EU Ambassador about successes and failures of Ukrainian reforms

How the European Union assesses the progress of judicial, anti-corruption, land and other reforms in Ukraine; whether the West is satisfied with President Zelensky’s approach to resolving the Donbas conflict; how long sanctions against Russia will last; and what are the prospects for Ukraine’s accession to the EU – read all this in the big interview of Head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine Matti Maasikas.

In early autumn, a new EU Ambassador, Matti Maasikas, came to Ukraine. Back in the summer, European Pravda had an article about who he is and what experience he has (An Estonian, Historian and Marathon Runner: Meet the New European Union Ambassador to Ukraine), but today, we had a chance to ask the diplomat himself.

Read in the first extensive interview with the Head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine about the EU Ambassador’s opinion regarding the new political leadership and President Zelensky’s initiatives concerning the Donbas; about achievements and failures of reforms in Ukraine; about the absence of legislative provision permitting the sale of land to foreigners; about the prospects of Ukraine’s membership in the EU, and about what gets on the ambassador’s nerves the most in Kyiv’s driving “customs”.

“I feel in Ukraine like in Estonia in the early 1990s”

– Is it true that you are already studying Ukrainian?

– Of course, it is. I constantly hear and see signs in Ukrainian, and already know a few phrases.

(The ambassador drops into Ukrainian, although it’s obvious that he translates in his mind and that it is not easy for him.) It is a great honor for me to have this interview with you here today, and I promise that next year, we will converse in Ukrainian.

– And when you hear Ukrainian politicians, do you understand them?

– Yes, I catch what they’re talking about.

– And in general, how is it for you to work with our politicians? Are you on the same waveband with the Ukrainian leadership? Do you perceive Ukraine the same way they do, or the opposite?

– No foreigner can perceive a country the 100% like locals. And it’s not just about the language but also about experience, about responsibility for the country which your politicians bear.

But believe me: some things presently happening in Ukraine are quite familiar to me. When I talk to Ukrainian ministers, I often recall Estonia of the 1990s, when it had young ministers aged about 30 years and very enthusiastic about doing something, and doing it fast.

Therefore, the answer to your question is “yes”. I think I’m on the same waveband with them.

– Not all diplomats are so positive about the speed taken by our new leadership.

– If you ask my colleagues in Brussels about it, you will most likely hear one of the following two responses. Some will tell you that speed of reforms is the key, while others that quality is more important than speed.

I belong to the former category. I believe that today, during this period, speed indeed has the paramount importance for Ukraine. Of course, that does not mean you can forget about quality altogether, but nobody forgets about it, anyway.

But thanks to the “overdrive” gear, many things that were “on the back burner” are now becoming a reality.

Many important objectives, which Ukrainian elites knew about and which international partners were for years reminding about, are finally being implemented. And that’s a positive sign!

To be sure, when work is being done at such a speed, not everything and not always can be done ideally, but after several hitches in early autumn, we learned to work in “overdrive” and the Ukrainian leadership learned to cooperate and consult with us even at such a speed. Today, we work with parliamentary committees, as well as with ministries. In sum, there is a positive shift.

“The last word belongs to Ukrainians”

– As far as I know, there are problems as well. Is it true that judicial reform is the main problem?

– The biggest question for us is reforming Ukraine. On the whole.

We work very closely with the Ukrainian leadership on the matters of power generation, energy in general, etc. However, there is one area which we are concerned about. And you’re right, that’s reform of the justice system.

– Is it true that the EU may simply not nominate candidates to the commission for selection of members of judicial bodies, which must be established to implement this reform?

– We indeed aren’t sure whether we will nominate candidates there.

The decisive moment will be whether reform will cover the Supreme Court and how it will be implemented.

– Are you talking about the plans to reduce the number of Supreme Court (SCU) members?

– Yes. Among other things, that’s the point.

– Presently, this reform undergoes examination by the Venice Commission. Are you sure that the Commission will support your categorical stance?

– The European Union does not seek support from the Venice Commission! Although the professionalism and experience of this body are important for the EU, and we said on numerous occasions that when the Commission prepares its opinion, we hope that Ukraine will seriously work on implementing its recommendations.

– Let’s ascertain your stance, then. The reduction of the number of SCU judges would be unacceptable for the EU in any case, would it not?

– There is a whole complex of motives here. As you know, SCU has a huge backlog of cases. Surely, there are questions as regards the selection of judges to SCU, but the previous reform of SCU took place less than two years ago…

See, we have no doubts whatsoever that the Ukrainian judicial system needs a serious overhaul. And we understand that the new Ukrainian leadership is trying to do that overhaul. But we, as well as other international partners, have a question: is SCU the hottest problem in the Ukrainian justice system? Does this reform really have to start with it?

But surely, the final decision will be Ukraine’s, your leadership’s. They will have to decide how to reform the judicial system so that it gains trust of Ukrainians and potential foreign investors.

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“Some things presently happening in Ukraine are quite familiar to me” Here and below: photos by Dmytro Larin, UP

– In early autumn, the EU had serious reservations regarding civil service reform.

– And that, on the other hand, is a good example of cooperation between the new leadership and our experts. After our recommendations, they made changes which significantly improved the law before it was passed.

– And how about reform of the Security Service (SBU)? Have you already been informed that the SBU’s top brass is not going to take your advice into account?

– This process still continues, and we take part in consultations. That’s all I can tell at the moment.

– Did you warn the Ukrainian leadership about the consequences of their failure to fulfill your recommendations?

– We do not use the word “warning” at all.

If we are talking about reforms other than those stipulated in the Association Agreement, we can only point out the aspects which are questionable for us, give an advice and provide experts who will share the experience of our countries. In short, we can provide what in the past (in the Soviet time – EP) was known as “advanced experience”.

But the problem is that no experience, no best practices could be transposed to another country with the sufficient degree of certainty.

That’s why the last word belongs to Ukrainians. There could not be otherwise, because every country has its specifics.

– When Estonia was implementing reforms, did you have similar disagreements with the West?

– A vivid example: the introduction of the Estonian kroon in 1992. The-then Governor of the Bank of Estonia, Siim Kallas – you know him, he subsequently became the Prime Minister of Estonia and later a European Commissioner – spoke about his talks with the IMF in Washington.

At the IMF, they didn’t even ask him but simply told him in no uncertain terms: “You want to think twice! You definitely want to put this decision off! You…” and the like.

Kallas said that it was one of the most mind-blowing decisions he ever had to make. He left the meeting room to walk by the Potomac riverbank, and then returned to the IMF building and said: “No, we shall do it”. And the IMF said: “Well, if you’re so sure, OK. But the responsibility for this decision is solely yours”.

In the end, the currency reform which Estonia implemented in 1992 became very successful. And examples like that could be found everywhere.

“The EU does not require the land market to be opened to foreigners”

– What objectives, what reforms do you think should be the priority for the new leadership?

– First of all, reforms are needed in the areas of the supremacy of law and combating corruption, which could gain trust of citizens and investors. Business regulations must be improved, too, particularly by implementing EU standards. The European Union sets global, international standards, and the transition to European standards would open to you a whole range of markets.

– And what changes that took place in recent months would you note first of all?

– First of all, the achievements in combating corruption. These are the launch of the Higher Anticorruption Court, and the passage of the law on illicit enrichment. The unbundling of Naftogaz is a very important reform, too.

– You didn’t mention land reform.

– Only because it hadn’t been finally adopted yet.

I know that Ukrainians have different take on this reform, but the EU openly supports it. An economy in which agriculture has such a weight simply cannot do without the land market. For instance, a farmer must be able to go to a bank and take up a loan secured by a land plot.

But surely, we aren’t blind and understand very well how hard it is for villagers to believe that they will have a real chance to buy that land (competing with agricultural holding companies – EP).

– And do you personally believe in that?

– It depends on the Ukrainian government and parliament. They must introduce “safeguards”, including schemes of supporting small agricultural businesses and financing programs. All that is quite possible to do, and as you know, the government has even allocated 4.4 billion hryvnias for this support in 2020.

Yes, I know the challenges. I understand very well how difficult it is to convince the people who have preconceived negative attitude toward this reform. They have to be convinced not to be afraid. And I am absolutely sure that if support schemes are put in place and if people see that these schemes work, they will also see the prospects opening before them.

And according to the World Bank’s estimates, the opening of the land market will bring you a 1.5% GDP growth, which is a lot!

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“I understand very well how difficult it is to convince the people who have preconceived negative attitude toward reform”

– This reform is also being criticized by those who consider it not liberal enough, because it does not open the market to foreign investors. How critical is it?

– The EU does not have a stance in this respect for the simple reason that there are no uniform rules in the European Union itself as regards the purchase of land by foreigners. That’s why the Association Agreement also does not contain a clause concerning land reform.

But believe me: all diplomats working in your country know how sensitive this issue is. I understand very well the fears of your farmers that foreign investors can take up a loan at a much lower interest.

To be sure, foreign investors – including those who already cultivate land in Ukraine – would love to have such an opportunity, but let me repeat myself: We are not blind and deaf, and we understand what questions it causes. So, there is no such requirement on part of the EU – we do not regulate it.

“These people represent not the Donbas but the neighbor, Russia”

– Are you pleased with Mr. Zelensky’s approach to the question of Donbas?

– Let me emphasize, first of all, what international partners and the majority of Ukrainians are sure about. There is a confidence in President Zelensky’s sincere desire to end the war. It has key importance, and it played the decisive role in him winning the election.

Moreover, he not only wants but has already taken certain steps to fulfill the Minsk Accords.

Surely, I understand very well that a portion – and I emphasize, a portion – of the Ukrainian society perceives these steps with certain fears.

There are those who perceived it as concessions on part of Ukraine.

Bur here, in the European Union, the desire of the President and his team cause no doubts whatsoever, and we welcome them the most cordially. And we also see the results – for example, an agreement about the Normandy Format summit, which has not been held for three years.

– The sincerity of desires is not an indicator in itself. One can make an irreparable mistake even with the most sincere desires.

– Look, speaking from the standpoint of a diplomat, he is simply implementing the Minsk Accords. The EU is fully supportive of the “Minsk” and advocates its implementation. Moreover, certain EU politicians have ties to the “Minsk”.

Therefore, we cannot oppose these steps in any way.

And more to the point – we see that even after these steps by Mr. Zelensky, the level of his support remains high.

– The logic of Zelensky’s Donbas policy is based on the premise that concessions on part of Ukraine must be followed by concessions on part of Russia. Do you believe that Russia will go for that?

– The point is not whether I believe in it. The Minsk Accords, as well as the subsequent annexes thereto, such as the Steinmeier Formula, define the steps necessary to end the war, end the conflict in the Donbas. And therefore, it is important to do everything to take these steps.

Surely, action must be taken not just by Ukraine, and therefore, the EU continuously maintains that Russia also must come forward. There must be reciprocity in this regard.

– And what if Russia won’t do it?

– I am not going to speculate on this subject; I simply cannot answer a “what if” question.

– But wait, how can you maintain this policy without thinking about the “what if” scenarios? For here is the most realistic scenario: Putin has no intentions to retreat.

– That’s what we shall see. And probably, will see very soon – in a two weeks’ time, after the summit in Paris. And an important point here is that Russia has also signed the Minsk Accords and undertook the commitment to fulfill them. And she must take steps expected from her to fulfill the “Minsk”.

– Is a direct dialogue with the so-called “Luhansk/Donetsk People’s Republics” possible?

– I understand very well the undesirability and even the impossibility of such a dialogue for the Ukrainian government. I understand that it is impossible to engage in a dialogue with people who haven’t been elected and who even came who knows from where. In fact, these people represent not the Donbas but the neighboring state (Russia – EP).

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“It is impossible to engage in a dialogue with people who haven’t been elected and who even came who knows from where”

– How can life of our compatriots in Crimea be made easier?

– This is a very difficult question. In fact, there is an international ban on investments in this occupied territory. But at the same time, there are Ukrainian citizens living there, and therefore, your government must find a balance of how to interact with them. It is harder for the European Union in this regard: we have strict sanctions against Crimea and a policy of non-recognition.

And by the way, I want to tell those who believe that Crimean sanctions produce no effect.

I lived half of my life in a territory occupied by the Soviet Union, a territory with regard to which there was an international policy of not recognizing the annexation, and that policy was much softer than the one currently applied to Crimea. But in the end, its goal was achieved, even though it took several decades: Estonia restored its independence. What can you do? Sanctions are the thing that takes time.

– Are you sure that sanctions against Crimea will stay in place that long?

– Absolutely! Everything’s clear here, both from the standpoint of international law and from the moral point of view.

Yes, sanctions will stay in place.

– And what about the sectoral sanctions imposed after the Russian aggression in the Donbas? Are you equally sure in that regard?

– You know, back in 2014 I was an Estonian Ambassador to the EU and participated in all discussions concerning sanctions. There were several phases of these discussions, but in the end, we approved the sanctions in order to change behavior of Russia’s leadership. Later, these sanctions were tied to the complete implementation of the Minsk Accords. And since that time, everything is clear with that package of sanctions as well: sanctions must stay in place until and unless real changes will happen (in the Donbas – EP).

So, these economic sanctions continue for five years, and their prolongation has already become something of a routine. Every six months, these sanctions are extended without any special discussions, simply because everybody understands that it must be done. And I won’t be surprised that in December, they will be prolonged in the same routine way.

– However, there is no confidence that there will be such a common willingness to continue sanctions against Russia in the coming years, considering the current sentiments in Europe

– You know, there were similar sentiments in 2014 in many EU states, including the country I know the best (Estonia – EP). Every visit of a European leader to Moscow and every signal was perceived the same way: “Look what’s happening! Sanctions are collapsing!” But as you can see, that didn’t happen. They won’t collapse!

For all member states knew what happened and what the European Union does in response. Therefore, sanctions have already been prolonged ten times. It just can’t be that 28 democratic countries make a collective mistake every six months ten times in a row!

Therefore, I don’t think that this will change in the future.

“During our meeting, Mr. Zelensky asked about it”

– Ukraine has long been striving to receive the so-called European prospects, i.e., recognition of the prospects of its membership in the EU. Did you hear about this desire from the new political leadership?

– Of course, and this desire is still present, for it is written in your Constitution.

– And does the leadership themselves broach this subject?

– That Europe is the goal and choice of the Ukrainian nation is absolutely obvious. This is the choice of your society, and it has been unquestionable since 2014.

But I understand what you are talking about, and would like to defend your politicians: they do not have to broach this subject at every meeting with the EU. There is no need to ask every European politician: hey, what about our European prospects? That this goal has been very clearly outlined for both the Ukrainian people and your government, and that we are well aware of this goal is enough.

Still, I’d like to reveal one little secret.

Not so far ago, I as a newly-appointed EU Ambassador presented my credentials to President Zelensky. And during this ceremony, the President asked me about it. Therefore, the new leadership is also interested in joining the EU.

My personal conviction is that both him and I will live to see the day when that happens. But for the moment, as you know it well, this matter is not on the negotiation table.

– The new European Commission, its future President Ursula von der Leyen says, will be the first “geopolitical commission” in the history of the EU. Does that give Ukraine more chances?

– Geopolitics is, first of all, the European Union’s place in the world and formation of its foreign policy. And foreign policy always starts with neighbors. Therefore, both Mrs. von der Leyen and the newly-appointed High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, have clearly stressed that relationships with the neighbors, and especially Ukraine, will be a priority for the new Commission.

– According to the Association Agreement, a meeting of the higher joint body, the Association Council, is held every year, usually in December. Will it take place this year?

– It hasn’t been decided on yet. The reason is that the approval of the new European Commission took longer than expected, and the Commisison didn’t start working yet. But I can assure you: even if the meeting will be postponed, it won’t be for a long.

This meeting is very important: it will be the first time the new Ukrainian government and the new leadership of the European Commission meet, and the first attempt to build personal contact between them.

– Is it possible that this meeting will discuss the revision or update of the Association Agreement?

– I will tell you even more: I will be very surprised if the Ukrainian PM and Vice PM won’t broach this matter.

After all, Ukraine and the EU already have such an experience: we have updated the Annex 27 which concerns the energy sector. The same can be repeated in other sectors as well.

– Do you mean the digital market?

– A single digital market is not the only area where it is possible. Another example is integrated border control. I also know that Ukraine is interested in the progress in technical standards – I’m talking about the so-called ACAA agreements. You know that Ukraine still needs to pass one law in this regard, and after that, your government expects that we will assess how this system works… All in all, there are enough ambitious plans.

– Let me clarify the situation with ACAA: is it possible that the EU will indeed send its assessment mission over here early the next year?

– I won’t risk talking about these details. But believe me, we are well aware of the ambitions the Ukrainian leadership has in this regard.

– Ukraine also wants to revise certain tariffs and duty-free quotas stated in the Association Agreement. Can it possibly be done in a short term?

– Trade is an area that undergoes constant changes. But I would like to refrain from specifics, and will tell you only that if necessary, the EU is capable of making fast decisions, and Ukraine could see that, for instance, in 2014-2015.

“Repressions against Poroshenko? No, I didn’t hear about that”

– Does the EU expect a new gas war and discontinuation of gas transit via Ukraine?

– Hard to tell. Indeed, hard. But I can assure you: both the EU and Ukraine are well prepared for different scenarios.

Still, the trilateral talks (negotiation of a new gas transit contract between Ukraine and Russia with the EU’s mediation – EP) continue, and Maroš Šefčovič, Vice President of the European Commission who conducts them, does this job very well.

– He has only four days left, because after 1 December he will no longer be a Vice President.

– At least the European Commission as an institution will remain. And I think that they will turn mountains in search of not just a new contract but an adequate contract.

Let me tell you at the outset: a simple prolongation of the present contract for a year to give Russia time to finish construction of a new pipeline bypassing Ukraine is not an adequate option. The purpose of these talks is to reach a long-term, stable agreement about reliable delivery of gas via Ukraine.

– The opposition in the Ukrainian parliament – I mean European Solidarity – is talking more and more often about repressions. Did you hear about that?

– About repressions? No, I didn’t. Although I haven’t met the party’s leader Petro Poroshenko yet.

– You definitely could not miss the SBI’s investigation against Poroshenko. Is it not a repression?

– We will keep an eye on how this matter unfolds. After all, nobody must be above law.

At the same time, as far as I know, the new leadership are very well aware of the political and legal sensitivity of the investigation against the ex-President. And they know that not just everything possible needs to be done to ensure observance of all norms and rules, but even more than possible.

And as far as I understand, the leadership are well aware of all that.

– Don’t you think that it sounds strange amid the audio records on which SBI chief Truba discusses persecutions against Poroshenko with the Head of Presidential Office, Bohdan?

– Of course, we also keep a close eye on this story. And in this regard, I can only point out (to the Ukrainian leadership – EP) the words of Ukraine’s biggest friend in the EU, Donald Tusk, who made a statement on this matter. (Speaking at the European People’s Party Congress in Zagreb, Tusk commented on the case against Poroshenko: “My first impression is that something really dangerous is going on. I hope that Ukraine will remain a country in which law enforcement and judicial authorities respect the rule of law and where there is no place for politically motivated persecutions.” – EP)

“Why everybody here is parking on sidewalks?”

– Do you plan to participate in marathons in Kyiv?

– Surely! I will probably run not a full but a half-marathon, 21 km. And the half-marathon which I have already done, the Wizz Air Kyiv City Marathon, was a good experience. If my work permits, I will run Kyiv’s other “halves” as well. Did you say that a colleague of yours ran with me? I am sure she did better than me – as it happened, I did almost no training this time and was in a shape far from my best.

– Tell me about the life in Kyiv: what surprised you the most during these months? What are your general impressions about the capital of Ukraine?

– In general, the impressions are good, and that’s true.

I like architecture in the city’s center. I like that in the central part, you can walk one block after another without encountering that ugly Soviet architecture (EP’s note: many would probably disagree with this observation by the ambassador).

Kyiv is a city easy for foreigners to move to. It is very international! Restaurants, cafes, services – everything is ready for people moving in here from abroad.

– Did you move in here with your family, with kids?

– Yes, I have two teenage daughters. We found a school for them here. Being children from a family of diplomats, they are used to moving from one place to another, and this is their third school. And, I have to admit, they like it here.

– But the traffic in Kyiv was probably an unpleasant surprise for you, wasn’t it?

– Well, traffic like traffic … but there is one thing… Here, everybody is parking on sidewalks! This is… (the ambassador throws up his hands). If not for that thing, in all other respects the moving to Ukraine has been a very pleasant experience for me.

And of course, the most important thing that impresses is your people. Their resoluteness… You know, there is one thing I want to emphasize: in most Indo-European languages including Slavic, the word “independence” was formed via objection: independence, independencia, unabhängigkeit, незалежність. And that’s not an accident.

It’s a very clear indication of what this word means for every nation. This is the basis for everything.

And that’s what I see in Ukraine. And I understand very well what you want to be independent from.

By Serhii Sydorenko

Source: European Pravda