Full version of the interview of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to Slovak economic newspaper Hospodárske noviny.
- Mr. President, you have been in this position for over a year. During the election campaign, some believed that you were in favor of normalizing relations with Russia. How do you rate them now? Do you see an improvement or the end of the war?
- We have difficult relations with Russia. The war in Donbas lasts for the seventh year. Russia annexed our Crimean peninsula. At the same time, historically we had a lot of economic and human contacts before, which had to be painfully cut off.
The war in eastern Ukraine claimed more than 14,000 lives, crippled tens of thousands of lives, destroyed families, and took home from millions. To talk about normalization is to describe complex processes with cliches. In this case, it is a peace negotiation process.
Only this year we managed to establish a real ceasefire. It lasted 42 days, until two serious provocations took place: as a result, one of our servicemen was killed and two were wounded. However, even after that, the Ukrainian army had the courage and wisdom to maintain the armistice - the longest in six and a half years. I understand how shaky it is, and I exhale with relief, opening daily reports on the situation in Donbas. But I also understand how efficient this regime of silence is: the endless losses of our military and civilians have stopped, the locals have heard "silence" for the first time in many years, and this has a remarkable psychological effect. Believe me, everyone is tired and wants peace. Now the main task for everyone is to move from stable "silence" to lasting peace.
Last year, we resumed talks between the leaders of the Normandy Four: Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia, - which have not taken place for three years. Without these talks, without dialogue with Putin, we will not be able to achieve peace.
During the year of my presidency, we managed to bring back almost 150 people from captivity - from Russia and the occupied territories. We have disengaged troops in Donbas at three positions, we are actively demining the territory. And on September 11, at a meeting of advisors to the leaders of the Normandy format, the parties agreed on the admission of the ICRC to the occupied territory of Donbas.
Ukraine is most interested in peace, because the war takes place on our territory. But there must be a two-way movement on the path to peace, and key steps must be taken by Russia, which controls the occupied territories of Ukraine. We would like to see more of Moscow's desire to accelerate the achievement of peace.
Of course, the war takes place only on 3% of our territory, but we still need the support of the West. The war in Donbas destabilizes the situation on the whole continent. This is a loss for the economy and human capital.
All wars end someday. The question is how long they last, how many lives they take, how much suffering they bring. We are 100% sure that the Ukrainian cities - Donetsk and Luhansk - are our cities, our people are there, as well as in Crimea, by the way. And if it was not for external intervention, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea would normally live in our single state system.
- Do you communicate directly with Putin? How would you describe your relations?
- We have different formats of communication with President Putin - this is both the Normandy quadripartite format and the bilateral format: when there is such a need, we speak directly. This helps find the right solutions that are important not only for Ukraine, but also for the whole of Europe. For example, last December we reached an agreement on the transit of Russian gas through the territory of Ukraine. This guarantees energy stability for our entire part of the continent. I also spoke with Putin on July 26, on the eve of the ceasefire establishment in the east. And we have the longest "silence" mode. Communication with the President of Russia is limited, yet substantive. As a perfectionist, I would like to see more efficiency from our dialogue.
- Are you worried about the situation in Belarus? Can destabilization there be dangerous for Ukraine?
- Such a crisis has an impact not only on the countries neighboring with Belarus. The events there already have consequences for Europe. We see that the biggest political crisis in all the years of Belarus' independence has arisen. It is also linked to economic and social crises that have already matured and cause an impact. If the scenario is negative, it will mean at least hundreds of thousands of refugees from Belarus to European countries.
Fair elections of the President are the best way out of this crisis. If the candidates are confident of victory, then there is nothing to fear from another election. These are the actions of a government that is not afraid of its people. I also emphasize that there must be a dialogue with society, violence must be avoided. These are the actions of a government that cares about its people.
- Ukraine is among the countries most affected by COVID-19 in Europe. What are the reasons?
- The reasons for the increase in the number of infections in Ukraine are the same as in any other country. People are tired of the threat of COVID-19, quarantine restrictions and constant emotional stress. People really want to return to normal life. Most outbreaks are provoked at parties, concerts, weddings, clubs, during religious ceremonies.
At the beginning of this crisis, we responded very quickly - due to quarantine, we really managed to prevent a major blow of the pandemic, as was the case, for example, in Italy or Spain. We now have an adaptive quarantine in our country, which allows us to respond flexibly to challenges in one place or another.
In the second quarter, we had an economic downturn - like all other countries. We had minus 11.4% of GDP. This is the time of the greatest quarantine restrictions. But by the end of the year, economic recovery will have been tangible and sustainable. For the second month in a row, we have been recording an increase in exports, which is a very good sign. The international reserves of our National Bank are growing.
Like other countries, we focused on helping the victims of the pandemic: we developed a program of cheap loans for businesses, financial compensation for those who lost their jobs, intensified job search assistance to those registered in the employment centers, etc.
It is important that the vaccine is invented as soon as possible and that we all work together and help each other to develop a pan-European response to the negative effects of the pandemic.
- Are you satisfied with the development of relations with the EU? Is there progress in Ukraine's integration into the European Union?
- The European Union is our key partner in restoring sovereignty and territorial integrity and supporting reforms. Since the signing of the EU Association Agreement, it has become Ukraine's main trading partner, accounting for more than 40% of our foreign trade. Since the beginning of the visa-free regime in 2017, Ukrainians have made 50 million trips to EU countries.
However, Ukraine wants full integration into the EU. We are a European country and we can give a lot to Europe working together. A lot on the European continent depends on the situation in Ukraine, so it would be logical if Ukraine became a full member of the European Union. We want to get a clear membership perspective for Ukraine from the EU. It is important for Ukrainians that the European Union recognizes and supports our aspirations.
We are currently working to make the most of the potential of the Association Agreement to further deepen integration between Ukraine and the EU, as well as to adapt the trade part of the Agreement to modern economic realities. This will be one of the important topics of the EU-Ukraine Summit on October 1 in Brussels.
- How could Slovakia help you in this, being one of the closest neighbors?
- Slovakia already has what we are just going for - full membership in the European Union. So it will be natural if we think together with Slovakia about the development and enlargement of the EU. It will be more pleasant for any country to have an EU country as a neighbor in the east. This is a completely different - the best - level of predictability, development and cooperation. It is very important for us that support for Ukraine's European perspective is mentioned in the program of the current Slovak government.
Slovakia successfully overcame the challenges of European and Euro-Atlantic integration with a strong stimulus - a clearly defined prospect of membership in the EU and NATO. Ukraine does not have such an incentive. Nevertheless, we have chosen a course and are moving forward, realizing that the necessary reforms are in the interests of our people and state.
A reformed and strong Ukraine is able to significantly strengthen the Union, which is looking for a new place and a proper role in the world. We look forward to supporting our initiatives to deepen sectoral integration in energy, digital economy and trade. We also hope for Slovakia's active position in preparing a new long-term strategy for the further development of the Eastern Partnership, which should take into account the ambitions and needs of partners as much as possible and be based on the principle of differentiation.
- What will be your key message during your visit to Slovakia?
- We will act according to the Slovak proverb "A good neighbor is more important than a distant relative". I also hope that during the current generation, the Schengen border between Ukraine and Slovakia will disappear and both countries will belong to the single European space.
We also hope that Slovakia will support Ukraine on the path to restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
- In what areas do you see the main opportunities and potential for strengthening cooperation between our countries?
- Ukraine and Slovakia should develop mutually beneficial trade and economic relations. We see the potential for increasing cooperation in agriculture. Ukraine has a leading position in the world food security system, it is a reliable trading partner that consistently cares about the quality of its own food and agricultural products, bringing it in line with EU norms and standards.
A number of infrastructure projects are promising, among which I would like to note the resumption of full operation of Uzhhorod International Airport. During my visit, an agreement is planned to be signed, which will allow us to resume regular flights to the city of Uzhhorod.
We have a common strategic vision of Ukraine and Slovakia in the development of transit potential and improving the delivery of goods in containers from the EU to China and vice versa. It is necessary to intensify the work of the parties on the development of logistics terminals in Chop, Mukachevo, Košice. Energy security is undoubtedly our strategic priority. Effective cooperation between the operators of our countries according to European rules will give the maximum economic effect.
- Do you have a plan on how to attract Slovak tourists to Ukraine after the pandemic?
- We have started the restoration of infrastructure on a national scale - roads, social and sports infrastructure, culture. This is a big investment in increasing communication. These are communication, expansion of economic ties, tourism. We have a strategy of creating tourist "magnets" in each of our regions - special objects that will be interesting to millions of tourists. We are restoring them, we are building all the infrastructure so that, in particular, our friends from Slovakia can discover Ukraine.
We now have unique business opportunities - skilled people, great potential of creative industries, including the film industry, the advertising industry, we are developing concession projects, implementing land reform. We will add infrastructure to all this, and this will definitely make Ukraine more "understandable" for the EU when the pandemic ends.
- Will you take part in other events during your visit to Slovakia?
- As part of my visit to Bratislava, in addition to the meeting with President of Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová, with whom we already developed warm relations during her visit to Kyiv, I will also have meetings with Prime Minister Igor Matovič and Speaker of the National Council Boris Kollár. During my visits abroad, I pay important attention to meetings with the Ukrainian community. Such a meeting is planned during my visit to Slovakia.
- Will your delegation include representatives of Ukrainian business?
- Due to the limitations related to COVID-19, we have formed the most compact delegation, without business representatives. I hope that we will be able to organize a full-scale Ukrainian-Slovak business forum as soon as the situation allows. The occasion for such a forum could be a regular meeting of the Ukrainian-Slovak Joint Commission on Economic, Industrial and Scientific-Technical Cooperation.
- How would you describe the development of Slovak-Ukrainian relations over the past 15 months?
- I feel a sincere interest in Ukraine from President Zuzana Čaputová. I highly appreciate the fact that the new government of Slovakia, led by Igor Matovič, actively supports the transformation and European perspective of Ukraine and makes a stand against the violation of the territorial integrity of our country. Ukraine also praised the gesture of solidarity on the part of Slovakia in overcoming the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequences of floods in the west of our country.
Photo credit: President's Office