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Don’t Write Off Ukraine

October 26, 2012 - Małgorzata Nocuń - Bez kategorii

Aleksander_kwasniewski_konferencja.jpg

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This interview was published in a special Polish supplement to the Ukrainian weekly Kommentari coedited by Nowa Europa Wschodnia and the Polish Institute in Kyiv (Instytut Polski w Kijowie).

MAŁGORZATA NOCUŃ: You are the European Parliament’s special envoy to Ukraine. This is a difficult mission. We often hear that everyone is tired with Ukraine…

ALEKSANDER KWAŚNIEWSKI: Indeed, many people are tired with the constant political conflicts in Ukraine and this should not be ignored. But let’s also remember that the European Union has a lot on its plate and is involved in more than just Kyiv’s future. We are now tackling the consequences of the financial crisis, and the situation in Greece and Spain is far from solved. And yet we can’t say that we have given up our support for Ukraine. Without a doubt, Ukraine has many faithful friends in Europe, including Poland. I have a lot of respect for Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski who is continuing the policy that I initiated to support Ukraine, and explain to its political elites how to solve problems and share the Polish experiences which have led us to EU membership. All in all, Ukraine has its group of friends but it also needs to provide us with arguments that we could use to support it. Ukraine needs to change its legal system and have honest elections. Ukrainians should remember: the key to Ukraine’s future is in Ukraine.

Don’t you think that Poland’s foreign policy towards Ukraine is based on constant concessions and compromises? And yet we constantly see examples of Ukraine breaking the democratic rules and human rights. President Viktor Yanukovych has increased his competence, while Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko are behind the bars…

Today, compromise is understood as Kyiv accepting European standards. Ukraine needs to amend its criminal code as well as a new law on prosecutors’ and attorneys. Keeping up with European standards is also important during elections, which must be honest. That is why the EU made sure that international observers are sent to Ukraine. The next thing are the Tymoshenko and Lutsenko cases. Tymoshenko was charged in the legal system, hence this case can be only solved at the legal level; and that requires political will. These are extremely complicated issues which require a sensible approach on the part of the Ukrainian government. Let’s hope that our patient talks won’t lead to some rotten compromise, but rather towards finding a solution that will bring Kyiv closer to European standards.

Don’t you have the feeling that your mission is a mission of the last resort ?

My political experience has taught me to avoid phrases such as “a mission of the last resort” because there is always more than one chance in life. Having said that, let me also make sure that this mission is a particularly important one. Ukraine has found itself in a very difficult predicament: the association agreement with the European Union has been initialed but the process of signing the agreement remains frozen due to the current political situation. How can we solve the political problems that Kyiv has created on its own accord? This is the problem we are currently trying to solve.

You have said that Ukraine has found itself in this situation on its own accord. What can you then say about the talks with Ukrainian politicians?

It was important to establish dialogue between Brussels and Kyiv. In the last two months we’ve been talking to President Yanukovych, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the representatives of the opposition. Hence, the dialogue has been initiated. The question is: are all the sides of the Ukrainian conflict capable of seeking a compromise, despite the fact that in this situation a lot, of course, depends on the government?

And the government is doing everything possible to ensure that there is no democracy in Ukraine. In the regions, the government’s party is taking over the structures of the opposition parties. Members of the opposition are behind bars. Young activists find it more and more difficult to operate.

Of course the oncoming parliamentary elections – due to the political situation – will not look the way they should. But let’s remember, Ukraine’s election law has been accepted by both the authorities and the opposition. In addition, the opposition is also taking part in these elections, not boycotting them, and this is an important signal. I hope that the election process will be an honest one and the composition of parliament will be balanced, meaning it will include representatives of all important political groups, although the current state of affairs is clearly far from ideal. From my talks with the most important representatives of the Ukrainian state, I gather that these elections will be honest.

In today’s Polish press we no longer find statements about Ukraine’s accession to the EU but rather about its rapprochement with Europe. Is this a sign of greater sincerity?

At this stage, this approach is more realistic. The association agreement has been initiated. Had I been Ukraine’s leader, I wouldn't have given up on the main goal, meaning accession to the EU. But much is still to be done, also within the EU, which needs to convince itself that Ukraine’s membership is in its interest. This is something that I am trying to do. Of course Ukraine will not become an EU member today or tomorrow. This is a much longer term goal. Today, we must come to the realisation that the EU needs Ukraine, but of course a democratic Ukraine, one that respects human rights and has a healthy economy.

But Ukraine has “porous” borders – for example, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is stationed on its territory. No wonder it is difficult for some to imagine Ukraine in the European Union.

Europe should understand two things: cooperation between Kyiv and Europe should not affect Russian-Ukrainian relations. And it is a mistake to look at things from an “either-or” perspective: either Ukraine is in the EU or in alliance with Moscow. It is impossible to think like this, considering geographic location, culture, language, tradition and economic relations. Ukraine has to have good relations with Russia.

It might turn out that Ukraine will play its favourite game: the multi-winged policy?

Ukraine should build balanced relations with Russia and the European Union, knowing, at the same time, where its future is. If Ukraine wants to modernise, then it needs to make this effort. The same goes for Russia and the other post-Soviet countries – it's the EU which is their partner for modernisation and not the Eurasian Union. The Eurasian Union can be comfortable for the current situation and economic relations: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan’s trade relations were built over years. But when we talk about modernisation, then the EU is the only partner possible.

Ukraine has proved that it can be unpredictable. Why would we need such a country in the EU?

There are many unpredictable countries in the EU and Ukraine is not the most striking example here. The answer to the question why we need Ukraine in the EU is a clear one. This is a country with a population of over 50 million and with strategic importance. Ukraine has huge economic potential. This is a country which can pride itself with a young, well-educated elite. I am convinced that, from the perspective of the common market, the EU needs Ukraine. Also, there is no doubt in regards towards the European roots of this country. This is a Christian country, which has played an important role in Europe’s history.

The biggest problem of today’s Ukraine seems to be the lack of common values in the state. Neither the political elite, society nor the opposition seem to understand how to take care of their country.

This is true but I can see an explanation in this situation. Historically speaking, Ukraine is still a very young state. The Ukrainian state was the dream of many generations of Ukrainians. For the first time in 20 years, Ukraine is a sovereign country, but unfortunately the Soviet thinking still prevails. Ukrainians have made big progress in strengthening their identity. A part of the society speaks Ukrainian and a public debate on the country’s history has begun. However, I am worried that all of Ukraine’s political elites have been involved in conflicts rather than seeking compromises. Ukrainians are foreign to building, for the sake of the society, an understanding above divisions. These weaknesses delay Ukraine’s development.

Another problem relates to corruption…

This is a question of mentality, which is difficult to change. Corruption is a worldwide problem, but particularly common in the post-Soviet space. In Ukraine this problem is of an epidemic nature. It doesn't affect just one group, but all. Experiences of many countries on different continents show, however, that corruption can be effectively eliminated. Lessons can be learnt from Singapore and Western Europe. A country which has recently been successful in this area is Georgia: it eliminated corruption from its public and political institutions, as well as the police. There are many models that have been tested in other countries and can also be applied in Ukraine, but this would require the political will to do so.

Where has the introduction of European standards been successful?

Ukraine has achieved a lot in the last 20 years. It has also managed to introduce reforms that get her closer to the EU. Today, Ukraine is enjoying the market economy and political pluralism, which is much greater than in Russia, and something which is one of the more important elements of European culture. The initiation of the association agreement was also a big success for the country. This means that in many areas – such as the law and the economy – European standards are complied with. The problem is that the laws are quite easy to write and pass in parliament, but it’s quite hard to change the mentality of the society. And this is precisely where the problem lies.

We have to accept the fact that Ukraine is in a worse situation than Poland was in the early 1990s. In Poland, sovietisation was never as deep as it was in Ukraine. Considering history and current limitations I am far from making cut and dry critical statements about Kyiv.

Aleksander Kwaśniewski is a Polish politician and served as President of Poland (1995-2005). In 2004, he took on the role of a mediator during the political crisis in the Ukraine, which was then followed by the Orange Revolution.

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