Grishchenko in DC: Ukraine Has No Alternative to a Future Inside the Europe Union

The Foreign Minister of Ukraine, during a visit to Washington, made crystal clear his Government’s view that there is no alternative to striving for future membership in the European Union, even in the face of pressure from Russia and the ongoing economic and political troubles rocking the Eurozone.

Ukraine, said Konstantin Grischenko, does not intend to join any other “integration structure” as proposed by Russia, but instead wants to grow closer political and commercial ties with the EU. Simply put, Ukraine is not interested in Vladimir Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Union, a Russian-led trade and quasi-political bloc that at present has the adherence only of Belarus and Kazakhstan.

These were among the highlights of a rare sit down in Washington, DC last week, in which Grishchenko answered questions on everything from Ukraine’s position on NATO (“we see that the major safeguards for our independence and territorial integrity not in military solutions”); to Ukraine’s most pressing (through hardly largest) foreign policy issue, the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (“if you have strong friends, be it at home or abroad, it does not mean that you should get better treatment than someone you need to serve, a simple citizen who doesn’t have these these friends”); and on its attempt to create energy independence and security for itself and for Europe as a whole through shale gas and conservation (“The President just met with Exxon-Mobil in Chicago and they have discussed also the opportunities for them to come, they signed memoranda. … But the major other issue which will be rather longer-term is energy conservation and energy-saving measures, especially in the housing sector, which now takes a lot.”).

It was a highly informative interview, in only thirty-seven minutes, and it is well worth reading.  Below is the full report:

I had the honor last week of meeting with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Konstantin Grishchenko, together with a reporter for the Washington Times, Anneke Green, the newspaper’s Assistant Editorial Page Editor. The Minister was very kind with his time — he was running late for a meeting with the Atlantic Council — and was open to discussing even some of the harder issues facing Ukraine as well.

Ukraine’s foreign policy is — if for no other reason than its enormous area and population — a pivotal question facing Europe and the former Soviet Union. Without Ukraine, Russia’s dream of a new empire is meaningless; without Ukraine, the expansion of European political norms to the East becomes significantly harder for the European Union to accomplish. The questions therefore turned around Ukraine’s relationship with its neighbors, and of course, the ever-present Yulia Tymoshenko case. I’ve included the questions in bold, the answers in plain text; my questions are marked with a [D], Ms. Green’s with a [G].

[D] As you’ll remember, in the first part of the last decade, NATO integration and expansion was a very big issue. The prior Government of Ukraine was interested in becoming part of NATO. As I understand it now, y’all are a non-aligned party, you do strategic cooperation with NATO and that sort of thing, but your official position is that you will not join any military pact. My question is this: Do you have concerns that being outside of and not integrated into NATO makes Russian military adventurism or at least Russian military pressure more likely?

Well, we see that the major safeguards for our independence and territorial integrity not in military solutions, but in the ability to build a strong economy. For that, we need to have good cooperation both with Russia and the EU. The largest trade partner for us is still Russia. A very substantial part of this is still energy, but it’s also a major market for our industrial goods. The second-largest, but almost the same volume, is the EU. We see it as our future, being members of the European Union, thus creating the basis for economic growth, together with continuous relations — positive ones — with Russia.

The NATO issue was the major irritant for Moscow when it was declared as a primary goal because — I don’t want to even go into the reasons, because I might not share what they thought was dangerous — but nevertheless, whether we accepted the reasons or not, that was the fact of the matter. That created major tensions, and creating major tensions might create military planning, which in themselves could create the infrastructure for future action risks.

That’s why the decision was not merely taken, but enshrined in our law on the basics of the internal and foreign policy of Ukraine. We will be a non-bloc state, but we will be active in the security issues in the European and global contexts, and we will strive to achieve two things: Again, integration into the EU, and continuing and expanding our economic cooperation with Russia.

The challenge here is that Russia believes that they should create an alternative integration structure, which would be a kind of alternative to the EU. We don’t see this as an option for Ukraine, but we would like to be pragmatic, and to have our partners be pragmatic, because this volume — not simply of trade — but industrial, security, and other interaction between Ukraine and Russia, also with Kazakhstan — Belarus is a significant factor for Russia itself, it cannot rely only on oil and gas for its gross [domestic product], it needs to rely on industrial and other kinds of cooperation that needs to be there. That’s the major challenge today.

Another challenge for us is obviously the situation in the EU. We were able to complete negotiations on the association agreement, which is a complex document that — there is both a deep and comprehensive free trade area being created under it. On the one hand, this is the result of difficult negotiations where both sides were taken into account; on the other hand it is not a gift to Ukraine at all, because in the short to medium term, European businesses will have advantages. They are working under the norms and standards of the EU [already], while we will have to accept the standards and norms without the opportunity to rely on European funds to help our businesses adapt to it.

But on the other hand, in the long term, we believe it is beneficial. The problem is what will be happening to the EU itself.

While nobody wants it — and nobody wanted the Great Depression to start, everyone lost there — so it is a kind of eerie feeling, whether we are at the brink, or we will be able to mobilize and make sure that the global business rules are changed so that they reflect realities. But that also limits our ability to have the major European capitals focus on what is important to us.

Because it’s a matter of serious importance, I believe, for at least the European setting, but also for the global [setting], whether we could use these next few years, not only to — which we will do anyway — to deeply reform the country itself, in the economic sense, and bring the country closer to European standards, but to also make sure that it is strongly included in the European future.

The more you get negative news on the EU, the less support you get for the idea. A simple example: NATO became less popular quite frankly in Ukraine when the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia started. Slavs, you know, too much negative information, too many negatives from Russian TV exposure, and the level of support went down. Not to the same extent, obviously, but there is a danger in the current situation.

So those are the kind of challenges we are facing.

[G] So as far as EU membership is concerned, you said you wanted to see global business practices reformed. If the drumbeat of bad news continues, does Ukraine want in regardless, even as it seems to be melting down?

Well, we hope that it will not melt down.

[G] Right.

If it melts down, it will be a totally different situation. We pray to the Almighty that it will not happen, because it will not be good for anyone, the United States included, because it’s a major market, it’s a major generator of financial flows, it’s a major services area destination, for China, Japan, the United States, obviously for us. For the time being, we don’t see it as inevitable or something — it’s less than fifty percent, but who knows. It simply is there at this stage, but we do hope that it will not be a danger of the kind that will change the whole equation.

[G] So there aren’t any reforms now that you would see as necessary for membership to occur, membership is still the goal?

It is the goal. We see the kind of reforms, clearly there should be rules for a responsible banking sector, there should be rules for responsible government management of financial resources, there should be a cap on the credit lines for governments, as well as for major sectors. The changes — difficult ones — that are being introduced in labor practices are clearly needed.

For Ukrainians, the European model is very attractive. Just like the United States, it can only be a part of our future, but integration in Europe is something that people associate with higher standards of living, with the right to choose where they would like to work and where they raise their children, for a time, and that is why it is such a successful formula, and we should simply reflect what the people wish. On the other hand, as more younger-generation people have traveled, they understand that it is not a paradise, it is a complex societal structure, where not everything is easy, and where it is better to bring the best parts of what they have acquired into Ukraine, rather than go there and try to melt i, to integrate into it personally.

That’s the kind of changes that we have in mind.

[D] Obviously most of the news coverage in the West about Ukraine is about Tymoshenko. The pictures we see are Tymoshenko lying in a hospital bed, Tymoshenko holding up her arms where she was allegedly bruised by the guard, that sort of thing. Let me start this with a little bit of a softball: What are you doing to reassure Europe especially about how you are treating Tymoshenko?

There are two parts to it, one is issues relating to criminal responsibility for actions which are being covered by the criminal law of Ukraine, and in that sense these particular articles are not dissimilar from anything that you would find in the books both in Europe and the United States.

You cannot sign a deal with another country accepting a formula that leads to us overpaying billions more than Germany does. Germany, who is 2000 km farther gets a better deal; and the problem is not the political mistake or the economic mistake, the problem is that the fact of the matter to have just a deal signed you need to have authority, and the authority could have been given only by the Cabinet of Ministers’ vote. It is not a Presidential republic.

She didn’t; she did something which is clearly covered by criminal responsibility. The court’s investigation looked into it, and that was the decision of the court.

The treatment: Today, for many reasons, Yulia Tymoshenko has the best possible treatment for anyone who has found himself, according to the verdict of the court, in prison. She is not even in prison today, she is in a hospital, and it is German doctors who are responsible for her treatment, with support of Ukrainian ones. In that particular hospital, the best possible equipment has been acquired, it will not only be for the benefit of Yulia Tymoshenko but for people of but with all patients. With all this attention, she has the best possible treatment and the best possible attention related to her back pain problem and any other problem including diet.

The penitentiary system — which essentially, again, prison cannot be a tourist attraction — but because we understand the concerns, we understand the importance of providing transparency, there are quite a number of visitors, including the President of Lithuania, by two American delegations.

So we’re here to show that there’s nothing to hide. One can come, one can visit, one can discuss, we’re open; but there is a very important principle as well. No one, be it a politician — a current or former one — a prominent public figure, a rock star, a major soccer player, whatever, their exposure and their ability to gather support because of their visibility, they shouldn’t be treated, in principle, any differently from an ordinary citizen who is in a similar situation.

And that is something very important, as it was never the case previously, and we believe that here, there is a certain balance that needs also to be met. Because if you have strong friends, be it at home or abroad, it does not mean that you should get better treatment than someone you need to serve, a simple citizen who doesn’t have these these friends.

[D] One of the scholars who writes for my Center, a fellow named Matthew Lina, he looks at the news much better than I do. He’s noted that Iceland’s prime minister was tried for abuse of office, basically for failing to see the bank meltdowns before they happened. There was no widespread condemnation of the Icelandic government for prosecuting its former prime minister. Why do you think there’s a difference?

The difference is, first, because of the action of Yulia Tymoshenko, it was the Ukrainian people who suffered. Because of the Icelandic prime minister, it was the British banks and the Dutch banks and the holders of common debt who suffered.

I understand that there are different optics here. With us, the decision was taken at a difficult time in the winter; it was important to some European politicians to provide a safe supply of gas to Europe, and it was done — at the expense of every Ukrainian, whoever he is. He now has to pay for this particular option. We don’t really believe it should be done at our expense. If anyone can renegotiate the gas deal, help us. That would be a major issue which would help change the position of what has happened. But that’s not the case.

[G] So if help was offered by other nations to help renegotiate the gas deal, would that have an impact on Tymoshenko’s case?

No, I cannot really say that because obviously it is within the judicial realm. Today, it would be another issue to raise, essentially what is the future of this particular issue, its resolution, because it has an important negative impact on relations with quite a number of countries, but it still has to go through the judicial system.

Now it is in the judicial overview of the highest court, the appeal, it will be on the 26th, and if again, if Yulia Tymoshenko is not happy with that she has the right to go to the European Court of Justice, which, there is also an offer to bring the European lawyers, American lawyers, whoever they would be, so they can observe and see. But there there is no other way out but through the judicial process per se.

Obviously, it should be transparent, clear; but we think up until now, Yulia Tymoshenko and her defense team were not interested in the legal defense. Her lawyer is a member of parliament, who uses the platform and the functions of the defense lawyer mostly to make public statements and to generate political pressure so that it would not be a judicial solution, but a political one. This was a sign of, I would say, Soviet justice, not a modern one. If politicians start to get involved and put pressure on the justice system, then there is no justice system at all.

[D] She has a right of appeal to the European Court of Justice?

Yes, she did so, but the European Court of Justice must first see that the recourse through the national justice system has already been used —

[D] Exhausted?

Exhausted, yes.

[D] I’m a lawyer, I tend to think in terms of exhaustion. My larger question is this, to kind of tie together a couple of things: To what extent does the deal that Tymoshenko negotiated bind your foreign policy? I mean, you are more than just a pipeline for natural gas, but the cost of natural gas that flows through your pipes has to put some constraints on what you do. I know you’re developing potential shale natural gas, what are you doing to try to lift those constraints?

This particular deal made something that we were thinking about for a long time much more urgent and much more important. The energy strategy of Ukraine in view of this particular deal, but even without that it merely follows the strategies of many other countries, but with certain specifics. First and foremost we are making a serious effort to limit the volume of imported gas in a very substantial manner. As simply, this price is not sustainable. Second, it is bringing international companies, including American ones, to search [for] and extract shale gas. We have just finished two tenders of major fields, that were allocated to Chevron and to Shell. That will take a few years, but in a very visible perspective might bring very substantial volumes. If they are successful, others might be there as well.

The President just met with Exxon-Mobil in Chicago and they have discussed also the opportunities for them to come, they signed memoranda. Deep water on the Black Sea, drilling for traditional gas, but there’s still methane gas in mines and many others. Then we will still continue to rely on nuclear — in the winter, almost fifty percent of our electricity is generated by nuclear which is still a local resource.

But the major other issue which will be rather longer-term is energy conservation and energy-saving measures, especially in the housing sector, which now takes a lot. Also, bringing alternative gas supplies online through LNG and others. It’s a very complex, serious effort.

But we would still hope — if the kind of stalemate continues with Russia, at that moment, we will simply stop importing gas from them, and it’s not for their long-term interests at all. Ukraine has been, for the last twenty years, the largest market for Russia’s natural gas and oil, because of the inefficiency of how we use it, partly, but also there are quite a number of industrial uses that are pretty well developed in Ukraine, where gas is either a source of energy or material. You know, we hope that will find a certain equilibrium, but it’s not an easy task, it’s a major challenge.

Here, we would like to rely on the United States, at least their understanding, because we do bring United States energy companies that are global players for a solution that is important to us, but would provide better energy security for Europe, and major energy stability globally. You know how many challenges we have in the energy field; if anything happens to Iran — not only Iran by the way — then the hikes of prices might bring global recession, and then we will all be looking for additional funds or additional jobs or any jobs. So that is also an important part of that.

[G] May I ask one more question? So, as a result of the election that brought your Government to power, Freedom House downgraded Ukraine’s political rating from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Do you think the Government is heading in the right direction?

I think that Freedom House is more critical of Ukraine today than the facts on the ground prove. There are quite a number of elements which are important to see whether a country is free or not, or less free, or more free. In the area of freedom of the press, because I have to be on the receiving side of it, it’s a unique country where we have four political talk shows every week, that have the best ratings even as compared to major soap operas or anything of the kind.

And the Opposition is always not simply present, but has the best possible platform to attack the Government on all fronts. It is also in the press, it is also in the radio, it is everywhere.

And the level of criticism leveled on the President, on the Prime Minister, on any Minister, is — you know, Fox News is a childish play, it has no comparative edge as compared to what we experience.

[G] As far as corruption in the judicial system, charges on that–

No, as we say, we see the problems that are there, they have been accumulating over the decades. There is a serious effort to rectify the situation, but in a systemic, serious way. The new criminal procedural code was just adopted, and it was developed with the full participation of the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe, and reflects the best European practice. We also need to make sure that the judges and prosecutors follow it, but it is something for which we created a new oversight system.

So it’s a complex thing here. On Grapa — the Grapa international organization which coordinates the anti-corruption effort globally, we follow the recommendations of this particular institution. Sometimes it is not liked by the Opposition because it would make everyone’s life more difficult. I personally and my colleagues, we have to file a declaration not only of what we acquire but what we spend, which is what, six pages or seven pages? It’s ridiculous, at certain moments you wish to be in Government, and at others you don’t.

[G] So just to close out, is there anything in particular you want Americans to know about Ukraine?

I think that what is important is that Ukraine is changing, changing rapidly. We are only a few days from the 2012 Euro championship,. The new airports in the beautiful cities of Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, together with the most modern stadiums that were ever built. During the last two years we have invested and built more than in the last two decades, in many instances — better roads, better conditions. And again, to understand what Ukraine is all about, it is better to visit it. New hotels, new infrastrucure, good people who like to interact with visitors is an attraction of Ukraine.

Not to mention Ukrainian cuisine! Borscht is ours, and many other things as well. So welcome to Ukraine, you will see a free country, a country with freedoms, and with opportunity to enjoy your stay and good memories for the rest of your life.

Image Copyright the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs