US ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft rarely gives interviews to the media. During his year as the head of the diplomatic mission in Kyiv he gave four interviews. While some may regret not hearing him more often, it also raises the weight of each of the diplomat’s words. In this second interview to The Day Tefft spoke about the concerns over “selective persecution” of opposition politicians and the warnings on legislation that could undermine foreign investments which Vice President Joe Biden expressed in a phone conversation with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych. The American ambassador also shared his thoughts on what conclusions governments believing in “stability,” a “power vertical,” or an authoritarian regime should make of the Arab revolutions.
CULTURAL DIFFERENCES VS ASPIRATIONS FOR DIGNITY
These days the whole world watches the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, which are like when Ukraine had its Orange revolution, a peaceful protest against an old abusive government that people were fed up with. Several days ago the UN Security Council adopted, on US initiative, a decision about sanctions against the Libyan regime that is waging a war against its own people. However, some believe that the developments in Tunisia and Egypt caught the White House unprepared. Is it true that the world was not prepared for this phenomenon?
“I would say that you can never be sure, you can never specifically predict when things will start. For example, no one knew that the events in Tunisia would be triggered by the self-immolation of a merchant. But what I think people did know, and I think this is true for many countries in the Middle East, is that democracy needs to be developed there and this has been a part of the dialog with many of those governments. I know this from many of my friends who are in the diplomatic service. So I would say that we understood that the potential was there, though you can’t know what exactly will trigger the process.”
“But now that it’s started, it’s clear that this is a phenomenon affecting many countries.”
What can you say about Libya? Obama said that Gaddafi should go. Recently I saw France’s new Foreign Minister Alain Juppe say that France would support the opposition forces. Some believe that John Kerry, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman will strive for the creation of a non-fly zone.
“Some of our senators made statements recently, I watched a few of them on American television. The Administration has not made a statement about this at this point, so right now I can’t really tell you anything more about that. And, in fact, if you look carefully at the statements, Senator Kerry was more guarded, I would say, on this issue than some of the others, but obviously it’s a very important issue that’s going to be addressed. Not just within our own government but in cooperation and discussions with our allies and friends.”
What lessons from this crisis should be drawn by those governments that believe too strongly in “stability,” a “power vertical” and an authoritarian style of governance?
“I was thinking about this question. And I would refer you and your readers to an article that was written in The New York Times by one of our best columnists David Brooks. In it, he raises this question of Samuel Huntington, famous for his The Clash of Civilizations. Brooks points out that Huntington minimized the power of universal political values and he emphasized the influence of distinct cultural values. Brooks argues that, in fact, it seems pretty clear today, after what happened over the last two months, that many people in the Arab nations do share what he calls ‘the universal hunger for liberty,’ and they feel those universal human rights. While culture is important, Brooks makes this point, and obviously I agree with it, that’s why I’m making this point to you: that while cultural differences are important, there are ‘universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.’ I’m quoting directly from the article here. And I think that’s actually a very thoughtful analysis of what’s happening there. Yes, we have cultural differences, each country is different, each nation is different, but deep down in every human being, there is this fundamental desire.”
We have seen the EU impose sanctions against Belarusian officials. Do you believe this to be an effective tool with post-Soviet regimes that don’t listen to their people?
“I think Belarus is a separate, unique case. I think you know that we and many others in the international community were very upset when we saw the December 19 arrests of so many members of the opposition. And it’s my understanding that there are still 42 people charged with participating in events there. And as a result of that we, along with our European allies, announced measures against different Belarusian entities and government officials who were involved in that particular crackdown. Those sanctions specifically targeted Belarus, we’ve used them only with Belarus and nobody else.”
North Africa, Middle East, Belarus… The Obama Administration usually tried to maintain relations with leaders to ensure stability, and does not put too much emphasis on human rights there.
“No, I think we actually do. I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I haven’t served in the Middle East, my experience has been in Eastern Europe, but I know from talking to some of my colleagues, that the issue of democracy, for example, has been on our agenda in Egypt for decades. We urged President Mubarak to move toward free elections. It’s not that we ignored this, I don’t think that’s the accurate statement. We want to see real democracy develop, already earlier we pushed for free and fair parliamentary elections in Egypt in September, if I remember right, and so we doubled our efforts to do that. I just don’t think it’s true that somehow we ignored human rights in these countries.”
What is your opinion about the recent visit to Kyiv of NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during which he first offered Ukraine to collaborate on European anti-missile defense and then, in an interview to Channel 5, said it’s too early to talk about it?
“I was not a party to those talks, when the Secretary General comes, he has separate meetings and NATO ambassadors are not involved. But first of all, I was glad that he came, I thought it was an important visit, and an important discussion, and to the extent I understand what happened, he had very good discussions with President Yanukovych, Foreign Minister Hryshchenko and others. I think it’s early to start talking about a missile defense system. As I understand, the issue is still being sorted out, so I am not going to comment on the specifics there. I would note that this morning’s press indicated that President Yanukovych has accepted and approved the new commission he set up last November, headed by Foreign Minister Hryshchenko and other senior officials, to explore areas of cooperation with NATO. And I think this is all to the good. We understand that membership is not on the table right now but certainly partnership and close coordination on issues that we all care about together is something that is in Ukraine’s interests as well as in the interest of NATO and its members.”
What contribution from Ukraine to anti-missile defense does the United States expect, and how important for this is a preliminary agreement between Washington and Moscow, keeping in mind the latter’s stringent conditions for participation in this project?
“We don’t have any particular expectations. I think the government will discuss it with NATO and we’ll just see how it goes. I don’t have any specific agenda for Ukraine at this point.”
“I’M GLAD THAT WE HAVE THIS DISCUSSION AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL”
Do you share the attitude laid out in The Washington Post February 22 editorial that says: “The United States should be pressing harder to stop the democratic erosion. One way to do so is to explicitly link further progress in economic relations with Ukraine to improvements in human rights, and to urge the governments of the European Union to follow suit.”
“I would say this: we completed our Strategic Partnership Commission’s meeting. We hold these meetings every six months and I was in Washington for this one. I was actually encouraged because the government of Ukraine took this very seriously — there were three ministers there and the first deputy head of the President’s Administration. In addition to meetings with Secretary Clinton and the meeting of the commission per se, this Strategic Partnership Commission (SPC) provided an opportunity for these Ukrainian officials to meet with their American counterparts and have discussions about every aspect of our relationship, from defense issues to economic issues, as well as people-to-people, scientific and technological issues. We have a broad agenda of issues which we talked about and I think that is actually very good. The session also provided an opportunity for us to share our concerns with regard to democracy and other issues here, I think we know them quite well; the Secretary of State and others talked about them. We believe this is an agenda where we have a lot of positive things going on, you may know that Ukraine got an American citizen out of Libya and is working with us in Sierra Leone, there are a lot of issues going on here, and we include both the things we think we can develop, particularly in the reform area, and also have frank discussions with each other about the issues on which we disagree.”
What does Biden’s signal mean for the Ukrainian authorities? I mean, his phone call to Yanukovych, where he voiced concern over the selective persecution of opposition leaders and against legislation that may undermine foreign investment.
“This was a phone call that was suggested by President Yanukovych, it’s part of our continuing dialog; I think we had a phone call last October. In the statement issued by the White House you can see that we covered a whole range of issues. We expressed satisfaction with what happened in the Strategic Partnership Commission and the many different things we are doing together, like the work on nuclear non-proliferation. But we also raised concerns with regard to selective persecution, with regard to the way businesses are dealt with here, and I think I’m glad that we had this discussion at the highest level. Because they do get into a great amount of details on these specific issues. And this is clear, in my opinion, from the statement issued by the vice president’s office.”
Does The Economist have a point saying that “Mr. Yanukovych’s agreement to relinquish Ukraine’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium… makes it harder for America to criticize him”?
“I don’t agree with that. Read the vice president’s statement. We have this expression in English: ‘we can walk and chew gum at the same time.’ I think this is a mature relationship, one of friends, and when we have this kind of relationship, we can talk about good things and you try to resolve problems, and also share criticism — that’s what’s going on. But there is no linkage here, like The Economist surmises. We’re very happy and we think Ukraine takes a leadership role on this highly enriched uranium, but we also share very clearly, and you’ve seen it in the vice president’s statement, the things we’re concerned about. We speak frankly about them.”
Now, in Ukraine, we are discussing the record of the Yanukovych government after a year in office. Do you want to say something in this regard?
“I think you’ve got a lot of wonderful political analysts in this country who’ve done a terrific job going through this, so I’m not going to do it. It’s not my job to evaluate the Administration. Somebody wants to ask me a question ‘Will you evaluate your own President and how he is doing?’ I say ‘Are you crazy? Do you think I’m going to try to get into this?’ We’ve read, of course, with interest all of these things. In a way, the Strategic Partnership Commission meeting, as well as this phone call, the fact that they occured right now, at this one year anniversary, gave us an opportunity to look at our relationship, at the good points and the difficult ones, and to move ahead. I think it’s pretty clear from the public statements how we evaluate our own relationship. But again, I would add, I think we see real prospects and possibilities here, and I’d say, in particular, we have heard what President Yanukovych has said about reform, and we understand how critical that is for the future of Ukraine to develop as a modern nation. We strongly support that. We have programs where we work with the government on issues that range from judicial independence, to criminal procedure codes, to economic reforms, to electoral reforms, and we’ve laid out our views on that very clearly and very forthrightly for the government. We want to see reform proceed and to proceed fast.”
Did you discover anything new from the 4-hour-long televised conversation of President Yanukovych with his nation?
“I didn’t get a chance, because I was working, to watch it on TV at all. I probably should have, it would have been good practice to help me with my language skills. I did read about it afterwards and thought that the president placed a lot of emphasis on the issue of corruption. This is something, frankly, that we feel very strongly about. The United States has argued for the last 20 years (and my predecessor was outspoken about corruption) that it diminishes society, it depletes society, it takes away people’s confidence in the government, it takes away incentives, all things that we know. We think that fighting corruption is absolutely critical. I have not seen the final results of the Rada’s consideration of the anti-corruption law, but we feel very strongly that that law should have very strict requirements in it, without loopholes that people can exploit to continue corrupt practices. It’s a matter of confidence of the people in their government, in the way the country is run.”
What worries you the most in modern Ukraine do you see any positive signals or is it obvious for you, in the words of The Economist that “the reforms have yet to appear but the thuggery and cronyism are in place.”
“I think that reforms are in progress, and obviously we’d like to see them move as fast as possible. Is there still cronyism in the economy? Sure there is. That is one of the problems that American companies here face. And we have made our views on the matter clear. One of the issues that the vice president and President Yanukovych spoke about was increasing American investments. This is in Ukraine’s interest, but it’s also in our interest. And frankly, we’ve got companies here now, who have been here for a long time, who are having real problems, they would be among the first to invest more money in this country, but they see enormous risks, they don’t see a fair and transparent system, and so this is one of the things we’re talking about at the top levels; this was one of the issues that we talked about in great detail in Washington, and it’s on my agenda almost every day here. Again, we want to see American firms do business, but we see this in a broader sense, we see this as being good for Ukraine, and really helping Ukraine develop as a modern nation, which I think every Ukrainian wants to see happen.”
“WE WANT TO SEE REFORM PROCEED AND TO PROCEED FAST”
As US Ambassador, it is natural for you to follow the treatment of American business here, in Ukraine. How many US investors have left Ukraine and how much investment has come in?
“I don’t have exact figures on that to be quite honest with you. We know there has been some investment, I’m sure some people left, I can’t give you examples. I do know that there are cases where some of the companies that are here were hoping to invest more money and have stopped because they are concerned about the way they’ve been treated or the risks they see. And again that’s why we feel so strongly about improving the investment climate here in very concrete ways because we see the opportunities that exist here, and this is going to help not only Ukraine modernize its economy, it’s going to bring more jobs to this society — its all the things that Ukraine wants and that we push for.”
You are probably aware of the attempts to set up a National Bureau of Investigations in Ukraine to fight corruption at the highest levels of government. Do you have a sense that President Yanukovych is committed to fighting corruption and will force the big companies to come out of the shadows and pay taxes?
“The president has told us that he is going to fight corruption and we agree with that. My sense is that you need good laws, that’s why what’s happening in the Rada now is important, but you need leadership on this issue. Making sure laws are enforced is the really critical part. I hope that the Rada is going to pass a law that will have some, as we say, teeth in it, that will hold corporations responsible for acts of corruption, that will penalize corruption, and that will require public servants to report their incomes, and those of their relatives. According to our [US] ethics laws, every year I report both my and my wife’s income. If you want you can go find it, I believe it becomes public record after approval — this is what we call a financial disclosure form, which will tell you exactly what a poor guy I am, but how much money my wife even has. That’s the way our system is, because we believe that it’s critical for anybody who is a public servant that they report [their earnings], and the American people have the right to see where I am getting my money, how I am spending my money, and that they know I’m an honest guy and not a crook.”
Can you expand on the business opportunities for American companies, which you mentioned earlier?
“We see a broad range of possibilities, let me just mention two. As you know we signed an agreement in Washington for the US geological survey to help their Ukrainian counterparts to map and investigate shale gas in Ukraine; we think the potential for drilling for shale gas, off-shore drilling, as well as capturing coal methane, is huge and that there are American companies that are prepared to come here and bring their technologies with them, but they need assurances, laws that will guarantee that a production sharing agreement is honest, that there is long-term stability, before they invest that kind of money.
“I also think that the potential for cooperation in agriculture, especially grain is enormous. Still, some things have to be done, like land reform. But there are American companies, just like there are Ukrainian companies, that can compete and bid for marketing for grain. The whole question of food security in the world is huge now, it’s an issue that was discussed in Washington during the SPC, it’s an issue that everybody’s raising. Food prices are going up all over the world. We need more production, and the potential for Ukraine here is huge. But it has to get its system right to be able to not only produce the commodities but then to sell them and to give the people, the farmers in Ukraine, some of the benefits for this so as to let them further expand their opportunities.”
We remember how, in 2004, a political technology of splitting the country was put into use. Now we see another political technology, called the “Russkii Mir” (Russian World), which aims at instilling certain approaches to history and at spreading the sphere of influence of the Russian language, among other things. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is being used not for protection of truly vulnerable tongues, but for the Russian language. Do you share the opinion that this new political technology puts Ukraine’s integration into Western structures at risk? How can Europe and the US help?
“You have to talk to the Europeans about European structures, but I think, you know, we don’t really see that Ukraine is facing some kind of ‘either… or’ choice on Europe vs. Russia. We strongly support President Yanukovych’s statement that Europe is the goal of Ukraine, that the country wants to be a part of Europe. And we believe very strongly and support the negotiations on the association agreement, for the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, as well as for the liberalization of the visa regime. Every day I try to learn Ukrainian myself, my Russian is a little better, but my surzhyk is getting extremely good because I have a mix of both, combining my own mistakes with those of my Ukrainian friends. Even though Ukrainian is the official language, I think the country is big enough for everyone to find a way to express themselves. If you go to my country, if you go to Washington DC, English is the official language, but I can take you, just in Washington, to parts where you will hear almost only Spanish, or only Vietnamese, etc. If you look at our country, we accommodate people of other languages and cultures, and this has produced many success stories. Look at Google, Sergei Brin, who studied at Stanford and became one of the wealthiest people in the world, because he and Larry Page had this brilliant idea to create this search engine. We do it over and over again. I saw a story in America the other day, where a young man who came across our border illegally from Mexico many years ago, eventually was able to legalize his residence, was accepted to the University of California, then Harvard Medical School, and today he is the world’s number one neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. This is a guy who first tried to get into America by crossing the Rio Grande river. We have the ability to take in people like that, and though they must work hard, find opportunities, and receive no guarantees, they can become something greater and help our country.”
Don’t you think that the West and the United States need to show more understanding of Ukraine’s challenges and offer incentives, rather than only put forth numerous demands?
“I think we’re trying to do that. I think that is what the SPC mission is about. It’s not just demands on Ukraine, it’s doing things that matter for Ukraine. One of the things that I’m going to do later this month is going down to Pavlohrad. And we are going to cut the ribbon on the new water washout facility, which we built together. The construction of a big incinerator will begin this summer. It is a direct result of one of the things that the president asked President Obama last April, which was to help finish the destruction of very dangerous solid propellant and SS-24 missiles. And our goal is to get this done by 2013. We’ve put money into this, and we’ve brought our expertise to bear, and we think this is going to be one of those win-win, successful things for all of us. But it’s something that we took seriously and we are going to finish the job. I think this will improve safety, certainly for people who live there, but it’s also an example of what we can do together.”
Its good to see people learning more and more about Ukraine. It was interesting to hear US policy expert Bruce Jackson tell us that only recently he realized “how profoundly broken the post-Soviet system is.” In your view, how important is it for diplomats to understand Ukraine’s dramatic history? Is it taught separately [from Russian history]? For a long time, foreign diplomats viewed Ukraine through a Russian prism. This could be seen in how long it took James Mace to get the truth he uncovered across.
“I think, actually – and I go back to the very first days of US-Ukrainian relations in 1992, – I think we have understood very clearly the uniqueness of Ukraine. And I think we have tried not only in our policies, but also in training our diplomats, to underscore the sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We have been teaching officers Ukrainian for a long time. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t get a chance to take this course before I came, but my deputy has taken it, and we have a number of officers who take Ukrainian, we try to increase that number, and as a part of that course we have areas studies, it is one afternoon a week when we focus on the history, culture, and economy of Ukraine. So that the officers who come to the embassy — as I said my deputy, but also our political, our economical and our public affairs units — these are officers who have been trained; when they get off their airplane, they already have a pretty deep understanding of this country and its people, and are able to communicate with the people of Ukraine. And we are going to keep doing that, it’s a part of our system now, and we’re going to keep pushing for it, to get as many people as possible trained. And then we’re trying to get around the country to see Ukrainians, and not just here in Kyiv, but everywhere else, so that we get a feel for what’s happening in this country, the changes that are happening, the changes that are needed.”
When can we expect Obama to visit Ukraine?
“Right now there is no visit scheduled, he’s been invited by President Yanukovych, I’d be happy to see it, but right now I can’t tell you that there is a specific date set.”
Who will represent the US at the Chornobyl conference?
“Still no final decision on that issue either. We don’t know yet for sure. I’ll let you know as soon as we find out.”
Does the level of representation depend on Ukraine’s democratic credentials?
“I don’t think we’re looking at it that way, part of it is a question of schedules — it’s just before Easter, and we’re looking at the schedules of our political leaders. There will be a high-level representative, I just can’t say who at this point.”