Former French Ambassador to Ukraine, Philippe de Suremain: “Ukraine is the cornerstone of the future Europe”
Lithuania and Ukraine, Russia and Israel, Romania, Belgium, Algeria, Hungary and Iran – Philippe de Suremainhas been posted to all these countries as a diplomat. He pays special attention to Ukraine and is currently the head of the Paris Association for Ukrainian Studies.
EUROPE’S SOCIAL BORDER AND GROUNDS FOR COUNTERREVOLUTION
U.W.: You completed your mission as France’s ambassador to Ukraine in October 2005. I remember that you congratulated Viktor Yushchenko on winning the presidential race ahead of President Jacques Chirac. Was France not in a hurry to acknowledge the results of the third round of the 2004 elections?
I can assure you that as I congratulated the new president with his victory, I had every authorization from the leadership of my country. I did not push anyone to do anything, because the enthusiasm with which the Orange Revolution was welcomed in France back then exceeded all expectations. I would like to say more: when the third round was scheduled for Catholic Christmas, I thought that no observer would come. But there were two, if not three, times more observers than for the previous rounds. French public opinion gave an extremely positive response to these events. There was an impression that Ukraine was called on to add fresh strength to Europe and that it was welcome here.
U.W.: Could you imagine back then that the counterrevolution would come so quickly?
Let us begin by saying that no one saw the Orange Revolution itself coming. Its leaders, those whom it brought to power, did not expect events to develop as they did. Forecasting the future is a challenge. We also know that building a rule-of-law state takes time. Indeed, illusions were dispelled as we watched certain internal conflicts that slowed down democratization.
Perhaps the politicians did not fully understand the responsibility they took upon themselves vis-à-vis their people. However, there are several reasons for the counterrevolution, to use your expression. The first one is the weakness of the institutions. When there are no comprehensible and readable constitutional guidelines, dividing authority between branches of government, the rules of the game are lacking. Everyone interprets the text that resulted from numerous compromises as they please.
The second aspect is also of an institutional nature – administrative weakness. Ukraine exploits the heritage of Soviet bureaucracy which may have helped avoid chaos early on, but is now hopelessly outdated.
The third factor is the lack of structured political parties with programs that offer a clear development strategy, which is in line with national interests.
U.W.: In one of your public speeches you mentioned Europe's social border. Do you think that Ukraine will eventually be able to become a candidate for EU membership?
I would word the question differently. No one denies that Ukraine belongs to Europe. It is as European as Switzerland, Norway or Poland, and its European nature raises far fewer questions than that of Turkey. Your country’s problem is size. It is much more difficult to integrate Ukraine than Estonia. But I am certain that if Ukraine becomes compatible with the EU, its membership will be inevitable. It will not be urged to join, just like Slovakia was not urged. However, when the latter reached the required level, it joined the EU. Thus, your country needs to make up its mind about what it wants. Its European choice has to be backed by reforms. Ukraine is a key element in reorganizing the European continent, even the cornerstone of a future Europe. Hence more stringent requirements will be applied.
U.W.: Do you share the opinion that Russia will shortly lose several more of its colonies?
I'm not sure. I believe Russia's problem is related to the nature of its political regime, rather than the unity of its territory. The establishment of a vertical power system does not yet mean the construction of an efficient law-governed state. Indeed, one of Russia's most significant problems is its demography. But the complicated internal migration and other problems can, I believe, be eliminated with the establishment of a true democracy.
U.W.: Do you think that it is feasible to build a democracy in Russia?
In my opinion, the mentality of people in Russia, Ukraine and the West is changing much faster than politicians realize. Globalization forces countries to become increasingly open to the world. At the same time, it provides very powerful motives to protect one's identity. This is a general phenomenon. I am convinced that Russia's intellectual elites desire to go the way of Europe.
EAST OR SOUTH?
U.W.: What you think about the prospects of an Eastern Partnership, an EU cooperation program with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan?
It is a good idea that could successfully develop the neighborhood policy. I understand that your country was disappointed with the project. In a way, it seemed to replace the path to membership candidate status. Perhaps it should have immediately been said that Ukraine is a special partner; it is not Moldova or Belarus. Maybe the chosen form is not the best. The steps taken with regard to Ukraine may have been insufficient. But what really matters in diplomacy is bilateral relations and nothing else.
U.W.: Meanwhile, Nicolas Sarkozy recently said that even less attention should be paid to Ukraine and that part of the Eastern partnership funds should be channeled into Mediterranean Union projects.
You know, the Mediterranean affairs have a long history. They are essentially a search for the revival of that, which existed in the past. It is about developing relations with countries that are linguistically and historically close to France. Paris has special interests and commitments here. But we should not mix all of this together.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul is an overly simplistic approach. Northern countries that have borders with Central European states sometimes find it hard to imagine how much southern partners mean to us. However, even being aware of the importance of France's connections with the South Mediterranean, I am convinced that Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine, is the zone of our priority interests.
U.W.: You head the Association for Ukrainian Studies in Paris. Have average French people become more aware of Ukrainian issues and taken more interest in them?
Let me begin by saying that the French have a poor knowledge of geography. However, the Orange Revolution made a certain breakthrough, and they learned to clearly distinguish Ukraine from other former Soviet republics. And then your government introduced visa-free travel for EU citizens. I understand those Ukrainians who complain about a lack of reciprocity. Even so, many people seized the opportunity, travelled to your country and saw with their own eyes that it is indeed very close to us. Later, in their everyday life the French learned that Ukraine is an important stage of gas transit from Russia. The fact that we have common interests is beyond doubt today. Comparing with the situation that existed 10 years ago, there is clear progress.
Philippe de Suremain
Born on October 16, 1940, he is married and has four children. He has a degree in philology from the National Institute of Oriental Languages, specializing in the Romanian and Russian languages. His diplomatic career included the following posts:
1964-65 – second secretary at France’s embassy in Romania
1969-72 – second secretary in the USSR
1972-76 – first secretary in Hungary
1976-79 – first secretary in Belgium
1981-85 – adviser on cultural issues in the USSR
1985-89 – first adviser to the French Ambassador in Israel
1991-96 – first adviser to the French Ambassador in Lithuania