Ukrainian citizens face a "Visa Berlin Wall" when trying to enter the EU and the visa requirement procedures of European consulates are similar to those in communist Russia, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Kostyantyn Yeliseyev told EurActiv Germany in an interview.
— Does Ukraine still want to join the European Union?
— Yes, European integration is and will be the main priority for Ukraine and its development. European integration is our way to implement deep and comprehensive social and economic reforms. We would like to modernise our country in line with European standards and values.
This is why I am very happy to be visiting Berlin just after the election of the new president [Viktor Yanukovich], the confirmation of the new government and the creation of a new coalition in the parliament. My visit is a clear signal that we would like to re-establish and renew our ties – particularly with Germany. We know that Germany is a driving force for both European integration and the modernisation of Ukraine.
I arrived from Ukraine with the message that we have re-established political stability. Now, the main challenge is to achieve and ensure financial and economic stability. Therefore we have to proceed not with tactical reforms but with strategic reforms. This includes the fight against corruption, the creation of a beneficial and sound climate for potential investors and the settlement of VAT problems, which is an important issue for exporters.
— Since EU membership remains the strategic goal, when will Ukraine join the EU?
— I prefer to speak about practical steps rather than conduct a kind of demagogic or abstract diplomacy. One of the mistakes of previous Ukrainian leaderships was attempting to artificially establish a clear date for European integration. In the mid-1990s, we set the goal of joining the EU in 2007.
— Did it happen?
— No. Instead, we raised false expectations. We were not serious. Now we need to concentrate on doing our homework and fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria. The date of membership will be clear as soon as we have met these accession criteria.
On our pragmatic journey towards European integration, we will take care of the main expectations of our citizens. Our citizens want to do business with Europe, so we will try to open the European market for them. Our strategy is to create an economic foundation for the political integration of Ukraine into the EU.
Our citizens also expect us to remove the 'Visa Berlin Wall' that is separating them from the enlarged EU. Freedom of movement is a European value and we want our people to learn more about Europe. The visa requirements remind me of the former Soviet Union era. At that time, citizens had to pass an interview at the Communist party offices before being allowed to travel abroad. Now, our citizens have to pass similar procedures in consulates where they are treated like prisoners. These procedures are sometimes a humiliation for human dignity.
— Former Ukrainian president [Viktor Yushchenko] pushed to join NATO. Does the new government rule out NATO membership?
— I defined EU integration as one of our internal priorities. Our external priority is to re-establish good neighbourly, predictable and stable relations with Russia. We would like to gain new trust and confidence in our bilateral relations. There cannot be a successful European integration of Ukraine without good and stable relations with Russia. Good relations with Russia are an organic part of Ukraine's European integration policy.
I would not call it a completely new approach to NATO. I would call it a modernisation of our approach. We need to concentrate on the current annual national programme. We need to implement this programme and strengthen our partnership with NATO. We prefer to develop our relations with NATO as long as they are in line with our national interest and contribute to European security and stability.
Ukraine is the only non-NATO country that participates in all its major operations – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and so on. We are seemingly very advanced in our relations with NATO and we would like to continue this approach. We prefer to do our homework and fulfil our obligations instead of making false and empty declarations that we will be a NATO member on this or that date.
— So you do not exclude NATO membership?
— At this stage, NATO membership is not on the agenda.
There are rumours that the government is preparing a law to define Ukraine's foreign policy as 'neutral'. What does this mean?
It is not about being 'neutral' or a 'non-ally' – it is about being 'non-bloc'. Indeed we are currently working on guidelines for our main internal and foreign policy priorities. The core element of these priorities will be the modernisation and Europeanisation of the country. We would also like to consolidate our strategic partnership with Russia.
De facto, Ukraine today is a 'non-bloc' country. It is neither a member of NATO nor any other security and defence treaty. We may reflect the current status in this document and I hope it will not be perceived as prejudging the strategic future in any way.
— Am I summarising correctly this 'non-bloc' approach as follows: 'yes' to EU membership, 'no' to NATO membership?
— EU integration was, is and will be the highest priority on the agenda of all political forces in Ukraine. The European idea is the consolidating factor for our society. Under the Soviet Union, the communist idea mobilised people for reforms. Nowadays, the only mobilising national ideology is the European integration of Ukraine.
So, regardless of all difficulties and changes in the Ukrainian leadership, this idea was, is and will remain unchanged. The tactics to reach this goal will be changed slightly: instead of empty and unconstructive declarations, we will concentrate on our practical efforts to achieve this strategic goal.
As for NATO, you are quite right. We have slightly modernised and adjusted our approach to NATO, taking into account the necessity to re-establish and develop a strategic partnership with the Russian Federation.
— Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will visit Kiev on 17 May. What concrete outcomes do you expect from the bilateral meeting?
— We would like to renew our trust, friendship and cooperation with Russia on a wide range of issues. We would like to renew political dialogue, trade and economic relations, and common projects which had unfortunately been frozen during the last couple of years. The main mistake of the previous leadership was to concentrate on problematic issues that split us. Let's look at what unites Ukraine and the Russian Federation: the stability and prosperity of our two countries, the interaction of people, trade and the economy, and large strategic projects such as energy supply.
Of course, there are always problems between two big neighbours. Even Germany and France still have a lot of problems. However, you should not over-politicise the problems: let the experts deal with them. I hope very much that we will settle the demarcation problems on the Ukraine-Russia land border and I hope that we will sign a bilateral agreement on this during the visit of [Russian] President [Dmitry] Medvedev. This would contribute not only to the stability of relations between Ukraine and Russia, but also the stability and prosperity of the European continent.
Open and non-demarcated borders are a challenge to stability and security because of organised crime, illegal immigration and so on.
— The gas disputes between Ukraine and Russia have worried many Europeans in recent years. How do you want to settle this problem?
— Our minister of energy has already started discussions with the relevant Russian authorities on possible agreements.
Firstly, we want to reduce the gas prices that we currently pay.
Secondly, we would like to reconsider the gas delivery contract that we signed in June 2009.
Thirdly, we want to discuss how to best ensure the stability and predictability of gas supply – in particularly transport via Ukrainian territory to European consumers.
And fourthly, we will consider options to modernise the Ukraine gas transit system in line with the decisions taken a year ago at the famous Brussels conference on 23 March 2009.
— Will Ukraine consider privatising and selling parts of its state-owned gas transit system to the Russian company Gazprom?
— Nothing is for sale in Ukraine. I would like to define a kind of red line: whatever we do, whether with the EU or the Russian Federation, it will not be at the expense of the national interests of Ukraine. I co-drafted the aforementioned Brussels declaration, in which we underlined that our gas transport system was, is and will be the property of the Ukrainian state.
However, if we will declare that every part is our property and nobody can be involved, then our gas transport system will become outdated. We need business projects, so let's look at what we can do.
— Who would invest in these projects if there is no privatisation?
— At this stage, we have a $1.7 billion [€1.2 billion] package from the European Investment Bank, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for projects to modernise the Ukrainian gas transit system. We are speaking, for example, about projects to modernise or replace outdated compressor stations that are causing a loss of some two million cubic metres of gas every year.
— So you do exclude the Belarus solution? Does this mean Ukraine will not sell its gas transit system to Gazprom in exchange for gas price reductions?
— Ukraine is the only state besides Russia in the territory of the former Soviet Union that still owns its gas transit system: all other systems are in the hands of Gazprom. Our gas transit system consists not only of 38,000 km of pipes, but also compressor stations and underground storage.
It is evident that Ukraine's gas transit system is a very important factor in gas supply security for European consumers.
— The government still needs to settle a budget for 2010 that will be approved by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). What budgetary cuts will be necessary?
— I am not dealing with the budget, but from my point of view the most important thing is to incorporate the calculations of the IMF. And we should try to establish a new long-term cooperation with the IMF, maybe more ambitious than the previous one. The budget project will fail without money from international financial institutions.
The IMF is so important because it is linked to macro-financial assistance from the EU. Now we are speaking about a package of €610 million in terms of macro-financial assistance. There will also be some cuts in expenses for the administration and civil servants.
— Savings in the administration will not be enough. What about unpopular measures, like reform of the pension system or a rise in gas prices as required by the IMF?
— I remind you that the main goal of recent and future visits by our minister of energy to Russia is the reduction of gas prices. Currently, Ukraine pays the highest gas price in Europe. All necessary budget cuts will not be made at the expense of the most vulnerable parts of the population, in particular pensioners or the disabled.
At the same time, there is a communication strategy trying to explain to Ukrainian society: you need to suffer now but soon everything will be better. It is an important moment for comprehensive and deep economic reforms that will modernise my country and create stability for the EU.
— From an outside perspective, Ukraine seems to be divided into western and eastern halves. What efforts will the government make in order to reunite the people?
— Let me disagree with you: the division was done by politicians only, by people who like to gain from this separation. There is no division on the ground. There is one uniting factor: the European idea and European integration.
— What about ongoing conflicts and disagreements on political and cultural issues between the western half and the mainly Russian-speaking eastern half of Ukraine? What about disputes on the use of the Russian language? What about the burning of Ukrainian history textbooks? And what about the proposal to rewrite textbooks on Ukraine history?
— This split, this division was created artificially by politicians for political purposes. The people have other preoccupations: all Ukrainians want to enjoy political stability; all Ukrainians want to build up and benefit from economic development; all Ukrainians want to be happy with their families.
— What about the criticism and protests against the newly-appointed 'pro-Russian' Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk?
— Yes, there are problems with the minister of education. It is democratic to criticise him: this is pluralism and we are very glad that people can express their opinions. The minister of education promised that he will stick to the constitution and Ukrainian legislation. Let's judge him on the results of his activities. He shall prove that he is very effective in making good reforms for the education sector.
If not, he should leave the position and continue to work as an ordinary Ukrainian writing articles that correspond to his convictions and ideas – he is a publicist who has written a lot of articles and books. His personal opinion and convictions should be respected, as for all ordinary Ukraine citizens. However, since he is now a servant of the state, he needs to be responsible – like all other politicians.
Look at the programmes of the presidential candidates in Ukraine, like in any other European country. There is a difference between someone's programme and behaviour when they are a candidate and when they are president: as president, the person no longer represents the interest of one party or one area of the country, but the interests of the whole country.
— Ukraine is engaged in the EU's Eastern Partnership project. Are you satisfied with the results?
— So far, there is one added value of the Eastern Partnership: it put an end to the unsuccessful European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The Eastern Partnership is based on joint ownership and joint responsibility, whereas the ENP was an instrument for the EU to dictate what Ukraine should do.
The Eastern Partnership should not replace the very active current level of bilateral cooperation between Ukraine and the EU. There is some potential to benefit from the Eastern Partnership as an additional instrument of cooperation, but I have to underline the word 'potential'.
At this stage we do not see any outcomes or any results. There are only discussions, talks and meetings. We prefer to spend the money on concrete projects for the benefit of ordinary Ukrainians, rather than speak and spend money on visits to Brussels.
Let's stop discussions and switch to practical details: we are in favour of comprehensive institution-building programmes. We insisted on programmes for an integrated water management system. We are in favour of programmes for the demarcation of borders between Ukraine and Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus or Ukraine and Russia.
We are interested in coherent regional programmes to support regional development. We would prefer more financial resources to be allocated to the Eastern Partnership. The resources are very limited – especially compared with the money allocated to the EU's Euro-Mediterranean Partnership.