Swedish Diplomat Carl Bildt on Prisoner Swap and Minsk Agreements
18 October, 2019

Minsk Agreements are not ideal, but it is the best possible platform for Ukraine to build upon, said Swedish diplomat Carl Bildt in an interview with Hromadske journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk.

Bildt used to be Prime Minister of Sweden from 1991 to 1994 and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2014. He has also been involved in the mediation of the Yugoslav wars and the conflict in the Balkans. He stressed that in the post-Cold-War period we are dealing with the new type of conflicts, including failing states, ethnic violence and terrorism. And the international community was not prepared to deal with these issues.

Talking about the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine, Bildt said there was a significant question mark in the West over this decision. The international community welcomed the fact of the exchange but not the fact that the witness of the MH17 catastrophe was released. On the other hand, the eagerness to get Volodymyr Tsemakh shows that Russia fears international investigation of the catastrophe.

European Union is in a state of transition and it will take some time to settle itself, says Bildt. The major issues the E.U. is facing now include transatlantic relations, climate issues and digital revolution. Enlargement is not a very popular topic in the E.U. currently. The prospects of Ukraine joining the E.U. will depend on how stable the democracy in Ukraine is.

Giving advice to the current Ukrainian government Bildt suggested proceeding with land reform, privatization and ensuring the strong rule of law in the country. He has already met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy twice.


Carl, let’s start the talk with Ukraine ... you have been an adviser for [Petro] Poroshenko for some time, so how is it going now? And on what, let's say, did this relationship end?

What happened during the Poroshenko period, I think, was a great achievement by Ukraine, by the way. I vividly remember 2013 and primarily the spring of 2014 when this country was on the verge of military, political, financial collapse. And there were quite a number of people in the East and in the West who said that Ukraine is gone. But Ukraine was recovered and is sort of ... is back, is a normal prospering country. And that was due to the achievement of the Ukrainians themselves, the election of Poroshenko and new government and all of the things that were done and also the support of the West. So it was a very important period. And now the country has entered a very different political phase. 

So what are your current relations with the new Ukrainian authorities? Are you still in the group of Ukrainian friends?

Quite. We have met with President Zelenskyy twice. Once was before the elections, during the election campaign as a matter of fact. And then immediately after he has taken office to have some discussions with him on where Ukraine is going and what can be done. But these were early days. He was clearly at that time, fair enough, waiting for the [parliamentary] elections and see how that was going to turn out. And then set down the government and set out the policies. And that is where we are at the moment. So now it is an exciting time.

Do you have some early advice? Something that hadn't been done earlier?

Well, there are a couple of things that I would encourage. He is not talking about the big land reform issue and I remember discussing that with Poroshenko X number of times. And I always made an argument: if the Russians can do it better why can't you do it. That was always the argument: they will never be in favor of it, they are too split, too controversial. Now let's see if that happens. That is going to be important because Ukraine has fantastic potential when it comes to food production for a hungry growing world. So that is encouraging. There are a couple of other things that are encouraging. I am slightly worried about this tendency to go around in the country and say "you have money, you should build a road" or ... That reminds me somewhat of what I have seen happening in Russia. And that's now the way to run the state. But that might be temporary politics rather than long-term strategy.

Still, out of the reforms, I guess for the last two years of the previous government the West's concern was that some of the reforms not just going too slow but some are stopped, some are not, so it was quite selective in what things we were pursuing. So what's your major advice, apart from the land reform?

I mean, looking at what was done in the past, that was a stabilization of the country. You have been sorting out the banking system, that was not a small thing. The PrivatBank is part of that particular thing. Sorting out Naftogaz and the huge deficits and corruption in the gas sector. That was a huge thing. What was not achieved: there was no land reform, very little privatization, there was insufficient progress on the legal, judiciary and corruption side. So clearly one needs to take care of these things. Proceed with land reform, proceed with privatization. Make quite certain that the judicial reforms and the rule of law are at the center of things. Because as they say, if they want to increase growth, say 40% growth, 40% bigger economy in five years, that, to put it mildly, is ambitious. That could require massive foreign investment coming into the country. That will require the rule of law, and the courts and judicial system that is seen as truly independent and truly reliable and truly transparent. Is that achievable in six months or nine months? I hope so. 

And now we are talking of a new wave of negotiations with Russia in the Normandy format but as well it is obvious that the rhetoric has changed from the President Zelenskyy, partly, I am speaking about the humanitarian side. And as well we are speaking about the major prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. So how do you look at that? 

I think it is too early to see where this is leading. Clearly, Kremlin wants to test Zelenskyy. Fair enough. They got this new guy in Kyiv. They are quite uncertain where he is heading. So they tested him with this particular exchange. The exchange happened, that was good. It was obvious that they had one demand. That was this MH17 guy. You can well understand why they wanted him back. And they got him. The question is how do they interpret this in terms of what will happen. Do they think that this has shown the strength of Zelenskyy? Or do they believe that that has shown the weakness of Zelenskyy? I don't know. But the Kremlin interpretation of the negotiations for the prisoner exchange will clearly determine the next step that Kremlin is ready for. There will be further steps. They started rather tough with the 'passportization' and all of those things. And they will take it step-by-step and see how far they can take it from their point of view. 

You definitely do not speak on behalf of the international community, but you are clearly a representative of it. Particularly, in the case of this witness of MH17, there was huge concern among the Ukrainian public in particular when there were these rumors that Tsemakh would be exchanged, that that would be a disaster for Ukrainian image that Ukraine had given the suspect. He was a witness though, I should say, at that stage he used to be and he had been here for two months. So how do you see this story? Also in some cases, we often hear from the Western leaders that there is the need for compromise, that you can't always achieve what you want and that sometimes the difficult decisions are taken.

True. There is all this need for a compromise and there are all these difficult decisions. And it is not black and white when it comes to these particular issues. Of course, there were significant question marks over this particular decision that was taken. But at the same time, everyone wants to support President Zelenskyy, everyone wants him to succeed. And if this is the thing that really needs to be done then well, fine. After all, it did happen. But to say there was happiness in the West over this particular aspect of the exchange. There was happiness over the exchange, needless to say, that has been discussed for a long-long-long time. But this particular aspect ... but it shows, you can also interpret it as that Russians are really worried about the MH17 investigations. The fact that the Russians were so desperately keen to get the guy back under Moscow control shows that they fear international continued investigation over MH17. 

There is a new president in Ukraine and, of course, he builds his own relations with [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel and French President [Emmanuel] Macron. So how do you see at this stage: can there be a difference in the role of France and Germany in the conflict and what else could be done? What can Ukrainians expect at this stage from the partners?

Let's see. President Zelenskyy clearly is concerned with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis and with the situation in the East in the long-term, not only on the occupied territories but is very concerned with building up the infrastructure, the economy and the humanitarian situation in the Ukrainian, the Kyiv-ran parts of Ukraine in the east. And he thinks that not enough has been done in that particular respect. And I think the international community will do whatever it can trying to support him in that, including what can be done to ease the humanitarian aspects of what is there in the occupied territories. At the same time, there will not be a resolution of the issue without there being a readiness in Moscow to actually do something and do some compromises to use that particular word. Are there any signs as yet of the Kremlin being ready for that? You have been in Moscow recently; I was there prior to that and discussed extensively. There is no enthusiasm in Russia for the Donbas theme, they don't understand it. It is a waste of time, money or whatever. But at the same time, Kremlin is in a rather fragile position. Are they ready to do a compromise that will be seen as a compromise by the Russian public? That remains to be seen. Kremlin has demonstrated that they are ready to take a step of some sort. And whether they are ready for that, I don't know.

What makes Ukrainians concerned is whether after the prisoners exchange the West would soften its policy towards Russia. What is the price for that? What we try to understand and explain is that some part of sanctions is connected directly to the Minsk agreement or to some issues connected to Crimea. 

There are different sanctions. There are some Crimea-related sanctions and there are Donbas-relates sanctions that came in July 2014. One thing that you should note is that in the European Union there was quite a discussion about the future of sanctions and you have the leaders from Italy or whatever now and then saying sanctions should go. That has ceased to be an issue. I mean sanctions are renewed every six months literally without any debate. Just brought up in the Council that Russians have a dominant thing, we don't have any solution, sanctions are prolonged. And that had demonstrated that there is a determination from the E.U. side to stay the course, to stick to the sanctions, that will happen. And I think that signal has been received in Moscow, there are Western political leaders coming to Moscow saying we don't like sanctions but at the end of the day sanctions are there. And sanctions will remain until there is a solution.

What do you think we can expect with the new European leadership? There were new European elections, new European Commission, these are new people. We look at their bios, not everybody has experience in Eastern Europe, in particular in Ukraine, so some people are concerned that the generation of people who have been spending here years and years has left the parliament and these institutions.

True, but that has always been the case. If we go back in time, it wasn't that many people who were dealing with the East after all. Europe is a bigger place and a lot of people are dealing with Latin America and some are dealing with Africa and some are dealing with the East and there is a turnover. But if you look at the people now, if you take Ursula von der Leyen, who suddenly emerged as a president of the Commission, she has been dealing with East. She was the defense minister of Germany, she is taking an active interest in geopolitical issues. One thing that she did, which amazed me and she did it without much public debate — by the way — in Germany. That was after 2014 and the Ukraine crisis, when NATO decided to go East somewhat more, she put the German armed battalion in Lithuania as a reaction to what happened in Ukraine. That is, if you go back in history, that is quite something. Germans are being reluctant to send their army abroad particularly to send their army East but she did put the battalion in Lithuania and she did that because of Ukraine. So she has the instincts and knowledge of these particular issues. 

For the past years we are discussing more or less the crisis of the European Union, the crisis of vision and we look at the populists coming to the power in different countries. We are looking at the situation in the countries not just like Hungary and Poland, but Italy. What is now the major challenge for the European Union? If we are talking about this vision in between staying as it is, that people don't like, to preserve what we have and those new things, which populists promise. We don't see so far the third offer.

No, we don't because the European Union is in a state of transition and it will take some time for this to settle itself. If you look at the big issues, clearly the European Union must be more assertive as a global actor. We talk that the sovereignty of Europe must be reinforced in different ways. And that has to do also with the transatlantic relationship. The transatlantic relationship is not what it used to be, to put it in the mildest possible form. We have faced the prospect of a trade war. Trump has a trade war with China. Is Europe going to be the next trade war for Trump? We must be prepared for that. So that is the priority and I think people are more aware of that in Brussels than you see in the public announcements. Then we have a couple of fairly major challenges. We have green issues, climate issues, the transition from the fossil era to the new era. That is a major thing that is very demanding. And where we see, speaking about the politics, we clearly see the rapid rise of the green issues in the electorate, particularly among your people. The third issue is the digital revolution. European Union is an economic powerhouse in the world, but we will not be an economic powerhouse in the world fifty years down the line if we are not speeding up on the digital transformation. And has that caught on in different European countries? No, it hasn't. So I would say these three issues are issues that have to be at the forefront of what has to be done in the next few years.

How about enlargement? And I am speaking not about Ukraine always wanting to be a member of the European Union. But now if we are speaking about the vision, the European Union was about enlargement, was about strengthening the values, sharing them and for the past years we are speaking about this fortress that for some intellectuals who are looking at these issues is a part of a problem as well that Europe does not think any longer about that. How can we bring back this discussion? Is it somewhere?

Yes, it is somewhere. But you are right that it has been fading somewhat because the agenda has been shifting. Go back 25 years in time or 20 years in time what was enlargement the neighborhood was a promise, the neighborhood was a promising place, we talked about surrounding the European Union with the ring of friendly, well-governed democratic states, suddenly we find that the neighborhood is on fire. And the priority of the European politicians is rather to protect us from abroad, that is refugee issue, that could be terrorism or whatever it is. The Balkans are problematic, or Russia is problematic. I think we are overcoming that particular phase, having a more considered approach to it. But you are right in pointing out that enlargement is not that popular. I don't think it was ever that popular to be precise. I remember when I was sort of leading Sweden into the European Union...

Was it in the early '90s?

Yes, early '90s. There were a lot of people inside the European Union who are very suspicious about enlargement to Sweden because we are dangerous or whatever. It sounds ridiculous now, but there are always those that don't want change. But it is going to be a challenge. Yes, we have the Baltic countries where we have a commitment, where we have ongoing negotiations. We have extremely complicated relations with Turkey because Turkish development is going on in the wrong direction and at the same time it is a very major factor, important in the Middle East. We don't want it to end up with Russia too much. Ukraine, Eastern Partnership countries. Eastern Partnership is amazingly vibrant on the political scene in Brussels I have to say but, of course, membership issue is not on for the next two or three years, to put it mildly. 

You don't speak about two-three years, I guess, as in many discussions we are speaking about decades. Can we at all use this term of two-three years? Because there were talks that it is going to be in 20 years or like that.

You never know, you never know. It can be dependent on quite a number of factors, primarily, of course, what happens in Ukraine itself, how the reforms progress and how stable is the democracy and all of those basic criteria that are there. And it is a long way to go. If you go back in the history of enlargement, enlargement was fairly straightforward when the European Union was a less complicated body. Now the European Union is much more advanced, there is much more integration, much more laws, much more whatever it is in policies. It means that the step to be taken from being on the margins to being at the center is a much higher step than it was 20 years or 40 years ago. And we have seen that particularly in the enlargement negotiations with the Balkan countries that it is nowadays a much more demanding thing to be a member of the E.U., much more rewarding as well, but also more demanding. More people understand that, except... the Brits are going to find out, by the way. 

How would you explain this raising authoritarianism in countries like Italy, Hungary and others? We are discussing it for a couple of years. And it started that there are those villains, there are those populists, they are getting power ... but it is already some time after that and we already can maybe reflect in more detail. Even now the discussion about Brexit is not just about Nigel Farage or Cambridge Analytica.

There is a tendency to discuss it in too general terms. You need to look at the specifics of what is happening in different countries. Clearly, in Italy the migration issue has been heating the pot in combination with the fact that they have been unable to reform their economy. The Italian economy is the only economy that has not been recovered from 2008 financial crisis. And the 2008 financial crisis is more than 10 years ago. Young people are leaving Italy because they don't see economic prospects. And add to that that they feel that we are not being in solidarity with them in the migration crisis. That has made possible for the [Matteo] Salvinis to raise their voice. Hungary is a special case, where [Viktor] Orban is a talented politician. [It] has to be said, the man is not stupid. And Hungary has a special history that makes is somewhat different, it has always been somewhat different. Poland — another story. There has always been in Poland a very strong clerical conservative tradition. That was also very difficult for the communists, the communists never managed to completely control Poland. They could never get rid of the very conservative Catholic Church. We see to some extent the same tendencies. But in Poland, we have much more vibrant middle class and civil society and things like that than we have in Hungary. So it is different trends and we should be careful not to say it is the same thing that is happening across the border, I don't think it is. And then we have a decline in some of the traditional politics. That we see all over Europe. That we see a fragmentation of the political scene, we see a decline of the parties that have been dominating politics and that leaves room for more diverse political forces, some of them good, some of them bad.

In particular, in terms of countries like Poland and Hungary and even like Italy, do we see that there is no inner tool for the European Union to enforce some of the obligations? For instance, in terms of freedoms and some other things.

No, there are hardly any. And that goes to the fact that it was called the European Economic Community from the beginning, it has been the economy that has been at the center. When the process of European integration started the issues of human rights, democracy, they are in the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights that should not be forgotten. It is the most powerful supranational institution for human rights that exists anywhere in the world. We do have a discussion inside the E.U. whether we should get more powerful instruments in order to be able to check the rule of law to some extent. Now we have only those two weak instruments. And the Council of Europe has been somewhat diluted by the fact that there are quite a number of countries in there that are not particularly democratic, mildly speaking: we can speak about Russia, we can speak about Azerbaijan.

How has your native Sweden lived through the issue of migration and the refugees as the country which welcomed proportionally the most as I understand compared to the size of the population of the country? How did it absorb them? What is the discussion now in Sweden? I probably will also ask you to explain the political party you represent in Sweden because you don't represent currently the government.

True, we had a big Syrian wave in 2015. We had a previous wave which was not quite as big, but was three-quarters of that, we had the Balkan wave in the early '90s, which was difficult in political terms. But when we look back at that particular wave now that's been a success. If we look where those refugees are now in Swedish society, they are slightly above the average of non-Swedes. That does not mean that we didn't have problems with criminal gangs and smuggling of weapons and things like that for quite some years, but the overall experience has been a good one. The Syrian thing is more demanding. And we have got an Afghan wave as well. We'll see if we manage the integration of them. Some good signs and some bad signs. And we have a problem at the moment with criminal gangs fighting over drug market shares and too many weapons coming from the Balkans and things like that. But at the same time, I saw the figure for Syrian students now entering universities. It is quite interesting to see how some of them are starting to do very well. It takes some time for a country to absorb big waves of that sort that we have had.

Did you support the idea to welcome the refugees? And how would you explain it to people here that see a bit different discussion with the other countries who put it as a burden? 

I was prime minister in the early '90s when we took the first big wave.

From the Balkans?

From the Balkans, yes. That was to some extent more difficult because we were not used to it. And it was also difficult economic times. We had unemployment and things like that and people were saying "what are we doing with all of these people?" This particular wave was bigger. At the same time, in the question of refugees the basic attitude of people was somewhat more accommodating. But it has been difficult. There is a segment of Swedish society that says "This is too much. We must stop it. We are spending too much money on it." But if you look at Sweden, we have a reasonably well-performing economy, we've got a more vibrant society than most other European societies. Immigration is part of that. There is no question. If you had taken everyone that we have in Sweden today that was born abroad away from the country it would be a less prosperous and far duller country that it is.

You mentioned your experience as a prime minister during the Balkan wars but as well then you were looking more into the humanitarian issues and the conflict in Bosnia. Can you now speak how the conflict developed in the modern world? What things have changed? Especially the way how the international organization can come into the solution? Did some things stop working? For example, we are waiting for international peacekeepers here in Ukraine, this is a very postponed discussion. But what would be your lessons?

When we are talking about conflicts in the past, we were primarily talking about between-the-states conflicts, armies of states meeting each other on the battlefield and that was it. Bad enough and highly dangerous. In the post-Cold-War period, we have been dealing primarily with the failing states, fragile states, collapsing states, ethnic violence, inside states, terrorism — different types of conflict that have been dominating. We see that meltdown of the parts of the Middle East, we see it in Afghanistan, we see it in the Balkans. The international community wasn't very prepared to deal with those particular issues and it has been a learning exercise. Are we better now at dealing with these conflict issues? I hope so. Do we see the risk of interstate conflict coming back? Perhaps we do. Have we forgotten how to deal with interstate conflict while we were dealing with these other conflicts? Yes, there is an argument for that. So it is an evolving landscape. We were for a while in a post-Cold-War period in a good situation in the sense that we could work together in the Security Council. I remember when I dealt with the Balkans Russia was a partner. We didn't always agree on everything, but we didn't always agree with France either by the way. But I was working very closely with Americans and Russians and French and Brits and they were part of it. That is no longer the case. And that we have seen the consequence of in Syrian war where there was no way whatsoever for the Security Council to come together on a policy. That has made conflict resolution across the world much more difficult.

One of the major documents people are discussing now are the Minsk agreements because the Ukrainian parliament has a chance to prolong it. But it is definitely highly unpopular also because it was presented by many politicians as a mistake. Still, I will ask your opinion on the document and the whole process and what can you give as advice for Ukrainian society. When the conflict started in the very, very beginning I had a chance to talk to the journalist from Croatia who covered the war in Balkans for years as a foreign correspondent. She said "I spent five years reporting from different conferences. It is leading to nowhere, it is boring but you need to know what's going on there. But be prepared that you should be very fast, otherwise the international partners would come, they would create some agreement and you would need to agree with that. And that would be too late." So that helped me to understand that it is inevitable, we don't like it but we don't see that things could be changed, fair or not. What would you say to the Ukrainian population after those five years? Is it inevitable even though it is unpopular?

If you read the text of Minsk, the February version, it is not the text that I would have written. It is, in my opinion, obviously the result of a very long night that was to a certain extent rather confusing. And that means that it is in some key aspects open to different interpretations which has produced a lot of problems. But things are as they are. It is the only document that there is. And let's preserve it, let's work from it because I don't think there would be any possibility to have something new that is radically different. It has a couple of features that are very important. It firms the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. That is really fundamental. Because if you go back to those days: what intention did Russia have? I think the Russian intention was at that particular time it was Novorossiya, they wanted to break away a part from the country and create something that was very different from where we are today. But Minsk needs the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Exactly how to achieve it is somewhat difficult, with the different modalities that are there. But it is the best possible platform, I think, for Ukraine to build upon.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk