Eurointegrators: Interview with Eduard Hoeks and Taras Ratushnyy (14.11.19)

In this episode, the guests are Eduard Hoeks, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Ukraine, and Taras Ratushnyy, the spokesperson of the Medical cannabis Association of Ukraine.

Popova: Hello, I present today a new episode of the “Eurointegrators” program. Our quests today are

Mr. Ambassador, the first question is to you. The information about the accused of the MH17 shooting down has been recently announced. What have been the results of this investigation? We have four names; they are Girkin, Dubinskiy, Pulatov and Kharchenko. But you don’t go further in your investigation. Why?

Hoeks: On the 19th of June, the representatives of the joint investigation team announced some results of the criminal investigation into the downing of the MH17, and that four suspects have been mentioned, have been identified during this press conference by out prosecutor general. Three of them are of Russian nationality, and one is of Ukrainian nationality.

Popova: But working with Russians? On Russia’s side?

Hoeks: Working on the separatists’ side. Four suspects at this moment have been identified. There will be requests to Russia to extradite them, because at his moment three of them are on Russian territory. At the same time, I have to mention that there is no bilateral agreement between Russia and the Netherlands on an extradition. You mentioned the continuation of the investigation. Indeed, the investigation will continue. It is to be expected that more suspects will be identified at the later stage.

Popova: In the European Parliament elections, in the Netherlands, pro-European parties are leading. There are less parties who were against Ukraine, or Euro-skeptical parties. Why?

Hoeks: You mentioned Europe. And Europe, at this moment, is of course under challenge of many phenomena. We have the rivalry between the northern part of Europe and the southern part on the issue of the euro. We have the rivalry between the central and the eastern part of Europe and the western part on the issue of migration. There is also the issue of rule of law in certain countries in Central Europe. Of course, there are several issues like climate, where we really have to find each other. These elections, for European Parliament were very important because of these issues at this moment at stake. I think we can be reasonably satisfied with the result in the sense that populistic parties have gained less than was predicted. Some people, for instance Steve Bannon in the United States, a former adviser of the president Trump, indicated that these results would be disasters for Europe, with regard to the populistic tendencies. He was proven wrong, and I think this is a good thing. It is also a good thing for Ukraine, because anti-Ukrainian sentiments – of course they exist to a certain extent, because of the, for instance, corruption – have diminished in the European Parliament. So I think it’s a good thing.

Popova: How do you feel the external influence in Europe in terms of euro-skeptical or anti-Ukrainian sentiments? Especially if we speak about Council of Europe.

Hoeks: We can sometimes to a certain extent go together. There are certainly disinformation campaigns from different countries to try to influence general sentiments in the European continent. These disinformation campaigns, so-called fake news, have of course influence on the voting behavior; we cannot avoid this. What we are trying to do is to work more and more with so-called fact checking, see what is real about these stories and what is unreal.

Popova: Why have the Netherlands, a member of the Council of Europe, voted for Russia’s return to the Council of Europe?

Hoeks: The Netherlands have always been in a favor of return of Russia in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for different reasons. We do think that having Russia inside the Council of Europe, there is more of a guarantee, more possibility to make sure will abide by principles, rules and the norms the Council of Europe stands for. That is one thing. Another reason is that the Russian citizens by having Russia being a member of the Parliamentary Assembly have better access to the mechanisms to guarantee human rights in Russia itself. So, for these reasons the Netherlands, together with many other countries by the way have voted for return of Russia to the Parliamentary Assembly.

Popova: So, do you think it doesn’t have any connection with Russia’s yearly payment of 33 million euros and financial problems that the Council of Europe had during last two years, because Russia hadn’t paid money?

Hoeks: That is true, but at the same time, we think that having Russia inside is more important than this obstacle, which you mentioned.

Popova: In the Netherlands, the sell and use of cannabis products are decriminalized and open, as in Amsterdam. What sum does the budget of the Netherlands receive due to these steps?

Hoeks: Yes, it’s true that the Netherlands has a policy of tolerance with regard to marihuana, cannabis, which means that in the so-called coffee-shops, you mentioned Amsterdam, but it is also true for other cities of the Netherlands. People older than 18 years old can buy a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis. You also have to prove, that you are living in the Netherlands, because we want to avoid large groups from abroad come and buy cannabis in our country. This is a policy of tolerance, which also brings money, tax money. Revenue from the Netherlands for this policy is approximately 150 million euros per year. At the same, you mentioned decriminalization. Because of this decriminalization there is also less police force needed to monitor the illegal trade of cannabis, which also saves approximately 25 million euros per year. So, altogether we are talking about a positive side of about 170 million euros per year. Which does not take away that we still need to monitor illegal drugs trade of course, which requires police enforcement, which is also of course quite expensive.

Popova: And you also have medical cannabis?

Hoeks: Medical cannabis is another story. Of course, there have been many scientific investigations as to the use, and also the usefulness of medical cannabis. The history of course is thousands years old. It was used in China and old Egypt. We have stories about Latin America, where hundreds of years ago, the cannabis was already used for the medical purposes. There have been some proofs that medical cannabis also is helpful for instance for combatting of pain, as a painkiller, especially in combination with morphine. In the Netherlands, we have one state company producing cannabis for medical purposes. They produce approximately 100 kilos per week for pharmaceutical companies and to hospitals.

Popova: But for recreational use, you have much more companies than one?

Hoeks: That is completely different. That is less regulated; there we follow the policy of tolerance.

Popova: After the petition in Ukraine, a draft law on legalization of medical cannabis was written. How good is an experience of other countries on medical cannabis? And what will be the results for Ukraine?

Ratushnyy: It is a petition about the legislative regulation of access to medical cannabis and the legislative regulation of cannabis for science and medicine. The petition gained 25 thousand signatures in March, and it was supported by committee on human rights. Actually, it took 2 months to develop a draft law by deputies from different fractions. Today, the number of deputies who signed it and became co-authors of it is 102. By the level of political support, it can be compared with the draft law to move the Ukrainian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That was an important political decision and it was also made with the signatures of more than a hundred deputies. On 20th of May, this draft law was submitted to the Verkhovna Rada and it appeared on the Parliament website. Unfortunately, this coincided with the beginning of the parliamentary crisis, which escalated into a constitutional crisis. Now this situation is that this draft law, which is numbered 10313, is on the agenda in accordance with the law, but it can’t be managed because now it is not the time for it. Deputies are busy.

Popova: They are busy now with the elections law, there are lots of amendments. And I guess they will be busy for at least one more week.

Ratushnyy: Yes. That’s what it looks like. Meanwhile this bill has not yet been considered at all.

Popova: Well, you hope much for it especially as in the 21 country in the world this medical cannabis is already settled.

Ratushnyy: Well this list is much bigger. I think it is necessary to return to the experience of the Netherlands and clarify the situation with the legal status with cannabis in the Netherlands, that is legally regulated. It concerns only medical cannabis and scientific research related to medicine of cannabis.  Recreational cannabis used by adults in the Netherlands is decriminalized and that is why, there is no way to say – we are getting so much taxes from this or another coffee shop, it is such a gray area and it will possibly break the impression of Ukrainians a bit how it all works. But if we thought that Holland was the only country that legalized cannabis, actually it became legal in the Netherlands only the last year, when government programs were launched. In fact the first pilot programs where the turnover of recreational cannabis in separately selected for this coffee shops or sale points and is a complete cycle where all – cultivation, supply and quality control are managed by the state at all stages. This program will occupy 10 cities and as far as I know, at the end of this summer it will become known the names of these cities. This program is planned for several years, so by the results it will be understood which of the models will be the most successful and, therefore, will be implemented at the national level. But medical cannabis in the Netherlands is legalized, regulated by law, has a public supplier or one company that grows varieties for the needs of medicine. These varieties are in legal circulation, controlled, limited, sold through pharmacies, drug stores, for those who need them. Actually, this is also what we need to develop.

Popova: Your draft law doesn’t suggest decriminalization? It provides only medical cannabis, right?

Ratushnyy: Legalization and decriminalization are two different processes, they have a different subject. Decriminalization refers to minor offenses of non-law acts, which are derived from criminal prosecution in, for example, administrative, some of them are so minor that they don’t even need to be paid attention to at all.

Popova: We see our national police posting these pictures where they caught someone with just one cigarette.

Ratushnyy: Believe me, as far as I know in the 70s in the Netherlands, the police were doing about the same thing as the Ukrainian police does now. They actually were catching the people with the only guilt that they had – a jamb of cannabis in the pocket. But then it was regulated at the priority settings level. Аnd the police governance gave clear directives that yes, these people are considered to be offenders, but if you bring at least a wagon of these cannabis smokers than it’s worth your working time. And it wasn’t really about cannabis only, it was about other various illegal substances, including heroin. The issue of decriminalization and the logic of it is that the fight against drug users shouldn’t be a priority. Serious crime should be a priority. When this model was implemented, perhaps not at the official state level, because it was to some extent contrary to the understanding of international conventions at that time. But the Netherlands saw that the population of heroin dependent people began to grow old, it was noted after 5, then after 10 years. It meant that the people who used illegal heroin stopped involving the younger generation, they just got older, the country had the opportunity to engage and control them by sending to rehabilitation centers, and so it was determined that it works. Such a policy of tolerance became opposed to the zero tolerance policy, which didn’t bring good results, it used the police resources for non-priority tasks, for minor offenses.

Popova: And what brought the legalization of medical cannabis from a financial point of view?

Ratushnyy: When we talk about the legalization of medical cannabis, we are talking about the fact that cannabis is the material produced by the pharmaceutical industry, as in the Netherlands, for example.  According to quality protocols, they grow these plants; they are processed appropriately and passing control and then get to pharmacies. To the end user who receives them on a prescription. This will give access to people who need this access. This means that a certain proportion of these people are now using the illicit trafficking, because it ensures this demand.

Popova: At least 7 percent the country could receive as VAT on medicines that would help 2 million people who need them.

Ratushnyy: In addition to VAT, this is certainly the money that will be paid for the license by manufacturers, distributors and all businesses that will be involved in this process. It is about what should be produced by quality standards pharmaceuticals and this is something that can not be provided by the black market. It will never try in this direction. A certain percentage of black market users will be taken from it. And in fact it is more important not to take these people away, than to give them pharmaceutical forms in accordance with quality standards, which makes the medicine a medicine.

Popova: You told already that police has less job because of the decriminalization, and you save 25 million euros due to that. But there is also an information, that there is a reduction of a crime rate, and even some prisons were closed. Is that true?

Hoeks: That is true. In the Netherlands, 25 years ago, we did not have enough prisons. But at the moment, we have too many. Many prisons now are empty. We even rent them out to Belgium authorities to have Belgian criminals in the Dutch prisons. This has to do with many phenomena. It is of course decriminalization of our soft drugs policy. But at the same time there are also changes in society. The whole criminal law is also in development, there is some dynamics there. Punishment is sometimes different. People are sometimes treated in psychiatric hospitals rather than having them in a prison for a very long time. That is also a reason why at this moment we have too many empty prisons in the Netherlands.

Popova: One more question to you. We already spoke with you about this topic on our last program last year. But is expected to be some development. “Scythian Gold” – what is going on there?

Hoeks: Well, you know that Allard Pierson Museum in the Netherlands was exhibiting the “Scythian Gold” in 2014, at a time when the Crimea was being annexed by Russia. This Gold was coming from three museums on the Crimea. So we had to decide what to do with it after the exhibition had finished. The Netherlands’ judge decided that the gold had to be brought back to Ukraine, and that Ukrainian judge then had to decide whether it would be returned to the Ukrainian authorities or to the three museums on the Crimea. Of course, the outcome would be predictable, there is of course a political connotation to this issue, which has to do with the annexation of the Crimea and the illegal occupation of Russia after Crimea. The museum that not accepted this decision by the Dutch judge and went to appeal to the Higher Court. The Higher Court on this case will take a decision. Then we will know, where the gold will be returned. At the same time I have to underline that a huge part of the gold was already returned to Kyiv and is already back on the Ukrainian territory. But of course there are still many artifacts which are at this moment in the Aland Pierson Museum, which have to take care of. Of course it’s also expensive, because it’s has to be ensured, so there are a lot of technical detail still to be issued in this.

Popova: We heard that the Netherlands has raised the official retirement age (from 66 years old to 67 in 2021). Why does it happen and what is peoples’ opinion about it in the Netherlands?

Hoeks: Yes, that’s a good question, because it is really a very important issue in the Netherlands. What we see in the Netherlands that we have a shrinking number of people who are actually working. Because people are getting older, at the same time we have a decreasing birthrate. The society gets greyer, in the sense we have more older people who do not work, and less people who work and have to pay for these pensions. In order to make this system sustainable and visible, we have to change it, and we have to go at retirement at the later age. When this system was introduced, that we would retire at 65, the average age in the Netherlands was 71, so you would have 6 years of retirement, which could be paid for. At this moment, the average age of the Dutch is over 80: 82-83-84. If there will be still retirement at 65, there are too many years we have to bridge and to finance this. That’s why slowly, we increase every year, month by month the age of retirement. Not everybody likes this of course. Some people like to continue to work. Myself I am an example, I like my work, so I would prefer to continue. But many people don’t have, let’s say, job that they find very interesting and they have invested a lot of energy and efforts, and they are looking forward to the retirement. In that case, I can imagine that there are different sentiments. Generally speaking, it’s very much dependent upon individuals. But it’s unavoidable, because we can’t finance the system any more. We have to work longer, because we live longer.

Popova: What do you think, what Ukraine should do, especially in the communication sphere, in order Ukrainian image in the Netherlands and in Europe became better?

Hoeks: Ukraine of course has a huge potential to present itself as a very attractive country. At the same time it has a public relations problem, it has an image problem, because when you mention Ukraine in the Netherlands, for instance, many people think in first place if not of Chornobyl, they think of corruption, and they think of the war in the Donbass – so, a country at war with an oligarchic system. Ukraine has to invest in the positive aspects of its country. And it can do. Because it has many positive aspects. It has a great highly educated population, very hospitable, very open. You have sectors where you have competitive advantage like agriculture, in water management, where the Netherlands also would like to contribute. IT for instance is really a chicken with the golden eggs here in this country. On logistics – there are so many opportunities. I would say that if Ukraine underlines its positive aspects and it has to do roadshows, they have to go outside and travel, visit seminars, and “sell” Ukraine to take away this negative image. At the same time, of course, they also have to combat corruption, because this is associated with Ukraine, that’s an image problem, and they can do a lot about it. They of course working on it, the Netherland is also ready to help in the reforms, in combatting corruption, in educating judges. We have this scene in the construction of the anticorruption architecture by introducing new laws, new systems, new ideas. But it has to be further implemented. As I said as many opportunities for Dutch companies to invest, we have a lot of Dutch companies here, prepared to invest in agriculture, in logistics, in water management, in IT. The rule of law of course is very important. Investments need to be protected. There needs to be predictability, accountability and transparency. There are still things for improvements here on the issue of the rule of law. We do not wish companies to be raided, that sometimes we unfortunately experienced with Dutch farmers. These are challenges for not only Dutch but for foreign investors in general in Ukraine. The rule of law and the predictability of the investments.  But at the same time, your opportunities are huge. Ukraine is a fantastic country, everybody is helping Ukraine on this way, we can get a long way.

Ratushnyy: I think, the problem is a little bit deeper. Europe, in place of objective, detailed knowledge of Ukraine, is living with certain revisions, even myths about Ukraine instead of real knowledge. And this process is, in fact, two-sided, because it is difficult for Ukraine to break out through this blockade and it also very often lives with myths about Europe. And handling this problem can take years, if it will be solved only by the number of Ukrainians who, using a free visa regime, travel to Amsterdam or to some other European capitals, where they got some objective knowledge, not a myth. The same with a counter stream of tourists from Europe to Ukraine. In fact, this should be a part of the state information policy in order to properly build such an information bridge between Ukraine and the European capitals.

Popova: And how do you suggest to do this?

Ratushnyy: This should be a state information strategy.

Popova: Which civil services should do?

Ratushnyy: Absolutely, yes.

Popova: Do you support Ukraine’s intension to be a member of the EU? And when do you think this opportunity will be possible?

Hoeks: We do acknowledge the ambition of Ukraine of further integration to the West, Euro-Atlantic integration. President Poroshenko even brought this into the Constitution, this ambition of becoming a member-state of the European Union and NATO. I’m happy to note that the President Zelenskyi indicated that he supports this orientation towards the West as well. It is certainly a goal for Ukraine to strive for. The European Union has an Association Agreement with Ukraine, there is a lot of homework still to be done, there is a lot of implementation, which need to be done on the Association Agreement. What will come beyond the Association Agreement – for me difficult to say. But why not a membership in a longer future? But it’s not for me to say when this will be.

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