Interview with Marius Janukonis, ambassador of Lithuania in Ukraine (12.11.2018)

In “Eurointegrators,” media expert and ex-Deputy Minister for Information Policy of Ukraine Tetiana Popova sits down with diplomats, heads of international organizations, and Ukrainian power brokers to discuss Ukraine’s European integration.

In this episode, Popova’s guest is Marius Janukonis, ambassador of Lithuania in Ukraine. Find more episodes of “Eurointegrators” here.

See the text version of the interview:

Popova: How much does your country feel propaganda and other forms of interference from Russia?

Janukonis: Our country feels a hybrid war. I mean we face hybrid aggression. Of course the Russian propaganda is strong too, that Russia uses with a direction and with the consent of the state, of the government, and Lithuania as Ukraine is also affected by Russian propaganda. I think there are other methods that Russia uses against us, and the whole western civilization, all western countries, such as cyber-attacks and other tools.

Popova: I didn’t check unfortunately data on Lithuania, but as for Latvia I saw that approximately 50 percent of their TV share is Russian TV channels. What about Lithuania?

Janukonis: Of course there are some Lithuanians who are watching Russian TV programs or reading the information from Russia. There are several examples which prove that our society is quite resilient to this propaganda. I can bring you one example when NATO decided to reinforce its contingent in Lithuania, and there were new battalions from deployed in Lithuania, from NATO countries, particularly led by Germany. There was an attempt to just throw information that a German soldier had raped a Lithuanian girl, but nobody believed that, and our society understood from the beginning that is was fake news, and that was a good proof that we are able to withstand that.

Popova: Will relations with Ukraine and with Russia change after the elections in Lithuania?

Janukonis: We don’t expect major changes in our foreign policy; I think that the overall consensus with political parties and politicians always has been a strong side of Lithuanian policy. Of course our politicians can disagree on many things in domestic policy but foreign policy priorities are stable during the history, and in early 90th our political parties have even signed the agreement on foreign policy priorities. And that helped us also for our integration into the European Union and NATO. So I don’t see any indications for the foreign policy goals can change after the presidential elections. Ukraine is one of the priorities of our foreign policy, and I think it will continue.

Popova: The Ambassador of Latvia was in my program before you, and he told about their political election law. And the difference with Ukraine is that media plans of parties are in the analog of the Ukrainian Anti-corruption Bureau, and they are checking the parties not to overspend the budget for political advertising. So all parties are more or less in equal conditions. Another difference that I understand is that they have a ranking inside a party list, so if voters would not like some politician which is number one in a party, they will put him down to the maybe last number, and he will not be in a Parliament. What about Lithuanian methods of political advertising or political law?

Janukonis: We have a very similar system, and all the political parties must declare all their expenses and income, and of course our anti-corruption institutions are following that very closely. Like in Latvia we have open party lists; we have a mixed system, like in Ukraine, so a half our parliament members are being elected by the majoritarian system and another half – by a proportional system, it means by the party lists. Those party lists are open and our voters have the possibility to rate those politicians, and in the end they can change their positions within the party list.

Popova: Lithuania has gone its path to European and NATO integration. Ukraine is only at the beginning of its path. What is your recipe?

Janukonis: I don’t think that there are universal recipes for Euro-integration, but as I said before, the political will is very important; political will and consensus of all major political forces. That was the case in Lithuania. As you might know, in early 90th former communists returned to the power in Lithuania, but it did not prevent us to continue our foreign policy goals like the EU and NATO integration, and that was exactly President Brazauskas, a former communist who signed the letter to the Secretary General of NATO asking for a NATO membership. Our political elite, they were determined from the very beginning that we should return to the European family and to become members of the EU and NATO.

Popova: Ukr-Lith-Pol Brigade – does it mean that Lithuania will help to solve us some security problems in any case?

Janukonis: I have to say that the idea to create such a joint military unit between Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine was raised long before the conflict in Ukraine started in 2014. So the aim of the creation of this Brigade was to help Ukraine to approach to later standards and also to prepare Ukrainian forces for joint participation in the international peacekeeping operations. So that was not the case that this brigade could be a part of a joint defense unit.

Popova: But in case of the peacekeeping process in Donbas? It could be?

Janukonis: Theoretically it could be discussed, but I think we have to come a long way to agree on the peacekeepers in Donbas and then we can consider that. But the Ukrainians are also a part of this Brigade, so in this contact it might be difficult for the Ukrainians to participate in a peacekeeping operation in Donbas. But what is important that this Brigade is helping very much Ukraine to achieve NATO standards and to achieve more interoperability with NATO forces.

Popova: We have one more guest that joins our program by phone. This is Igor Umansky, the former Deputy Minister of Finance. My next question is the following. Lithuania is a country which fights for the so-called “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine, this country helps to carry out reforms in the different sector. What are the results?

Janukonis: The official name is the New European Plan for Ukraine, because we always told that Europe and the EU has to have a clear plan for Ukraine, because security and prosperity of Ukraine is a big European interest, and it’s also an instrument to change Russia, and of course we have to work with Ukraine, with the Ukrainian partners and also with the international partners to find the best way how to boost Ukrainian economy and how to increase investments in Ukrainian economy.

Popova: What is the main thesis of this plan?

Janukonis: The idea behind this plan is to boost the economic growth of Ukraine and to increase both domestic and foreign investments.

Popova: Through which instruments?

Janukonis: Through international instruments, through existing international instruments of international financial organizations, but also in trying to find new financial instruments and also encouraging Ukraine to do reforms. Because we know that once the reforms are being made, there will be more confidence in foreign investors but also in domestic investors.

Popova: On which level of development is now this plan?

Janukonis: We are actively discussing this plan with the Ukrainian institutions and the international partners. And what Ukraine needs is to improve the absorption capacity for foreign assistance.

Popova: Igor, what could you say about the “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine?

Umansky: Of course, Lithuania’s initiative to provide such a plan in Ukraine would help Ukraine become strong. It would help to create a kind of additional barrier between Russian threats and Europe. And Baltic States have the interest to have that. But what we see today regarding support in Ukraine by Marshall Plan and assistance from the US is not so clear. We talk much about assistance and about its effectiveness in Ukraine in recent times. After the cooperation with European institutions and World finance organizations was renewed, Ukraine had received about 6 billion dollars. Having such a sum it was possible to employ Nobel Prize laureates, and they would assist in providing reforms and conduct a Marshall Plan for Ukraine. But I think today there is no confidence of our colleagues and partners that they really want to have strong and economically independent Ukraine. Dear Ambassador, what do you think?

Janukonis: On the contrary, I think Europe and the western world need an economically successful, powerful and independent Ukraine. We know that new financial assistance and new financial instruments are coming to Ukraine quite slowly, because Ukraine now has approximately 8 billion dollars of unused foreign assistance. We made calculations, and there are about 8 billion dollars of the international financial instruments and international financial assistance, which are available for Ukraine.

Popova: Why?

Janukonis: There are different reasons. There are reasons of institutional capacity. There are probably administrative reasons. There are also some conditions not fulfilled. Because of course Ukraine has to meet certain criteria to use all this financial assistance.

Popova: Igor, what is your answer?

Umansky: I would say about some double standards towards Ukraine. Analyzing the Association’s agreement, we could see insufficient quantity of quotas for Ukraine. We also provided market access for the EU but Europe did not. One of the important issues blocks the micro financial assistance for Ukraine is an export in wood logs. So we have a problem – one-side interest. Politically Ukraine could not afford itself to get financial assistance, but at the same time to destroy the business in the country and decrease the competitiveness. So today it looks like a huge problem. Europe in some ways restricts Ukraine’s development, and it’s not good for bilateral relations. So there is a need, maybe, to change strategy towards Ukraine. Another question is how Ukraine should spend money from international funds. If there will be clear goals and monitoring from the EU structures it will not be difficult to deal with financing, and it would work more effectively.

Janukonis: The idea behind the so-called the Marshall Plan or a New European Plan for Ukraine was exactly to help Ukraine to increase investments into first of all infrastructure and support for small and medium business, which could increase the competitiveness of the business inside Ukraine and stimulate the economic growth. Of course Ukraine is a powerful country with powerful certain sectors of the economy like agriculture or steel production, and of course there is a competition in these goods. But we can see that as a result of the deep and comprehensive free trade agreement between Ukraine and the European Union the export to the EU has grown almost by 25 percent last year. So it means that this agreement is working. But we need further reforms in Ukraine to encourage, as I said, small and medium business and to increase competitiveness inside Ukraine.

Popova: Igor, does the export grow by 25 percent?

Umansky: Yes, it grows, but it could grow even more. For example, grain quotes or honey quotes, which we used within one month. Regarding grain, we have to look for African or Asian markets. We are suffering from a hybrid war with Russia and we also have a trade war with Russia. And one of the most imported points of the Association Agreement that we would like to have is a possibility to have wider access to European markets. But unfortunately the problem of quotas for Ukraine still exists, and we feel that. You know before the war started, Russia used to be our huge trade partner, so after losing Russian markets we hoped we would have wider access to EU markets. So I think this is the right time to renew this policy, to change tariff restrictions we have with the EU. Generally, it’s time to change the whole EU strategy to Ukraine. I absolutely agree we have to improve our judicial system and institutions. We have to better protect the rights of investors; otherwise, the investments would not come to Ukraine. Investors should feel safe here in Ukraine, so in this regard, we fully understand that Ukraine has to do a lot to improve the conditions for foreign business, this is like our homework. Those six billion dollars you mentioned above were not transferred to the state budget, it was spent to finance different project institutions, experts and other spending as well, but we could use this sum more effectively and would achieve much better results. By now we don’t have an effective tax, courts, judicial and security policy. What we have is just plans and intentions, and promises of our politicians who declared the conducting of needed reforms.

Janukonis: Yes, we fully understand the Ukrainian position. Indeed many Ukrainian producers and exporters need bigger quotas for the export into the EU, and there are some transitional periods, stated in the free trade agreement, but gradually Ukraine and the EU will be moving towards the full liberalization of trades. And of course Ukrainian companies have to adopt the European standards in order to increase the export into the European Union. And another important element is that Ukraine has to negotiate – bigger quotas or better conditions with the European Union. I can tell it from the Lithuanian experience. In the beginning, we thought that everything we agreed with the European Union cannot be changed. But later we understood that every issue is a matter of negotiations. And I would encourage Ukraine to be proactive in negotiations with the European Union and try to convince why Ukraine needs additional quotas or better conditions, and I am convinced that really many things can be achieved.

Popova: Lithuania actively helps Ukraine with business ombudsmen, in the anti-corruption sphere. Why do you do that?

Janukonis: I think this is a common European interest to strengthen a rule of law in Ukraine and also create a better condition for business, better market economy conditions, and Lithuania has its own experience, we can tell our Ukrainian friends not only our positive experience, but also our mistakes what we have made in this process. So we are absolutely open, and since we have good exports in these fields, they are working now in Ukraine. For example, Algirdas Šemeta who is a business ombudsman in Ukraine, he’s a former Minister of Finance of Lithuania and a former European commissioner. And of course speaking about the corruption we all perfectly understand that corruption is present probably in every country, but the most important thing is how the society tolerates corruption. So the main idea is to change the perception of corruption and trying to create an atmosphere of intolerance to corruption.

Popova: Do you think this help is effective?

Janukonis: I think it is effective, and Ukraine is improving on the anti-corruption field both institutionally and by perception. Of course, there is a long way. The anti-corruption court is being created now in Ukraine, it will take some time, but if we have anti-corruption courts we will have the full system of independent anti-corruption institutions in place.

Popova: Igor, what could you say?

Umansky: Of course, many thanks for the Ambassador and his country for helping Ukraine to create a system of protecting the rights of business representatives in our country. But talking about anti-corruption infrastructure, it seems to me that here in Ukraine we have created a myth and are trying to fight it. What is that myth? We think that anti-corruption bodies like National anti-corruption bureau or Anti-corruption court would provide a victory over corruption. But the world experience shows that this was not enough for the full success. Ukrainian problem has its own roots, the political and constitutional systems are the base of corruption, this is the place from which corruption comes. Corruption is a consequence of relations and interconnection and power triangle, so the most important point is to fight not the consequence of this problem, but to define a problem and fight the problem itself. Now we have a poor situation like the seat in Parliament calls money. If one wants to get into the Verkhovna Rada, he should pay, then the coalition is formed and some representatives of Parliament fraction are appointed in the Cabinet of Ministers and big state-run companies, so they spend money to be elected and after getting the power they try to gain profits using their power.

Popova: Unfortunately, we have not changed our political system in accordance with the terms of the Euro-association agreement.

Popova: Tell us about the defense cooperation between our countries.

Janukonis: I think our defense cooperation is one of the most active fields of the relations between Lithuania and Ukraine, and Lithuania together with other NATO countries is helping Ukraine to train the army, to better understand NATO standards and to be better prepared for the aggression.

Popova: And weapons, I believe. You are delivering weapons, aren’t you?

Janukonis: Yes, indeed. We were one of the first countries to give Ukraine very symbolic but very important psychologically, we think, the lethal.

Popova: How comfortable or difficult is for Lithuanian businessmen working with Ukraine? And what Ukraine should do, should change in order to make it more attractive for foreign investors?

Janukonis: I can say that Lithuanian business shows a very high interest in the Ukrainian market, and we have a number of companies that have been already working in Ukraine for a number of years. We have bigger investments, we have smaller investments, and we have an interest of new Lithuanian companies to come into Ukrainian market. But many investors are a bit cautious because we need a better rule of law in Ukraine, we need to see that property rights are protected, and I think this criterion is the most important for Lithuanian business and other foreign business to come more actively into Ukraine.

Popova: We have already spoken about that but I want to ask this question in more details. How can your help make Ukraine a strong country?

Janukonis: Lithuania and its exports can help Ukraine, because we have close mentality, close legacy, shared history, and we have our lessons land, and very fresh lessons land. It’s only 25-30 years that Lithuania was in the same condition as Ukraine was in the early 90th. So we can tell from our own experience what the best way for Ukraine to move forward is, and also to tell what mistakes we made and what the ways for Ukraine to avoid those mistakes are.

Popova: What can be done in order to end the war in Donbas?

Janukonis: In order to answer this question we have to remember who started this war. We know that it’s Russia and people who were supplied by Russia…

Popova: And even Russian soldiers.

Janukonis: Yes, and including Russian regular troops. And we perfectly understand that the end of the conflict in eastern Ukraine depends very much on Russian efforts and Russian willingness to implement Minsk agreements and to find the diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Popova: But it doesn’t look like they want to stop, because last Sunday they have organized pseudo-elections there.

Janukonis: We think that those so-called, or we may call it fake elections, they are not helping in Minsk process, they are harmful for the Minsk process, and they do not show a willingness by Russia to really find the solution to this conflict.

Popova: Thank you, Mr. Janukonis, for joining our program. Thank you all, who watched us. See you in a week.

Janukonis: Thank you very much for the conversation.

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