As Ukraine continues to look towards the EU for its future, OCA Magazine met with the Ukrainian Ambassador to Belarus, in order to find out more about the European geopolitical direction of the country, as well as the development of Ukrainian-Belarusian relations.
OCA: What is the regime of work of your embassy during the coronavirus pandemic?
IK: Obviously, the situation with the pandemic in Ukraine and the rest of the world affected the work of Ukrainian diplomatic institutions abroad, including our own Embassy. Above all, we value the health and safety of the embassy staff, as well as that of the guests of our diplomatic institution. Thus, since the 14th of March this year, the Embassy has been working in a special mode. In particular, we suspended the reception of visitors on consular issues, with the exception of some emergency cases. Our consular staff is still available online and on the phone hotline.
Unfortunately, I also had to cancel or reschedule important events. For example, the Days of Ukrainian Business in Belarus as well as a public screening of the film «My Grandmother from Mars» and a number of other events.
However, the embassy is working. Some of the employees switched to the so-called ‘remote’ work mode, others still go to work while observing certain requirements of self-isolation (fortunately, every diplomat has his own office). The Embassy continues to fulfill its functions, which consists of representing the interests of Ukraine in relation to the Republic of Belarus and protecting the rights of our citizens in Belarus. Of course, the special workload now lies with the consular section of the Embassy. Our consular staff assists Ukrainians 24 hours a day, especially those who need help to return to Ukraine or to resolve urgent issues.
In addition, we continue to deal with issues related to the development of bilateral relations in the political and economic fields. After all, the pandemic will pass, and our main task today is not to lose the achievements that we have made in our bilateral relations.
OCA: Your work as the diplomatic representative of Ukraine has led you to many countries, such as France, Nigeria, Canada and Great Britain. You have been in the Republic of Belarus for three years now, what differences in cultures between these countries are most noticeable?
IK: There are several particular features. Firstly, Belarus is our neighbor, a country with which we have a common border of about 1084 km. There is always a special relationship between countries that share borders. Since we cannot choose our neighbors, it is vital to live in peace with them. This was not the case with the previous countries where I worked in.
In this context, I need to mention that Ukraine and Belarus have somewhat opposing strategic aspirations. Ukraine has a clear strategic goal of joining the EU and NATO while Belarus has strong contacts within the framework of the Eurasian community and Tashkent Treaty.
Despite this, our countries, traditionally, have friendly relations. For many centuries, starting from the Kyivan Rus, the period of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, we practically lived in one state. Moreover, we obtained independence almost simultaneously. We have very close cultures and languages. We even speak without translators at conferences using Ukrainian and Belarusian languages. Linguists reveal that 83% of the vocabulary in Ukrainian and Belarusian coincide. To my mind, these are the three main features that make relations between Belarus and Ukraine special and very different from relations with countries of my previous missions.
OCA: What was the most memorable thing you found during your stay in the UK?
IK: In regard to my diplomatic work I have to mention the deep understanding by politicians and representatives of the British public of the events taking place in Ukraine. Everyone understands how careful they should be while speaking about the war in Donbas and Ukrainian-Russian relations. The UK supported Ukraine from the very beginning of our conflict with Russia and we are grateful for that. For all these years, providing us, not with weapons, but with economic, political and military training assistance. For the UK, it is clear who the aggressor in Crimea and Donbas is and the British understand our internal situation very well. It was very helpful in carrying out my mission.
In general, the UK is well known for its traditions and democracy. I was astonished by the work of the British Parliament, as well as the decision-making process and the perfect coordination of action by their governmental agencies. Ukraine can learn a lot from the UK. I hope that despite all the changes that are currently happening, including Brexit, the UK will continue to support Ukraine. We count on British support in keeping the pressure on Russia in order to restore the territorial integrity of our country.
OCA: The Republic of Belarus is not only the closest neighbor of Ukraine, but also an important ally in the settlement of the conflict in the Donbas region. How do you work with the government of Belarus to engage and assist in these delicate matters?
IK: Let us be correct. Belarus is not a mediator in our negotiations with Russia on Donbas and Crimea. In this regard, Belarus takes a neutral position, and president Lukashenko has repeatedly said, “We will support what Ukraine and Russia agree to”. However, we are grateful to Belarus for providing a platform for conflict resolution negotiations. In this regard, the role of Belarus is important as it helps provide ideal conditions for such negotiations.
OCA: How do you plan to develop relations between Belarus and Ukraine in both trade and economic spheres?
IK: At the moment, the economy is an essential component of Ukrainian-Belarusian relations. For Belarus, we are the second largest trade partner, and for Ukraine, Belarus is the second in the post-Soviet space and the fifth largest in general. Therefore, we have highly developed cooperative ties.
The growth rate in bilateral trade has slowed down a bit, nevertheless, a slight increase has been recorded last year. In 2019 trade between our countries amounted to about 6 billion US dollars. And we do hope that despite all problems caused by COVID-19 we will keep positive dynamic in trade this year.
In 2018 we have started to organize a Forum of Regions, that is, we are taking regional cooperation very seriously. Two regional forums have already been held in Belarus (Gomel) and Ukraine (Zhytomyr). They provided a great opportunity for regional leaders to meet personally and agree directly on cooperation. At the first forum (2018), nine regional agreements were signed, at the second forum (2019) – thirteen. The presidents of the two countries participated in each of the Forums. We are preparing now for the third Forum and we expected both presidents would take part in it.
Largely thanks to such forums over the past two years, all 6 Belarusian regions and 19 Ukrainian regions intensified their bilateral trade. In addition, in recent years, the number of contact and agreements between the cities of our countries has significantly increased. We actively support these developments.
OCA: Since 2014, Ukraine signed an Association Agreement with the European Union to strengthen ties in the areas of politics, trade, culture and security. The course of President Volodymyr Zelensky regarding foreign policy is to make Ukraine an equal member of the European Union. In your opinion, how long will the implementation of this plan last and will it be successful?
IK: My assessment is that we will continue to move in this direction. Honestly speaking, I can see that the main trends are being preserved. This is evident from the recent visits and meetings of our president. There is no doubt that we are moving in the right direction defined by our Constitution – full membership of Ukraine in the EU and NATO. But how long this will take is a question that no one can answer today. Nevertheless, we all want this to happen faster.
OCA: The EU is facing widespread criticism of expanding too much too quickly with major migration and economic concerns. What would Ukraine bring to the EU that mitigates these fears and adds to the union?
IK: My view is that without Ukraine, the model of the European Union will not be finalized. Therefore, I see Ukraine as part of the European Union, as a single structure. I think that migration will bring many opportunities, taking into account human resources, capital resources – these opportunities are great for both sides. By the way, even now, despite all restrictive measures connected to COVID-19, Ukrainians workers are very demanded on European labor market.
OCA: There is a stereotype that corruption is a widespread problem for Ukraine. This could make for a significant challenge to Ukraine’s ambitions to join the European Union. What further measures are being taken by the government to eradicate corruption? How does Belarus compare?
IK: The question is very relevant. Reforms have been undertaken and special structures have been created in order to combat corruption. The main question now is whether these structures will work. This is a challenge for the president of Ukraine and all of us. I am a supporter of radical measures, not only the adoption of law, but also actions. Regarding Belarus, there have never been major complaints. Here, the governance system is tough in the fight against corruption. There are strong law enforcement agencies and from time to time they reported about success in this field.
OCA: On the world stage, there is a double attitude to the Russian Federation. Not so long ago, a new list of anti-Russian sanctions came into force. To what extent does Ukraine still serve as a pretext for world leaders to impose sanctions?
IK: Ukraine is not a pretext for anti-Russian sanctions. Sanctions were imposed because of the armed aggression of Russia against our country. They are effective. I can even say that if sanctions were tougher, we would have had a completely different picture and peace on Ukrainian land. The only effective way to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine and force Russia to leave Crimea and Donbas is to impose sanctions. These sanctions should continue until Russia understands that it is losing, and should be lifted only after Russian troops are withdrawn from Crimea and Donbas.
OCA: How has the conflict between Russia and Ukraine changed the relations with Central Asian countries?
IK: We have no problems. This is Russia’s problem with everyone. All post-Soviet states have problems with Russia in some areas. However, there are no problems between Ukraine and Central Asian countries, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan among other. In fact, our relations with these countries are developing rather well. Everyone wants peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with Russia, but it is extremely hard to deal with them. So, let us together make Russia understand what it is doing wrong.