UW: How would you assess political situation in Ukraine from the perspective of four years as Ambassador here? How seriously do American politicians treat Kyiv’s intentions to draw closer to the EU?
First of all, my perspective is 22 years. I worked on the Soviet Desk from 1983 to 1986, and also from 1989 to 1992. I can say honestly that I have been working on the American-Ukrainian relations very seriously from the very beginning. I think that Ukraine can succeed in building a transparent and democratic government. One of the great things it has today is its dynamic civil society, and the fact that the country is open, its people are critical and criticize the government. It’s part of democracy. Ukraine is building a market economy, although it still has a long way to go in terms of transparency and attraction of foreign investment which is critical to this country. It also has much to do in building the rule of law that will protect everyone, with every citizen being equal before the law. We have been working on reforms in all of these areas but I will just mention efforts on the rule of law. We have helped Ukraine write and supported the Criminal Procedure Code and are now working on the law on the Prosecutor’s Office with the government. We believe that getting these right – the modern documents that are consistent with the EU - is a fundamental cornerstone of the state. The answer to the second part of your question is that I believe, and the US Government believes, that Ukraine is a part of Europe, an important country in the centre of Europe. If you look at history, every epoch of European history is reflected here. The EU has recognized that. We’ve been trying to be supportive in the fulfillment of the EU’s criteria by Ukraine, as well as in the larger process by which Ukraine will become an Associate Member. We hope that this will happen in November.
UW: The new foreign affairs agenda of the US focuses on Asia-Pacific as one of the top priorities. How can this shift change the place of Ukraine in the architecture of the White House’s foreign policy?
The emphasis on Asia-Pacific should be understood in a context. Our former Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, talked about greater emphasis on this. But at the same time he and Secretary Hillary Clinton were both very clear that we are not abandoning our positions in Europe. Look at where John Kerry travelled the most in his first six months as Secretary of State – Europe! And not just Europe for the sake of Europe, but because Europe is our closest ally in working on the solutions of any great problems in the world, such as Syria and other areas where we’ve worked jointly. We are in constant consultation. Personally, as an Atlanticist, I believe very strongly in that tie. Maybe I’m not as impartial as I should be but I think that one of the fundamental reasons for peace in Europe is the NATO Alliance and ties with our European friends. Of course, we’ve had fights and arguments but we still use it – and each of its members, including the US, understands that our world is a more peaceful and stable place as a result of it.
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UW: Geoffrey Pyatt, the newly appointed Ambassador, is known as an expert on Central Asia and India. What was the reason for his appointment as Ambassador to Ukraine?
Geoffrey Pyatt is one of our very best Foreign Service Officers, a professional. Indeed, he has spent the past few years on South and Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. But he also works on Central Asia, the countries that were parts of the Soviet Union. He has experience working on nuclear and energy issues. These are some of the fundamental issues he is going to work on here. I think one of the major changes that occurred during my tenure as Ambassador is the decision of the government to try bringing in foreign energy companies to drill for shale and offshore gas. Geoff is very much on top of all this. He is also very experienced in other parts of the world, including European affairs. Since he was nominated as Ambassador to Ukraine, he has been consulting Europe on the whole range of issues in Vienna, Stockholm and others. I think people should give him a chance and you will see that he’ll be up to everything you would expect from an American Ambassador.
UW: Ukraine is known as No.1 in intellectual piracy. What has the US investigation found on this and what sanctions may be applied? Are Ukrainian authorities willing to cooperate with you to solve this?
There is a variety of countries that have serious problems with defending intellectual property. Ukraine was recently designated a priority foreign country under the Special 301 legislation that we have. The last time this happened in 2001, Ukraine lost its eligibility for customs benefits for exports to the US under the General System of Preferences. We are in a very close contact with the government of Ukraine. Literally, I just got off the telephone with Vice Prime Minister Kostiantyn Hryshchenko who is taking the lead in the work on these fundamental issues. We’ve announced that we are going to have an investigation at which the Ukrainian government can present its case. It was going to take place in September but it may be rescheduled. We have not made any final decisions on this. At the beginning of July, a Deputy US Trade Representative visited Ukraine. She talked to all of the key players and familiarized herself more with the specifics of the case. There are problems with the government using pirated software on its computers. There are problems with pirated music, DVDs and computer software in society as a whole. There are also issues with payments to collection agencies for people who have intellectual property, so that the best singers in this country got a fair amount of money for their work as singers and filmmakers do throughout the rest of the world. All of these things will be looked at. We will be consulting carefully with the Ukrainian government about these issues as we go through this investigation.
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UW: What is Washington’s official stance on possible sanctions against Ukrainian politicians and officials for scandalous violations of human rights – in cases against opposition representatives, among others?
Our official position is that we prefer direct engagement of the government. We have laid out our views very clearly on where we see violations of human rights and selective prosecution, as in cases of Mr. Lutsenko and Ms. Tymoshenko. We have said over and over again that she should be released and get medical treatment in Germany. The government knows our position. We’re in very close cooperation with Messrs. Kox and Kwasniewski who are leading the EU parliamentary effort on this. At this point, we are not speculating about sanctions or visa restrictions. We hope that Ukraine will make the right decisions and get on track with some of these democratic principles that we believe, and we think Ukraine believes are important.
UW: Could you please comment on the revocation of the US multi-entry visa for the First Deputy Prosecutor General Renat Kuzmin. What pushed the US authorities to making this decision?
I can’t go into a lot of details on this because under the US privacy law only he and the Counselor Officer are allowed to talk about this. Renat Kuzmin has gone public with it so we confirmed that his visa was revoked. He can apply for a new visa anytime he wishes to go to the US. But we will take into account the things that caused the revocation in the first place. There has been a lot of speculation on this in the newspapers while I am bound by the US law as a government official, so I can’t speculate on this.
UW: Russia has been taking more and more repressive attacks against the opposition lately. Can the Magnitsky Act become a universal tool of human rights protection in this situation, or should any other leverage be devised?
I think you have seen that we’ve expressed our concerns about the government of Russia’s actions over the last year that restrict civil society and the freedom of expression and assembly, over and over again. The Magnitsky Act was adopted with regards to Russia, not as a general rule. There are some differences in Washington about that. Some people in the Congress think that it should be more universal. But this is an issue of a higher level of decisionmaking than I’m involved in. I suspect that this will continue to be an issue of discussion within the US as we try to address human rights and our efforts to support them.
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UW: At the very beginning of your cadence in Ukraine, you stated that its economic thriving depends on the energy reform. What moves have been taken in this domain, and what do you view as top priorities in upgrading Ukrainian energy sector?
We have worked very hard with the Cabinet of Ministers and the Verkhovna Rada during my time here to get the legislation enacted that would provide the guarantees, as well as legal and other requirements, that foreign companies need before they can come and invest into exploration. The government adopted these. It offered tenders to these companies and, to our happiness, Chevron won the tender for shale gas in Western Ukraine, Shell did in Eastern Ukraine and Exxon Mobile won the offshore gas exploration and extraction tender. The Shell’s contract is done and is already being implemented. The contract with Chevron is done and is being ratified by the local councils in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. The contract with Exxon Mobile is almost there; there are just a few things that need to be sorted out. This will help expand the exploration here. Most importantly, these are big international companies coming in who will bring in the most modern and environmentally safe technologies. I think that this can potentially change the future for Ukraine. My dream is to come back here in five or seven years and see Ukraine energy- independent. This will trigger huge change in different segments in this country. However, this process needs strong support. For shale gas, it is going to take five years to see whether there is actually this much gas down there. This exploration is very expensive. So, getting these contracts and implementing them right will be key.
UW: Could you share your plans with our readers? What are you going to do after your mission to Ukraine?
I haven’t made any decision in terms of work yet. I will go back home, take a little time and see what is available. You can be confident that I will stay very interested in Ukraine. I spent most of my life in this part of the world. I have great emotional interest in Ukraine, in its people – I have many friends here. I tell them: “I am going to retire from the diplomatic service but I am not retiring from life.” I am going to come back. I am not sure how long this will be but you will see me here again. I care a lot about how this country turns out. I will do anything I can in the private sector to help Ukraine and encourage the changes and the development that I think the people of Ukraine want.
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John F. Tefft served as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to Ukraine from 2009 through 2013. Before this, he was Ambassador to Georgia (from 2005) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs responsible for US relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Mr. Tefft served as the US Ambassador to Lithuania from 2000 to 2003; Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Moscow from 1996 to 1999, and Charge d’Affaires in Russia from 1996 to 1997. His other Foreign Service assignments included Jerusalem, Budapest and Rome. From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Tefft was Deputy Director of the Office of Soviet Union (later Russian and CIS) Affairs.
Interviewed by Hanna Trehub