Mykola Baltazhy: Failed Reform Would Be No Smaller Threat to Ukraine than Russia
Novinite has asked the ambassadors of the six Eastern Partnership countries working with the EU to boost ties to comment on the outcome of the May 22 Riga Summit, EU membership prospects and whether Bulgaria could play any role in their European integration.
Below is our interview with H.E. Mykola Baltazhy, the Ambassador of Ukraine to Bulgaria.
Your Excellency, soon after the Eastern Partnership Summit a number of analyses said that a number of Eastern Partnership states, especially the first group of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, scored a victory as the EU participants accepted the wording about EU aspirations of countries concerned. Do you think there was a victory?
I wouldn't use the word "victory", but the result is a positive one. The declaration reflects our aspirations, though much effort was put to ensure that the signals we pursue become part of the text. We should note a few of the results. Firstly, decisive support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and the right of all partner states to freely choose the direction of development and ambitions in their relations with the EU. Another one is the recognition of European aspirations of some of the states, Ukraine being among them, and their European choice. The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with the EU and the agreement to grant up to EUR 1.8 B in financial aid to Ukraine are also important. We also appreciate the acknowledgement of Ukraine's progress in the context of the implementation of the Action plan of visa liberalization and the setting of a clear road map to introduce a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens. I would also note the calls on behalf of EU member states to swiftly complete the ratification process of the Association Agreement [abbreviated AA further in the text] and the confirmation of the need to implement the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area [DCFTA] with Ukraine as of January 1, 2016. The EU recognized Ukraine's progress in carrying out reforms in the energy sector in compliance with our obligations within the energy community and Brussels' readiness to back the modernization of Ukraine's gas transportation network as a key part of the European gas transportation system. Differentiated dynamics was set in relations of the EU with partner countries, three of which have signed the AA - Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia - whereas other three [Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan] have chosen another model for their relations with the EU.
Why didn't the EU move to drop the visa regime? Is the problem a technical, a political or an economic one?
I don't think there is a political problem here. We are consistently implementing our action plan on visa liberalization, but for a political solution to be adopted and for a positive signal to be sent to Ukraine, we have to do all our homework assignments. We did a lot by adopting the respective laws, by starting to introduce biometric passports and so on. But we hope that by the end of the year the EU Commission will adopt a positive decision on introducing a visa-free regime. We will do everything so that it takes place as early as 2016.
The concept of integration is part of the document, but there is no mention of prospective EU membership. Does the outlook on Ukraine's EU accession seem worse now?
I don't think the prospect is getting worse with the declaration. But this is an extremely important question for us. A struggle has always been waged, for many years, while the question of membership of Ukraine in the EU has never been on the bloc's agenda, that's true. But in our relations with the EU and member states which are somewhat skeptical, the aim is to prove Ukraine is a European state with European goals and ambitions. We are even proving this now, in our fight against Russia's military aggression, where we are at the forefront of the fight for European values. We want to confirm this in practice through our reforms, though. For us the AA is a road map of Ukrainian reforms. We expect that the EU should acknowledge the clear European perspective of Ukraine, since this would send a clear message to the Ukrainian society which would give an impetus to the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authorities toward reform. The Ukrainian people on the Euromaidan stood up for its European choice manfully, and paid a very high price for it. It therefore deserves a European perspective.
Leaving aside the specific relations Ukraine and Russia are having at the moment, do you think the six Eastern Partnership countries should be pressured into choosing between Europe and Russia, or they'd better try to maintain good relations with both?
I've always underscored that on the road to EU integration Ukraine has never wanted to act to the detriment of Russia. If there are problems relating to the introduction of the Ukraine-EU [DCFTA] - a trilateral format of meetings was set up and as a result Russia has no claims whatsoever over the area coming into force on January 1, 2016. In other words, if such issues of economic interest arise, they have to be solved through negotiations. What happened in Ukraine - the blatant military intervention on behalf of Russia - is absolutely unthinkable. A blatant violation of the international order, but also an inadequate reaction of the desire of the Ukrainian people to to joint the EU or to sign the AA. This is not about a threat to Russia's interests, nor about joining NATO. As for the other states, each one has to choose its own path and the level of relations with the EU. This is why we insisted that in the declaration the individual approach be enshrined, one which the EU should use for the six countries. They are different in terms of ambitions, experience in integration, results, relations within the sector cooperation with the EU and so forth. In this context I would say a more clearly articulated individual approach is needed.
In our previous conversation in 2014 I asked you if there is a risk of a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine. A year on, what do you think: is the country heading for it, or there is hope of stabilization?
For us a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine means a wound inflicted on the state organism which will always trouble us and will prevent us fro developing successfully as a peaceful nation, impeding our way to European and Euro-Atlantic integration. We are putting in all our effort to comply with the Minsk agreements - and not selectively, not by the job, but all points. If they are entirely fulfilled, I think a frozen conflict would be out of the question. The problem is that whereas Ukraine is upholding its commitments, this is not the case with the united Russian-terrorist [sic!] forces. The aim is that we in Ukraine and our partners and friends pursue peaceful efforts, but the European and international community have to boost consolidating pressure on Russia, mostly through sanctions - not for isolation, but to help it return within the boundaries of its international obligations and international road.
As Ukraine is on the road to reform, what is the biggest challenge?
If we analyze challenges and results achieved following the presidential elections - just over a year ago on May 25 [the interview took place May 28], I would set out a few. First comes the criminal annexation of Crimea, the military conflict with Russia - and I underline: there is no "civil war" or "an internal Ukrainian conflict", this is a product of Russian propaganda. Secondly - the legacy that new authorities are facing. [For years] there has been no genuine reform in Ukraine: no structural reform, no changes within security enforcement, the judiciary or the taxation system. All of this has remained intact from the Soviet era. Radical measures are needed, and not a drop in the bucket. Other issues could also be pointed to: large-scale corruption, narrow dependence on Russia in energy. Now the government is systematically trying to carry out reforms, but we are only at the beginning. If we fail, this would be no smaller threat than Russia's military aggression. We need an e-government for instance; constitutional reforms; changes in the judiciary and police; economic deregulation; and so on. And this is somewhere we've achieved certain outcome. We've confirmed the Ukraine 2020 Sustainable Development Strategy, we've set up the National Reforms Council, a Constitutional Commission, a Judiciary Reform Council, an Anti-corruption Office, we launched the processes to decentralize power, we've signed an agreement with the IMF, we are introducing transparent conditions for businesses. But I would like to point out - these reforms require serious assistance - political, financial and economic - from international financial institutions and our friends and partners. They all understand that by helping Ukraine they are also helping themselves.
Can Bulgaria help or be of any use along the road of EU integration that Ukraine is treading?
Of course it can; it already is helping as much as possible. Bulgaria is the fourth EU member state which ratified the AA. As for its application, with its experience in integration Bulgaria could go on with efforts of giving consultative, expert help, and to us this is very important. This is something we are discussing with the Bulgarian government, since the country has already walked through this thorny path to the EU. And we understand for us it will be even more difficult, given Russia's attempt at drawing us apart from European integration and incorporating us into another union which we do not want; but also given its attempts to discredit the government and the sheer idea of European integration. Aggression against Ukraine is manifest in concrete actions by the Kremlin to stop our way to Europe and to prove the European choice of the Ukrainian people is a mistake, while its model is better. This, however, doesn't happen with a demonstration of real results, but with military power and intervention.
Are visas the biggest obstacle to a more thorough development of bilateral relations with Bulgaria?
I don't see problems in relations between Bulgaria and Ukraine. We are carrying out political dialogue, we are preparing a visit of [Bulgarian] President Rosen Plevneliev to Ukraine. Bulgaria supports Ukraine's territorial integrity and its European integration. Something we would like to see changed here, maybe in Bulgarians' social attitudes, with regard to the situation in Ukraine, but which is not a problem in bilateral relations: we have to work together to convince Bulgarians that Ukraine is a peaceful country, it chooses its way alone and this is the right of each country. Wasn't it the right of Bulgaria to choose its path, becoming a EU and NATO member as a result? This is why I think these people in Bulgaria who are still subject to an information war will increasingly understand the truth. More and more Bulgarians are becoming aware that there aren't Ukrainian tanks in Russia, but it is vice versa. The more people understand this, the bigger will be the benefit for society and also support for the Ukrainians.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict is ongoing many Ukrainian companies are setting their eyes on Bulgaria. Why is it attractive for them?
We have to admit that the conflict with Russia affects all levels of Russia-Ukraine relations, and mostly economic ties. Trade turnover is decreasing. This means Ukrainian companies have to place their output by looking for new markets; and the EU is a very important one. This is why Ukrainian companies are refocusing in this directions as well. There are many inquiries and offers coming to us. And some of these firms are already on the Bulgarian market. They are in different areas - energy, transport, infrastructure... Ukraine is an industrialized state and it produces almost everything. of course for the new companies coming to Bulgaria it is very important to find partners and to synchronize business interests. I hope with this we can, insofar as we had a certain drop in trade with Bulgaria in the past year, boost the process and return to times when trade turnover topped USD 1 B.
And what will make Ukrainian tourists return to Bulgaria?
We have to be objective. On the one hand Bulgaria is maintaining its attractiveness as a good tourist destination, its image remains very good for us. But on the other hand let's not forget standards of living plummeted in Ukraine due to the Russian military aggression, the profound economic crisis and the devaluation of the hryvnia [Ukraine's currency, UAH]. What could bring them back... Some more attractive offers in terms of price for instance. We always call for lifting visas [for Ukrainian citizens] - and that was what we started with. The example of Turkey shows that when a family of a few people is traveling abroad, it has to pay for visas, there are bureaucratic things which also take some time. There are other moments as well which Bulgaria itself could offer, having in mind Bulgarian businesses, to attract additional contingents of Ukrainian tourists. I think the Bulgarian side is working toward this.
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