H.E. Mykola Baltazhy: Russia Could Benefit from Ukraine’s Ties to EU
Interview of Novinite.com with Ukraine's Ambassador to Bulgaria, Mykola Baltazhy, on the situation in Ukraine, its relations with the European Union, and the challenges that lie ahead of the country.
The four-way meeting of Ukraine, the EU, Russia and the US this week will be the first chance for a development on the diplomatic front regarding the Ukrainian crisis. What position will Ukraine stand up for at the talks?
We have insisted on a diplomatic solution to the crisis since the conflict began. Just after the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine's autonomous republic of Crimea, the illegal military intervention followed by an illegal referendum and an illegal annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation, we believed negotiations were the only way to de-escalate the crisis. But the door to diplomacy is now open and therefore we consider the decision to hold negotiations to be a good sign and a step in the right direction. You know that at first the Russian Federation did not recognize Ukraine's new and legitimate government. In our position it is very important that the territorial integrity of Ukraine and its sovereignty will not be subject to any kind of auction, discussion or preconditions set by the Russian Federation. But Russia, advisedly escalating the situation in Eastern Ukraine, is actually seeking to halt the preparations for Geneva talks [later this week], to spoil the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine and then to put the blame on Ukrainian authorities. After Crimea had topped the agenda of international news for months, a relative silence reigned in.
Do you perceive any risk that the dispute over the peninsula might turn into a "frozen conflict", as those in the Caucasus and Transnistria did?
We consider Crimea to be a temporarily occupied territory. We will never agree that it is part of and is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation. We will therefore do everything to push Crimea back into Ukraine through legitimate means. Of course, were are firmly against its conversion into a point of frozen conflict like Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In these regions, people were at first explained they would live better [when they secede], but this did not happen. And Crimea deserves a better fate, a more dignified one. It is not only 58% of Russian-speaking people that live there, but also 24% of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. One could observe a total violation of the rights of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, who choose to leave the peninsula and seek refuge in the mainland.
Is there any exact data on the reflux of ethnic Ukrainians from Crimea to mainland Ukraine?
Russia, though accusing Ukrainian authorities of violating rights of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, allows itself to commit total infringement to the rights of Ukrainian citizens. Now in Crimea one can observe abductions, tortures of opposition activists. There is no freedom to demonstrate peacefully anymore, activities calling for unity are being dispersed. Apart from attacks at journalists, an officer from the Ukrainian armed forces was killed. The only high-profile Ukrainian high school has been shut down. It is then no wonder that more than three thousand families have already left Crimea. Serious problems are being created there for the Ukrainians, despite the upcoming May 25 elections in which they must also exert their right to vote, just like all the [Crimean] residents which refused to accept Russian citizenship.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said last week there is a "Crimea scenario" for secession of the East. Do you back this claim?
Such a scenario does exist. How it will be played out is another thing. I do not know whether in the East it could be like in Crimea, because in Crimea there is a Russian naval base in Sevastopol, this was one of Russia's grounds for an intervention, along with minorities' rights. But after the unlawful annexation, the Anschluss of Crimea to the Russian Federation the Ukrainians have become more unified. The larger part of Eastern Ukraine's population rejects the plans of separatists. They want to live in the Ukrainian state. The same scenario is therefore hardly possible. It is perhaps more precise to speak about the second stage of the occupation – or a plausible development of the Crimean scenario.
What measures does Ukraine take to ease tensions in the east?
The occupation of state buildings and municipal agencies, the blockade of critical infrastructure in the western and eastern parts of Ukraine is being conducted by the Russian secret services. Every day Ukrainian special units detain saboteurs, terrorists who are very well prepared. There are political tourists as well, citizens who just cross the border and start to foment unrest. The Ukrainian leadership takes all the necessary measures. To protect people’s lives, territorial integrity and state security, Ukraine decided to carry out an anti-terrorist operation against the encroachment to which our state is subjected.
Nevertheless, the situation cannot be de-escalated, nor can Ukrainians be unified through forceful means. We are therefore trying to forge a consensus, which is possible only through through a political dialogue. Serious economic reforms are also needed. The eastern part, where key industry branches such as mining, metallurgy and chemical production are concentrated, must undergo restructuring. Time is also needed, even though a lot of time was wasted. We have lost 23 years and now we'll have to catch up. The government has decided to grant UAH 12 B [roughly USD 956 M or EUR 688 M] to the mining industry despite the profound economic crisis. Steps are also being made to move toward de-centralization of government and more competences to the regions.
Is there a threat of a new gas war with Russia?
I would refrain from such definitions, even though a threat does exist. It could even be described as a threat by Russia to Ukraine and Europe. But there are many things we cannot accept. After annexing Crimea, the Russian Federation denounced the agreements regarding the Black Sea Fleet and the Kharkiv agreement and raised gas prices to nearly USD 500 per 1000 cubic meters - a dead weight for Ukraine's industry, as well as for end users. This is a political price. It cannot be higher than what Gazprom offers to other European States, to Germany for example. There is no economic logic to it. This is why we have turned to the European Union for help. We are into talks to import gas through Slovakia and other European states. Ukraine has also turned to the European union to stop the South Stream, as it is not only our national interests it contradicts. It is also against European norms. In short, I do not see any solution to the crisis other than negotiations.
Prior to the crisis, Russia has always been an important partner to Ukraine. How do tensions with Moscow affect Kiev in economic terms?
Yes, the Russian Federation has always been an important partner, with which we have economic, technological, scientific ties. But in case of restrictions both sides are at a loss, not just Ukraine. For example, factories in Eastern Ukraine are oriented to the Russian market. When ties with Russia are severed, this could lead to social problems, but dependence is two-way. We export many things, being an agricultural and industrial country. If exports dwindle, Russian consumers would also suffer. Within our industrial partnership [with Russia], there are goods which are produced only in Ukraine – helicopter engines for instance. We should therefore make trade, not war. But democratic principles applied in commerce should also be respected. Pressure and blackmailing will not do.
Russia, however, is now imposing restrictive trade measures on Ukraine. Last week it halted imports of Ukrainian dairy products.
There have been other attempts to restrict Ukraine's imports in order to put pressure on Ukraine and prevent it from signing the Association Agreement. Russia thinks that a free trade agreement with Europe poses a threat to its market. We think that, on the contrary, it will be a positive factor for the Russian economy.
You have often spoken in favour of an Association Agreement with the EU, Your Excellency. Now that its political part has become reality, what do you think it will give to Ukraine that Russia cannot?
We wish that the Ukrainians integrate into the EU, because it promises a more dignified life to the people. We want to build a strong state where citizens would choose those in power and would exert oversight on them, a state where a strong civil society will take these functions. We want to join the EU because in the Euro-Atlantic space democracies don’t lead war against other democracies. After Russia transgressed the Budapest memorandum, there is no-one to guarantee our national security and people cannot remain calm. This is something Russia could never give to Ukraine.
In Ukraine, a fierce battle for values is being fought. Some wish a European future, and others wish the past, which is a return to post-Soviet unions, to an even Soviet way of thinking, to real stagnation.
The EU and the IMF attach strings of economic reforms to their financial aid for Ukraine. Such measures have been put through in Southern Europe, and in some affected states they prompted serious negative repercussions. Doesn't Ukraine fear it might follow the same pattern?
We know that and we are looking into other countries' experience. Ukraine is not an exception in its need of reforms, even though it is trailing behind on the path which other European members took earlier. But I want to say that our economy is experiencing a deep crisis. Ukraine's treasury is in dire straits, the hryvnia's value has recently fallen by 50% against the dollar. Radical measures are to be taken. They are not always popular ones, but for our Prime Minister it was clear no alternative was in sight. Heating and gas prices are now being hiked, but people see that restrictions are needed. This is a compulsive investment into the future which will be positively returned. This is also shown by the experience of the countries you are referring to. Russian propaganda says: in Ukraine they are increasing prices of heating, there are Banderists and all kinds of other people in the country. It also speculates regarding the International Monetary Fund. As if Russian democracy were an example. Let's see where Russian democracy is, as rated by the European agencies. Russia has no right to give us advice. Let’s see in which list Russia aligned with UN states that voted against Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia must pursue its own problems, instead of giving us advice.
You have mentioned that you have Bulgarian roots. What guarantees might Ukraine provide for the rights of its considerable Bulgarian minority?
Ukraine has always ensured free development of its national minorities, including of the biggest Bulgarian community in the world. It has ensured the development of language and ethnicity of the Bulgarians living there, and this is something the Bulgarian state and politicians visiting Ukraine have always recognized. Now the Bulgarian community is of course concerned, as it wants stability and a normal life, just like all citizens. But I would like to draw a comparison between the treatment of minorities in Russia and Ukraine. There are 1200 Russian schools in our country, while in Russia, where 2 million Ukrainians live (and they there is a bigger number of them if you take mixed marriages into account), Ukrainian language is taught only in 10 schools, and only as a facultative subject. In terms of media coverage, Ukraine also has a better record. On the contrary, regarding Crimea there are indications of a total infringement of Ukrainians’ and Crimean Tatars’ rights on the peninsula which was confirmed by the OSCE. We are also currently drafting a new language law and hope that all propositions by national minorities will be taken into account.
In Bulgarian media one can recently observe pro-Russian positions of Bulgarian communities in Ukraine. Does this reflect reality?
It is difficult for me to tell, but it probably does. In Ukraine, Bulgarians have organized themselves into associations. The biggest one is the Association of the Bulgarians, which unites tens of such groups across Ukraine, but mainly in Odessa, where the vast part of Bulgarian diaspora in the country lives. We have received information that the leadership [of Bulgarians in Crimea] voted in favour of this so-called referendum [for seceding from Ukraine on March 16]. I cannot comment on statements by people who have no feeling for their homeland. But I think that Ukraine gave Bulgarians everything it could to make them feel good, it gave them its land. These decisions should weigh heavily on the conscience of those who take them.
Do you consider reasonable the Bulgarian position, which is seeking a balance between the principles of Europe and economic interests with Russia?
It is always reasonable for a state to have its own interests and to stand up for them. You know that Bulgaria supported Ukraine´s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. But those in Bulgaria who accept the arguments of Russian propaganda should think why a state takes such action in another country. We know there is a big share of Russophiles here and this is normal. But for me Russophilia is first of all Russian culture, its great literature. One cannot help loving Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Vakhtangov... What do the Russian government´s actions have to do with the great Russian culture? How do they correspond to democracy? I think that the citizens of a democratic state like Bulgaria should pose such questions to themselves. And if they do, no “arguments” in the name of Orthodox Christianity and Slavism will be heard, because an Orthodox and Slavic state committed and is going on with a military and informational aggression against another Orthodox and Slavic state.
Which is the greatest challenge ahead of Ukraine´s politicians along the new path they've taken?
Taking Crimea back is a first priority. We would never agree that Crimea is part of Russia. All efforts of Ukraine's leadership will be pulled together in order to legitimately return the peninsula and to make it once again part of a unitary and free Ukraine.
Could you make a forecast when Ukraine could join the EU?
The most important thing for us is now to sign the economic part of the Association Agreement, which involves free trade and sectoral cooperation, including Cooperation in Justice, Liberty and Security. The EU has already announced a liberalized status to Ukrainian goods and will pump EUR 500 M into the economy. We should also be heading toward a further liberalization, including that of visa regime, so that Ukrainians could travel to Europe, as Europeans already can to Ukraine, because we scrapped visas. And then comes the next stage – accession negotiations. How much time will they take... 10, 12 years or less? It is difficult to say. I am an optimist and I think this is how it will be. The sooner, the better. Ukrainians, especially in the eastern part of the country, must feel the advantages of the European integration in their real life. If it is the well-being of its compatriots [in Ukraine] that Russia wants, it has to understand. But we also have to prepare. We have to do our homework and put effort. This is also a task for the European union. It is a two-way road.
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