Russia is behind the 6 April Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association agreement. But Kyiv is preparing its own campaign in the Netherlands ahead of the poll, Boris Lozhkin, the second most powerful man in Ukraine, told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Boris Lozhkin is the chief of staff of the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko. He started his career as a journalist and founded several media.
Lozhkin spoke with Euractiv’s Jorge Valero.
President Poroshenko met with International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, at the World Economic Forum, to discuss the state of the assistance programme to Ukraine. Is she satisfied?
We are quite optimistic about the next tranche and the programme itself. We are happy with the reforms we did this year. We showed some figures to Madame Lagarde; for example, the 0% deficit in Naftagas this year. This is a great step, given that this company was one of the main sources of corruption in Ukraine. We showed we did a lot. Lagarde told us we should continue the reform effort in Ukraine, including land reform. This will be for next year, perhaps.
Was Lagarde also that positive?
It has been reported that Ukraine is looking for the IMF’s advice to renegotiate €3 billion of Russian debt. Was this issue discussed during the meeting?
This is a different issue. We are in talks with the Russian side. It is not connected to the IMF programme. We did not discuss it.
Some European officials believe that the reforms could progress faster. Would you agree?
Personally, I am also unhappy with the reform pace. Everybody in Ukraine wants to progress faster. At the same time, we should understand that there are a lot of political limitations to pass some laws in the Parliament. For example, the privatisation of some companies, including steel. In my view, these are some of the most important steps to take to bring additional revenues, but also to address corruption.
During the modern period of Ukraine, public-owned companies have been a source of corruption. There are 3,000 state-owned companies, of which 1,600 are still working. We need to have 200 state-owned companies, or 250 maximum. The rest should be sold as quickly as possible over the next few years. A lot of people are trying to earn ‘dirty’ money, officials from ministries, from the prosecutor office, from the parliament, and other institutions. Besides, the state is not a good manager, not only in Ukraine.
What about the rest of the reforms?
We are cutting the number of public prosecutors. We have more than we need. By the end of 2016, we will halve the number of them. Today, we have approximately 1,800 prosecutors. Some reforms need time, some others are in the process.
We need a lot of reforms to change the country. When the president took office, he signed the 2020 strategy, which includes 62 reforms. That is a lot.
Good reformers told me you cannot do more than three or four reforms at the same time. But we are in such a situation that we should do more. It is a great challenge for us, but we should do it in order to gain our citizens and our international partners’ confidence.
In regards to the key referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement, to take place in The Netherlands in April, what would happen if the ‘No’ camp wins?
We met with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. We asked for the Dutch government’s support in this referendum. We hope the Dutch people will support Ukraine. We are preparing a campaign for The Netherlands, with the collaboration of notorious figures from our cultural scene. We want to show the real Ukraine.
Did Rutte say he would actively support the ‘Yes’ camp?
We hope so. Of course, I believe he has some limitations, but he told us that he supports Ukraine. We have good relations with The Netherlands, and we acknowledge what this country has done for us.
If the association agreement is rejected, would you detach from the EU, or the outcome would not affect bilateral relations from your side?
I hope it will not affect our relations. The most important issue now is to explain to the Dutch people the real situation in Ukraine, and to show real Ukrainian people. Ukraine is an old European nation. Perhaps what Europe needs now is ‘new blood’ as the Ukrainians. They were ready to die for Europe [during the Euromaidan revolution], and they died to be part of the EU.
Are you disappointed that member states like The Netherlands are putting at risk the new bilateral agreement?
Of course I am. However, I believe the reason behind is some PR campaigns against Ukraine led by Russia. They want to show that our country is full of radicals and bandits.
What could be the impact of the refugee crisis on the Dutch referendum? Are you concerned that people would be exhausted of supporting neighbouring regions that could create problems down the road?
I understand that the refugee crisis does not play in favour of the Ukrainian position, rather the opposite. But I hope that the opinion would not be so negative that it will affect the outcome of the referendum. And again, Ukrainians are not refugees. We are Europeans.
When it comes to the Minsk agreement, it seems the situation has improved. Would you agree?
I cannot say the situation is very good. Some days we don’t have any victims, but it is not every day. Our soldiers continue dying. The ‘terrorists’ [in the Eastern part of the country] continue violating the Minsk agreements, and sometimes they even attack the OSCE mission. The situation is not stable. We should fully respect the Minsk protocol. First, we should have a stable ceasefire. Second, we should complete the preparations for future elections [in the contested regions]. Finally, we should discuss the border controls. We cannot say the situation is ok.
Do you think that the numerous challenges affecting Europe, such as the refugee crisis, and the referendum in the UK, are affecting Europe’s engagement in monitoring the Minsk agreement?
We hope that European leaders will have enough time for this. So far, we have not notice any difference. On 18 and 19 January, we met with the representatives of President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel. They continue paying attention to Ukraine, and so does the US.