H.E. Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, Ambassador of Ukraine: Getting stronger is the only way

We are very similar so let’s get even closer

The world changed a lot after our last interview in January 2020. Plenty of new developments took place, so we took the opportunity to talk with H.E. Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, the Ambassador of Ukraine, about the current situation.

We were surprised by the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the situation in Ukraine like? How is the vaccination roll-out going on? 

The situation in Ukraine is like everywhere else, which is a very positive development. There is no quarantine. At present, people are allowed to go to restaurants, cafes, museums, or walk in the parks. Of course, there are some limitations regarding closed meetings in small spaces. But otherwise, there’s no limitation. People are travelling all around the country and can travel abroad. Of course, with the vacation season, a lot of people go to the Black Sea. Close to 2 million people were inoculated, which may not be enough for a country with the population of 42 million. Although there were some initial delays at the beginning with the delivery of vaccines, at present, the process is accelerating. I believe that the summer season will be good for both of our countries. As for the rest of the year, a lot will depend on the development of those new virus strains like Delta, Lambda and so on and whether the vaccines will be able to cope with the new strains.

How can we go to Ukraine this summer?

We have one airline flying between Belgrade and Kyiv called Windrose. This is a Ukrainian company which flies on Mondays and Fridays. Until very recently, there was also SkyUp, a Ukrainian low-cost company. But they decided to postpone flights to Serbia for a few months. Why? Because they have very few aircraft and we are trying to use them on other destinations, mostly for seaside resorts. I’m sure they will start flying to Belgrade soon and I hope that Air Serbia will restore its flights, maybe later this year. The entry requirements are either you having the COVID vaccination certificate or a negative test, not necessarily PCR. A quick antibody test will also do. Or if you have proof that you have recently had a disease. So, the requirements are not special by any means. I read that the SkyUp took about a dozen of popular Serbian influencers to Ukraine on a trip, to promote Ukraine, on one of the last flights before suspending the connection,

Speaking about EURO2020, there was a problem with the jerseys of the Ukrainian team, rather a misunderstanding about “Slava Ukrajini – Herojam slava!” inscription on shirts. There was also a Ukrainian map on the front including Crimea (we, in Serbia, do the same with Kosovo), but what about the slogan? Some conflate it with “Za dom spremni” (a Croatian Nazi salute) or some other Nazi salute.

The slogan is not completely removed, the “Herojam slava” (“Glory to Heroes!”) part means glory to all those people who were fighting for the independence and prosperity of Ukraine. There’s no other connotation to that. Of course, Russia was very unhappy about it, first of all, because of the map, because it showed clearly what the international community is thinking about the illegal annexation of Crimea. After all, we approved the football jerseys in December 2020, featuring all those slogans and the map. Nothing happened until a few days before the beginning of the championship. So, it was more of a political issue.

The crisis in Belarus is affecting you directly because Belarus is one of your biggest neighbours. Some countries also imposed sanctions on Belarus. What Ukraine can do to pacify the situation because Belarus tried hard to calm down the situation after 2014? Plus, there is the Minsk Process. 

We have a lot of sympathy for the people of Belarus, which we strongly support, including their indispensable rights to have free and fair elections and free assembly. As for the Minsk Process, which started in 2014, we are grateful to Belarus for providing this negotiation platform. Belarus was not a mediator – they just provided the venue, their capital and the premises. We did not recognize the results of their last year’s elections. So, we call upon Belarus to hold new elections and this time, they should be free. Ukraine is aligning itself fully with the position of the Western nations. Ukraine continues to have people-to-people contacts and limited economic cooperation, but we have no political contact whatsoever because we do not consider the current president as legitimate. We also discourage our people from travelling to Belarus, as we see it as dangerous. Belarus has an authoritarian, ruthless regime.

I noticed the stunning similarities in our mentalities, like in music and film. I do hope we can organize a Ukrainian film festival in Serbia soon.

Tell us something about the Minsk Process. What about de-escalation in the Donbass region? After the Geneva meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden, there was a slight de-escalation between the two. Can we expect something similar in the future? What is expected from Ukraine after the new president came to power in America and after all these meetings took place?

When Ukraine elected its current president, Mr. Zelensky, people in Serbia were asking me whether the situation would improve, if that meant the end of the war and if the new Ukrainian president would try to stop the war. I always said that the only person who could stop the war is the person who started the war, which is the Russian president. So it doesn’t matter who is the president of Ukraine, or what kind of political system we have. It is not the Ukrainian troops who are in the vicinity of Moscow – it is the Russian troops who are on the Ukrainian. What Ukraine can do is simply to build a very strong army and strong economy, and to stick together with its partners in Europe. Point No. 2 comes directly after point No. 1, which is a ceasefire. No. 2 is the withdrawal of all foreign troops. If Russia pulls back its troops and its mercenaries, the war will end in a week. Elections can be held according to the OSCE principles when we take control of our border. And then we can invite all the international community to monitor the political dialogue, the building of parties, media, political promises, elections, and so on.

President Zelensky spoke in the Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar language to the people of Donbass and Crimea, urging them to come home. Do you think that was a sincere real invitation for those people to come back home? Also, Ukraine has adopted the Law on Language that requires the use of the Ukrainian language in most aspects of public life.

That law does not prohibit an individual from speaking his or her mother tongue. So, in private life, in churches and other social activities, even in the streets, cafes and restaurants, everybody can use any language they wish. What the Law stipulates is that if a person, for example, comes to a restaurant or a shop, and they speak in Ukrainian, the shop assistant or a barman must reply in Ukrainian. On the other hand, if a person comes in and speaks Russian and claims they don’t understand Ukrainian, they will be addressed in Russian. In practical terms, in families, in private life, about 50% of people still use Russian. Both languages can be spoken interchangeably. But the Ukrainian language has been exterminated and prohibited in Ukraine for many decades, while Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. In the USSR, there were altogether about 36 different government acts prohibiting the use of the Ukrainian language. No wonder that people are very sensitive about that issue. We are not nationalistic, we are patriotic.

I still hope that the bilateral negotiations to establish free trade in Ukraine and Serbia will bear fruit.

But I see the bilingualism of Ukraine as a good business opportunity because lots of companies in the USA, for example, have their headquarters in California or Texas, where people speak both English and Spanish. It is good for the people of Ukraine to speak both languages. Businesspeople can, for instance, set up headquarters in Ukraine, from where they can cover Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan or any other country.

I have an answer from a purely scientific linguistic point of view. Since, I majored in the subject pertaining to linguistics, I know what I’m talking about. Two languages in a given territory can’t coexist together and mix, as one language will necessarily kill the other language. This is unavoidable. It’s the law of linguistics. You can name Switzerland, Canada or Belgium as an opposite example as they have three or four languages. That is true. But all those languages are used within separate entities. It is not like in Ukraine. It’s total confusion in our heads when we speak Ukrainian and Russian at the same time. So with time, one language will ultimately win. We are trying for Ukrainian to be the winning language.

How badly was the economy in Ukraine hit by the pandemic? What about the cooperation between Ukraine and Serbia? Is it bouncing back?

We did have a decline in GDP last year and a very small decline in the first quarter of this year. We are lucky to have the association agreement and three free trade areas with the EU. We have also received some financial assistance from the EU. Now, our trade with the EU takes up almost a half of our total trade. On the whole, yes, we did suffer, but it was not traumatic. We did not receive IMF assistance for over a year now. We have improved our fiscal and taxation policies. FDIs are coming. As for the trade with Serbia, it was worth over $400m in 2019, then it dropped to $320m in 2020. It is still not clear what will be the situation this year. Our major problem in trade between Ukraine and Serbia is the structure of Ukrainian exports. 80% of the Ukrainian exports to Serbia are iron ore and metals which go to the Smederevo Steel Plant. But once the demand for this product drops worldwide, that will affect our bilateral trade. I am still hopeful that the bilateral negotiations to establish free trade in Ukraine and Serbia will bear fruit because this will help a lot, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, which want to do business both in Ukraine and Serbia. We daily receive requests from Ukrainian and Serbian companies from all kinds of industries who want to trade, invest or cooperate. So, there is definitely a lot of interest. We need to speed up negotiations to facilitate our trade.

The mentalities of the two people are stunningly similar. Ukraine has experienced the film industry boom with a few Ukrainian films screened in Serbia too, like three sequels of the comedy “Crazy Wedding” and many more. Can we organize a Ukrainian film festival in Serbia with the aim of bringing our cultures closer together?

I hope we will do it. I have also noticed the stunning similarities in our mentalities, in our sense of humour in particular. I would like to say I am very happy how the Serbs reacted to the Go_A song in the Eurovision Song Contest, “Shum”. We received a lot of votes from in Serbia and it subsequently took 2nd place. We are very close. But we can bring our cultures even closer together.

By Žikica Milošević

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