Interviewed by Anna Korbut
On December 18, the European Commission approved the visa-free progress report on Ukraine, which means that starting mid-summer, Ukrainians may get the right to travel freely within the EU. On January 1, 2016, the Free Trade Agreement between Ukraine and the EU came into effect. Shortly before this, The Ukrainian Week spoke with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin about this, as well as the prospects of elections in the occupied parts of the Donbas, the Normandy format negotiations, and the future of Ukraine’s diplomatic relations with Russia.
Some believe that Ukraine has received the news that in summer Ukraine may get the visa-free regime with the EU as a sort of a Christmas present, a political advance…
I don't agree that this is a present. Our country has deserved this. In fact, we would hold all reforms anyway. But the prospect of the visa-free regime will spur them and encourage a more systematic implementation.
Ukraine has not fulfilled several important requirements concerning the establishment of the infrastructure to fight corruption. These are some of the key ones to which the prospect of visa-free travel was tied…
I believe that political advances were granted earlier, and to other countries. For example, to some Balkan States, although I’m not at all trying to say that their progress had been insufficient. But given the current perception of the migrant crisis in the EU, no one would grant political advances related to visa liberalization.
It is another thing that Brussels is using the visa liberalization action plan to help promote reforms in Ukraine. Most of them are linked to the process of building confidence in the way government institutions work in Ukraine. There is also a wider dimension to this: the entire anti-corruption model for Ukraine had been developed without connections to visa liberalization. For example, all of anti-corruption requirements are included in our joint program with the IMF. That is, we would fulfill all these requirements even if they had not been included in the action plan for the visa-free regime or in the IMF program. But it is true that we have been able to do this in a more systematic and structured manner and within a shorter term. Therefore, I believe that it (the EC’s decision – Ed.) was not an advance, but rather an opportunity to use instruments.
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The EU is using the "more for more" principle for Eastern Partnership. This means that the more positively assessed reforms a country implements, the more aid it can count on. The same rule applies to the visa-free regime. The EU is clearly past the point when it was prepared to grant purely political advances. The only thing I agree with is that this is a political advance in recognition of Ukraine’s and Ukrainians’ belonging in Europe.
Because the procedure to get a visa will no longer be as impassable for many Ukrainians as it was five years ago. I still remember the time when we just started discussing visa liberalization: we invited all EU consuls and resolved problematic situations. Today, the visa-free regime for many Ukrainians means not just simplified technical procedures, but also the recognition that Ukraine belongs in Europe.
Confidence in Ukrainians is an important aspect. What exactly do we have to do within the next six months in order to improve it, rather than lose it?
I think that everything we have done (including the development of the anti-corruption system, the reform of the law enforcement and of the document system: January 1 is the starting date for the issuance of new passports in compliance with European standards) comprises a system that has just started working. For the EU, it is important that it works consistently. That would be the real sign of trust, and not for the European Union alone.
This is not only a matter of the next six months. This is more about how the EU will work with us on reforms in general. For many years, I have been telling the EU that we only need two things from them in terms of cooperation: solidarity (today we have it, including in the political field, for example, the decision to extend sanctions against Russia), and a proactive attitude and commitment to Ukrainian affairs. The mentality in the EU is gradually beginning to change in this direction. They understand, for instance, that reforms here cannot be entirely modeled, say, on the reforms that took place in the Czech Republic. This is very important.
Is there a consensus among the EU countries to extend sanctions against Russia? And what should we expect after July 2016, the date to which the sanctions have just been prolonged?
There is a consensus. The decision to extend sanctions proves this. There has virtually been no discussion on whether sanctions are needed; the debate that did take place focused on the efficiency of the sanctions policy, on whether it can encourage Russia to fulfill Minsk Agreements, and on whether this policy is sufficient. There are differences in the positions of individual countries, but they probably reflect contradictions existing within the European Union in general.
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What will happen in six months? It's like looking into a crystal ball. The sanctions strictly depend on the compliance with Minsk Agreements. It is measured by clearly defined criteria. First and foremost, this means withdrawal of Russian mercenaries from the occupied territory, bringing the border back under the Ukrainian control, providing full access of the OSCE and the international community to the ground, and holding real elections, not just another farce.
I often hear: should we vote for amendments to the Constitution, if we don't have any real progress in the Minsk process? I understand this logic, and I always say that the constitutional provisions referring to the law on local government and the law itself will only come into force following free and fair elections. That is, the law will not be implemented if neither the international community nor Ukraine recognizes these elections.
Is there pressure from Ukraine’s Western partners to hold just any vote in the occupied parts of the Donbas, even if formal, only to get rid of the Ukrainian issue?
Absolutely not. A few weeks ago (on December 3, 2015 – Ed.), foreign ministers of Germany and France, following our discussions, issued a joint letter, where they spelled out that the elections should be held with the ensured access of the media and political parties, under Ukrainian legislation, and in incompliance with the OSCE criteria. For them, this is an axiom to some extent. Otherwise, the Donbas will remain Russian de facto, while we are talking about integrating the Ukrainian Donbas into our country. They understand this perfectly well. They also understand that it cannot be "frozen" like the conflict in Transnistria. That this is about challenges to the European security system. There is a clear understanding that the election should be valid and real.
Are there any signs that Russia would agree to it?
Russia does not need the Donbas as such. It needs to keep Russian or quasi-Russian control over the region and to use it to divert Ukraine from its European path. Everything that has been going on to this day with regard to the FTA and other things were just attempts to keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence, because many people in Russia think within this framework. They basically don't understand one very simple thing: it is impossible to negotiate and agree on something at the level of abstract states. Ukrainians have already passed the point of no return, and no one will want to live in a country like today's Russia. Germany and France are also aware of this. Sometimes I am being asked, whether Steinmeier and Fabius exercise pressure during the Normandy format talks to speed up elections in the Donbas. Of course, they are interested in the elections, but in the real elections, not in another farce.
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Let me quote one well-known example: after the end of the war, elections were held in Eastern Germany, when it was occupied. Were they free? No. It is actually impossible to hold elections under occupation. A transition process should take place prior to that. It should include the ever increasing control of the situation by the international community. For me, this is the only way.
How could Ukraine close its borders after the elections?
There are two aspects to this. I remember all ministerial meetings: the three of us keep saying that the mandate of the OSCE mission working in Ukraine covers the entire territory of Ukraine. And it should have already taken it under control, including the borders. The gradual transfer of the border control to Kyiv should depend on our ability to keep it. We consistently emphasize this. Russia consistently objects. But its objections to the presence of the OSCE make no sense, to say the least, since it agreed that the mandate of the Special Monitoring Mission extends to the whole territory of Ukraine. Now we insist that the Special Monitoring Mission should have more bases in the Donbas, from which it could carry out inspections. However, its representatives have not been given access to the border. As long as this is the case, there is no way to make sure that the endless flow of military equipment and ammunition supplies will stop. This also means that we cannot hold the vote there. I always say that at least agreeing on the modality of the elections will already be progress. We still cannot hold them as long as there are people with guns, tanks and hostages there. Otherwise, who will risk going to campaign there and becoming one of them?
We need a way to actually prepare the elections, and these preparations should involve the international community. Today, we cannot send a UN mission there since Russia is member of the UN Security Council (granting it the right to veto such proposals – Ed.). So we have to use other options. One is to broaden the mandate of the OSCE mission and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The ODIHR should send missions and observe the security status in the region. All this, step by step, is very important. But it is unrealistic to achieve this all overnight, after all that has happened and is still happening there, and especially after the Russian propaganda has entrenched itself in everyone’s mind after a year and a half.
Similarly to the UN Security Council, Russia is member of the OSCE and its vote counts. Does Ukraine then have ways to broaden the mandate of this organization?
We are working on it. Its mandate officially expires in March. We will try to extend it, and I hope we will succeed.
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Currently, SMM is responsible for monitoring and verifying, but not for the issues related to stabilization. If (as I very much hope) someone starts laying down arms or at least we gain control over weapons by bringing them to certain areas under the control of the OSCE, it should have the relevant mandate. We must guarantee safety to anyone involved in the preparation of the elections in the region. This would not be possible without the OSCE or some international presence. There should be political will and pressure on Russia to embrace these ideas not only in theory, but in terms of practical implementation as well.
How consolidated should this pressure on the Kremlin be to make it accept these proposals?
This pressure exists today, coming from the European Union and our other partners. During John Kerry’s latest visit to Moscow Ukrainian issues were discussed there first, by the way, prior to the Syrian issues. However, Russia has so far been refusing to have any real dialogue in the political group. They keep saying, for example, that media access is impossible (in the occupied parts of the Donbas – Ed.) and that the media who could have access would be filtered. They offer an endless slew of such arguments.
Meanwhile, elections under the Ukrainian law should be prepared by the Central Election Committee. The region must be safe. Media access to it must be ensured. The base model has to be the same as in Ukraine. Besides, people who had to leave the Donbas should have their say on its future. These things are absolutely clear to everyone, but they are being challenged. As a result, we cannot even reach the general agreement on the principles of the elections. If we agree on at least some of them, then we can move on. But Russia is not ready yet.
Regarding the Free Trade Agreement: on December 21, a tripartite meeting on the issue was held in Brussels between Ukraine, the European Commission, and Russia. What was its purpose and what was discussed?
After Russia’s decision that the FTA within the CIS would no longer work, I actually see very few issues to discuss. The European Commission asked us to complete the cycle of consultations with them. We had scheduled December 21 in advance.
Everything that Russia does and says is 100% politically motivated. Even its negotiators understand that Ukraine’s FTA with the EU poses no problems from the technical perspective. Moreover, Moscow's actions are contrary to the logic of the WTO. According to that logic, if any issues regarding trade come up, you react. If they could come up potentially, you begin consultations. Russia has failed to prove either to us or to the European Commission that any problems may arise. In fact, we believe that our FTA with the EU would have a positive impact on Russia. But this issue is being consistently spinned politically. The whole logic of the Russian proposal (such as a 10-year delay of the implementation of European standards in Ukraine) is nothing but abstraction. I once told the Russian minister (of Economic Development – Ed.) Ulyukayev: "Out of 27 sectors where we have to harmonize our standards with the European ones, 24 have already been harmonized." Even statistically, Ukraine’s trade with Russia in the sectors where our legislation has already been harmonized with European standards is going better.
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But Moscow always makes some abstract requirements. It avoids obligations not to impose endless restrictions on Ukrainian exports – of agricultural produce, for instance. But our trade relations in this sector have already been minimized. At the same time, Russia seeks to somehow inspect our future system of monitoring compliance with sanitary and phytosanitary norms, and to do so unilaterally. Another example from the customs sector - Russia wants the EU to inform it about all goods exported to Ukraine. This is contrary to the EU legislation on data protection and may be used for breach of confidentiality and unfair competition. These are some examples of their requirements. For us, it is now important to implement and launch the completely free trade with the EU. Ukrainian companies and manufacturers need to understand their place in the system of European freedoms.
What is the current status and prospects of Ukraine’s diplomatic relations with Russia?
I can't see any prospects of establishing relations with Russia based on trust. After all that has happened, and in the context of its continued aggression, I think we can certainly use the principles of international law. But Russia has committed every possible breach, from the temporary occupation of Crimea to the violation of the Budapest Memorandum. This makes it impossible to trust it as a country that abides by international laws. There is no longer political or any other credibility for it, and I don’t see it emerge in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, my vision of relations with Russia is as a critical dialogue of sorts; as critical communication that is necessary within the Normandy Format, the tripartite Minsk consultations and energy talks. By the way, note that on most things, from FTA to gas and the Normandy format, we communicate with the Kremlin in a multilateral format. We almost never meet on a one-on-one basis. For me, this is a manifestation of our friends’ and partners’ support. There will be critical communications between Ukraine and Russia, but there will be no trust, and this is what should be taken as a premise.
By the way, I have been criticized in social media for shaking hands with Vitaliy Churkin (Russia's permanent representative to the UN – Ed.). I can say that at the Normandy meetings, I also shake hands with Sergei Lavrov (Foreign Minister of Russia – Ed.). I always said that I am ready to shake hands with an angel or a devil, if this helps to bring peace to Ukraine. But this is not a gesture signaling partnership or friendship: it is a certain ritual that indicates that we have established communication. And, unfortunately, it is not one of partnership- or trust-based relations. I don't see how this could change in the short term.
How should Ukraine attempt to protect the rights of its political prisoners in Russia under such circumstances?
I believe that our diplomats in Russia have done a tremendous job. It is extremely difficult for many people to work there now, especially for the diplomats. But we insisted on having consular access to these people, agreed with the EU about the presence of its representatives in courts (European diplomats have a special schedule of who, when and where goes to trials from Moscow), and worked with lawyers. We held numerous consular meetings to determine tactics and strategy on a number of political prisoners. After all, the Russian legal system is notorious, and everyone knows how courts work there. But we are not going to give up on this.
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We have now found additional financing to help lawyers take care of the many Ukrainians who are currently in Russia. However, I am sure that all these practical things — no matter how well they will be done — will be insufficient if we do not ensure permanent solidarity on these matters, especially in the EU. When I talk to European ministers and MPs, I always say, that every time they speak with the Kremlin, their top three issues should include Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Most of them do this. If they stop reminding about it and putting pressure on the Russian side, we will find ourselves in a much more serious situation in this regard. But as of today, we have full understanding, and I think that diplomats really deserve the credit for this.
Pavlo Klimkin, born in 1967, studied Physics and Applied Mathematics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Department of Aerophysics and Space Research, and graduated in 1991. In 1993–1997, he served as an Attaché, Third and Second Secretary of the Office of Arms Control and Disarmament of the MFA of Ukraine. In 2002–2003, Mr. Klimkin was Head of Economic and Sectoral Cooperation with the EU of the European Integration Department of the MFA of Ukraine. In 2004, he was appointed Minister-Counselor of the Embassy of Ukraine to the United Kingdom. In 2012–2014, he served as Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany. In 2010–2014, Mr. Klimkin was Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine, and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in June 2014.
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