them."

Showered With Flowers, 'Pelted With Stones'

Savchenko took swipes at both military top brass and government officials while positioning herself as an ally to the soldiers in the trenches and civilians she says have been betrayed by those they elected.

"It seems to me that the generals and commanders I have met, before the war they felt very comfortable and immune from punishment in the corrupt system. Now they have started getting scared," she said.

Meanwhile, she said her brief time in parliament so far has convinced her that "up to 95 percent of this government is not of its people."

"People gave so much, and those who came to the government, they do not do anything," Savchenko said. "Who is controlling everything there, I still do not know."

A Gallup poll in December showed mounting mistrust among Ukrainians in the country's political leadership, with Poroshenko's popularity (17 percent) slipping below that of Yanukovych's before he fled in February 2014.

A government shake-up in April landed Poroshenko ally Volodymyr Hroysman in the prime minister's seat with urgent calls in Ukraine and the West for speedy progress on financial and political reforms, including the fight against corruption.

WATCH: Savchenko Calls For "Fair And Transparent Elections'

Savchenko Calls For 'Fair And Transparent' Elections In Ukraine
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Savchenko is now calling for early parliamentary elections to reinvigorate the country's politics. She says the government has failed to make good on its promises to the electorate following the overthrow of Yanukovych. But she says she is not planning a revolution.

"Everyone expected that Savchenko will come with a saber in her hand and bring people to the streets for the third Maidan," she said, alluding to the 2004 Orange Revolution that also brought thousands to the streets of Kyiv.

"No, I will not do that," Savchenko added. "I do not have that level of trust from people. I will not be able to persuade people, to control them. And to just drown Ukraine in blood again and start slicing it in pieces -- that is a bad option."

She said that just as she "did not exclude that I would be showered with flowers" upon her return to Ukraine, she concedes she may face a political backlash.

"Now I do not exclude that I might be pelted with stones," she said.

'Good Neighbors'

Given the Kremlin's military seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in March 2014 and the ensuing war in the east, Russia and Ukraine "will never be brotherly nations like before," Savchenko said.

But she voiced optimism that the two countries could become "good neighbors" given the numerous families of both Russian and Ukrainian heritage who live on both sides of the border.

"I think it is possible," Savchenko said. "I think it will be more possible when the leaders are changed. One leader cannot run the country for life. Тhat is not correct. I think fresh blood must come and reset, and that will be in Russia."

She warned that it will become increasingly difficult to "deal with Russia" the longer President Vladimir Putin's grip on power remains tight, and she accused him of suffering from growing political "senility."

But, Savchenko said, there are "people" and "movements" capable of changing political winds in Russia.

"It is very hard for them there because of the heavy pressure. But I think in the future it will be possible," she said.

Written by Carl Schreck based on an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service; translated by Merhat Sharipzhan
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