US top diplomat on Ukraine to Válasz: “It does not matter who is the president”

·2019.05.01

“We do not support individuals and candidates, we support principles”, says the US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations asked by Válasz Online. When it comes to president-elect Volodimir Zelensky, Ambassador Kurt Volker admits democracy is a risky thing while suggesting that if the new president made any meaningful concession to Russia to have a settlement in Eastern Ukraine, people would turn against him very quickly. Speaking after a public event in Budapest, Mr. Volker also outlined that the new Ukrainian language law “still needs work”.

– If someone had asked you to make a bet before the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, who would you have chosen?

– The opinion polls certainly showed that Zelensky was doing quite well. It had shifted a little bit in some opinion polls to make the margin not quite as big but it still looked like he had a large margin in the polls. So if you go by that, that appeared the way it was trending.

– So you have expected that.

– I would not go so far to say that I have expected anything because it is Ukraine where anything can happen and on the Friday before the election day they had a big televised debate in the olympic stadium with tens of thousands of people. It could have been a decisive event, who knows?

– How difficult is to conduct a consistent US policy in a country where, as you have said, anything can happen?

– Not hard at all. We made clear during the election campaign – and have continued to make clear – that we do not support individuals and candidates, we support principles. Those are the democratic reforms, strengthening the judiciary and the rule of law, economic reform, security, restoration of sovereignty and Ukraine’s territorial integrity – commitment to the Minsk process – and the euro-Atlantic orientation of Ukraine. And it does not matter who is president or who is in government because that is where our policy is.

– Haven’t those principles failed by the sobering election result of President Poroshenko?

– President Poroshenko did more of reform in the past four years than had been done in Ukraine for the proceeding twenty years. He really did push a lot but Ukrainian people are demanding more.

They want more change, faster and Zelensky ran his campaign on the basis of promising integrity and reform. He had a television show where he portrayed the president that exhibited those characteristics and that is what he was portraying for his campaign as well. The people voted for that, massively, so they now have an expectation on him that he will deliver that kind of leadership in Ukraine. It fits either way: Poroshenko did as much as he could and Ukrainian people are still demanding that reforms go further and there is a lot to be done, still.

– How risky is to approach someone who is completely unknown for you?

Democracy is a risky business in the sense that we have to trust the people…

– …Ukrainians have elected Yanukovich too. Twice. That must have been democratic as well.

– First time he was and the second time he rigged it but democracy is the point because people get to choose. The behaviour of Yanukovich during his first term caused him the position of losing the election except for cheating the second term. In this case, I think

we have to admire president Poroshenko having done a lot on reform and at the same time not trying to rig the election and accepting the will of the people.

President-elect Zelensky will have a term and whether he gets a second term will be determined by how the Ukrainian people judge his progress. As far as we go, we have to work with whoever the Ukrainian people elect. That goes for the president and it also goes for what happens in parliamentary elections six months from now.

Special Representative for Ukraine Volker meets President Poroshenko in Kyiv (2018). Source: US Embassy Kyiv

– Why does Ukraine matter to you?

– Ukraine is important from a variety of prospectives. First is the people. People deserve to have a secure society, their own country, their own territorial integrity, they deserve to build a democracy in a prosperous economy, just like everybody else whether it is the United States, Hungary or Poland. Everybody have the same rights and aspiration and we support that and we do not support when a country tries to prevent that, to tell them they cannot do it, taking their territory and impose a conflict on them. That is just one thing why we support the rights of the Ukrainian people. Second, if a country is able to seize territory by force, threaten to use military force, disrupt internal politics of a country and it is allowed to get away with that at one place, it can do it again at other places. It disrupts the fabric of European security and stability that we have been trying to build since World War II.

– It sounds like Ukraine happens to be a theatre – it could be in Belarus, it could be in Moldova.

– Ukraine is big – with 40 million people – and

it is a war that continues to go on every day, it has produced the most people killed in Europe since the war in the Balkans in the 90s. It has produced more displaced persons from a war in Europe that any conflict since World War II.

That is another reason why we should care about it. I was very disappointed that we did not do more when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. We stopped the conflict but then we had the reset-policy and got back to business as usual; I think that was a mistake and it has been a disadvantage to Georgia – Russia has recognised Abkhazia and South Osetia as independent states and it also encouraged Russia with respect to Ukraine.

– You have mentioned democracy. What if Mr. Zelensky decides to have a settlement with Russia about the Eastern territories by, let’s say, giving up some of them, enjoying the authority he gained from the people, a significant group of which is desperately willing to end the war?

– People’s view of Zelensky would change very fast if he suggested he would do that. He has, in fact, said the opposite. He said that he will insist on the full restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and he supports the process that is already in place to do that. Doing otherwise would turn people against him very quickly.

– With regards to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, you are referring to the Minsk process but the 2015 ceasefire agreement does not mention Crimea at all. Isn’t it a contradiction?

– The Minsk agreements were established because of the hot war going on in Eastern Ukraine. Crimea is a separate case but there was no fighting going on, the Russians took it rather quietly. We do not recognise that, the European Union does not recognise that – last July, Secretary of State Pompeo put out a declaration making the US position formal that we do not and will not accept Russia’s claim with the annexation of Crimea. Russia is adamant about it, they do not want to talk about it so we have a long-term standoff over Crimea. In the case of Eastern Ukraine, we have the Minsk agreements, Russia in those agreements commits to the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The agreements also provide a basis where until Russia fulfills that, we have sanctions on Russia from the EU and the US. Russia has failed to implement the agreements from the start: no ceasefire, no withdrawal of heavy weapons and its forces from Eastern Ukraine, no disbanding of illegal militias and the two people’s republics that are there that abstract the implementation of any kind of civilian presence.

A Russian-backed separatist collects the debris of an anti-personnel mine at a heavily damaged public building in the outskirts of Debaltseve in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (2015). Photo: Szabolcs Vörös

Ukraine has passed a legislation that is required in terms of special status, in terms of amnesty but all of that legislation is pending Ukraine getting access to the territory again but they must have security in order to get through the rest of Minsk implementation. That is why we proposed to have UN-mandated peacekeeping force because that would be a way to create security, facilitate the Russian withdrawal, make sure the people are taken care of, make sure that Minsk agreements are fully implemented and the territory would revert to Ukrainian control. I hope we can get back to that again at some point because I think it is the best way forward.

– How far would you go for Ukraine? First you helped the military reform by providing non-lethal equipments then you raised the stakes by selling Javelin anti-tank missiles – what is next?

– Ukraine needs to continue to develop economic reform, political reform, security sector reform and resilience as a country. We hope that there can be an effective process for ending the war in the East as well, that Russia can conclude a peace but whether or not Russia does that, it is still about helping Ukraine be a successful and sustainable country.

Ukrainian soldiers participate a first aid class held by their US colleagues at the Western Ukrainian military base of Yavoriv. Photo: Szabolcs Vörös

– Last week, Verkhovna Rada – the Ukrainian parliament – adopted a legislation which requires citizens of Ukraine to use Ukrainian language everywhere but their homes and churches. Isn’t it a violation of fundamental rights?

– This is something that still needs work. There are two fundamental principles: one is the right of national minorities to speak their own language, have education on their language and being able to conduct themselves in that language if they wish. Also the principle that has reasonable expectation that all of its citizens can speak and functionally carry out business in the national language of the country.

These are both achievable, it is not black and white and there are plenty of examples around Europe where this is the case.

They are universal principles, not a uniquely Hungarian thing, but the best way to address it is for Ukraine and Hungary to talk together about how this is implemented so that we can respect the rights of everybody.

– The law suggests legal punishment…

– …as I said, the principles there are what need to be respected and there is a lot of work to be done to get from where we are today to where it needs to be. We do not know what is going to happen with the law.

– If someone had told you three years ago that in 2019 you would have to refer about a showman in Kyiv to former showman in Washington, how would you have reacted?

– Anything is possible in a democracy. The issues are still the same issues and they still need to be addressed.

 

Cover picture: Szabolcs Vörös

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