Interview with Alex Lenaerts and Kateryna Kruk (10.04.2019)

In this episode of “Eurointegrators,” strategic communication expert of NGO Information Security, media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova discusses with the guests: Alex Lenaerts – the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Ukraine and Kateryna Kruk – analyst at “StopFake.”

The show is produced by a Ukrainian NGO Information Security and Oboz.TV.

Popova: Hello. I present a new episode of the “Eurointegrators” program. My guests today are: Alex Lenaerts – the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Ukraine and Kateryna Kruk – analyst at “StopFake”.

Last March Belgium received Ukrainian soldiers injured in Donbass for treatment. Could you please tell us more about this project?

Lenaerts: Yes, of course But first of all I would like to thank you for receiving me to meet representatives of media and civil society. Regarding the soldiers – I proposed, and it was decided by the government to pursue this military and medical cooperation with Ukraine. So, we will welcome 5 wounded heavily soldiers in a specialized hospital in Brussels, actually we have already welcomed 3 of them. And of course all the treatment will be covered by the Belgium government. It’s very important to support the Ukrainian army, and that’s why we do that.

Popova: What can you tell about economic cooperation between Ukraine and Belgium? And how do Belgian investors feel themselves in Ukraine?

Lenaerts: First of all, I’m here in your country for 7 months, and I’m impressed by the huge potential of the Ukrainian economy, in agrarian sector, industrial sector, in IT, transport. We try to improve our economic relation, so we have now more and more investments in your country. We have big, medium and small size investment. For example, InBev brewery, if you drink beer here in Ukraine, you have a good chance to drink Belgium beer, maybe you don’t know. But I will not make publicity for the brand. We have a medium-sized investments like Puratos, for example, in Odessa or IT investment in Lviv, electricity investment in Ternopil, but these are only few examples. And we also have investor in agriculture, so the investors consent a huge potential of Ukraine, they are very satisfied, especially the biggest investor here in Ukraine. I must confess that we have some problems in agrarian sector, that’s why we need more rule of law in Ukraine. But I see that thigs are changing, I know because I met Ukrainian authorities, government and they promise to change the situation for the Belgian investors.

Popova: This year, Belgium and the EU will have their elections. You’ll have local election, federal election and European Parliament election. What do you expect from these three elections?

Lenaerts: Yes, it will be a long process in Belgium on May 26th, we will renew our majority in the regions, for the federal parliament and government, and obviously for the European election. Regarding the situation in Belgium, it’s stable and we don’t expect big changes. We have in Belgium a multi-party majority, the most difficult is not the election, but after the election to find the majority. That is for Belgium. Regarding the European elections, I think that we will have some changes in the European Parliament, because now we see that the biggest European party, I mean the popular social-democratic party, maybe, I don’t know, but if we see parse now, they will lose some members, and we will see other movements. So everything is changing, and we’ll see, it will be interesting.

Popova: Kateryna, you as an analyst of StopFake, and you studied and worked in Belgium, do you see or do you expect any influence into these three elections? And in overall in public opinion in Belgium.

Kruk: First of all, starting with the European elections, I think that for the Russian disinformation effort this will be the main target. In Belgium, I do believe there will be less of the consent for the disinformation machine. But when it comes to the European elections, which will take place in May, we already see that this has been a great worry for the European and the Ukrainian experts of course, who already for several months have been waiting on different tools, how to actually see through the different disinformation activities. First of all this is multi targeting and micro targeting on social media, and the European election – they actually as seen as in a way case study on the grand 20 EU member countries scale of what disinformation efforts can bring and how can actually influence the results of the elections. So this is indeed a big consent. But once again, when it comes to Belgium elections, I do believe that Belgium can be more or less secure and know that Russia won’t be targeting them much. When it comes to Belgium, I do believe that there is a need to distinguish Belgium as a country and Brussels as a capital but also as a host city of headquarters of NATO and EU, European institutions, because definitely there have been different attitudes to those entities. Belgium in general is being criticized or rather mocked along the narratives towards a great Europe, meaning that it’s a decadent west, there are no moral authorities, different sexual and religious minorities, they take over the country and so on and so forth. But is really very much interesting in the context of Belgium over the last year is that we have seen probably two major campaigns, which were targeting Belgian citizens. The first one was in the moment when the European Union has introduced sanctions against Russia, answering obviously the Russian invasion in Ukraine and Russia has introduced counter-sanctions also in agrarian sector. And there is a great campaign, which was targeting many very strongly agriculture countries, but also France and obviously Belgium, making people think that those are sanctions of the EU itself, that are actually harming the business. And the second one, which has been repeated over the few years and even in the latest weeks we have seen those events, that Russian disinformation is sometimes targeting Belgium for its military operations or rather pretending or introducing fakes that Belgian air force along with the other NATO countries and other partners has been targeting civilian infrastructure in Syria.

Popova: I agree with you, Kateryna, that the biggest target is actually Brussels for the disinformation. When I was in Brussels for the first time as a Deputy Minister for the European integration, the first thing we saw in each restaurant and in each hotel was an English language newspaper totally devoted to promote Russia and Putin, against Ukraine, against sanctions, against European Union integration. Officially, it was said that the newspaper was produced by Greece, but in reality, I’m sure it was done for Russian money, as well as the whole city was in posters of the Russian ballet, and among TV-channels in our hotel I think half of them were the Russian TV-channels, even in English, but still Russian. So it is the biggest target and is the government of Belgium doing something about it?

Lenaerts: Actually, your view on this information, there is a real risk and we are ready, as you mentioned, have this information in Belgium, so you must be very careful. Of course, Belgium national election will not be a target, but the European election will be the target, I’m sure. We have reinforced anti-cyberattacks security in Belgium. We have a special program for it. For example, in my Minister of foreign affairs we had few years ago a cyber-attack. That’s why we are very careful.

Popova: Katia, what can you say about the main channels for the Russian influence in Belgium?

Kruk: So, first of all, I have to mention, that when we are talking about disinformation efforts it is very narrow only to think about fake news and only to think about fake narratives. In general, we have seen in Europe in the last years that there is entire plethora of different methods. So obviously, sharing fake news and micro-targeting of people this is the tip of the iceberg, the next level will be the Russian TV-channels, radio stations, newspapers, which are branded as owned by Russians, for example, “Sputnik” and “Russia Today”, they have their language versions almost in every European country, they are indeed major. But be beneath this level is different attempts of Russians to get into the already existing media in different European countries. For example, the TV-station or radio station which won’t be branded as “Sputnik” or “Russia Today”, you won’t find that actually there are Russians standing behind it, but if you see the form of the ownership or who is financing those campaigns, you will actually see that there is a Russian side also taking part in it. The second level, and this is something that in general in Europe there is awakening to this kind of problem are this is the challenge with experts with different conferences, think-tank, analytical centers, which aren’t closely directly tied to Russia. You won’t find Russian surnames over there, but there are the ones who are introducing the Russian narratives into the public debate. Or, for example, they are supporting the Russian narratives, I think that European sanctions and the way that should re-tend to the strategic and normal relations with Russia – this is the most popular narrative that is being pushed forward by those analytical centers. And the last, the most troubling level is actually financial support of political parties and political marginal groups in all around the Europe. First of all, Russians have seen that they are ready to support radical groups on all the different levels, starting to far rights to far lefts, so the more radical they are, I mean the color doesn’t matter for Russians. But also what we have seen on the example of France where Marine Le Pen, who actually made it to the second round of Presidential elections just few years ago, last we have seen the confirmation that her party has received money directly from Russia, obviously via the proxy bank in Check Republic. But we have already seen the evidence that Russia’s actually financing the politicians who is very anti-European first of all, disintegrating European Union from the inside.

Popova: I would say that Belgium actually started do something. I know that you cannot speak about that but according to media they already took from a position a person from the Counter Intelligence Unit, who was connected with Russia, and now this case is in court. But what else is Belgium doing about such deep influence?

Lenaerts: What I want to say is that even if there is disinformation and narrative, and there is disinformation, we know that, it will not change our position, because in Belgium, we have a very strong political position – we fully support the integrity, the sovereignty of Ukraine. And we will not change our position, we will maintain the sanctions against Russia till the Federation of Russia will change its policy. That’s a very clear political position, that we will not change. We have our values, and our values are the respect of the international law. We are in the United Nation Security Council and every month we will repeat it. We are in favor of the international law, and every country has to respect international law. So, some people can try to make disinformation, but we will not change our position.

Popova: What is Belgium’s position or reaction on the “yellow vests” protest?

Lenaerts: Well, this movement is more in France than in other countries. There was some beginning of protests in Belgium, but it was unsuccessful. It’s more a French movement. If you ask me my opinion about this movement of “yellow vests”, I think that in the beginning it was a social protest. Of course, we have to accept it, because we are in democracy. But what we cannot accept is that this movement became then more and more violent. If you remember what happened in so-called Champs-Élysées, it’s not acceptable, so that’s why my government of course support the position of the French government about the “yellow vests”.

Popova: Katia, as an analytic of “StopFake” have you seen in this “yellow vests” protest some influence?

Kruk: So, obviously, “StopFake” focuses on observing and very closely looking at Russian social media and Russian media in general – online, TV and so on and so forth. So, obviously we notice that Russians very warmly have accepted and welcomed the events in Paris and afterwards in the rest of France, but Ukrainian analysts actually were among the first ones saying – look into Russians’ hands, be careful, because Russia might use this case in order to discord the society from the inside. And I must admit that the first reaction of our European colleagues was very cautious and very cold, some people were even saying: “Look, Ukrainians, you are being a bit paranoid about Russia, because you see the Kremlin hand everywhere”. But it took for our European colleagues about few month to see that indeed Russia has very heavily influenced this spread of the information about the events in Paris on social media. Obviously, there have been cases and voices saying that probably there have been some Russian provocateurs on the streets of Paris, demolishing the shops and breaking the windows. We don’t have that much of the confirmation, this should come from French police first of all, but from the Internet corporates and from what could actually be checked – on Twitter, on Facebook and on other social media, those who actually French and other European analysts who after some time said: “Yes, indeed Russia has used the situation in order in a way to popularize the movement and their destructive messages within the French society and obviously in other countries of Europe”. To put it very shortly, obviously, Russia doesn’t stand 100% behind the “yellow vests” protest, but they are definitely using the situation in order to destabilize France from the inside.

Popova: What do you think about last statements by Macron and Merkel about necessity of consolidating and integrating the European Union? Does Belgium think that this integration is needed now?

Lenaerts: Belgium was one of the six founder member states of the European Union with Germany and France – the countries of the President Macron and Madam Merkel. Indeed, we support this initiative, because we need to repeat what are our values, the values of the EU. If you remember, our parents or grandparents founded the European Union with the former enemies, for example, France and Belgium – we did it with Germans. The EU is more a peace project than an economy project. Of course, it is an economy project, but we forgot these values of peace and democracy and other values, and that is why this initiative of Madam Merkel and President Macron is so important. I think that we need to repeat, what is the basis of the EU.

Popova: Belgium is supporting renewal of sanctions against Russia for their aggression towards Ukraine, at the same time Belgium supports the EU position towards the “Nord Stream-2”. Tell us please, why you do it, because from Ukraine’s point of view it’s a bit contradictory things. What are the pluses and minuses of these both positions?

Lenaerts: The most important is to maintain and to renew the sanctions against Russia. We don’t have to change this position, we have to stay very strong. The second part of your question – I would say, that’s exactly the balance we have to find between the values, we spoke about values, and what we call politic and economy, That’s why regarding “Nord Stream-2” we are in favor of European position, because we are in need a European compromise that can satisfy all European countries, including Germany. But we have also to defend and to support Ukraine’s interests in this issue.

Popova: How do you expect to do it?

Lenaerts: We have to find a solution including the transit in Ukraine.

Popova: How do you both rate a possibility for Ukraine in some period of time to achieve an opportunity to be a member of NATO and EU?

Kruk: First of all, in Belgium university in the College of Europe I was actually studying European Union and European integration, and it was already after the Maidan revolution in the 2014 in Ukraine, and obviously even for European’s colors, for European’s students Ukraine became one of the center points. Also sometimes the subject of internal European questions and processes. But obviously, the European Union is a project on different levels, you already discussed the ideological, the mission of the European Union as it was declared by the founding countries and the founding fathers, but also this is the project first of all economic, in energy, is cyber and so on and so forth. So there are a lot of different layers, and although pretty much obvious not only in Ukraine, but also in majority of European countries, that Ukraine is a European country, we belong to Western civilization. So our membership in the European Union is just a political symbol, like a political ending point of this process, and we obviously have to move forward to this direction. Ukraine has very strongly manifested over the last five years its willingness, its civilizational choice and obviously strategical and geopolitical choice of moving into the European Union and strengthening and deepening the integration with both the EU and NATO. We even emended recently our constitution saying that those are the strategic direction of development of Ukraine. But still, as Ukrainians we have to admit that we don’t have a clear answer from Brussels in this case, from the European Union in general, NATO has been much more clear, saying if Ukraine is ready to meet the criteria, Ukraine is welcome. With the European Union Ukraine’s, we don’t have neither clear “yes”, nor clear “no”, and obviously in Ukraine we should understand that it’s not only about it’s not only about relations between the EU and Ukraine in general but also it’s very much about the processes within the European Union. First of all, the view of integration, the need of further integration, but also disintegration processes and problems internal ones that EU Is facing. But for Ukraine it’s incredibly important to maintain this rote of changes, because we have to meet a lot of different standards, both in the political life, but also when it comes to the economy, when it comes to the level of corruption, when it comes to the level of the effectiveness of the state and level of the life of people in general. So, moving in this direction is crucially important for us, and if we will continue doing that, then I do believe that at some point both EU and Ukraine will be ready to talk about the next stage of the integration, which is becoming a member.

Popova: And what is your opinion?

Lenaerts: I share this view. I came in September to your beautiful country and my first speech was about Ukraine ant European Union. As an Ambassador, I said: “Belgium and Ukraine are in the same family, the European family, and we are totally confident that Ukraine is a European country. I fully support this European perspective of Ukraine, and I see that more and more Ukrainians, and especially the young generation now is in favor of this European perspective. And that’s very positive. Of course it will take time. Sometimes, we compare Ukraine with Poland, for example, and for Poland to it took time to join the European Union. We also must be clear and tell the truth to the Ukrainian citizens, we don’t have to be liars, so fully support this perspective – this Euro and also Atlantic perspective, we have to support the Ukrainian society to change, we need more reforms of course, for example in judicial, we need it. But you are on the good direction, on the good way. I’m sure of this.

Popva: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, thank you Kateryna, for joining our program. Thanks to all who watched us. See you the next week.

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