What is the position of France on the eve of the Vilnius Summit? What is her view of the prospects of signing the Association Agreement? What is her reaction to President Putin’s latest claims of a crisis in the West? Why and how did the European Union decide to explain to the Ukrainians the advantages of the Association Agreement? These and other questions are the subject of The Day’s interview with Alain REMY, French Ambassador to Ukraine, who recently visited our editorial office.
A few days ago, the Valdai Club and the Yalta European Strategy held almost simultaneous sessions in Russia and Ukraine, respectively. In Valdai, Putin spoke about a crisis in the Western world and characterized the Europeans as ones who adhere to the principle “first we’ll eat yours and then each will eat his own.” Putin also presaged new problems, right up to the barriers which the Russians will put up against Ukrainian imports should the Association Agreement be signed. Meanwhile, in Yalta the Ukrainian authorities and opposition spoke about integration into Europe. What does France think of Putin’s aggressive style against the background of Obama’s defeats, all the more so that Russia does not accept France’s proposal on Syrian chemical weapons?
“This is rather a difficult problem, as it comprises various elements that are not linked to one another. The situation in Syria is one thing, and our proposals on this matter are well known. I think that France and President Obama have taken a position that enabled President Putin to propose that the Syrian chemical arsenal be destroyed. I must stress that, a few days before, some had not even recognized the existence of nuclear weapons in Syria. Now all the parties are prepared for cooperation. We greatly appreciate the proposal President Yanukovych made in Yalta. As far as I know, he is going to repeat it formally and more in detail today [the interview was recorded on September 24. – Ed.] in New York. It is a positive contribution on the part of Ukraine.”
And what about Russia’s aggressive tone?
“We know that it is a problem for Ukraine. President Yanukovych’s statements about orientation to Europe are very important. There are two questions now: what may happen before the Vilnius Summit, what else can Russia do against Ukrainian exports? And what will be Moscow’s reaction if the agreement is signed? If European products enter the territory of Ukraine duty-free, will they be able to move further? Will Russia close its borders to Ukrainian goods and the European goods that pass through Ukraine? All these questions may be worrying Ukraine. You should find a way to preserve trade and economic relations with Russia after entering the EU free trade area.”
As you were in Yalta, I would like to hear from you whether France has become – after the Yalta and Valdai debates – more inclined to see the Association Agreement signed with Ukraine.
“In Yalta I saw that the Europeans were unanimous about the necessity of signing. Everybody was saying so, including the President of Lithuania, EU Commissioner Stefan Fuele, Ministers Karl Bildt and Radoslaw Sikorski, not to mention ex-President Aleksander Kwasniewski. They all know Ukraine very well. They also said in no uncertain terms that Yulia Tymoshenko should be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment. In other words, neither France nor Germany is dictating the course of events. It is a unanimous viewpoint. I am personally in favor of signing the Association Agreement with Ukraine. The Verkhovna Rada has done a lot of work in the past few weeks. This is the right direction. But, as it was said in Yalta, the time of intentions and projects is gone. Now all the bills must be voted into laws, all intentions be effected, and all the conditions fulfilled.”
Many Ukrainians fear that Europe may, under the pretext of the Tymoshenko problem, betray Ukraine under Putin’s pressure, as was the case with the Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest. Have you ever had doubts about the positive result at the Vilnius Summit?
“I do not want to get back to the Bucharest issue. But you remember what the president said: if Mrs. Tymoshenko is allowed to undergo treatment abroad, what was promised will be fulfilled to the letter. We are not far from this goal, with only two months to go. And if we take into account that the European Parliament’s mission is to submit its report and recommendations still earlier, there is still less time left. But look at how fast things may go. For example, who could foresee on April 6 this year that Yurii Lutsenko would be freed the next day? Or who could predict in late August that President Yanukovych’s speech and instructions would result in the formation of a ‘holy alliance’ in parliament between the opposition and the Party of Regions in order to pass the ‘European package’ of laws in time? Parliament passed a large number of laws in a matter of a few days. There will still be plenary sessions and, hence, an opportunity to do much more.”
Mr. Ambassador, some things do not depend on Ukraine. As we saw in the BBC film Putin, Russia and the West, Russia can be stopped, which the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war convincingly showed. It is also clear from the film that Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France when that country held the EU presidency, asked Putin to stop the Russian troops’ offensive and settle the conflict first within 48 hours, then within 24 hours, and then within an evening. Will Europe be able to resist the Russians if they find again a pretext to foil the signing of the Association Agreement?
“This question is, above all, about Ukraine. This was also stated clearly in Yalta. The fate of this agreement will be sealed in Kyiv, not in Moscow or Brussels. This means that the more forthright approach Ukraine will take, the better its relations with Russia will be. Ukraine may become stronger as a result of signing the agreement. The latter will open the door to the European market and promote – in a broad sense – modernization of Ukraine’s economy. The agreement will provide Ukraine with an ‘anchor’ in the West and make it stronger. She will be able to conduct more resolutely a dialogue with her Eastern friends.
“But what worries us is not only the fact that the Rada may not pass all the laws or that Mrs. Tymoshenko’s case will not be resolved.”
“We feel the business climate is worsening. As recently as in the spring it seemed to us that things were on the right track. But now some large European, including French, enterprises have had problems in the past few weeks. And the methods… I will give no examples, but this worries us very much, especially when measures are being taken against big companies, leaders in their sectors. In these conditions, the companies that would like to make or increase their investments in the Ukrainian economy will take a wait-and-see approach. Ukraine’s economic prospects are not so good – as there is no agreement with the IMF and no money is coming from the European Union, the trade balance and the GDP are showing a negative tendency. Besides, the shrinking foreign-exchange reserves are now equivalent, if I am not mistaken, to not more than 2.7 months of imports. This is one of the reasons why last Friday, when we worked in Yalta, Moody’s decided to lower Ukraine’s rating. Therefore, the actions now being taken against big foreign companies are not conducive to the inflow of foreign capital.”
Mr. Ambassador, I have seen two large Leroy Merlin French supermarkets being built in Kyiv. Is this not the proof of interest?
“I have not yet seen them, but I know that one of them is to be opened in the near future. I did not mean them. For, in reality, it takes a long time to build a supermarket like this. The decision on this matter was made last week. But this does not cancel what I said before. I hope Leroy Merlin will go on opening their supermarkets in this country. This will benefit the company and the Ukrainians alike.”
Now that Russia has in fact forced Armenia to refuse to initial the free trade area agreement and, instead, apply to the Customs Union, do you think it is time for the EU to reconsider its neighborhood policy, immediately remove trade and visa barriers, and more effectively encourage its partners to cooperate? For, as MEP Marek Siwiec says in The Day’s article, the model of kowtowing with a feeling of personal dignity to an aggressive Russia is no longer effective.
“Above all, the first thing I heard in Ukraine after the Armenians had made this decision is that Ukraine is not Armenia. If the Ukrainians are saying so, this means they are right. So comparisons are somewhat out of place here.
“Now about the EU attractiveness. In spite of all the drawbacks, the crisis, and other problems, the European Union is still attractive to other countries. Last week we launched a wide-scale promotional campaign to tell the Ukrainians about what Europe and the EU is. What made us do so? Firstly, we are aware of an active campaign in support of the Customs Union. Although not always conspicuous, it undoubtedly exists. We think we should also explain the advantages of integration into Europe. What matters here is not the logic of struggle but a simple statement of arguments. Secondly, we know that three fourths of the Ukrainians have never been abroad, particularly in the European Union. We believe that Ukrainians, especially young people, should know what the Association Agreement is all about.
“There is also another aspect in this campaign, which is not directly linked with the signing of this agreement: we are trying to issue as many visas as possible, especially to young people. We are trying to meet young people halfway. Last week I spoke at Kyiv Mohyla Academy. I spoke about France, the Francophone world, and the French language. Next month I will be speaking to Kharkiv students. I will be telling them about the European Union and the opportunities to study in Europe. I will appear at various Ukrainian universities before the end of the year. When students in Kharkiv, Donetsk or Lviv hear the French ambassador himself say ‘We want to see you in our country,’ this helps cement our relations.
“Besides, we are prepared to take part in any measures that help Ukrainians to know more about the European Union, such as, for example, initiatives of the Institute of World Politics.”
Incidentally, does France support a recent proposal of EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fuele, that the EU find a possibility to compensate for Ukraine’s losses after she signs the Association Agreement?
“We think this will be, of course, an important topic after the Vilnius Summit, for which we need to prepare. The question of what is to be done for Ukraine to offset certain losses will have to be seriously dealt with after the likely signing of the agreement.”
It would be interesting for our readers to hear from you about the French-German political “kitchen” or, in other words, how Paris and Berlin are making the political weather in Europe. Observers note a very tense relationship between the leaders of France and Germany – President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel – now. The Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel says: “They are no longer together.” Can we expect the Paris-Berlin relations to warm after the Sunday elections in Germany?
“Many things in the French-German relations are on the surface. But very much is being done daily deep inside our ‘kitchen.’ I can assure you that what is being done is huge, continuous, albeit invisible, work. That the president of France was the first to call and congratulate the German chancellor on the victory and invite Ms. Merkel to pay her first official visit to Paris is proof of our traditional close relations. This also shows that, in spite of the negative moments that occur sometimes, the foundation of our relations in all spheres is very strong. It is no secret that the ambassadors of France and Germany in Kyiv maintain as good relations as possible. As you remember, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Elysee Treaty on January 21 this year, we even coined a new French-German language (laughs).
“Now we have a very good chance. There are almost four years of political stability ahead. The next elections in both France and Germany will be held in 2017. The first period of acquaintance between the two leaders – French president and German chancellor – is already over. This means we have four years of peaceful and constructive work.”
As a rule, Germany used to play up to France whenever decisions were being made in the EU. This could be put down to many factors, including Germany’s recent historical past. And now which of you lends an attentive ear or, on the contrary, gives in to the other, as was the case when a decision was being made about granting Ukraine the Membership Action Plan, when Sarkozy was absent and Merkel said “no”?
“I think we complement each other. Neither of us is subordinate to the other. We always seek a common approach.”
And what are Merkel and Hollande going to work on now?
“The problem of banking supervision is being tackled, and the required instruments are already being used. It seems to me the top-priority task will be to work out a strategy for economic growth, with due account of European budget deficit criteria. It is very difficult to maintain this kind of balance. In my view, the main goal is to find a common language in this matter.”
France and Ukraine maintained a lot of contacts in their historical past. The first Ukrainian-French links date back to the 11th century, when King Henry I married Anna, the daughter of Kyivan Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Anna became the mother of King Philip I. What historical links between France and Ukraine can you see now?
“The first link that I can see and about which all the French know is Ukrainian genes in the blood of all the French kings up to the year 1848.
“Henry I was the king of France in the mid-11th century, but there were a lot of influential dukes in his inner circle. That-time Paris was too crowded for him. He played a major role in establishing the concept of kingship in France. Their son, Philip I, still more reinforced this concept. I think this is the most important element that links us. We should perhaps work on making people know more of this. In all probability, Anna died in Senlis – I regularly receive a local newspaper from the Senlis mayor, which always mentions Anna. We call her Anne de Kiev (Anna of Kyiv), and you call her Anna Yaroslavna. She had a convent built in that city. And, although it was ruined during the French Revolution, something connected with her has still survived.”
Speaking of present-day links and the interest of Ukrainians in French culture and language, what trends do you see?
“Interest in our culture is on the rise. We are trying not only to develop, but also to diversify our suggestions. We not only provide opportunities for learning the French language. We also have special programs for journalists, diplomats, and tourism operators, which we adapt to every country. This works very well.
“We think that the English language is unavoidable, but it is also very important for present-day young Ukrainians to know German and French, for this opens additional opportunities for professional growth and allows interpreting the world in a new way.
“As for culture, we always focus on it. Preparations for the next French Spring are in full swing.
“The famous violoncellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton will be playing in Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk, which is already arousing great interest on the part of our partners. We are also working to stage a number of exhibitions as part of French Spring. It is part of our daily routine today.”
Our newspaper is seeking partners to establish the portal Europe so that the Ukrainians are more informed about what is going on in various spheres of European life. Would this be interesting for you?
“When the Louvre hosted a Pinzel exhibition less than a year ago, we told visitors very much about who he was, where he came from, and what he did. I will confess that there have been not so many Ukraine-related events since then. We can ponder on your suggestion and cooperate with you. We only don’t want to end up as sole executors of this interesting project (laughs).
“But I know that Den is a serious newspaper. So we are open to any proposals from you. We also want to revitalize cultural relations between Ukraine and France in both directions and everything that will promote closer ties between us.”
Mr. Ambassador, you asked on July 15 this year: “What have the Ukrainian people done to spread true information about the Holodomor?” Den/The Day has repeatedly raised this topic, and the Den Library has published several books on the Holodomor, including Professor Kulchytsky’s What Did He Destroy Us For? Here on the wall hangs the portrait of an American, James Mace, who organized the Ukrainian hearings at the US Congress and then moved to Ukraine, where he worked for Den/The Day and initiated the “Light the Candle” campaign. In general, there is ample historical evidence that more than 6 million people felt victim to the Great Famine. Why does France refuse to recognize the Ukraine Holodomor – because of the Armenian or the Russian factor?
“Let me assure you that neither the Russian nor the Armenian factor is involved here. The point is that the phenomenon of the Holodomor is little known. It seems to me Ukraine herself must raise the question of recognizing the Holodomor. There are not so many Ukrainians in France as in Canada or the US. And this issue is far less sensitive in my country than in these countries. As far as I know, this question was never raised formally in France. The question of recognizing the Holodomor as genocide must be raised by the Ukrainian side and solved in the relevant international organizations.”
Can you name a few reasons why the Ukrainians should be loved?
“It is easy for me to answer this question – it is youth. Don’t worry, this does not mean that I don’t like the older generation. But every time I come out of a school or university after meeting young people I am in rapture. They love Europe, they love France. They are talented, inquisitive, and interested in so many things of life. I am therefore trying to open the door of not only France but the entire Schengen space to young people.”
Mr. Ambassador, I’d like to hear what the newspaper Den means to you.
“I begin every day with unfolding a Den. Yes, it has become MY newspaper.”