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

About the paths taken by two countries

Andrei SANNIKOV: “If Europe will not pay attention to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and to what is happening in Belarus, it will just collapse”
13 December, 2017 - 17:11

Recently, this newspaper hosted very interesting and experienced guests in the persons of former Foreign Minister of Ukraine Kostiantyn Hryshchenko and Belarusian political and public figure, coordinator of the civic campaign European Belarus Andrei Sannikov. With these guests of The Day, we discussed the paths that Ukraine and Belarus had chosen after the collapse of the Soviet Union, why Minsk was chosen as the venue for talks on the settlement of the situation in the Donbas, and who benefited from this, what is today’s Europe like, what should Ukraine expect from Vladimir Putin’s fourth term, and so on. Our conversation began with a topic of current interest: the confrontation between the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) and the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), the corresponding reaction of the West and possible consequences.


Ivan KAPSAMUN: “Against the background of the confrontation between our law enforcement agencies and the corresponding reaction of the West, the following question arises. It is clear that Ukraine needs support from the West, but at the same time, in your opinion, does the West correctly determine who to support in Ukraine?”


Kostiantyn HRYSHCHENKO: “The history of independent Ukraine shows that on every occasion, the US government’s idea about the role of one or another person played a greater role than a genuine analysis of what one or another person is capable of, what this person’s motivation is, what their interests are, and thus ultimately, betting on one or another politician can lead to unexpected consequences. Therefore, the whole history of our relationship shows that the US government was mostly mistaken in making bets on our well-known figures.

“Thus, it would have been better if the US supported Ukraine in general rather than particular figures. Of course, we need advice and assistance. But its conditionality should not reach the grotesque dimensions when the US says who should lead the cabinet or occupy this or that position. The political process is the result of a political struggle; therefore, the role of parliament should be taken into account, whatever our disrespect for it. And one must follow Winston Churchill’s famous saying: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ And when there is an impression of external governance, it does not help the development of democracy as such.”

Mykola SIRUK: “How do you assess the confrontation between the PGO and the NABU, why is this happening?”

K.H.: “Of course, this is totally unacceptable. But in general, if we are to reform the judiciary, then we better not do it by creating specific bodies for each and every problem. Let us just follow the US’s example. There are many law enforcement agencies in that country that have specific tasks and functions, but the FBI is still the core agency, which deals with all federal crimes: from counterintelligence to economic crimes. The only question is how to ensure that such a body, if it is created in Ukraine someday, will meet the high standards that are believed to exist in the FBI. Meanwhile, creating 120 agencies time and again, which will compete with each other, leads, as we are witnessing, to wasteful dispersal of resources and capabilities.”


 I.K.: “Both Ukraine and Belarus are post-Soviet countries, but their paths after the collapse of the USSR have turned out to be quite different. Belarus today is an authoritarian state that has remained whole, while Ukraine is considered to be democratic, but has lost some of its lands. Mr. Sannikov, how do you see the paths of both countries?”


Andrei SANNIKOV: “Firstly, we are different, although we had a very difficult shared Soviet heritage. We have long struggled with the fact that we were looked upon as being the same, they said that we were transitional democracies. The second trouble was that they looked at us through the prism of Moscow and did not want to recognize our independence for a long time. The Kremlin still does not recognize it: for them, there is no such country as Belarus, or as Ukraine.

“In fact, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had a unique situation. Belarus was the only republic that retained a parliamentary government. All the others immediately chose an all-powerful president, because they believed that the state ought to be governed like that.

“The situation changed when Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich made an attempt to become the sole ruler. He came up with a new constitution which provided for the post of president, but lost the presidential election in a landslide.

“Still, our countries have a shared period of liberalization – from 1991 to 1994, when a lot of things could be done. If only we knew what all this would lead to, then we would have probably spent those years actively thinking about the European orientation instead of looking for some schemes of coexistence with Russia and preserving strong economic ties to the Russian Federation.

“You have put it very mildly, but I have heard much harsher assessments of the current situation in Belarus. Firstly, people say that we ourselves do not want freedom. Secondly, they ask why we do not stage a Maidan if we want freedom. And thirdly, they assert that everything is fine with us, and advise us against angering God by asking for more.

“This is an indicator that the West does not know what the situation in Belarus is. And it is very bad. We have not merely an authoritarian government, but a full-fledged dictatorship.

“And after the economic model that was based on the resale of cheap Russian oil to the West and called the ‘Belarusian miracle’ failed, it became obvious that it was no miracle, and that order does not necessarily lead to well-being.

“To tell the truth, I am a bit upset by people’s opinion that Belarus is under successful management, that state property in Belarus has not been stolen and divided between oligarchs. This is not true, because everything actually is in Alexander Lukashenko’s hands. He enriches himself no less than oligarchs do in Russia.

“It is just that one should look not at the fact that there are no territorial disputes, for example, with Russia, but how swiftly people are becoming impoverished. Lukashenko is introducing new taxes all the time, an increasing part of the public spending burden is transferred to people. Therefore, not only the opposition is outraged, but the entire population. This situation cannot continue for long. And it can be resolved in one direction or the other.”


I.K.: “You have correctly noticed that before 1994, both Belarus and Ukraine saw liberalization taking place. Then you described the situation in Belarus, but there were changes in Ukraine as well. In 1994, Leonid Kuchma came to power, and he wanted to stay for a third term in 2004, and he even got the Constitutional Court to allow his bid to proceed, but it ultimately failed. Then he decided to put Viktor Yanukovych forward as his successor. All this ended with the well-known events of the Orange Revolution. Viktor Yushchenko came next, who was legitimately replaced by Yanukovych after an electoral victory, as Yushchenko did not live up to popular expectations. In 2013-14, the country experienced another Maidan, this time a bloody one. And then Russia’s aggression and war started. Do not you think that both our countries suffered a dislocation after 1994, but each in its own way? In Ukraine, for example, despite all the events, the clan-oligarchic system laid down by Kuchma still prevails, and he himself, characteristically, represents this country at the Minsk talks today.”

A.S.: “I want to note that during the first Maidan of the Orange Revolution as well as the second Maidan of the Revolution of Dignity, the largest foreign contingent came from Belarus. I do not think this was a dislocation. After all, if we compare Belarus events to the Maidan, then we had such protests in 1999 and 2001, and again in 2006. Since then, the dictatorship has simply consolidated its hold on power. Therefore, protesters were dispersed harshly, with brutal force, and it was already impossible to hold a rally in my country.

 “The Maidans represent a struggle for freedom. From my perspective, you have preserved the main thing, including through the Maidan protests, I mean the free election as an institution. What does a dictator in any country do? Look at Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus. He immediately destroys the institution of election.

“It is the most dangerous one for a dictatorship. And now you have it preserved, even if imperfectly, and this is a guarantee that your country will become normal and democratic. We have lost it. Therefore, instinctively and emotionally, Belarusians came here to support you.”


I.K.: “As is known, the Minsk talks have been held in the Belarusian capital for several years already. What do you know, how did the idea of the Minsk venue emerge? And who has benefited from this?”

A.S.: “I know that it has benefited Vladimir Putin. If you recall, Nursultan Nazarbayev offered his services, but just two weeks before the talks began, the Minsk offer suddenly emerged. Putin chose the venue, because it would have been more difficult to give some legitimacy to pro-Russian thugs in Kazakhstan. This is absolutely Kremlin’s own venue.”

I.K.: “Do you assess the results of the talks in a similar way?”

A.S.: “Of course, this is the tactic of creating frozen conflicts, although this one is not frozen yet, but such venues contribute to it. And this benefits the Kremlin. All conflicts in the post-Soviet space remain unresolved.”

I.K.: “Some experts say that providing a negotiation venue in Minsk has allowed Lukashenko to improve relations with the West. He was even recently invited to the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels, but did not attend. What do you think about it?”

A.S.: “Recently I have been observing the noticeable ambiguity in Western politicians’ attitudes towards Belarus. For example, NATO has clearly determined that the territory of Belarus under the Lukashenko regime is part of Russia’s military plans. Meanwhile, European politicians believe that it is possible to somehow influence Lukashenko. He was forced to improve relations with the West due to a lack of money. The economy is in a deplorable state, and Russia is incapable of helping Belarus as much as it did before. I think he took this step with Putin’s permission. Lukashenko will not change.”


M.S.: “Minister, Rex Tillerson said recently that the US would keep sanctions against Russia intact and would maintain pressure on the Kremlin so that it agrees to let a peacekeeping mission deploy in the entire occupied territory. Is it really possible, I mean Russia’s consent to the deployment of a mission with such a mandate, and not to merely protect observers on the line of contact, as proposed by the Kremlin?”

K.H.: “The main thing is that such a process has begun. The Russian side has taken such a rigid position, one rejecting the expansion of the mandate of such a mission. But there is a search for arguments which, under certain conditions, can offer a path to expanding just that mandate. If there was no change at all on the Russian side, then we would simply hit the wall, and nothing at all would happen. But to expect that they will soon agree with what the Ukrainian side suggests and insists on is also unadvisable. In my opinion, one way or another, we will have to agree to major compromises in order to solve the Donbas problem. These compromises will be limited by the political will of the current national leadership and its ability to ensure, if not a consensus, then at least a broad support for such a compromise.

“Thus, if only all our high officials devoted as little as 50 percent of their efforts to state governance, we would have long been working on forming the basis for such a compromise. Since the current top priority is winning the next election and looking for what might get the base electorate interested and supportive and pull it on one’s side, the window for displaying that political will is narrowing. It depends a lot on the political will and (lack of) professionalism of those who are making our foreign policy, first of all, and those involved in the political process in general. Therefore, the fact that all parties have agreed in principle to the deployment of peacekeepers in the Donbas is a positive one. But the fact that Russia’s current position is unacceptable in spite of the fact that the first step has been made is also obvious. We need to maximize US engagement and restore more active participation in this process by Germany and France and the EU in general. They must not only give recommendations on organizing Ukraine’s domestic affairs, but also help in solving what is more of a burning issue for Ukrainians, namely ending the war and restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty in eastern regions.”


Larysa IVSHYNA: “Moreover, they do not see everything in our internal life really well, do not use the right optics, diplomatically speaking. I wanted to ask you, Mr. Sannikov, how do you perceive everything which is happening in Poland, which for a long time was seen in Ukraine as a model locomotive of transformation? Indeed, having abandoned the Warsaw Pact, the Poles quickly jumped into the EU and NATO. But this, as we know, was due to many factors, including Pope John Paul II, the West being on the same page, and the readiness of Polish society.”

A.S.: “You spoke about the high readiness of Poland to join the EU. I believe, meanwhile, that the potential of Ukraine and Belarus was no lower than that of Bulgaria and Romania. We needed to make a decision during the liberalization period from 1991 to 1994, to choose the highway leading to the EU. But we failed to do it.

“What is happening in Poland today is somewhat sad, because both the opposition and the ruling party display a lot of aggression, attempts to rewrite history, and the indirect result of this is a worsening relationship with Ukraine, even though it seemed to me that the path of the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation was laid out well and functioned properly.

“Who benefits from this aggravation? I am not inclined to blame the Kremlin for everything. Of course, they are interested in this, but why it is happening now, after the Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power, I do not know.

“On the other hand, the PiS, which had severely criticized the Civic Platform for being too forgiving of the Lukashenko regime, suddenly changed the policy of Poland to one diametrically opposite and began building bridges with Lukashenko. The first contacts and high-level visits came precisely from Poland. This is also strange, because the history of the relationship indicates that this does not lead to anything good.

“It seems to me that Europe has simply missed this crisis moment. Indeed, Europe is facing many crises, both internal and external. But if they will not pay attention to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and to what is happening in Belarus under the Lukashenko regime, Europe will just collapse. And this is the Kremlin’s goal. I say at once that an attack on Ukraine is an attack on Europe, on the West.”

L.I.: “And what is political Europe like without Britain, after Brexit?”

K.H.: “For me, Britain has never been part of Europe, does not want to be part of Europe, and will not be part of Europe. It is important to ensure that after the crisis is overcome, the EU becomes more powerful and consolidated. Britain, meanwhile, did not want it ever to happen. The British were constantly requesting special conditions for their banking sector, for immigration. I think that after Brexit, Britain will become more active in the international dimension. It can even strengthen the West’s overall position, because it will have a separate voice. In the case of conflicts in the post-Soviet space, its position will coincide with that of the EU. Here I do not see any particular contradictions. The real issue is that the very process of this exit subtracts from their resources and occupies their attention.”


M.S.: “Minister, what should we expect from Putin as the fourth term candidate?”

K.H.: “We can, of course, make assumptions, but this depends on how they assess the economic situation in their country at the moment, the price of their foreign policy actions, in particular with regard to Ukraine, the threats posed by the sanctions being extended for a long time. Another important issue is the future prices of natural gas and oil, since we are witnessing not just shale gas and oil entering the market, but also broad and very rapid spread of electric vehicles, very cheap power sources, new opportunities for using the latest technologies of energy conservation.

“All this can lead to a collapse of energy prices. Oil can definitely diminish in significance, since there are a lot of sources of its extraction, and all this together is supposed to be analyzed in Moscow right now, and this analysis should determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy. After all, without the proper sources of financing and revenue, it is impossible to pursue the policy that has been carried out by them so far. How sensible will be the strategy formulated on the basis of such an analysis, is an open question, since a lot of Russia’s decisions are difficult to explain by rational considerations. One can explain them by emotional and political reasons, but not by materially-based predictions of where it can lead. Therefore, we can express our thoughts, but without access to such an analysis on the basis of which conclusions will be drawn, it is probably hard for us to be really certain in our forecast.”

L.I.: “I wonder if it would be possible for Ukraine to put forward its own vision of demands upon Russia. First regarding Crimea, and then the Donbas. It sounds seemingly unrealistic, but it is the right thing to do.”

K.H.: “What is right and what is a pragmatic priority are different things. Indeed, the right thing is to never forget the Crimea situation and always keep it a priority, but at the same time the political imperative is to stop the shooting war.”

L.I.: “But the Kremlin’s calculation is as follows: we will inflict so much pain on you that you will say: ‘well, we will surrender our right to Crimea, but stop the bloodshed.’”

K.H.: “But on the other hand, I think that everyone, including leaders in Moscow, is aware that no Ukrainian government and no national leader will agree to formally recognize the annexation in the near future, if ever, even if only out of self-interest. Therefore, this is a long-term problem in any case, they realize it, and I think they base their actions on it as well. I do not see any compromise happening that would be based on the recognition of the annexation of Crimea in exchange for the cessation of the war and the return of the Donbas to Ukraine. Since this motivation is absent, no party actually talks about it.”


L.I.: “Can you give three tips on what our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should do immediately?”

K.H.: “Most importantly, we need to strengthen the role of the diplomatic service, to put more exacting demands on all its units – from the minister to the ambassadors, as well as to resolve personnel, financial, and other issues on the basis of respect for those working in this department.

“But we must start, firstly, with developing a comprehensive strategy for strengthening Ukraine’s position in the world, identifying priorities for each direction. It cannot be limited to our relations with the US and the EU. If we bring certain issues to the UN Security Council or the UN General Assembly for consideration, we need support in different regions. Our economic interests are not confined exclusively to Europe, as there are actually more openings in Asia, the Middle East. And we just should not make glaring mistakes, like, say, the failure to appoint an ambassador to Kazakhstan for four or five years.

“Secondly, it is necessary to develop a comprehensive program of support for our export industries, that is, for Ukraine’s entry into foreign markets with its products that are based on European standards. It is necessary not to support everyone, but only those who have at least some potential of making it work. Start with them, and then others will follow. Such a comprehensive program can be effective if the relevant people are identified who will not only understand what they have learned in Harvard or Oxford, but also have an understanding of what the Ukrainian manufacturing and other industries, from the IT to banking, are facing in practice.

“Thirdly, we need to achieve a broad consensus on all these initiatives. That is, it is about communicating with society, involving NGOs, not fighting with them, but trying to attract them instead as much as possible as allies for the implementation of this program.”

L.I.: “Can we hope for a good alternative and where should it emerge from? I am not talking about opposition here, I am talking about a qualitative alternative.”

K.H.: “It seems to me that there should be some public demand for a qualitative alternative for it to happen. But I hope that this demand exists, because almost everything has already been tried: populists, foreigners of all kinds. In other words, everyone has learned that no ‘Viking’ will come and create a modern, effective economy in this country. It is already clear that by itself, Western education without a certain experience and vision does not produce results. The real question is who can nominate people who can promote our interests in various fields professionally, effectively and without thinking about any personal ambitions. Here, of course, everything will depend on how political forces will shape their human potential, to what degree they will be prepared to put forward people who are ready to be modern in every field and at the same time to understand the level of responsibility, and therefore to not see themselves in the process, but to work for the overall result.”

L.I.: “We were so bold that on the eve of the formation of the Hroisman cabinet, we proposed a cabinet of our own, wanting to show that a real national team of qualitative alternative is possible, we just needed to create a center of its crystallization. Businessmen who started in the 1990s and succumbed to the temptation to become very rich by playing outside the rules might well have become super-rich very quickly. But we see that they are all on various hooks all the time, and the country shares their predicament, so in order to somehow emerge from it, we need to have this consensual conversation conducted with open cards, because thanks to such ‘wonderful’ political mores and behavior, we have lost Crimea, two large regions are on fire, and this may not be the end of it. If there will be no proper national egoism, if the bourgeoisie will not turn into a national one, then there will be no political impulses either. We are trying to send these impulses as best as we can with our limited resources, and saying that we do not really need a round table, but rather the time has come for more openness, which was almost never present in Ukrainian politics. And now the factor of war does compel people to speak more responsibly.”

K.H.: “Probably, the public is increasingly aware that business and politics must be separated, at least speaking of those who are trying to combine politics and business in one person. It has become so vivid and clear that people will pay attention to it during elections if reminded of it by mass media.”


By Mykola SIRUK, Natalia PUSHKARUK, photos by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day