Text: Žikica Milošević
We are not a failed state! We are a state that has changed for better
There are few people that are as interesting in conversation as the Ukrainian Ambassador to Serbia. The geostrategic position of his country and current events make his position very delicate, but his answers to difficult questions are quite straightforward.
How difficult it is to be the Ukrainian ambassador to Serbia during such an historical juncture?
— It is both difficult and easy at the same time. It is easy because our nations are very close and similar. Your historian Ljubivoje Cerović wrote a book “Serbs in Ukraine”, which includes the statement that Ukraine is the ancient homeland of Serbia, since they probably came from today’s Ukraine. In many parts of Ukraine there are the same names of villages as in Serbia and vice versa. As for the languages, 68% of the words are the same. People here think that Ukrainian and Russian are practically the same, but Ukrainian is actually closer to Serbian. They are both folk languages, like Belarusian. Russian is like Bulgarian, based on Church Slavonic. And it is hard during the last three years, since the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Before that we were all “happy Slavic brothers”, but that changed and I understand Serbian politicians. Until recently Serbia tried to be on the middle path between Russia and us, but that has changed.
Yes, Serbia is somehow in the Ukrainian crisis “between the Devil and the deep blue sea”: it must stand with Ukraine when it comes to national sovereignty over Crimea (as in the case of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria, for instance), andyet it has to be with Russia as its main ally in defending Kosovo. How do you assess this situation?
— It may seem logical that Serbia is in the middle, as it is a small country. But the current situation is quite different to that of Tito’s times. He juggled between East and the West and nobody dared to touch him. But now that is not the case: Serbia could be slapped from both sides, since now everybody wants you on their side. It could be easier to choose one side. If you choose Russia, that is okay, but then being in the middle won’t be possible. But Serbia changed its position during the voting in the UN on the human rights violation in Crimea. Until then it abstained, but now it voted for Russia against Ukraine. Belarus is in the same situation as Serbia and also voted against Ukraine in the UN, but did not recognise Crimea as Russian. Serbia could be more resilient against Russian pressure. We played a football match against Kosovo in Poland, as we don’t recognise Kosovar passports. But Serbia did not thank us – rather it voted against Ukraine. That saddens me, since we have always supported you on Kosovo.
Ukraine has multiple identities in many areas: two languages, Orthodox and Greek Catholic religion, even a split between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the Kiev Patriarchate. Excluding one or more communities could be a fatal blow. How can a country at such a crossroads find its balance and unite its people, even those from the rebellious regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, and even Crimea? After gaining its independence in 1922, Ireland tried to eliminate the English language and restore Irish Gaelic, but it failed. The same happened in Serbia with Latin script, which is still prevalent over Cyrillic. Do you think that these processes are innately improbable to implement?
— Immediately after the Orange Revolution, domestic tourism in Ukraine became very popular. The people from Kiev visited the people of Donetsk and the people of Lugansk visited Lviv, for example, for Christmas etc. No problems existed. Now we have some 1.6 million internally displaced persons, primarily from Crimea and the occupied Eastern regions, who came to live in Western or Central Ukraine. No single case of an incident happened. Before there were two main political parties – the Party of Regions and the “Orange” Block – and everybody spoke different language, but we did not fight. Prior to Euromaidan and Russian aggression and lies, 95% of newspapers in any kiosk were in Russian! But Russification “killed” many Ukrainian words in the course of history. Now the Russian-speaking Ukrainians are trying to save the Ukrainian language, sending their children to Ukrainian-language schools. They cannot change themselves, but they are changing the future. Half of Euromaidan was Russian-speaking. And now in the Donetsk region there is not a fight between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, it is a fight between Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians on one side and Russian citizens on the other. We have 35,000 terrorist troops. The Russiansare trying to convince us they are rebels, but 10,000 of them are Russian soldiers, 20,000 are Russian volunteers, and maybe 5000 are Ukrainian locals. At the beginning some were enthusiastic about the rebellion, like “we want to be in Russia”, but now it is almost completelycomposed of outsiders.
Why did the Ukrainians relinquish the name Rus’ in favour of Ukrainian identity?
— I will tell you something I haven’t told anyone in Serbia before: Ukrainians are real Slavs and original Russians, Rus’ people. After Peter I proclaimed in 1721 that – from then on – Moscovia-Tataria and all its occupied territories must be called “Russia”, he also demanded that the entire population of this new “Russia” must be recognized as Russian or forcefully Russified (he didn’t want any national minorities in the Russian Empire. Everybody had to be Russian to receive higher education, get social protection, pensions etc.). Peter I simply forgot to mention that he himself, and other Finnish or Tatarian people, had, in fact, never been Russian people. So, the true Ruski Ljudi (with the exception of Ruthenians) deliberately started calling themselves “Ukrainians” simply in order to differentiate and distance themselves from these new false “Russians”. Because ifthey had continued to stick to their old historical name “Ruski Ljudi”, that would give a good pretext to the Kremlin rulers to say to the world – “Look! We are all Russians. They confirm it.” It sounds crazy, because of this substitution of names, because of this grand historical theft by Moscovia-Tataria of national identity of Rus-Ukraine.
Do you think that the lack of federalisation is a decisive factor in every crisis lately: in Ukraine,but also in Serbia, Georgia, Moldova etc.? Could all these conflicts be resolved by some sort of deep federal structure and regions with broad autonomy? Could the wish for a unitary state and identity ruin us all? Could Ukraine and Serbia be more like Spain and Germany?
— Until the Russian occupation of Crimea, it was already an autonomous republic. They had their parliament and spoke Russian. They were no Ukrainian soldiers sent to kill Russians. Now we are in the process of decentralization of Ukraine, in all oblasts. We launched the budget restructuring and self-organisation, but we are sending money to cities, villages, towns. It is better to let the money at the lowest level. If we give oblasts more power, they could want to leave. Fiscal or cultural autonomy can be given to regions with the majority of Russian-speaking, or Romanian-speaking or Hungarian-speaking populations, but not fiscal autonomy to individual or collective speaking any language. So, the essence of decentralisation is about giving more power and money and responsibility to all local communities regardless what language people speak there. Russia wants the terrorists to have veto on Ukrainian foreign policy, everything. Russia wants federal Ukraine to block the decisions from inside. We want first all of Russian troops out of Ukraine, and we are not afraid of federalisation, call it any other name.
AND THE EU APPROACH OF NOT ADMITTING COUNTRIES THAT DON’T CONTROL THEIR WHOLE TERRITORY IS DANGEROUS: IF YOU WANT TO STOP ANY COUNTRY FROM ENTERING THE EU, YOU SIMPLY OCCUPY A PART OF THEIR TERRITORY, AS RUSSIA DID IN GEORGIA AND UKRAINE. THAT IS A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY
How do you think the situation will develop after the Brexit vote, Donald Trump becoming U.S. president and all the other possible changes that happened in 2016 and could possibly happen in 2017?
— Pope Francis said, explaining all the populist and far-right movements: remember Hitler, he came to power through elections! People around Europe should think twice about their choices, but I would not exaggerate that. Before elections politicians promise everything: we will leave the EU! We won’t pay taxes! But once in office, they change their rhaetoric. And the UK is a good example: now when we see how the people will be hit by leaving the EU, others will learn a lesson. Look at Austria: in the end,the moderate candidate won, not the extremist one. I would not be too pessimistic about Trump, but we don’t know anything yet.
Do you think that the prospects of European integration are realistic, for Ukraine, Serbia or any other country, like Georgia or Moldova? None of these countries control their entire territory, while the EU stated that, after Cyprus, it would not accept any “divided” country? Is the EU tired of expanding but still provides prospects in order to preserve hope in these countries? The people in Turkey, Serbia and many other place shave also grown tired of endless delays. What’s the general feeling like in Ukraine?
— Serbia is already in the stage of opening chapters, but it needs more than five years to finish that. Ukraine is lagging behind, but we have a common trade area. Different stages of EU integration are present elsewhere, but we don’t talk about immediate membership. It is about economic ties with the EU. We had a free trade agreement with Russia and planned to sign the same kind of contract with the EU. We didn’t want to cut ties with Russia, but for them it was a political question. We had a perfect position to trade with both of them, but Russia simply killed our trade. From 50 billion USD we fell to 4-5 billion with Russia and we increased our trade from 25% to 44% of total trade with the EU. We did not buy a single drop of Russian gas in 2016. And we are quite happy. We buy it elsewhere, it might be even Russian, but we don’t buy it from them. We are fighting for European values, which are stronger in Ukraine than in the rest of Europe. We want to have a European-organised society, like Switzerland or Norway, not membership. Good standards and infrastructure. And the EU approachis dangerous: if you want to stop any country from entering the EU, you just occupy a part of their territory, as Russia did in Georgia and Ukraine. After many people died in the Euromaidan and over 10,000 in Donbas, people are more determined than ever not to go back. After the Orange Revolution there was disdain for the politicians. But now we are resolute that there is no going back. We are not happy, since it is progressing slower than we expected, but we are progressing. Russians are now financing a hybrid war, financing media to create the impression that Ukraine is a failed state. But we reformed the police, the state and judges more in the last three years than in the previous 25. People were afraid of the police then, but are proud of them now.
In the end, what are your hopes for Ukraine and the world? How can the “brotherly Slavic countries”, like Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Serbia, Croatia etc., learn to identify common ground, like the Scandinavians, and not overestimate differences?
— Of course, sooner or later, neighbours will have to live in peace. But in the case of Ukraine and Russia, it will take at least several generations to overcome the current feelings. It is possible to live in peace with Russia only when it abandonsits imperial behaviour, when it stops attacking its neighbours and instead concentrate on its own many internal problems.