In the image above: (L) The Honourable Ambassador of Ukraine in Oslo H.E.
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO with the Editor in Chief of The Oslo Times, Hatef Mokhtar (R)
Honourable Ambassador of Ukraine: It is a privilege and an honour for The Oslo Times and its readers for being given the opportunity to interview you. We are glad to be here in order to have your candid comments and analyses of matters pertaining to Ukraine, Norway and the world in general.
TOT: How does Ukraine see the strengthening of its ties with Norway and what are the areas where a better cooperation can be established between the two nations?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Over the 20 years of diplomatic relations with Norway, our countries signed 25 international treaties, including interstate, intergovernmental and interdepartmental agreements and memorandums. Regular exchange of visits of foreign ministers, defense ministers, parliamentarians prove the partner character of the political dialogue. This autumn we expect the first official visit of the Ukrainian Prime Minister to Norway, which will mark another important milestone in bilateral relations. The two countries have close cooperation within international and regional organizations. Ukraine highly appreciates Norwegian support in financing a number of important initiatives, including the Chornobyl Shelter Fund projects in Ukraine.
Despite the many examples of successful cooperation, the potential of our bilateral ties has not been fully revealed so far. The most promising areas for further development of trade and investment is shipbuilding, agriculture, oil and gas exploration, information technology, fish trade and processing.
We hope that another push for vivid trade cooperation will be given by a visit of Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Trond Giske to Ukraine, as well as by the opening of the representative office of the Norwegian-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce (nucc.no) in Ukraine later this year.
Research and development is another important area for further development of cooperation. A number of Norwegian research and academic institutions, like SIVA, NGU, NIVA, SINTEF, University of Nordland, University of Ås, University of Telemark have established strong ties with their Ukrainian counterparts. The strong academic traditions in Ukraine are major prerequisites for other joint initiatives in basic and applied research.
Also cultural ties possess a deep potential for vigorous development. For example, Maihaugen Museum in Lillehammer enjoys fruitful cooperation with the Open Air Museum in Lviv under the support of the Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage. I believe, that we should utilize the historical ties between our peoples dating back to the Medieval times, when Norwegian konungs sought kinship with rulers of Kyiv Rus’, and promote stronger ties between the Ukrainian and Norwegian nations.
TOT: After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has always remained in serious political turmoil, inside or outside its border. Could you shed some light on this situation?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: After the collapse of the Soviet Union the new country with its unique geographical position, rich natural resources, industrial and scientific strength as well as highly qualified human capital started to search for its own niche in the global world. At the same time, during the first years after the proclamation of independence, Ukraine had to shape a new system of state administration, national legislation, establish or re-establish economic ties with the neighbouring countries and the rest of the world.
It is obvious that such transformations cannot be accomplished overnight, and are often accompanied by political turmoil. Since 1991 Ukraine has done significant progress in democracy building and development of a market economy. Unlike in most of the former Soviet Union countries, all conflict situations in Ukraine have been resolved in a peaceful and democratic way.
The country is now implementing deep structural reforms, which have been long overdue. We have headed for the European integration as a transformational process addressing a number of the key issues, such as strengthening of national security, economic development, consolidation of democracy, and respect for human rights.
TOT: The Euro Cup tournament recently hosted and organized by the Ukraine has been criticized as the most scandal hit event in Europe. What would your take be on these allegations made by various factions and countries in Europe?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Let me disagree with your statement. According to UEFA, EURO 2012 turned out to become a unique event with the best legacy that UEFA could have ever produced. The decision to bring the final round of EURO 2012 to the East was a historic one both for Ukraine and for Poland. Yes, it was a challenge in terms of economy and infrastructure. But we succeeded. Before the tournament there were a lot of speculations about the failure of the future Championship, rumours and unfounded allegations prevailed in media.
During the first days of the tournament all the allegations vanished. And I am really proud of the high level organization of this fantastic tournament by Ukraine and Poland. The Polish and Ukrainian peoples have shown their enthusiasm, tolerance, hospitality traditions and have set a high bar for the future tournaments that will be difficult to match.
The Ukrainian government delivered on all of its commitments to demonstrate that we can host major international events as a part of the common European family.
TOT: Prior to the Euro Cup the EU and its members particularly Germany, the UK had tried to boycott the tournament in support of ex- Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a jail sentence in Kharkiv region, where she was on a hunger strike from the 20th of April to the 9th of May 2012. Please explain a bit about their stand and their contentions? Was this stand an act of discrimination against Ukraine?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Attempts to politicize the European Football Championship EURO 2012 were destructive, and its boycott would undermine the image of the Championship itself. Moreover, sport events have since the ancient times played an important role in the process of establishing interstate understanding and unity. After winning the right to host the European football championship in 2012, Ukrainian and Polish peoples have taken great efforts and have done tremendous work to secure a top level organization of the tournament.
Boycott of EURO 2012 would practically harm the feelings of millions of ordinary Ukrainian citizens as well as European fans who vote for different parties or are not interested in politics at all. Reformation of the Ukrainian judicial system, strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law – all these issues belong objectively to the field other than a football festival, which is in its essence beyond politics and cannot be used to address political and judicial issues.
TOT: Yulia Tymoshenko, who led the Orange Revolution in Ukraine against the Kuchma government, is behind bars which the European Union and other international organizations have criticised by saying that “the conviction is seen as "justice being applied selectively under political motivation". What do you have to say on this?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Yuliya Tymoshenko is serving the sentence for the abuse of power while in office and not for her political activity. She was sentenced by the court in the result of the criminal investigation. This was the court’s decision which is to be respected — both domestically and internationally. The only way to challenge it is to appeal to a higher court of law.
I would like to point out, that Ukraine is now paying an enormous price for the Russian natural gas, the price we are obliged to pay according to Tymoshenko’s notorious gas deal with Russia in 2009. It is ridiculous, but it is cheaper for Ukraine now to import the Russian gas from Germany than from Russia itself.
Another issue to mention here is, of course, the system of justice in Ukraine, which definitely requires further reformation. Our government and parliament are now carrying out reforms of the judicial system in general and, in particular, in the part of criminal investigation.
In April 2012 the new Code of Criminal Procedure was approved by the Parliament of Ukraine. The main purpose of the reform is to create equal opportunities for each of the parties in criminal process and to secure a real implementation of the adversarial principle.
TOT: Ukraine is looking forward to its acceptance in the European Union as a full fledged member. So what are the steps the Government of Ukraine has taken so far in that direction so as to meet the required EU standards?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: The EU-Ukraine relations officially started from the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1994. Many Ukrainian experts regret that Ukraine did not sign an association agreement in the 1990s like other Eastern European states, referring to this as a “missed time and opportunity”, because the PCA only deals with cooperation and not integration.
However much progress has been made since 2007, when Ukraine and the EU decided to elaborate a new type of agreement based on political association and economic integration. Political association means harmonization of our policies, including foreign policy and deeper cooperation in different spheres. It’s also about values, so the future Association agreement will be based on the same values as the Lisbon treaty.
While economic integration is about our integration into the Single market with the extension of all the four EU’s freedoms to Ukraine. This process is very difficult primarily because the free movement of people is a highly debated issue in the EU member states.
The association agreement is a unique framework for further reforms in Ukraine and is a real toolbox that will bring Ukraine closer to the EU. Last year we successfully completed negotiations with the EU on the Association agreement. This year the text was initialled, concluding the five years of negotiations. Now the 600 page document has to be translated into 23 languages, signed, ratified and finally implemented.
The process of visa liberalisation, which is another extremely important issue for Ukrainians, is also progressing very well. The European Commission has recently published a positive report of Ukraine’s implementation of the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan and Ukraine hopes to launch the second phase of this Action Plan soon.
Finally, I want to say that relations with the EU are very important for Ukraine. Support of European integration is the issue that unites almost all Ukrainians. The country’s European perspective enjoys over 70% support in all parts of the country, so it is a crucial priority of Ukraine’s foreing policy. The interesting point is that the high level of support is not about the financial benefits that European integration would bring.
Enlargement of the EU to the East of Europe is about reunification of the space of common history and common mentality. For Ukraine, integration with the EU is a civilisational choice.
TOT: How do you see the progress from the European Union while considering the candidature of Ukraine as its member country and how long will Ukraine take to arrive at a decision on the same?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: The Comprehensive association agreement will bring benefits to both of the parties – Ukraine and EU. I already mentioned the overwhelming popular support of the EU membership in Ukraine. At the same time, we understand that further progress will depend of the results of the reforms in our country.
Now we feel the real interest from both sides. For example, the representatives of European business circles are more and more actively calling for abolition of visas for Ukrainians to the EU. We are also working hard to deliver on our part. I am sure, this two-way drift will give positive and prompt results.
We are very optimistic. And Europe is steadily growing ready to embrace Ukraine. According to the last survey of the GfK, almost half of the European guests, who visited Ukraine during EURO 2012, stated that Ukraine deserved to enter the EU in the near future. The survey results revealed that EU citizens generally support Ukraine's European aspirations and believe that Ukraine deserves the visa-free regime as a component of European integration.
According to the same survey, 52.4% of European fans would like to cancel the visa regime between their countries and Ukraine already today, while only 4.8% did not support the visa-free initiative. 42.56% of the respondents wanted Ukraine to become a member of the 27 nation block in a short term, while 30.92% believed that Ukraine could join the EU in the medium term under the condition that the political and economic situation in the country improves. Notably, only 2.77% of the surveyed EU citizens said they did not want to see Ukraine as a part of the Union.
TOT: Russia has been a major gas supplier to Europe and Ukraine has played a transit point to its gas supplies. But time to time the dispute has remained alive between Ukraine and Russia where at some point Ukraine has always warned Russia of stopping its gas supplies to Europe. This has resulted in Russia considering another transit route through Turkey via the European Union?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: The South Stream is economically disadvantageous both for Ukraine and for Russia. Ukrainian gas transit system is the most secure and prospective for the Russian gas deliveries to Europe.
Its modernization would cost for us and the international partners almost 50 times less, than construction of the South Stream, while the Ukrainian GTS is able to deliver 100% of the Europe’s demand in Russian gas.
Referring to the second part of your question, Ukraine has never used its gas transit system as a political or geopolitical instrument and has never stopped or warned of stopping deliveries of the Russian gas to the EU.
We are a loyal partner that maintains its international agreements and obligations. Above all, we want to maintain good relations with Russia as well as strengthen cooperation with the EU.
TOT: In the context of the previous question is the next one: How will you describe this situation and the rift which has caused Europe a crucial shortage in its gas supplies?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Secure gas transit to Europe has always been a priority for Ukraine, sometimes even at the expense of our own benefits. The gas negotiations of 2009 were carried out in the extreme international pressure, and in that crisis situation Ukraine stood firm to deliver on its obligations before Russia and the European countries.
Moreover, I already commented on the economic consequences of the gas contracts signed by the former Prime Minister without the due governmental appraisal. Now the Ukrainian economy has to cope with the dramatic prices on the natural gas, on top of the consequences of the global financial crisis.
TOT: Recently the Venice Commission advised Ukraine not to reconsider its mixed election system for its upcoming elections in October this year. Has Ukraine done something in accepting this new draft proposed by the Venice Commission? If so, then what are the steps which have been taken in this direction?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: As you justly noted, Ukraine is now approaching parliamentary elections. The President and the Government of Ukraine have publicly stated their commitment to secure free and fair elections in accordance with our election law of 2011, drafted according to the European standards.
The law was endorsed by both coalition and most opposition parties, and reaching a consensus decision was namely one of the main recommendations of the Venice Commission. We believe that the mixed system will better serve the interests of the Ukrainian people, providing for increased accountability of the MPs. According to many Ukrainian experts, closer ties with respective constituency results in a higher awareness of local needs and challenges.
Now the Ukrainian government strives to make the election process as transparent as possible. According to recent regulations, the voting process will be broadcast via web cameras online at the corresponding web-site. Video surveillance system will be recording the whole process after voting and up until the signing of protocols by election committees.
Ukraine has also sent early invitations to the international observers to monitor the election process. In this context we are working closely with many countries and with the international organizations, in particular, OSCE, the Council of Europe, NATO and others. We hope that Norway will send own observers as well.
TOT: In April, Ukraine was hit by a series of blasts in its industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, which claimed many lives of hundreds of innocent people. How will you comment on this act of terrorism and who in your view is to be blamed or held accountable?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: The tragedy in Dnipropetrovsk on April 27th of this year left 29 people injured. The criminal case was opened according to part 2 of the Article 258 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (the act of terrorism). Until the final examination is carried out, it is not possible to state if the explosions were an act of terrorism, whether it was a homemade bomb or a military explosive.
The President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych has called on the to the Prosecutor General, Chairman of the Security Service of Ukraine, and Interior Minister to take comprehensive measures and carry out an investigation of the explosions in order to establish those involved in the bombings in Dnipropetrovsk city.
Unfortunately, terrorism is a global challenge which requires a better cooperation between security services of different countries to prevent sufferings of innocent people.
TOT: How you will describe the situation of human rights in Ukraine?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: We recognize that further political transformations in Ukraine and the reforms are required to strengthen the system of the protection of human rights. Respect of human rights is one of the priorities of the President and the Government. We appreciate the attention and desire of the international community to promote the legal and democratic institutions in our country.
In this context, all the recommendations of the international community or non-governmental organizations are studied and analyzed in order to implement them in Ukraine.
There is still much to improve in Ukraine’s judicial system and procedures, but it needs to be done consistently. Such work has already started and we welcome the initiatives aimed at bringing the legislation in this area in line with the international standards.
TOT: Does the press and the electronic/Internet media enjoy freedom in your country or does it still face the state control over the press and media activities just like it used to be at the time the Soviet Union existed?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: I don’t even want to compare the present freedom of media in Ukraine with the Soviet time. There are both public and private mass media now in Ukraine. The share of non-public television and radio broadcasting stands at over 96%.
With the development of information technologies and the advance of the Internet, many independent Internet media have emerged. Of course, there are challenges we face but the state makes every effort to secure freedom of media in Ukraine.
According to the World Press Freedom Index 2011/2012 of the Reporters without borders, Ukraine is rated at the 116 level which is a 15-point better position compared to last year. Basic principles, standards and provisions of the existing Ukrainian laws today correspond to the international legal standards and the international conventions of human rights.
At the same time the existence of modern legislation is not enough to guarantee the rights of the society to free and unbiased information. We have to continue our work to ensure that the laws are practiced in full, and the real protection of the rights of journalists and mass media is secured.
The President of Ukraine has repeatedly issued strong demands to the law enforcement agencies for a greater protection of the rights of journalists and freedom of media. The Head of State is convinced that it is one of the main duties of the authorities to create all the necessary conditions for free and independent journalistic activities in Ukraine.
TOT: How will you rate the progress which your country has made after achieving its independence?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Despite the challenges we are still facing, Ukraine has achieved a lot indeed. Back in 1991 we inherited a ruined economic system, acute social tensions and political vacuum, not to mention the bitter burdens of the Soviet legacy. Now Ukraine may boast of a growing middle class, emerging but manifold civil society, strong business community and large-scale investment projects.
In 1994 Ukraine joined the Non-Proliferation treaty refusing its nuclear arsenal, the third largest in the world. It was the first precedent in history for a nation to voluntarily give up its strategic weapon. We managed to reach a high level of dialogue and cooperation with international organizations as well as deep comprehensive relations with many foreign states developing the strategic partnership with the key players on international arena.
Since the declaration of its independence in August 1991, Ukraine determined membership in the United Nations as one of its foreign policy priorities. In 1997 Hennadiy Udovenko, then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine was elected President of the 52nd UN General Assembly session.
Ukraine's election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the term 2000-2001 became an acknowledgment of our state's authority and role on the international arena as well as of its consistent and unbiased foreign policy. Ukraine was elected also to the UN Economic and Social Council for five times. Representatives of Ukraine served as chairmen of a number of main committees of the UN General Assembly sessions.
Ukraine became a productive member of the Council of Europe and the last year we held a successful presidency in the Committee of Ministers of this important European institution. In 2013 Ukraine will chair the OSCE. After all, we have successfully co-hosted the EURO 2012 tournaments this year, showing our utmost hospitality to the world. This August we celebrate yet another anniversary of freedom. All in all, we have achieved much over the 21 years of independence, but have to look ahead and work hard for further achievements.
TOT: What kind of role has Ukraine played so far in promoting democracy and freedom of the human individual in the fullest sense of the term, in the region as well as on the global stage of the present day?
Mr. Yurii ONISCHENKO: Ukraine enjoys a unique geopolitical position at the crossing of the main transport corridors between the East and the West, the North and the South. Ukraine is the key to strengthening democracy, freedom and security in the Balto-Black Sea-Caspian region. Our country plays the key role in this geopolitical space, which largely defines the structure of European security.
Committed to promoting democracy and freedom in the region Ukraine co-founded the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development – GUAM, now uniting Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. With the headquarters in Kyiv, this international organization primarily works to promote democratic values in the region, ensure the rule of law and respect for human rights, support sustainable development and strengthen international and regional security and stability.
Ukraine’s future Chairmanship in OSCE in 2013 will focus on promotion of democracy in the OSCE area, settlement of protracted conflicts, including the Transnistrian conflict, as well as in the improvement of the Organization’s effectiveness in response to new challenges and threats.
We believe that efficient functioning of the organizations such as the OSCE, EU and NATO does not only promise security for their member states, but also development and prosperity, compliance with the fundamental human rights, freedoms and the rule of law. Ukraine develops close and active cooperation with these organizations in the context.
Speaking globally, I would like to mention that Ukraine was one of the ardent supporters of the establishment of the Human Rights Council. In 2006 Ukraine was elected one of the first members of the Council and in 2008 it was re-elected to this leading UN body for the period up until 2011 with a strong international support.
Ukraine’s membership in the HRC is a contribution to strengthening of the international stability and security, spreading of the democratic standards worldwide, increased international cooperation on important international projects on human rights, as well as active involvement in elaboration of balanced approaches to the solving of crisis situations. It has also opened for promotion of Ukrainian initiatives in the field. Recently in June 2010, the HRC adopted the resolution “On the role of prevention in the promotion and protection of human rights” initiated by Ukraine and co-supported by about 30 countries.
Now Ukraine is a party to the majority of the international human rights instruments, including the seven core UN human rights conventions and the optional protocols thereto, first of all: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on Rights of Person with Disabilities.
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