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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

John TEFFT: The United States will strongly support the process of Ukraine’s integration with the EU

29 December, 2011 - 00:00
Photo by Borys KORPUSENKO

At the beginning of the next year the Embassy of the United States is moving to a new building. That is why John TEFFT, the US Ambassador to Ukraine, began the conversation with The Day with the details of the moving and intrigued with surprises, which are awaiting journalists in the new building.


“I am going to miss this big office, I will have a smaller one in the building we are moving into.”

Why are you moving during the leap year? In Ukraine this is considered to be a bad sign. Even our newspaper moved to its new quarters at the end of this year.

“ I don’t think the people who are responsible ever thought about leap year. We have been hoping to move to a bigger facility for so long – we have people in six different buildings. So we will be able to consolidate almost everybody.”

How did you manage to rename Tankova Street, where the Embassy’s new building is situated, into Sikorskoho Street?

“This goes back to before I was here, when Bill Taylor was here. The way I heard it, it was mayor Chernovetsky’s idea to change the name and try to come up with a name for the street that would be appropriate for the American Embassy. Ihor Sikorsky is Ukrainian from Kyiv and a great American scientist, creator of helicopters. So, the decision was made, long before I came here, that this would be the best one. The only thing that the head of City Administration, Mr. Popov, and I have talked about was getting it through the city council and approved. They did it, and we are grateful for that. We think it’s an appropriate name. One of the things we are going to do in the new embassy is have a gallery of pictures of some of the prominent Ukrainian Americans, who have distinguished themselves. We have been doing some research on this – there are some awfully famous people who have Ukrainian roots: people like Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and lots of others. But we will keep that as a surprise for you and your readers until we move to the new building.”

The article in the last issue of Foreign Affairs titled “The Wisdom of Retrenchment: America Must Cut Back to Move Forwards” calls for deep cuts in the US defense budget, reviewing the foreign policy priorities and shifting US defense burden to allies. Would this be a far-sighted policy, when so many countries see in the United States a guarantor of their independence and sovereignty, and also a champion of democracy and freedom of expression around the world?

“I have not actually read through that whole article, so I cannot comment on the specifics. There are lots of articles out there about America’s decline and America’s retrenchment but I am awfully careful about that and I will tell you why. I am old enough now to know that back in the mid-1980s America was going through a tough period, just as one example: our industrial base was shrinking and the Japanese were growing fast and everyone said that America was in trouble, America was in decline and America was finished. But the American industry reinvented itself in that period and in the coming years we had a few other inventions which did pretty good for America. One of them was called the Internet which transformed not just the way we do information, but think of all the things that have come out of that which had been to the benefit of not just our economy but the economies of the world. I would just caution.

“The best statement that I have seen with regard to America’s military position was made by Secretary Panetta in this testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. He said that we have to meet our fiscal responsibilities, but what this requires is a very clear setting of the strategic priorities and making some tough decisions. He said that we have and we will maintain the finest and best military in the world and he went on to say how important it is to maintain certain levels. I would argue that this strategic priority setting is an important one.

“We are in the middle of going through a process of looking again at our assistance here in Ukraine. We probably will have less dollars than we had before, but we try to make sure that what we are spending our money on here is targeted on exactly the best thing for us and for Ukraine. It means smart thinking, smart strategic choice making.”

“Occupy” action still continues in many places in the US. The organizers say that they reflect the disappointment of 99 percent of population. What is you view of this American version of the Ukrainian Maidan?

“I think that President Obama said it probably the best that this movement, just like the ‘Tea Party’ reflects the frustration in the American society. This frustration is based on fundamentally economic issues. We have just gone through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression eighty years ago. Huge numbers of Americans lost their jobs. We have just last month finally come down from 9 or 9.1 to 8.6 percent of unemployment. In America this is a huge number. I have a daughter who is 33, and many of her friends, who have started out in careers, were let go, because in America you have the seniority rule, so the last one hired is often the first one who is fired. Many of them are having hard times in getting a job. I pray that we are coming out of that now and the American business is picking up. There are more economic indicators that that’s the case. I would also be careful in comparing this to the Maidan, because I think they are pretty different kinds of phenomenon and for different purpose.”

Thanks to WikiLeaks we have found out that Putin paid a special visit to Chancellor Merkel to persuade her to deny MAP to Ukraine. As we all know, it was the German chancellor who declined MAP for Ukraine at the Bucharest summit despite all the efforts put by the then US president George Bush. Now Germany is against initialing the Association Agreement with Ukraine. Many think that Europe pursues a policy of double standards towards Ukraine and recall that Europe kept silent in the 1930s when Stalin was killing Ukraine with Holodomor. Do you think Europe should repent and apologize for that?

“I am the American ambassador, so I think that you should address this question to my European and Ukrainian colleagues. I got enough to do to work on the US-Ukrainian relationship. That said, I would say that the United States has and will continue to strongly support the process of Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. The government of Ukraine has now completed, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and Association Agreement. We are pleased with that. We know that more has to be done in the areas that were specified in the joint statement. But that is a positive step.

“I would just add one other thing. President Yanukovych has recently received the diplomatic core at Ukrainian Home. He told us that 2011 was the year of Europe for Ukraine and he said that 2012 would also be a year of Europe and he referred to one of the big things as part of that, of course, which is the European Football Championship. As I was listening, I was thinking to myself: maybe we should make 2012 the year of promoting European values in Ukraine as well. By them I mean the whole range of issues that the EU leaders raised here: the rule of law, promoting free and fair parliamentary elections next year in October which is very important for Ukraine, building an independent judiciary – all of the things that I think are fundamental to making Ukraine a modern and prosperous European nation.”

In a number of speeches in Ukraine you have emphasized the need to improve the judicial branch of government. In particular, at the International Conference on Strategic Planning for the Judiciary, you said that “selective prosecution… erodes people’s faith in [these] institutions, and this has a horrible impact on the international image of the country.” You probably know that Mr. Yeliashkevych had been granted political asylum in the United States because of the threats to his life here under Kuchma’s presidency. And now we have this terrible cynical process in Kuchma’s case, which Ukrainian media calls a special operation to exonerate Kuchma and project that it may end with a failure of Gongadze’s case. Do you believe in Ukraine’s judiciary resuscitation after this?

“Let me explain why I speak so often about the independent judiciary. I believe personally and the United States’ government believes that the rule of law is fundamental to the success not just of democracy but to the success of a modern nation. We believe that you have to be able to show that people can get justice when it is denied to them. We believe that you have to be able to find a way, if you are in business, to get justice. The rule of law protects the individual against the arbitrary power of the state and that is one of the fundamentals of democracy everywhere. Now, there are a lot of areas that this could cover; it is not just the perception of selective prosecution which we have spoken about with regard of Tymoshenko and other members of her party. It also applies to unequal access to courts that people complain about here. The people see that the courts are politicized, that they render political judgments rather than fair and impartial judgments. They see the courts favoring the elites over the individual, that if you got high political connections you can get judgments, or the courts can be used in the things like raider attacks. There is a whole range of these areas which need to be addressed. It is part of one of our biggest USAID programs to work on this. And it is something that political leadership and all political parties need to rededicate themselves to in this country. Without this, Ukraine cannot become the modern nation that I know that everyone wants it to become.

I would also say that we have provided a lot of assistance here, we have done this through this USAID program, we have also tried to help draft reform laws. One of the big laws that is pending out there now, before the Rada, is the criminal procedure code. This is a document developed by Ukrainians with a lot of input from us and the Council of Europe. I really think that it is one of those keys to being able to build a modern independent jurisprudent system here. I really hope that, after the Rada returns, at its next session, they will be able to pass this piece of legislation.”

Do you share the opinion of one of your predecessors, Ambassador William Miller, who said in his interview to Den, that “if the government succeeds in getting rid of criminal laws of the Soviet era and in freeing Yulia Tymoshenko, this will be a testimony to Ukraine’s ability to act democratically in its own interests”?

“My friend Bill is now in the private sector, he is no longer in the government, but I would not disagree with his judgment. And speaking as current American Ambassador and speaking for the U.S. Government, I will say: we have repeatedly expressed our concerns with politically motivated trials of Ms. Tymoshenko and members of the former government. We really believe that putting an end to selective prosecution and freeing Ms. Tymoshenko and others would be a step in the right direction. At the same time we also support the reforms of the legal system. Our issue here is that when you try people for political crimes that sets precedent for somebody else to do the same thing. The rule of law, the process of how you do this, is vitally important so that you can be precise. In the western countries, when someone makes a political bad judgment, they are held responsible by the voters, and it’s the voters who make those decisions, not the courts. This is something that we have explained to the government privately and repeatedly and something, we think, that is fundamental not just with regard of the current cases but for the future and effectiveness of the Ukrainian system.”


Reagan’s famous phrase about the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” took many by surprise. A lot of people at the time were not pondering on the question, why Khrushchev’s son and Stalin’s daughter left for the United States. It seems that even now many people in Ukraine have not come to understand this phrase. And this is where manifestations of neo-Stalinism come from – the phantom returns, and we can see this in monuments to the “father of the people” being set up. Vaclav Havel once said that Russia struggles with the most repugnant mutation of totalitarianism. This observation can be applied to Ukraine too. As an observer from the side, what do you see in the processes underway in Ukraine and what are the risks for democracy in our country?

“I would say, first of all, that all Americans were saddened last week when we learned about the death of Vaclav Havel – as, I think, people all over this part of the world who care about freedom and democracy. He was a great and courageous man who did a lot before the end of the Soviet Union as a dissident, but also as president of his country.

“We believe in what we say, when we say that Ukraine needs to be free, sovereign, and have its territorial integrity protected. It is not just a slogan. It is real, it is important and it is the fundamental core of the American policy towards this country since Ukraine became independent in 1991. We believe very much in that. At the same time we think it is important that Ukraine have the ability to develop its own democracy, its own market economy, to build this country so that it can assume the role that it wants to play as a European country in a critical strategic part of Europe, but free to do that and to develop the skills and resources of the wonderful people of this country. This is not just platitude; this is really at the fundamental core.

“Obviously, Ukraine, like other countries of the former Soviet Union, battles with what so many people call the communist or the Soviet mentality. It has its manifestations in different parts of life. You know, I have been working in this part of the world for a long time and I have seen, despite this mentality, despite people longing to hold back, I have seen it in the Baltic countries, when I was ambassador in Lithuania, people trying to overcome problems like that. I saw it in Georgia: reform efforts that transform that country – it is not completely there yet, but I saw the kinds of things that absolutely need to be done. I have seen the things happen in this country that encourage me.

“I see a civil society that is still very vibrant. There are a lot of other things that need to be done. The United States wants to be on the side of those helping to make those reforms. We would like to see, as President Yanukovych said, that reforms will move ahead and progress, they have got to be real, effective and change the nature of the society.”


What can you say about the business climate in Ukraine? Do you see any progress? Do the conditions for investors get better?

“We talk about the potential for attracting domestic and foreign business here. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, at the present moment, the business climate is perceived as needing significant improvement. You can see this in the international polls that track investment. Let me just give you four examples. Ukraine falls below almost every European country in each of these four. Transparency International’s perception of corruption: Ukraine is No. 152 out of 182; in the Index of Economic Freedom of the Heritage Foundation, Ukraine is 164 out of 183; the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness ranking – Ukraine is 83 out of 142; and in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report, Ukraine is 152 out of 183. I could go on, but the point is that those organizations that measure progress toward the economic reforms and toward building a better business climate, do not see change – they see things falling backward. We have noted recently some changes with regard to VAT refunds and with regard to certain companies that were being attacked or not treated properly by the governing agencies. We have complained, and those have been fixed, and I am grateful for that. But, I think that the fundamental point – and I told this to the prime minister at the last meeting – is that you have to change the system. It is not just enough to change one or two or ten companies or to deal with the cases that arise when those companies are not treated properly. You have to change the entire system. I have said over and over again here that getting more foreign investment, and Ukraine desperately needs more foreign investment, requires that you treat the companies that are here well, because those who are looking to come into this market look and see how the current companies are treated, and they make their judgments. Ukraine, for many American firms, is considered an emerging market with a great potential. Forty-five million people, huge regional market right in the center of Europe. But if the companies that are here are having trouble and are not being treated properly, if they are subject to raider attacks, if they are not getting their VAT refunds back as the law requires, others who are looking at investing make judgments about that. That is what my European colleagues and I focus on, and this is the message we have been giving consistently and in detail to the government.”

Do you have the feeling that the prime minister and other officials understand the need and do they show the wish to change this system?

“He says that they want to do this.There has been a number of cases where we have seen the American companies not being treated properly, and he has made efforts to fix that, and I am grateful for that. But the system... When President Yanukovych and the prime minister came to power, they said they would fix the VAT problem. Just this week several big American companies got back the money they had been owed for six, eight, ten months. We are talking about millions of hryvnias and dollars. So the system has to be fixed. This is reform, this is concerted fair effort that need to be made.”

Are there any prospects for advancing the cooperation in the nuclear sphere?

“We think there has been progress. Earlier in the fall Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Hryshchenko signed the Memorandum of Understanding finalizing the arrangements on the highly enriched uranium agreement. We hope that this will be moving forward – we have already contracted for all of the pieces that we have been required to do.We thought that our only role would be supplying all of the low enriched uranium for civil use and power generation, but we are going to be building this neutron source research facility in Kharkiv which will be state of the art and will allow Ukraine to do cutting-edge research, just like the scientists everywhere in the world, as well as to produce radioactive isotopes, so it will no longer be dependent on other countries for that, which will be a really important step forward. We see the possibilities for joint research and other things; we have a science and technology group as a part of our Strategic Partnership Commission. They have just had a very good meeting in the States. We see great potential for cooperation in that sphere.”

Secretary General of NATO Rasmussen during his recent meeting in Brussels with Secretary Clinton said that Chicago, where the next year’s summit of the Alliance will be held, is built upon diversity and determination, just like NATO. On her part, Secretary Clinton, who was born in Chicago, said she would pass on this new slogan from the Secretary General to Chicago Mayor. Can you tell whether the Ukrainian president has been invited to this summit and what is expected of him? In general, what is your view of Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO?

“NATO is in the process of organizing the summit, we have our own planning, but NATO is the one who does the invitations. My understanding is that President Yanukovych will be invited. There will be a meeting or discussion there about Afghanistan. Ukraine is part of ISAF organization (International Security Force in Afghanistan), for which we are grateful, and he will certainly be invited to that. We will be hearing more about the preparations in detail, we are still half a year away from this.

“I would just say more generally about NATO. Since the establishment of the NATO-Ukraine Charter in 1997, Ukraine has been a valued partner and has participated in the whole range of operations. NATO is assisting Ukraine in defense reform. And while the government of President Yanukovych is no longer seeking NATO membership, it has pledged that they want to cooperate with NATO. We would like to see concrete things to be done in that area; we have good exercises and there is even greater potential. This is one of the things we will be talking about in the run-up to the summit in Chicago.”

When and under what conditions can President Yanukovych visit the United States or President Obama visit Ukraine?

“Right now there are no present plans that have been made for visits. The one that I expect will happen is the meeting in Seoul, Korea, in April. It is the follow-up to the Nuclear Security Summit that was held in Washington in 2010. As far as I know, both President Obama and President Yanukovych will be there. They have seen each other briefly at the UN; they were at the dinner together in Poland in May, when the President Komorowski hosted a dinner for President Obama with leaders of Central and Eastern Europe.”


In your opinion what is the most important event that has happened this year in the world or Ukraine and has had a significant impact?

“I think reaching agreement with Europe on Association Agreement and the Deeep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Agreement is an important milestone. Obviously, a number of issues have to be addressed. President Van Rompuy and President Barroso both made those clear. But I hope that historians will look back at the year 2011 and will say that this was one of those important moments in the history of Ukraine when a decisive choice was made to be a part of Europe.”

What article or project of Den have you remarked this year?

“Every morning I have a press briefing which my staff gives me, and they go over all of the different press.We read your newspaper among others to keep informed not just about what happens but to get analysis and sense of why it is happening and what it means. We are a big believer in the freedom of the press and I am glad that there are still opportunities in the print media, the internet, and television to be able to get different views since this is really important to a democracy.”

In you first interview to Den you promised to work on your Ukrainian. How are you doing on this?

“Ya namahaiusia, ale uspikhy ne duzhe. Treba bilshe hodyn u dobi, nizh 24 (I am trying hard but my progress is slow. I need more than 24 hours in The Day). I continue to take lessons but I wish I was younger – I would be better in this. I started learning Hungarian when I was 32 and my brain was more agile at that time. My comprehension and being able to read, having learnt Russian some years ago, is improving but it is still work in progress. That is one of my New Year’s resolutions to do better, to take more time and to study more.”

By the way, where will you spent Christmas and the New Year?

“I will be here for American Christmas on December 25. My deputy is on his leave with his family. We are going to go to the States on the 29th to spend the New Year with my two daughters and their families, especially with my granddaughter who is just over one year old. We have recently watched on Skype her walking for the first time. We will have eight or nine days in Washington to spoil her and have a good time. We are really looking forward to this. For us the holidays is all about family.”

What would you wish to the readers of Den in the New Year?

“I hope that the New Year will be healthy, prosperous and successful. I wish the same for Ukraine. I hope this will be the year of the European values. I hope that the country will deal with some of its problems and be the successful country that the people of Ukraine deserve. I am proud to be the American ambassador here. My wife and I enjoy very much living in Ukraine. Hopefully, in the new year, I will travel more and get outside of Kyiv. It is not that I do not like Kyiv, I do, but it is something I should do as a part of my job and I enjoy it. I wish everyone a Happy New Year. ”

Interviewed by Mykola SIRUK, The Day