EXCLUSIVE: Ukraine's Foreign Minister Klimkin on Russia, Hungary and Zelenskyy
17 July, 2019
In a discussion with Hromadske, Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin articulates his views as acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, including his frustrations and his worries about Ukraine’s eastern neighbor.

How do you personally communicate with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

I am currently on vacation and do not exercise operational leadership of the ministry. But I do not want any discussions on the inside since we must convey unity on the outside. So I am on vacation today.

In previous interviews, you said that communication was insufficient. Did you only meet before the inauguration?

It was before the inauguration. It is the right of President Zelenskyy to build this communication, coordination. There is currently neither a strategy nor a system.

I hope that after the parliamentary elections it will all appear. How - do not ask me, I do not know, it will not be me who will be building it. I said long ago that I genuinely want to resign and do something different.

You mentioned you would enter politics. Why not with European Solidarity?

It's very simple. First of all, I had a proposal, I will not speak about them. I was negotiating with Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. But I could not find a team that I trusted completely and that would meet my expectations.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin speaks to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk on July 10, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

Secondly, I believe that the time has come to create a party that is not leader-oriented. There have been examples of this in the past, we are not considering the Communist Party, but there was “People’s Movement?”

Every project I see now is purely leader-oriented. With this type of politics, nothing will change in Ukraine, That’s why I say that I am with friends that share my beliefs. Gradually I will build such a team.

I wish good luck to European Solidarity, although they have appointed themselves to defend both the E.U. and NATO. That is their choice, what their position is, what their politics are, why they are in politics and so on. 

A very popular term that often arises during conflicts is “redlines.” What are the redlines for you in relations with Russia? Signals that something is wrong? I mean real, not symbolic. 

Two things: domestic and international, one concerns Ukraine and one concerns Donbas.

First- not to go back to the Russian zone of influence and not to fall under Russian management. Now the Kremlin is trying to explain to Europe, let's come to an agreement, we will keep the stability, and we are willing to coordinate with you. 

Second- Not to let the Kremlin launch the process of fragmentation in Ukraine. In this regard, in Donbas, we will need to give in on some difficult compromises. But, this does not mean that the process of federalization and fragmentation should begin in Ukraine, which is what Moscow dreams about. The rest, we can discuss. 

And the rest is: economic blockade, separation of forces, elections on the occupied territory, Russian language - everything mentioned in the Minsk agreements.

My proposal is to bring in an international administration. It doesn't even have to be us, it can be an international administration - which might even be under Russian influence - that organizes elections there. It could be OSCE or the U.N. 

These elections will not be ideal. But after them, at least, there will be someone to talk to. 

Can we do this? We can. At the last Normandy Ministerial meeting, Lavrov pointed out: But then, you get to choose who you want. I said: But, you would have to follow the process. He said: we still understand that we would lose control over the Donbas. This makes sense. 

How did communication with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov work? You talked to him a lot. He has changed. He was once a respected diplomat in the world despite the problematic - and sometimes unacceptable for Ukraine - Russian position. But then, besides everything, he just started telling blatant lies.

From the standpoint of his knowledge and experience, this is a person who knows a lot and has gone through many negotiations. I think he has become very cynical. Or he allowed himself to become very cynical. This is a question for him, in fact.

Communication mainly took place in the Normandy format. It was only on two occasions that we met one-on-one in recent years. Two issues were discussed at those meetings: the release of political prisoners, and the Donbas and Crimea. Nothing else was discussed. 14:50 

Regarding Donbas, it was a possible format for a peacekeeping mission. On Crimea: what they were doing there, as well as the question of access for international organizations and international humanitarian organizations. 

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin speaks to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk on July 10, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

Do you have a general understanding under what circumstances should President Zelenskyy meet with President Putin? 

I would definitely be in favor of this meeting taking place with our friends and partners. We can rely on them. At times, it can be uneasy to talk to them, but we really need them in this story. 

What format it could be: whether it is Normandy, the U.S., a combination, EU - we can discuss this. But I definitely advise President Zelenskyy to meet with Putin at the table with our friends and partners. This is a huge exclamation mark.

How did you react to the interview of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, which he gave to The Hill, where an internal political issue was actually contravened? 

I believe there was by definition no meddling on our part. I spoke to Yuriy Lutsenko afterwards. He told me that it was his position - he did not coordinate it with anyone. It was his personal initiative to give this interview.

What did you think, feel, apart from perhaps, relief, when you learned that Arkady Babchenko was alive, and before that you spoke at the UN about the tragedy that occurred?

I was sad. But, above all, you are right - it was a fantastic “Phew”. But this is the insanity of internal communication. Nothing bad happened - in terms of attitudes towards me, towards diplomacy. They understand that we spoke sincerely. But the internal organization of our system is, of course, in a very sad state.

I honestly told our partners how it all happened. Such things actually knock trust very quickly. It was real damage. 

And if we talk about our neighbors. For the past year, and maybe even longer, Hungary has been raising the question of the law on education and the study of the Hungarian language in Transcarpathia. Of course, in Hungary this is an internal political issue. 

Not only, but that too. 

There is a reproach that, perhaps, it was possible to coordinate the issue with the Ministry of Education earlier and communicate with Hungary in advance. Because now we have to keep answering all those questions at all European summits for the second year running.

The law was changed in the parliament hall. By the way, some of our Hungarian colleagues still believe that it was a deliberate provocation against Hungary, since the law was previously approved with entirely different formulations.

As a result, it came as a surprise. And everything that started afterward is a question of our very complex dialogue with Hungary.

I have spoken to Hungarians, I have been to Transcarpathia on numerous occasions. I can say that if we had done something for Transcarpathia over these years, the situation would have turned out differently.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Pavlo Klimkin speaks to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk on July 10, 2019 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

If we had changed the teaching methods in Ukrainian, the situation would have been completely different. If we had enough textbooks and manuals, the situation would have been different. If we had given incentives to schools where there are both Hungarian and Ukrainian children, the situation would have been different. Therefore, this is a systemic problem, and we need to solve it systematically. In reality, Ukraine should be more present in Transcarpathia. There is little Ukraine there, but a lot of contraband. 

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk