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

On trusting each other

Gerhard GNAUCK: “I hope Germans will understand what a difficult way Ukrainians had to go”
26 June, 2018 - 10:22
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Now, four years after the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, we know like never before how important the reputation of our country abroad is. It is ordinary Europeans – Germans, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Poles, et al. – who determine the policy of their countries. What they think of Ukraine makes a direct impact on high-placed politicians. On the other hand, Ukrainians are part of European civilization. Our history is bloody and tragic, we were torn away from European culture for a long time, and we lost a lot of lessons history taught to European countries. Now, after 26 years of in-dependence, Ukraine is only beginning to blaze the trail to Europe, and we must learn to understand Europeans better and improve the way we tell them about ourselves.

Gerhard Gnauck is a German journalist who worked for the most influential publications. He currently contributes to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and has been taking interest for many years in what occurs to the east of Germany. Herr Gnauck agreed to answer The Day’s questions.


Herr Gnauck, the Ukrainians are accustomed to Western Europe taking not so much interest in Ukrainian events. Why did you choose this subject?

“My family is historically linked with Ukraine. My grandmother was born in Podillia, not far from Kamianets-Podilskyi. They were Polish and ran away from there in 1920. My grandfather, a German, was killed in Ukrainian Volyn on the eighth day of invasion in 1941. My father and I once came here to find his grave. All this could not help but stir up my interest in Ukraine. My mother is Polish and father is German. They took an active part in human rights struggle in the 1970s-1980s, and I heard such names as Hryhorenko, Dzhemilev, Stus, and others, since I was a child. Then I happened to travel to Ukraine in 1989 for the first time as part of a group of students and two professors. It was very interesting: we visited Chornobyl and the Bykivnia forest, the place of mass-scale executions of repression victims. All those events ‘programmed’ my interest in Ukraine.”

You were prepared for the events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Ukraine. But you were clearly in the minority in Germany. What is the attitude of Germans to our state?

“I cannot possibly speak on behalf of all Germans, for I am just a journalist. Besides, I am dealing with foreign-policy matters very much. And, in general, it is an important topic, but I can outline several points that I think are characteristic. If you remember, there was a very well-known German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He recalls in his memoirs that he wanted to fly to Ukraine in July 1991, when he was on a fact-finding tour of the East. But, not to complicate relations with Moscow, Gorbachev, the delegation first flew to Kazakhstan and then, as if on the way back, visited Ukraine. I recalled these impressions of Genscher a few years later, in 1997, when I accompanied German President Roman Herzog. Again, we first flew to Kyrgyzstan and then to Kyiv. I remember speaking with a deputy minister, and he said German delegations had been visiting Ukraine in the mid-1990s and offering aid, particularly in the agrarian sector. But it was very difficult to speak to some of the Ukrainian officials, and nothing came out of that. It was also very important that the Soviet Union collapsed against the backdrop of a bloody conflict in former Yugoslavia. By contrast, the USSR broke up in a very peaceful way, thank God, but, as is known, there still were conflicts in Transnistria, Transcaucasia, and other hot spots.”


So, Europe did not pay much attention to Ukraine because it neither benefited from nor was harmed by the latter?

“There were always some conflicts that attracted attention. And then the year 2004 came. I personally, as an eyewitness, would equate the importance of the Orange Revolution with that of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

It is high praise, especially from a German.

“I can say this as a journalist, as a citizen. Along with the fall of the Wall, it is the most important event I was personally present at. I can remember my former classmate telling me how he perceived this. In Germany, Ukraine was on every TV screen. It suddenly appeared and stayed on for two or three weeks so. Then, also suddenly, it disappeared.”

How did ordinary Germans react to this?

“As to something uncommon, interesting.”

So the Germans “discovered” the 2004 Ukraine?

“Yes. You should understand the importance of what occurred in 1989 for the Germans. It was what the opposition in East Germany began with – election monitoring and the struggle against election rigging. Those were very easy-to-grasp things. And here, peaceful civilians are standing in the cold – every journalist noted at the time that it was very cold, especially for the Germans. And the people achieved their goal, which was also a very positive event. Then came the period when ministers of various countries – for example, Germany and Poland, or Germany, Poland, and France – traveled to the East to jointly address some problems. I would single out the Polish minister Sikorski and Steinmeier who is now the President of Germany.”


But the year 2004 is not our last revolution, is it? The 2004 events continued in 2013-14. Ukraine was on every TV screen again. How did the German public react to this?

“First of all, when there was a peaceful phase of the face-off, things were very easy to grasp. Peaceful civilians stood up for their rights, Euro-integration, etc., and it was viewed positively. No matter what the German media wrote, everything was good before the bloodshed. I even remember quite an unbiased report on Ukrainian nationalism. Nationalism is a very sensitive matter in Germany, but in this case everything was very well balanced, much to my surprise. Then TV showed the footage of tires burning on Hrushevskoho St. As far as I know, there was only one place, where tires were burning – the whole city was not on fire. But, naturally, such pictures produce a negative effect. The next footage: a shootout on Hrushevskoho St. and a major bloodshed on Independence Square and Instytutska St. I personally think this greatly influenced the perception of Ukraine – it began to be associated with violence. ‘Who started it? Who is to blame? All are more or less guilty. Radicalization, escalation, you know…,’ viewers used to say. This must have been the turning point in German public opinion – there was a violent conflict on the streets.”

Did German public opinion turn away from Ukraine?

“Of course not. I must tell those who are scathingly criticizing the German media that it is not quite so. There were about 30 major talk shows on German TV about the situation in Ukraine. This means that this problem really worried everybody. I remember a talk show hostess I know asking Angela Merkel if the Minsk Agreements would be followed by Minsk 2, Minsk 3, and so on. And Madam Chancellor had to answer – she said there was no other way out; it’s better this way than another. There was also a talk show attended by the minister of defense. The question was about kidnapping Bundeswehr soldiers who were part of the OSCE mission. Madam Minister answered that it was not accidental and the conflict was growing. We can also recall that there were several German journalists at the Ukrainian army barracks in Crimea, when the ‘little green men’ were going to take them by storm – they came out only when there was a real danger that they will suffer. And some of my colleagues received mailed threats of bodily harm for spotlighting the Ukraine conflict from an excessively ‘anti-Putin’ position. This looked very strange because we had previously thought that threats could only be issued against the journalists who write about the mafia, not about politics. Some politicians said important words. President Joachim Gauck said in Gdansk: history teaches us that when we try to appease the aggressor, this will only whet his appetite, and he will want still more. Or take the Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schaeuble. Once the aggression in Crimea began, he said, speaking to schoolchildren, that it was comparable to 1938 [the annexation of German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia. – Ed.]

But we sometimes also read different opinions in the German press.

“There are various opinions. But, on the whole, the German press is unanimous that Crimea was annexed – it is an undeniable fact. This formulation is used by the information agencies that set the tone in the journalistic milieu. Certain media try sometimes to present the conflict as a ‘proxy war’ between puppets on both sides, a clash between Putin and God knows who in the West because Trump can hardly make the grade of a global villain. But it seems to me that, on the whole, the German media are aware that it is a real conflict between Ukraine, as a nation and a state, and Russia, as a state, and that it is not a civil war, but one brought in from abroad.”


Ukraine suffers very much from Russian propaganda. Since 2014, or even earlier, Russia has been spreading biased, sometimes fabricated, information about predominance of the far Right, the oppression of minorities, and all kinds of provocative fakes. To what extent strong is the stereotype of Ukraine as a country, where nationalists rule supreme and ethnic minorities are harassed, and to what extent do the Germans believe these allegations? To what extent harmful are such excesses as, for example, the devastation of a Roma camp and similar stories?

“I see. As you know, this story began in 2003-04. The first to criticize Chancellor Schroeder for this project was Polish President Kwasniewski. They even fell out over this. Schroeder signed this agreement as a chancellor and then, after the elections, assumed a top executive office in Nord Stream. All this occurred well before the 2005 elections. The elections catapulted Angela Merkel to power. It was too late to go back, for major German companies were involved in this. Let us recall that the world was different at that time. Russia was different, too. The Kremlin leadership may have been preparing for this kind of scenarios, but in that period, the first four or five years, everything looked nice and comely.”

Still, I would like to know the extent to which German people are aware of the threat the commissioning of Nord Stream 2 poses to Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, many articles I’ve read in the past few months allege that Poland and Ukraine are protesting against building the second segment of Nord Stream because they are afraid to see their gas transit capacity reduced. But Gazprom and President Putin emphasize that the quantity of the gas transported now across Ukraine will remain unchanged. German newspapers wrote that Ukraine and Poland were afraid to lose revenues or even were ‘afraid of being offended.’ This essentially distorts Ukraine’s position and presents the two states as hurt children. But, on the other hand, the current security situation totally differs from the one 10 years ago. Now there are interconnectors, and gas can run in the reverse mode to Ukraine through Poland and Slovakia. The seller is not Russia, not Gazprom, but a certain European company. This is an element of security for Ukraine because it will depend less on Russia.”

But it is not only about money. Ukraine insists that Nord Stream 2 may stop the transit of Russian gas across our country, which will give Putin a free hand for military expansionism in Ukraine because in this case intensification of the military conflict will no longer counter Russian commercial interests.

“I share your fears that Nord Stream 2 is intended to hinder the transit of gas across Ukraine. Some German publications have admitted in the past few weeks that it is not a purely economic project, as politicians have been reiterating for years. Merkel said: yes, there is a political component, and we will see to it that the transit of gas through Ukraine continues. Then Putin said: yes, I also support this. But these are only words so far.”


Sometimes the impression is that European politicians and Europeans in general are taking a superficial attitude to Ukraine’s problems and do not want to look into essential details. This brings about misunderstandings and tension where it can be avoided. They often fail to understand that we are still halfway on the road the Western world has already passed. Do you think this kind of misunderstanding really exists?

“If you have a goal, you should approach this goal step by step. Ukraine is striving for the European Union, where there are good living standards, etc. This is what you, Poles, and other nations have been aspiring for. Of course, European institutions, the European Union, assess one country or another on the basis of how closely they have approached their standards. And it is, after all, your wish – the wish of Ukraine – to approach European standards. Economic development, wellbeing, adequate administration, transparency, zero corruption is our common basis on which we can cooperate.”

In other words, to be better appreciated by Europeans, Ukrainians must look more like Europeans?

“This is an eternal problem with new candidate countries. Poland also went through this. If a country wants to join the European Union, this does not mean that the EU will begin to move in order to meet you halfway. The EU cannot possibly introduce corruption or begin to spoil its highways for the sake of Ukraine. It is absurd. The European Union is a set of standards, rules, and values. If you share these values and introduce certain standards in your country, it will mean movement towards and integration into Europe. Naturally, the more common values, for example, Ukrainians and Germans will have, the faster misunderstandings will be vanishing – this will mean that Germans and Ukrainians trust each other more and attitudes will, naturally, also improve. So, I hope Germans will understand what a difficult way Ukraine and Ukrainians had to go and will highly appreciate it.”