Interview with Borys Tarasyuk - Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, and since 2005.
One of the most respected Ukrainian figures on the world stage, Mr. Tarasyuk has been responsible for much of the success in Ukraine's conduct of its foreign relations over the first decade of its independence. His diplomatic activities began in the mid-1970s, and by 1991 he had gained extensive experience both in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR and at Ukraine's Permanent Mission to the United Nations. His experience and his remarkable personal qualities served Ukraine well in the various positions Mr. Tarasyuk held over the 10 years since independence, including those of vice minister for foreign affairs, ambassador to the Benelux countries and liaison ambassador to NATO, and other important posts. From April 1998 to October 2000 Mr. Tarasyuk was Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. He is also the founder and director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation.
Do you share Zbigniew Brzezinski's view of a European geopolitical union that ends at Ukraine's eastern border with Russia?
I think that this is the only and the best scenario for Ukraine's development in the future. Ukraine should finally find its natural place in Europe, because Ukraine never was and is not a Eurasian country like Russia. Ukraine is obviously a European country. Historically, it belongs to Europe and now we are in the process of returning to Europe. Not geographically, but rather conceptually, politically, economically. In terms of security policy also. So here I can only support the prediction of Mr. Brzezinski that the eastern borders of Ukraine may be the borders of the European Union.
The problem is that Ukraine already long ago declared its intention to join the European Union, but without any adequate response from the European Union. Conceptually, we still are in the process of debate with the European Union, during which Ukraine is claiming to be a future member of the EU, whereas the EU is still having doubts about the prospect of Ukraine's membership. So that is the major problem, a conceptual problem. For the United States, there is no conceptual problem of where Ukraine should be in the future. For example, the position was recently expressed by President [George W.] Bush that if the people in Ukraine are claiming that they belong to Europe, so let it be, let us support Ukraine.
How do you envision the relations between Russia and Ukraine during the next 10 years?
In principle, I see no alternative to Ukraine and Russia having a friendly, good-neighborly relationship. No alternative. I exclude any possibility of a military confrontation between the two. We have to take into account that the nature and status of the relationship between them is of significance not only to themselves but to the whole of Europe, if not the world, because the condition of that relationship depends not only on the stability between these two countries and their peoples, but stability in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Europe as a whole. So the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is a very important subject of European policy and of geopolitics.
We may see in the future a continuation of debates between the two countries, which sometimes may take a heated tone. But, at the same time, we may expect the gradual settlement of disputes between Ukraine and Russia. The major question is whether Russia will eventually abandon its quest to become a dominating country over Ukraine. If these attempts are not going to dominate Russian foreign policy, we may expect a more or less smooth development of the relationship between both countries.
It will certainly be different if Russia's objective is to establish control or domination over Ukraine, as well as over other countries of the former Soviet bloc, as official policy. What Russia's objectives are, these used to be the objectives of the former Soviet Union : to keep control not only within the Soviet Union but over Central and Eastern Europe, which the Soviet Union lost. But the enlargement of NATO is actually endangering the restoration of that control, not of the former Soviet Union, but by Russia over Central and Eastern Europe in the long term. So that is why Russia is so hysterically, I would say, opposed to the idea of NATO enlargement, because it would mean, in a strategic, long-term perspective, its complete loss of the possibility of restoring control over Central and Eastern Europe.
What role could Ukraine's participation in GUUAM play in the country's eventual integration into Europe?
[GUUAM : Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldovia - a group formally founded in 1996 as a political, economic and strategic alliance]
I would not say just Ukraine's participation, but Ukraine's leadership. I would say without exaggeration that the leadership of Ukraine in GUUAM is designed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe. If we look at the other constituent countries of GUUAM, they are at a less prepared level for European integration than Ukraine. So they are not the catalyst for Ukraine's drawing closer to Europe.
I would look at this issue rather in geopolitical terms. It is Ukraine's, so to say, destiny to carry out the role of leader for countries like GUUAM having similar political security views, especially regarding the CIS. There is a kind of strategic and regional obligation for Ukraine to become a leader of such countries. And at the same time, this association serves as a kind of counterweight to the influence of another center within the CIS, that is Russia. And only together with Ukraine, which forms the core of this association, can those countries represent a counterweight to Russia's integrationist policies conducted through the CIS.
In addition, the GUUAM countries are quite natural partners for the realization of what is actually an intercontinental project, the project known within the European Union as the TRACECA project [Trans-Caucasus transportation corridor] and known in history as the Old Silk Road from Europe to Asia. Supported by the European Union, this project connects Europe, via Ukraine, the Caucasus countries and Central Asia to China.
Did you leave your post in September 2000 with a sense of unfinished business ? If so, do you foresee continuing what you began under a future government ?
I spent two years, five months and 12 days as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Indeed, I did and do have the feeling that I was prevented from finishing - not finishing, it is impossible to finish such things, but from implementing my plans as leader of Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Ministry. Even for the fall of 2000 I had specific plans for trips similar to the one I made to Latin America in the spring of 1999. On my itinerary were African countries with substantial potential as markets for Ukrainian goods. The program was already fixed, and it is a pity that my successor did not exploit this possibility. After all, these were not Mr. Tarasyuk's interests, but the interests of Ukraine. Similarly, I had planned a trip to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Yes, I did have plans in foreign policy that did not materialize, unfortunately, because I was prevented from realizing them.
Thus, I do have a feeling of unfinished business which I have partially tried to satisfy by founding the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation last May.
Through this institute I am going to bring the idea and the merits of Ukraine's European and Euro-Atlantic future to the broader society. It is important for me to get support from society rather than merely to convince one or another politician. This is how the system works in democracies. You have to convince society, you have to gain the support of the people, and then your policy can be successful.
About the future, I do not exclude my return to service in the field of foreign policy, but not now. Under our Constitution, the president implements leadership over the conduct of foreign affairs. We have different views on foreign policy, and so I cannot serve under this president [Leonid Kuchma]. It is impossible.
Do you think there is a big gap between the Ukrainian elite and the rest of the population in terms of awareness of international relations?
Yes. Naturally there are differences in the perception of foreign policy objectives between the elite and society. From my point of view, the elite, the professionals, have a more aware and informed judgement on the subject. Polls conducted among the members of the elite show that they are usually in favor of Ukraine's joining both the European Union and NATO. Some polls - which have been conducted for five years among Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry officials, members of the Rada, and correspondents writing on foreign affairs - show a figure as high as 75 percent in favor of NATO membership.
Some public opinion polls in the late 1990s showed support for Ukraine's EU membership, sometimes as high as 79 percent. Thus, these are some indicators that Ukrainian public opinion, in principle, is quite open to the idea of the European choice for Ukraine. I would say that the level of emotional support among Ukrainians for a Western orientation was very strong immediately following independence. The increasing hardships of the transitional period and the hostile attitude demonstrated by the West regarding nuclear weapons in 1993 lessened this support somewhat.
But, in principle, I do believe in the natural wisdom of the Ukrainian people, who naturally are striving to get to the same level and standard of living other Europeans have. But the Soviet system was eradicating the sense of entrepreneurship from the people's minds for more than 70 years. The system actually prevented Ukrainians from realizing their natural desire to work toward a better life, and its effects are still being felt. The system of collective farms was destroyed institutionally only last year.
Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko have recently created two separate pro-democracy coalitions in view of the legislative elections of 2002. Do you think that this division could reduce the possibilities of victory for democracy ?
No, I think that if different political forces have the same objective - that is, the building of a democratic, prosperous and economically viable European state - they can have different approaches. For example, the coalition led by Ms. Tymoshenko is basing its tactics on protest, on criticism, on so to say negative factors, whereas the coalition of Mr. Yuschenko is building its tactics on a constructive approach that is pro-nation, pro-Ukrainian interests.
I do not think that it is possible for them to get together in the course of the election campaign, but I do not exclude the possibility of them getting into a coalition after the elections, provided that both get enough votes in the Parliament.
Do you perceive Ukrainian youth as having a special role to play in political mobilization ?
Certainly. I consider Ukrainian youths and the youth in the Ukrainian diaspora the world over as a natural asset for Ukraine, because of the natural desire of youth to right wrongdoing and injustice, to favor democracy and freedom. This natural impulse among all people is especially evident among the youth. Let us recall the year 1990, when Ukrainian youths demonstrated against the old system, and, as a result, the government was forced to resign. Do you remember these protests and the tent camps on what is now Independence Square ? Nobody believed that this could be achieved.
This year again the youth of Ukraine demonstrated because they no longer wanted to be the objects of policy, but rather wanted to be the subjects and participants of the political process in Ukraine. This resulted in their active protest and, again, the construction of tent camps. And who initiated this campaign in Ukraine called "For Truth" ? Again, the students. Students were never passive onlookers.
Unfortunately, the system is now trying to prevent students from actively participating. I myself have seen this phenomenon. For example, I was on a trip to Ivano-Frankivsk. The organizers agreed that I could have a meeting with the students at the university. Unexpectedly, the rector said: "You know, it is impossible to fit it into the plans." It became known to me afterwards that the rector had received a call from above, saying that if Mr. Tarasyuk were to speak before the students, it would lead at least to a reprimand, a serious reprimand - possibly a dismissal. But no power has ever been able to dampen the enthusiasm of youth.
The interview was conducted in Boston by Cyril Horiszny and Anna Fournier. © 2001