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Glimmer of a breakthrough in Russian-Ukrainian relations

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko met with Svetlana Mironyuk, editor-in-chief of the Russian News & Information Agency (RIA Novosti), for an exclusive interview at his secretariat in Kiev on March 20, 2007.
Opening the meeting, Yushchenko said he preferred to give interviews to several journalists at a time, and that therefore his meeting with Mironyuk was an exception to the rule. Below is the full text of the interview.

You are now in the middle of your presidential term. During these two years, Ukraine has seen many positive changes – the economy and GDP are on the up, the gas crisis has apparently been resolved, and relations with the West have been built properly. On the other hand, the political system is imbalanced, you are going through a constitutional crisis, the political reforms are incomplete, and the domestic situation is tense. What are your main achievements and mistakes, in relations with Russia in particular?

To start with, Ukraine is going through a wonderful time. I am not trying to paint a rosy picture. But I realize very well how important it is for a country with a recent history of a mere 15 years to adopt a position not only in world affairs, but even towards its next-door neighbors. It is crucial to accurately determine our national interests in order to help us move in the right direction. We need a fundamental idea that will work for decades to come. Russia finds this difficult to understand because it did not have to go through this. Russia started from where the Soviet Union left off and it was easier for it to present itself to the world and shape its foreign policy. It was the Soviet Union’s successor.

Russia did not have many headaches. Take, for instance, such a cultural problem as the mother tongue. Unlike Russia, we had a lot of dishonest, wild, and feudal trading on this score until society resolved this problem with due respect for everyone’s choice of language, until we adopted a national approach to the state language.

The Ukrainian economy was dependant on and oriented toward narrow markets. All international trade went through Moscow and former Soviet agencies. But we conquered new markets – the Far East, Asia, South Africa, and America. In the last five years Ukraine has become the fastest growing economy in Eastern Europe, leaving behind every country in the European Union.

Today, we have reached an annual GDP growth of almost 10%, and this is an excellent performance. In 2005 our budget went up by 54%, and by another 18% last year. In effect, in two years we have found a third budget. As a result, we have managed to raise pensions to the minimal subsistence level and save almost 14 million pensioners from abject poverty – two thirds of them received minimal pensions. I am very proud that now Ukrainians are getting bigger pensions than Russians.

But this was an uphill road for us. In the last two years we received investment worth $10 billion – more than we got in the previous 15 years. In a year we have more than doubled our investment per person. Unemployment stands at 2.3%, the ILO’s average for industrialized countries. This is the lowest figure in our entire history, although you remember how urgent this problem was before, and how many Ukrainians went to work in Russia, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. This was a very sensitive subject for us.

Mr. Yushchenko, what have you failed to do as president?

I would mention the streamlining of our political system. Apparently, this failure can be explained by time pressure or lack of tradition in developing political relations.

The 2004 reform dealt a heavy blow at the constitutional level. In effect, it upset the balance between the three branches of power. That said, I understand very well in what time these decisions were made and what they were worth – the threat of civil war was looming over Ukraine. Now the political situation is different, and I am glad that all political forces have agreed to set up a single working commission to introduce amendments to the constitution. We made this decision yesterday at this table. It will take us no less than a year to complete this process – two parliamentary sessions will have to be held. But I’m convinced that if this process starts with an open dialogue among journalists, lawyers, political parties, NGOs, and the government, it is bound to produce results.

The problems that arise from this dialogue are the price we have to pay for freedom and for the democratic process. The persisting contradictions are not a problem of personal relations, but are sooner rooted in the constitution. Changes to it have not been reflected in specific laws, for instance, in the personnel policy or the status of relevant bodies. Many things have to be adjusted on the fly and with due consideration for the feelings of those involved. This is where the difficulty is. But we see it differently inside Ukraine. This is the road that we have to cover.

There are two polar political forces in power in Ukraine. Several days ago I went to Denmark. They have a tradition. For 15 years now, the political minority has formed the government – the government is harmoniously represented by two political forces. This is the experience we must acquire. Every morning I tell my colleagues: “You have to change the tactics of party and, above all, parliamentary relations – tactics of mutual extermination should be replaced with tactics of co-existence.” If they go through this stage, they will then move on to a policy of cooperation and mutual support of strategic priorities. But this is the stage that they will have to reach.

Attitudes toward language, history, and a common economic space are better discussed than ignored because they generate emotions. There are two ways of conducting dialogue. It is possible not to talk about problems and pretend that they don’t exist. In this case they will catch up with the state and the nation at the worst possible moment. I prefer the other way. We must avoid knee-jerk reactions and give considered answers because we must not allow anything to drag us into the past. We must draw lessons from our past and adopt a strategy for today. This is why we are talking about the Golodomor [the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933 – Ed.] – not because we want to rake over the dust and ashes of the tragedy but to analyze what happened then and why, and most important, adopt an attitude to it. Take the tragedy of the Holocaust. It is known about all over the world, and it is treated with due respect. The Golodomor killed more people but few have heard of it. These were our comp
atriots, and we must not forget about their deaths. It is very important that we are discussing this issue in Ukraine. This is a big plus that our society has got used to public debates on any subject.

I think it is excellent that we have a genuinely free press now. Freedom of speech can nip the bulk of vestiges of the past in the bud. Journalists are irreplaceable in promoting the triumph of law in relations between the government and business or in the law-enforcement system.

Ukraine is holding consultations with Poland and the United States on ABM defense. Nobody is consulting Russia. Is this normal?

No, it is not. This question cannot be reduced to the positions or opinions of individual states. We are talking about global processes that will concern you regardless of geographical location. There are many nuances that should be either given up or ignored. This discussion involves many parties, and each party must have its say. For this reason, I am not particularly enthusiastic about Ukraine’s rushing to accept ABM defense. Do not rush your brother to hell ahead of your father! This is not an urgent question, and we should not reply to it today. In studying it, we should not only consider the problem as such, but also listen to those who help us formulate our position on the issue.

Russian-American relations come first in this context. This is where all strategic competition takes place. This duo decides much of what we consider important. Collective security comes next. This is a regional European issue. With every month and every year we will come closer to formulating a continental answer to this question regardless of what country we represent. This is the most reliable policy, and the simplest answer to how to build the foundations of national security in the future. Obviously, Poles and Czechs should have their say – they have the right to do so because this concerns them directly. We have to cover this road. Today, we are at the very start – initial consultations. I did not fly to Poland to take part in ABM consultations. They should take place after the steps that I’ve mentioned.

I would like to add only one thing – Ukraine should demonstrate its attitude to the problem in the context of its national security. It is closely linked with what we call the strategic foundations of national security. It is important for our neighbors to understand that a nation has a sovereign right to shape its defense policy, a policy of security. This is the holiest of holies.

What threats is Ukraine going to remove with an ABM defense?

I do not mean military aggression. The world we live in is no longer as big as it seemed 20 to 30 years ago. Building international relations at the level of nuclear threats is a stupidity. Nevertheless, the threat of uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles is becoming increasingly serious. Everyone understands that either Europe or the world as a whole should develop an effective system of ABM defense against the unauthorized use of these weapons. Humankind should have not only a political but also a technical response to this threat. This response should rest on broader use of radars and regional warning systems.

This is not an issue of an individual country – it concerns everyone. We must think about the next generation, about our children. Each region should be reliably protected. There is no simple answer as to how to achieve this. In commenting on this issue, I proceed from Ukrainian policy. Russia, Ukraine, and their European colleagues should come up with an answer that will add partners rather than enemies.

Russian-Ukrainian relations follow the one-step-forward-two-steps-back formula. What is the reason for the lack of progress?

I know well the history and nature of our economic relations, and can be open about our achievements and setbacks. The number-one problem is the sphere of investment. Regrettably, our relations in it are much politicized. I would not say that we have not tried to draft a clear road map for integrating the two markets and making rational use of their potentials. We have made such attempts, but not on a comprehensive scale. Russia and Ukraine have enormous potentials, and the signing of an agreement on a free trade zone in 1993 was well grounded. I congratulate the politicians who signed and ratified this agreement. But unfortunately the Russian Parliament did not endorse it.

I think that in order to invigorate our relations, we must adopt a concept allowing for unimpeded trade relations between the two markets. We could do this in the old context or the new one – as WTO members. This is the most important prerequisite for building business contacts. Regrettably, this has not been done. I don’t understand why the Russian government should keep its market shut to Ukraine. This is not right, but such is our history.

The next position concerns our customs relations. We should make sure that business does not notice the economic frontier because it is a clot that blocks our economic relations for many weeks and months. As we discussed with Russian President Vladimir Putin, there are many joint control instruments that would relieve travelers of the need to fill in customs forms twice. The bulk of smuggling occurs between these two checkpoints with different customs regulations. In perspective, we could build an electronic customs system and upgrade many other features that would rationalize the crossing of the economic border.

We must prevent border controls from interfering with business on CIS territory or within other entities. This concerns both cross-border trade and border relations. They account for eight percent of our trade.

If we work in an integrated market and do not notice the economic border we should have unified tariffs on sea, river, and pipe transport. Tariffs should be the same on the entire market. We cannot have four tariffs on the road from Khabarovsk to Chop – this is devoid of any logic or common sense. Unification of tariffs will help improve our relations.

How can you speed up this process?

We are not pragmatic enough. We should act as economists rather than politicians. The rules of the game are like oxygen, and the state must establish them.

Trade cannot rest on a crisis economy if we want to achieve progress. For instance, we had double taxation on oil and gas for 14 years. Some thought they could make a profit from it. This was a mistake. In this way we seriously impeded progress in our relations in this sphere, and this is regrettable.

When I met Vladimir Putin in December, we agreed to supervise the resolution of specific practical issues. We decided to upgrade our relations and approve a plan for joint action for 2007-2008 to be signed by the presidents and carried out by committees led by the prime ministers. Now all documents are ready for signing. Each of the plan’s 17 items starts with a date and suggested resolution for both intricate and simple problems. Take, for instance, the demarcation of our national border – we have not done a single meter. Delineating the border in the Sea of Azov, the Black Sea, and the Kerch Straight is a big problem.

The Black Sea Fleet’s temporary stay in Sevastopol forms a second package of problems – land, property, radio frequencies, and navigation. These problems exist. We must discuss them in the open, and cross all our t’s and dot all our i’s. We will then come up with a clear-cut time schedule for their resolution.

We have covered energy relations, aviation, corridors, transportation, checkpoints, joint border rules, readmission, and easier procedures for receiving citizenship, some visa issues, and social and cultural problems. We have suggested to Russia that we celebrate common historic events together, starting with the 200th anniversary of Nikolai Gogol’s birth. In other words, our agreement includes 17 items of direct action.

When will it be signed?

In a couple of days. It’s a lot of work. It took both sides a lot of time.

Are we about to reach a breakthrough in bilateral relations?

I believe so.