Ukraine is very close to Serbia, we share a common Slovenian origin and religion and in recent decades a similar fate. Our country and Ukraine are now paving the way towards the European Union. Telegraf spoke with Ukrainian Ambassador in Serbia Oleksandr Alexandrovych about relations between Ukraine and Serbia as well as current issues concerning his country.
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK – Telegraf English or write to us on: firstname.lastname@example.org
In east Ukraine are still running conflict and the country is also trying to break away from Russian influence. Ukraine Government and people continue to fight to return the parts of their territory and they are trying to move closer to the European Union.
Ambassador Aleksandrovych is explaining officials and "ordinary" people what the situation really is and that thing need to be considering realistic. We first talked with him about his impressions of our country, given the fact that at the place of ambassador was appointed in June this year.
What was your first thought when you heard that you are new ambassador in Serbia?
- This is my first ambassadorial position in the 20 years of my diplomatic career. I was naturally very excited and I knew it would be Serbia because I was the one who choose this country. There were several options but I thought that this country is indeed very interesting. When I have come here I have come to realize that people are very hospitable, the food is excellent, the weather is good, politics is special. It's not easy but that’s quite a challenge and I thought I would take it.
Did you have prejudice about our country and if you had what was it?
- No, not at all. I did visit the Balkans several times before. I was in Sarajevo, Macedonia and I did visit Belgrade one time. It was 24. March 1999. with our former foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk. It was two hours before bombing and the porpoise of our business at that time, because Ukraine was in UN Security Council, is that we were trying to mediate and prevent these terrible events here in the Balkans. We were the last, first came Viktor Chernomyrdin, former Representative of the Russian President for Yugoslavia. I came with my minister and it was very tense situation here. I remember landing at the empty airport, absolutely empty with military people around. My minister had meeting with Milosevic and we did all the best but unfortunately we could not prevent it. Guess no one could. It was tragic occasion and a very difficult time. When I have come this time I thought that one of my duties is not only to strengthen Ukraine and Serbia ties but also to help your country and people as much as I can. To tell more about Ukraine, to explain that we both move towards Europe and that this is the way to prevent this difficult times of the past.
What was your impression about Milosevic?
- It’s hard for me to answer diplomatically. He was a cleaver man but he was very tense and very categorical, maybe stubborn. I do not wish to give any political assessments, it’s up to the people in Serbia to assess the former leader. That was my personal impression.
You travelled around in Serbia, what was the thing that impressed you the most?
- I believe that Serbia is lucky to have a very good regional policy. In most of the countries, there’s the big capital where all people try to come, live and work there, which creates too much pressure on the capital and then you have problem with developments of the region. In Serbia it is much more balanced. I like it that people try not only to go abroad and in Belgrade, but are trying to develop their region. I believe this is the policy that is consciously promoted by your government, it is very smart and good. Every place has its own beauties. I visited Vojvodina more than other parts of the country. Vojvodina has its own separate flavor, it is very multicultural, with I think 11 national minorities including the Ukraine and there are all kinds of religions. Especially in Subotica and Novi Sad, they sometimes remind me of the city of Lviv in western Ukraine and Odessa. They are cosmopolitan and multicultural. What I also notice in may place that is that people build really big and solid houses for big family. What I understand in your country and it’s also typical for Ukraine, especially in the countryside, that several generations are living in the same house. That’s creating a sense of community and family.
Did you notice some similarity between Ukrainian and Serbian people?
- Yes, in turns of music, dancing, culture, even in language. Languages are very similar. I understand practically everything in Serbian, I cannot speak much but I'll try to learn. This is no wonder because at the beginning of the first millennium, there was a big migration of people and according to Serbian historians, your ancestors came from the territory of Ukraine. Then later was the reciprocal migration, because the western Ukraine and Serbia were parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some people from western Ukraine came to Serbia, the Republic of Srpska and Bosnia. But also, some Serbs have come to the central and eastern Ukraine. Serbs and Ukrainians know how to work hard, especially on the land, but we also know how to relax and enjoy life. I have come to realized that the word "slowly" explains the philosophy of the Serbian people, according to my personal impression. It is OK if you do everything slowly but with good quality. You'll live happily, that’s our similarity.
What is your remark of the relations between Ukraine and Serbia and what can be done more to improve them?
- I have been trying hard to revive that cooperation in many fields. Since two years ago we did not have ambassador in here for objective reasons, because that was the time when Euromaidan started and then the Russian aggression against Ukraine. So we were preoccupied with other problems. And there was some pause in political and economic relations. Now in the last half a year I’ve been trying to meet as many people as possible. I met practically all your government people, ministries, your parliament, businessmen, journalists, ethnic Communities ... I'm trying to build this positive-critical environment for potential cooperation which I hope will be implemented in more specific projects next year. We have resumed negotiations on a free trade area between Serbia and Ukraine, which is indirectly linked with your WTO membership. Earlier this year we will try to continue these negotiations and hopefully finish that job by the end of this year. That will, of course, facilitate trade. Both of our countries have Association Agreements with the European Union, but it is important to have that bilaterally. In addition, hopefully this year in the summer we will resume direct flights between Kiev and Belgrade. And maybe later on between Lviv and Belgrade, because there are a lot of cooperation between companies from western Ukraine and Vojvodina, as well as in Belgrade, and because of the old historical ties. And one more thing which is important, just a couple weeks ago the European Commission approved the decision to grant a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens. Technically it would take another half of year to implement it.
Serbia and Ukraine are in similar situations, I'm talking about Kosovo and the Crimea? How you and your government are viewing the seizure of the territory of both of ours sovereign states?
- Of course we look at it very negatively. It is long standing policy by Russia and it goes back to Stalin when he tried to mix different populations. In modern history it started with Transnistria in Moldova, then it continued in Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now it's Crimea and Donbass. Whenever Serbian people ask me, who are sometimes brain washed by the Russian propaganda, I’m telling them that Ukrainian tanks do not stand near Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is the Russian regular army and weapons stationed in Donbass and now in militarized Crimea. There is a video in which Putin in March 2014, when he was asked by the journalist are the Russian troops in the Crimea, he said no and that these are all local people who stand up against hunt in Kiev. And then one month later he said that they have their people who are standing behind the women and children. So nobody believes him anymore. At present there are about 7,000 to 8,000 regular Russian army, officials and soldiers in Donbass. In the total, the army of those terrorists is about 40,000 people, from 8.000 to 10.000 are Russians, another 25,000 are Russian citizens-mercenaries from Central Russia, Chechnya... There are only about 500-700 of Ukrainians and most of them are frightened and they have to pretend to fight for them, or they are former convicts because the Russians opened prison there, or they are people who are drug addicts. Just maybe a few hundred people in the whole Donbass who ideologically believe that this is like sacred war against Ukraine are fighting fot Russia, but these numbers are small compared to 5 million people living in the occupied part.
We are witnessing a large number of refugees coming to Europe from war-affected areas of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Refugees from Ukraine are not in the focus of world media, but the problem is not less. According to UNHCR data it is estimated that there are more than one million refugees, including more than 800,000 in the Ukraine. What is the position of these people, and can Ukraine cope with this problem?
- We call them internally displaced people. Indeed some part of Ukrainians fled to Russia at the very early stages of that conflict because they didn’t know what would happen. I don’t know exactly how many of them went to Russia. We do have about 1.5 million internally displaced people who fled Donbass or Crimea to the rest of Ukraine. They live everywhere. Of course, it was a huge financial burden, economic, psychological, mostly for everyday life. What is ineteresting is that there is practically low emigration from Ukraine to the West, so there are no threats to Europe unlike Syrians and Afghans. We have a different tendency now and that is that young Ukrainians are very proud to live in Ukraine and they do not want to immigrate anywhere. That’s one of the factors which motivated the European Commission to adopt a visa-free regime.
After occupation of Crimea, conflict moved to east of your country and even after Minsk Agreement, situation is still pretty much the same. In some parts people don’t have water, electricity, basics things in life. It seems like there is no ending?
- According to the international conventions it is the duty of the occupiers, of the aggressor to provide for the living in the occupied territories. The purpose of Putin's at present, after he destroyed the entire economy of eastern Ukraine, is that now he wants to push it back into Ukraine so that we have to pay for all the reconstruction. But also he wants that those terrorists get amnesty, that they get elected with a weapon in his hand in the local community, and that they will dictate to Kiev whether we should be part of the EU or NATO. It is not in the interests of Russia to be seeing any ceasefire or long lasting peace. It was very important to extend the sanctions against Russia. If the West cannot help us with the troops and weapons, because we are not members of NATO, the only thing that’s left is sanctions. I would like specifically to explain to the Serbian people what are this sanction regime is. Many Serbs say they do not want to impose sanctions on Russia, the first is because Serbia was under sanctions and know how hard it is. Secondly because some people believe that you should not do that is that the Russian people need to eat and that it would be hard for their families. Sanctions imposed by the EU and the US to Russia do not qualify for food produces. First of all, the sanctions against Russia who were introduced by EU and USA have nothing to do with food products. The sanctions are about the list of individuals or legal entities that are part of these terrorist groups. They are in the oil industry and the West should not give them any oil technology and equipment. There are sanctions in the banking field so that the western banks to not give loans to Russian banks. One more ban is about selling weapons to Russia. It has nothing to do with the well being of the Russian people. It was Putin himself that introduce the import ban for Western products, so he is starving his own people. The West wants to sell its products to Russia, but they do not want to accept it. That is important to understand. And another important point that I didn’t checked yet. At one of the recent conference in Serbia one of the speakers said that when the embargo was introduced against Yugoslavia in 1992. that Russia supported that embargo. Here people forgot about it.
Ukraine was in the center of attention when protest in Maidan escalated, and then when war in East Ukraine started. Then attention shifted at Middle East, ISIS, last couple of months back in Syria. Do you think that media coverage is important for solving the problem? Because everybody forgot about Syria, and when Russia in September enters in Syrian war, now everybody is talking about finding a solution.
- We try to keep Ukraine on the radar of international politics and the media. As far as our partners in Europe and America, they have stated several times very clearly that they will not lose the attention from developments in Ukraine, that they will not forget about the Crimea and Donbass, and that they will never exchange corporation of Russia in Syria with Ukraine. We cannot dictate the media, it is natural that they switched their attention in different fields.
We see that Russia is investing big money in the propaganda, the consequences can be felt in Serbia as well. How Ukraine cope with this and what efforts is are undertaken to hear the other side of the story?
- On the territory of Ukraine that we manage to defend against aggression, the propaganda is not working. Of course, there are a small percentage of people who still doubt, even in the parliament but it is not a big problem. There are problems in the occupied territories, because they prohibited all the Ukrainian media and they have only Russian media. They used trick of Goebbels that lie spoken a thousand times on television becomes the truth in people's minds. Indeed it will be difficult to change their opinion. As for the Russian propaganda in Europe that’s indeed a very big problem because they are using democratic tools to undermine European democracy. They emphasize the importance of free media with their canals Life News, Sputnik and Russia Today. They give a little bit of truth, then semi-truths and lies, and they mixed it all together and then you cannot make what is true and what is not. It’s poisoning the minds. The EU has come to understand the danger of that. They have now created a network of prominent journalists and NGO activists all around Europe and they are monitoring all the Russian media broadcasting and when they see a lie, they spread it out to all media.
Relations between Ukraine and Russia are becoming worse every day. Ukraine has introduced sanctions against Russia in October on suspending airline flights to Russia and transport in general, while at the same time Russia after the free trade agreement between the EU and Ukraine put an embargo on food imports from Ukraine starting from January 1?
- With the current regime in the Kremlin the relations will never improve. Not because we don’t wont it but because of the regime. Until they get out of Donbass and the Crimea there will not be improvement of the relations. It is true that the first step was done by Ukraine but we didn’t prohibit all flights, just only for those Russians airline companies who are flying to Crimea. Since we do not recognize the annexation of the Crimea, we believe that this is a violation of our airspace and territorial integrity. We didn’t prohibit all airline company to fly to Ukraine. Then the Russia decided to prohibit all of Ukrainian companies and then we have to reciprocate and prohibited all the Russian companies. As for the free trade area this a very long playing story dating back many years ago. Even with the previous government and the president when we started negotiating free trade area with the EU. Then we had free trade area with the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also the bilateral free trade area with Russia. But these two agreements were imperfect because there were a lot of exemptions especially for oil and gas. Russia did not allow us saying that we want to cut all ties to them even though it was not true. We wanted to cooperate with everyone. But sanctions will not affect Ukraine much because starting two years ago the Ukrainian businessmen have come to realize that it is better to do with other markets. We'll survive.
In Ukraine is ongoing armed conflict and the country is committed towards integration with the European Union. Similarities with Serbia are great. Do you think that Ukraine could use the experience of Serbia on the way to EU?
- Of course we can. Indeed Serbia is a several steps ahead of us. Ukrainian government and our citizens fully support European integration. You are the first journalist who will learn about it that at the end of January a big group of government officials, about 25 people, are coming to Belgrade who are dealing every day with European integration. They will meet with the Serbian negotiating team and perhaps other officials and they will talk with your counterparts here. It will be a very important meeting.
Ukraine has got non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for two years, which is big thing. What will be a goal for Ukraine in UN?
- Of course we will have to cover all the issues across the world. We have sent 15 more diplomats to enhance our team. For us it will be important to get back Crimea. It seems now that Crimea is somehow forgotten, but we have not forgotten it. From the legal point of view it takes a lot of small steps before we come to real big decisions. I expect that during our non-permanent membership there will be already decisions and petitions, specific legal acts of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainians people, as well as a businessman’s against the Russian Federation both in the UN, in the Hague International Court, in the Strasbourg, maybe also in the Stockholm Arbitration for the commercial disputes. It will be a very difficult task. We have to be patient.
In Belgrade in the beginning in December was ministerial meeting of the OSCE and one of the topics was crisis in Ukraine, but some countries failed to agree on a document?
- We did not expect any decision on that subject because Russia in the part of OSCE. We did cooperate a lot with the Serbian chairmanship, Minister Dacic. It was not possible to reach a consensus on this issue, but also on many other issues which was many. We understand that the Serbian side did all they could, but given the circumstances, it was not the fault of Serbia.
Once you've said that Ukraine got real independence in 2014 and not in 1991. What do you think is the reason for this and why is it so long was necessary Ukrainian people to realize that Ukraine is their country?
- From the legal point of view we got independence in 1991. When we became independent it was not very easy, there were victims. The students went on hunger strike on the central square in Kiev. But, most people continued life as if nothing had happened. Psychologically we were not fighting for that independence. Unfortunately we had to fight at the end of 2013 and in 2014. That's what I meant. More in a symbolic sense because then we really become independent. And another important thing, before Euromaidan, annexation of Crimea and the aggression in Donbass, the Ukraine population was split, like here in Serbia. 70 percent of the population wanted to be part of the EU, while at the same time the same percentage wanted to be part of the Euro-Asian Economic Union. But people wanted to be good with everyone sitting on the several chairs at the same time. This is of course a natural human desire. In turns of NATO membership, in 2013 was the lowest support in the history, about 18 per cent only. We have done everything to please Mr. Putin but it didn’t help. We also found evidence that he was planning annexation of the Crimea before the Euromaidan. We have discovered Russian passports issued in November and December 2013, in which it was written that it was issued in Sevastopol in Russia Federation. After the aggression, 50 percent of the population said that they want Ukraine to be a part of the NATO alliance, including 20 percent in Donbass in the liberated territories. This is incredible.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Aleksandrovych sent a message to the Serbian people to stick to European integration and to remain committed to it. He stressed that the Serbian and Ukrainian people passed through similar suffering but that Ukraine and its people will always be with Serbia.