Monday

17th Feb 2020

Interview

Ukraine's EU ambassador watched revolution on internet

  • Yeliseyev (r) with interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Ukraine’s EU envoy, Kostiantyn Yeliseyev, watched the revolution on the internet with his staff at their embassy in Brussels last weekend.

He told EUobserver on Thursday (26 February) that their main source of news was a live-feed from Kiev city centre on the espreso.tv website.

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“It was like it’s not real. Like I’m watching a movie in the cinema, especially when I saw these mansions and treasures belonging to the president and the prosecutor general,” he said.

“I felt a kind of bitterness, because for years and years we struggled to make all these reforms with a view to signing the [EU] association agreement and now I clearly understood that they were never serious about it, that they were just using these talks to win time to obtain more benefits. For me, it’s hard to grasp,” he added.

Yeliseyev, a career diplomat from the Russophone Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, says he did his bit.

He did not add his name to an online list of Ukrainian diplomats who backed the opposition. But he tried to keep Ukrainian authorities talking to the EU to stop bloodshed.

He recalled phoning former president Viktor Yanukovych’s chief of staff, Andriy Kluyev, when police opened fire last Tuesday to arrange a call with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso. But Kluyev told him Yanukovych was in a closed meeting and could not be reached.

“I don’t know who the president was with, maybe some Russian advisors. But I was shocked: I thought Kluyev was the kind of man who could reach Yanukovych any time,” Yeliseyev said.

The ambassador says he also refused to carry out “stupid” instructions sent by his former foreign minister in recent weeks.

One of them was for Ukraine to threaten to re-impose visa restrictions for selected EU countries as a negotiating tactic. Others concerned telling his EU counterparts that the protesters were far-right radicals.

“I don’t want to be seen as trying to avoid any blame, but in my view, my main job was here, in Brussels. One of my main concerns was to tell the truth to our European colleagues, to do the utmost not to discredit ourselves as diplomats,” he noted.

He told EUobserver he does not recall at which point his staff took down Yanukovych’s photo in the embassy lobby.

Yanukovych is at large and claims to be the legitimate leader of Ukraine. But Yeliseyev said the vote, by parliament in Kiev on Thursday, to back the interim government means he now takes instructions from the new authorities.

He said their first one came right after the Verkhovna Rada result.

It tasked him to organise a visit by senior officials from the European Commission’s economic affairs department to Ukraine next week.

It also tasked him to seek EU countries’ support for stabilising the situation in Crimea, where armed men seized public buildings and hoisted the Russian flag on Thursday.

Yeliseyev said Ukraine needs EU loans “in the coming days” to avoid a default.

Amid talk of €25 billion in Kiev, he declined to name a sum, but said it is likely to come from the EU, EU-linked banks such as the EIB and the EBRD, and from the International Monetary Fund.

“Financial instability in Ukraine would mean financial instability for the European continent as a whole. Do not forget that there are a lot of European business represented on the territory of Ukraine. I mean investors, manufacturers, British or German companies, and that’s why a default in Ukraine would also have repercussions for European businesses,” he said.

He added that EU taxpayers should also show “solidarity.”

“For the first time in Europe, people defended European values and standards, under the EU flag, and some of them, tragically, died defending these values.”

Meanwhile, the ambassador blamed events in Crimea squarely on Russia.

“You understand who is doing it: This is a provocation initiated by Moscow, of course, and we are very much concerned,” he said.

Following Russia’s rebuke of Nato after the Cold War-era alliance urged Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Yeliseyev said: “In this situation I would rely more, to be frank, on institutions such as the UN Security Council [UNSC].”

He noted that EU countries on the UNSC should initiate talks with reference to a UNSC presidency statement in 1993, which bound Russia to stay out of Ukraine after its parliament, the Duma, had proclaimed that the Crimean city of Sevastopol is Russian.

Looking further ahead, he wants the EU to sign the association agreement “in the next few weeks” to reduce the risk of more “Russian tricks.”

He said EU governments should help repatriate stolen Ukrainian funds, but noted that he is “sceptical” on getting the money back, because it is most likely in exotic jurisdictions.

He also said Ukraine will need a bigger, medium-term, bailout, which he called a “European Transformation Fund,” and which is likely to involve private sector donors, as well as the EU, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and the US.

Amid Russian warnings that the revolution, led by western Ukrainians, could cause the country to split, the ambassador said it has done the opposite.

He noted that his own younger brother visited the Maidan, the opposition camp in Kiev.

He added that some of those who were killed also came from Russophone eastern Ukraine.

“De facto, people are not divided, on the contrary, they are united,” he said. “These events made people also in the east realise that our future lies with European values and standards. After the Maidan, I see increasing support for European integration also in the east.”

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