Top diplomat: No plan b for EU-Ukraine agreement

Ukraine will sign an association agreement with the EU at the end of November, and is ready to make significant changes to its domestic legislation by introducing an anti-discrimination law aimed at protecting the gay and lesbian community, the country's deputy foreign minister, Andrii Olefirov, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Andrii Olefirov is Ukraine's deputy minister for foreign affairs. He spoke to EURACTIV's Tanja Milevska.

You were on a two-day visit to Brussels to participate in the Eastern partnership senior officials' meeting. How did the meeting go and what were the conclusions for Ukraine? 

It’s an expert meeting where we prepare the draft of the final declaration of the Eastern Partnership in Vilnius. We can see that the main deliverable is the signing by Ukraine of the Association Agreement (AA) and the initialling of other similar agreements between the EU and Moldova and Georgia.

For my country, it’s also important that we have finalised the last negotiations vis-à-vis the common air space, it’s important not just for Ukraine, having in mind that we have a market of 46 million people.

Also, if we are successful in adopting the draft laws in regards to the visa free dialogue, we may announce our passing to the next stage.

It’s also important that we’ve started talking not just about Vilnius, but also about the Riga Summit in 2015, the next summit of the Eastern Partnership, when and where we may be able to assess the first results of the implementation of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

The signing by Ukraine of the AA is already agreed, the provisional applications of some parts of the agreement, and both sides praise their efforts to finalise the negotiations.

Does this mean that Tymoshenko will definitely be released this month? 

I do not want to speculate on this, we’ll see. We’ve already declared that there is no “plan B”, no “what if we don’t sign”? We will sign!

There are mechanisms for solving every issue on the table. We understand that there were three main dimensions before Vilnius. It was clearly stated in the commitments from both sides during the EU-Ukraine Summit, which took place in February. We are talking about the election legislation in Ukraine, about the judicial reform in Ukraine and “some problematic issues”, some particular cases that are of concern for the EU side.

Eight months after the Summit, we’ve already adopted the law on re-election in five problematic districts and there is a clear-cut date for that on re-voting – it will take place on 15 December, and the election campaign has already started.

And another important piece of legislation is the draft law on the Prosecutor General’s Office, which is also inside the Parliament and will be voted this or next week.

Then, the law amending the election law – it is already in the Parliament and is expected to be voted this week.

And then the third dimension, the so-called “problematic cases”. We had at least four, now we have just one – that is Tymoshenko. We have the most important, actually the only mechanism, and that is the Cox-Kwasniewski mission.

They are in Ukraine this week for the 25th time and on 14 November they will present their report to the European Parliament. You should know that here are three draft laws and if at least one is adopted, it would allow a Ukrainian in prison, with some preconditions, to have a medical treatment abroad. It is a difficult draft law because it is prepared not just for one case but for all Ukrainians. But then again we understand that it was prepared because of one person.

Everything is on the table and this morning (4 November), while leaving Kyiv, I read that the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament confirmed that the President will sign any law on that issue adopted by the majority in Parliament and it’s very important that Ukrainian MPs start working on these three draft laws. And if they’re successful in finalising any of these draft laws, they will be able to pass it on to the Parliament tomorrow.

Do you share the assessment that if Ukraine doesn’t sign the AA, the whole Eastern Partnership is doomed? 

As I mentioned, my optimism is grounded on the work that has been done by the President and the Ukrainian government, so clearly I’m not thinking about a plan B or “what ifs”. I’m sure 100% that it will be signed. Let’s not forget that we started negotiating the AA two years before the Eastern Partnership initiative was established, in 2009.

And now we see the AA and DCFTA as the main deliverable of the Eastern Partnership. Now we see that it’s the most important instrument, not only for us, but also for Moldova and Georgia, for the aspiring states. If we aspire to get more, we have to do more and we’ve done more. If the others don’t see the AA as an instrument inside the EP, they will get less.

Let’s turn to the visa liberalisation negotiations. How is the process going and how are you dealing with the main legislative obstacles that stand in your path, the anti-discrimination legislation and the anti-corruption legislation? Are you close to overcoming these issues? 

In three years, we have adopted more than 100 different legislative acts and we’ve had several monitoring missions, the last one in Kyiv in September. Two different groups –from the Commission and the Member States – have visited and their assessment is completely positive, so now in the final declaration of the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, the wording is that “both sides praise the efforts of Ukraine and the deliverables on visa free dialogue”, but the other thing is to get to the next stage. So, if we adopt the remaining two pieces of legislative acts, we will be able to declare in Vilnius that Ukraine is prepared to implement the second stage.

As mentioned, one of the reforms needed to get to the next stage is the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation, which seems difficult to accept in some quarters in Ukraine, especially regarding the explicit mention of “sexual orientation grounds” against discrimination. How will you get through this? 

It’s something new. It’s in the human nature to meet novelty with frustration or lack of understanding or even with fear.

But then again, if we see what the final result of the visa liberalisation action plan (VLAP) is, it’s the visa free regime, meaning free movement between EU member states and Ukraine, so bearing in mind what’s at stake, I think we are going to overcome it, because actually we are talking about something that is already in the Ukrainian Constitution and the law.

The Constitution forbids any kind of discrimination; it’s just that the European side wants us to explicitly mention the sexual orientation as grounds of discrimination. There was a lack of understanding but now we will have hearings with Ukrainian NGOs and experts, they understand. I hope that with their help, we are going to calm down the tensions.

So there is a chance that Ukraine will accept sexual orientation as grounds of discrimination? There is a chance. We have been working hard on explaining, spreading the information, it’s inside our law already and there hasn’t been a single case of discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation whatsoever. We can overcome this by explaining the right meaning of this piece of legislation

The last IMF mission to Ukraine asked to increase energy tariffs and put an end to the “Soviet-era subsidies”. This must be a sensitive issue for your government. 

We’re good friends. Otherwise they wouldn’t come, if they knew there wouldn’t be a chance for compromise.  We have been dealing with this for quite some time. It’s very important for us to get a deal, not only because of the IMF but also because of the EU. It’s like a chain reaction: we can get the money from the EU, only if we get the money from the IMF.

It’s a very tough decision. We have been paying the highest prices in gas in Europe for more than three years now. We don’t think it’s a fair deal, so we’re trying to negotiate a fair one and pay less. Unfortunately we haven’t been successful yet but it’s on the table between us and our Russian counterparts, and that is why it hasn’t been decided yet to increase the prices for physical persons. It’s under discussion but from what we see in the press there are positive movements toward a compromise.

We wouldn’t like to move the burden of the highest prices for gas from the government to the citizens and that’s understandable, because we haven’t finished the negotiations with the Russian Federation first. And second, we have started to receive Russian gas from Germany – the so-called “reverse flow” – and it’s almost 100% cheaper than Russian gas. So there is no logic in that $500 price, especially having in mind that in the US, five years after the exploration of the shale gas, the prices dropped significantly.

We will successfully negotiate the shale gas deal with Exxon Mobil, with Chevron and Shell. When we started the  negotiations, experts said that we would need ten years to see the first results, the exploration, now they say it will take us three to five years to get the first cubic meter of gas. By diversifying the sources of gas, by lowering the consumption of gas, and not just Russian gas, by being more energy efficient inside Ukraine, we would like to negotiate a better deal with Russia. I don’t know what will be the decision by the IMF but I see clearly positive results.

What about ending the subsidies? 

It takes courage. After paying the highest prices for gas for three years without moving to another direction than the EU direction… We’re not talking about subsidies for the sake of subsidies or for getting votes, no. We see that the deal is not fair, clearly. To negotiate for three years and then say that we’re not capable of getting a cheaper gas, and asking from the citizens to pay for it, it’s not fair to your people. We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the lower gas prices from Germany, Hungary, Slovakia, with the shale gas exploration, we see that we might reduce the prices – and not just in ten years’ time.

How cold a winter are you expecting for your citizens? 

I think the winter will be warm because of the positive results of our negotiations with the IMF, because of the negotiations with the EU. After Vilnius we will enter a completely new stage in our relations with the EU and I believe that there will be more trust, and not just with the EU.

And last but not least, I’ve heard it from everywhere, from Brazil, the US, Vietnam, that their businesses are looking very carefully at Ukraine; it is such a huge market inside Europe. The mere signing – of course the more important part is the implementation – but the mere signing will give a boost to the foreign investments, that’s for sure.

The signature is a sign that a country – Ukraine – can be trusted. That’s a world trend. Loans, simple money are one thing, but we need investments.

What about your relations with Russia after Vilnius? 

They’re going to improve; I have no doubt about that. Again, out of the bilateral trade turnover between Russia and the world, 50% is done with EU member states; we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. So they’re very much interested in trading with the EU.

So for them if the EU trusts someone, in this case Ukraine, we can be trusted. For us, with the gas prices going down, with the AA, with the provisional applications of the DCFTA, with the common air space, with the visa liberalisation action plan, all of this will allow us to talk like equals with the Russian federation, and not just asking for something, and even giving the example.

If you heard what Prime Minister Medvedev said last week, the wording has changed. They see the results of Ukraine signing the AA and applying the free trade area. Secondly, we know 100% that they won’t suffer; they will see the benefits with Ukraine’s competitiveness increasing. There are a lot of Russian businesses inside Ukraine but their main destination is Europe.

So, we’ve been trying to reconcile both integration processes. We are with Europe for political and economic integration and free trade, but if you paid a little attention to our reactions to the harsh wording from the Russian side, you would see that the answer was equal, in order to calm them down.  It’s in their interest. EU, Ukrainian and even Russian experts say it will be beneficial for both sides. I have no doubt about that.

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