Roman Waschuk is no longer a Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine. After five years in Ukraine, he said he wants now to devote his time to personal growth, not Ukraine’s growth. In his last interview in the office to Hromadske, Ambassador Waschuk told what he thinks are the major changes in Ukraine since 2014, when he arrived in “a crisis- and conflict-affected country”, while now Ukraine is definitely far away from the brink.
However, now the reforms should be directed at the citizen-facing level, so that Ukrainians can better feel what’s been changing in the country.
Regarding the new Ukrainian leadership, he said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes an impression of a politician who is "willing to think outside the box".
Ambassador Waschuk, great to have you here, pity that you are leaving. You’ve been here as an Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine for five years. Canada is the closest ally for Ukraine today, I would say. And both you and the current foreign minister Chrystia Freeland are of Ukrainian origin. You arrived here in October 2014. So, to which country you arrived and which country you are leaving?
I think Ukraine was definitely a crisis- and conflict-affected country in October of 2014. Hyper-inflation, a threat of large-scale invasion, major losses at the front. We were still a few months away from Debaltseve which was the last very big battle of that period. So we were really on the brink. And a lot of our time as ambassadors was spent talking to senior Ukrainian officials on how to not fall over the edge, both in security and economic terms.
And we are now far away from the brink, except maybe in some very vivid media or Facebook portrayals. But we were in a situation of a 12-percent economic decline, or free-fall. And bear in mind that in most of our countries a 0.3% decline is already a cause for great concern. It was 12%! And we’re now arguing over whether 3.5%, or 4%, or 5% is good enough as growth.
The Russian market was cut off, a lot of Ukrainian producers were in crisis. Now, Ukraine is the largest supplier of grains to a country like China. In fact, I think, Ukraine now exports twice as much grain as Canada.
So, a lot has happened in these five years on the constructive side. The Ukrainian army is probably the most battle-experienced conventional force in Europe today. We have 200 Canadian troops who were acting as trainers and advisors and they have managed to pass along a lot of both information and skills, but they’ve also learned a lot from their Ukrainian counterparts.
At the same time, the elections which had taken place this year had shown that there is a dissatisfaction of the society, due to the slow reforms, due to the slow economic growth, which really showed low trust to the previous government. Now it’s very different. However, still when you read the foreign press one is talking about Ukrainian oligarchy, reforms which hadn’t happened, particularly in the juridical part. How would you describe this part of unsuccess, which was there, due to the fact of people’s dissatisfaction?
That’s assuming the people are always right when it comes to assessing every degree of progress. I’m maybe a bit biased as a lifelong government official, but change in government takes time, unfortunately. And when you try to do it immediately you often have side-effects that were not foreseen.
It is a commonly held view here that, for example, judicial reform was slow and inadequate. At the highest level of Supreme Court, it was actually, by global standards, very quick. Imperfect, but in the space of two or two and a half years, you fired the old Supreme Court and hired a new one which is now being re-reformed, as we speak.
What maybe should have happened, or could have also been approached is reforming things at the level where the ordinary citizen or the ordinary business person first encounters the courts – which is at a local level. If you start from the top it takes a long time for change to filter down.
Roman Waschuk, Kyiv, October 27, 2019. Photo: Hromadske
The current wave of reforms should focus a lot on what worked at the initial phase of police reform which is attacking the citizen-facing level, the one that people encounter when they go and try to lodge a case, and which basically determines whether they feel good or bad about the system.
What are your major aspects for concern and for hope?
Hope is Ukrainian small and medium business which is dynamic and which needs to be encouraged to find its place in the legitimate taxation system of the country. It is in civil society, but I think it has to watch out to not become donor-dependent. Civil society needs to reconnect with Ukrainian society, especially in the regions, and to be primarily materially dependent on it and not on people like me, embassies like ours.
Dangers are the oligarchy, excessive political control by the individual oligarchs which then largely could undermine the positive messages that the new Cabinet of Ministers has been sending. I think the government program that’s been outlined is probably the most ambitious ever in Ukraine. A lot of the people in the Cabinet of Ministers and the Prime Minister himself are people that we know and have successfully worked with for years, and they are people who evoke positive feelings and desire to invest on the part of foreign business. It’s important not to have contrary messages being sent by influential big private players in Ukraine.
Is the oligarchy transforming itself? Many, many foreign journalists now are coming and asking "how about Ukrainian oligarchy?" How would you describe it compared to some years ago?
I think Ukrainian big business is not going to go away. The question is how you tame it, how you create equal set of rules, level playing field for everybody. So I think the idea of “deoligarchization”, as it was often discussed, is turning out to be a bit of an illusion. So you need a situation where everybody will be treated fairly. That I think will build confidence internally and externally.
When you talk about illusion do you mean they just own too much of the things in the country already and that you can’t take away the things that the big businessmen already have because that would be a risk for private property?
To be perfectly honest, many of their companies are structured in a way that they are protected from expropriation by offshore ownership in Western jurisdictions. So you then run up against private property protections in Western countries as well.
Clearly, if this were a super simple subject that one interview answer can fix, it would have done a long time ago. It hasn’t, it’s complex. What we’re hearing now from the president, from presidential and government spokespeople is that there would be no return of PrivatBank to the previous owners. Because they’ve looked at the situation in terms of Ukrainian law and it cannot be done, and they are welcoming and aggressively pursuing the legal case to return money to Ukrainian taxpayers being pursued at the High Court in London.
So, that’s sort of approach which is a rule of law-based approach, a kind of forward-leaning approach, is the one that would be welcomed.
Roman Waschuk, Kyiv, October 27, 2019. Photo: Hromadske
You’ve mentioned you worked with many people in the government who’ve been among the reformers, who worked in different organizations, and also in the government like the Minister of Defense [Andriy] Zahorodniuk and the others. Yet the president is definitely an outsider, he is from a different sphere. As an ambassador who’s been here for a while, how your views or interaction have changed in the time you learned that there would be a famous comedian running for presidency – which was probably shocking, especially for people in the West – and until now.
Maybe a bit less shocking for me. A) I like comedy. And B) I think you cannot write and perform in a TV series like “Sluha Narodu” (i.e. Servant of the People – ed.) without understanding the mechanics of the Ukrainian political process and of Ukrainian society.
So, satire is a form of understanding. I think where the president and his team clearly have started to work and continue working is how do you go from understanding, depicting to influencing and changing.
What issues, for instance, were you discussing with the President as an ambassador?
We discussed in the G7 context the approach to economic reform. He said, “I’ve got a certain idea, I’ve been a small and medium business person myself, but I’ve got Mr. [Oleksiy] Honcharuk here who’s an expert and he can give the detail." Similarly on foreign, security and defense policy.
We had President Zelenskyy at the Toronto Ukraine Reform Conference beginning of July. He went over very well with our North American audience because he comes across as sincere, as a listener, as someone who is not just using standard politician talking points, but willing to think outside the box. But also to look at individual cases, at people’s needs and develop solutions.
Were you at the meeting of the G7 ambassadors with the head of the president’s office [Andriy] Bohdan?
What were you discussing? How was that meeting? We know that the proximity of Mr. Bohdan to [oligarch Ihor] Kolomoisky always raises questions. Was this issue as well addressed?
We actually had two meetings, and certainly at the second Mr. Bohdan took the initiative in clarifying himself the distinction between the government position on PrivatBank and any position that might be expressed by Mr. Kolomoisky. So, certainly, we’ve been hearing clear differentiation between those two spheres.
After the diplomatic scandal with the U.S., how does it influence the Ukrainian relations with other partners? I think it’s hard to say that if the U.S. is out, things are just the same. We don’t have an ambassador here now, neither the acting ambassador, nor the previous, we don’t know when to wait for an ambassador… The U.S. had been a player.
And I think you should also have an ambassador in Washington. That would be good too.
I would say it’s even more important for Ukraine to be well-represented by the people who are able to proactively, constructively, positively convey the Ukrainian message in New York, Washington, as is being done in a place like, for example, Berlin.
Roman Waschuk, Kyiv, October 27, 2019. Photo: Hromadske
I think your ambassador in Berlin [Andrij Melnyk] is very effective in reaching the very regionally diverse German media. Ambassador [Andriy] Shevchenko in Canada has been a very good and proactive spokesperson as well for Ukraine.
So, that’s important for a country that’s looking to get more control over the narrative.
Returning to your previous question of does it make a difference when and how the U.S. engages. Of course, it does. Can a factor like that be replaced by any other country or a set of countries? Challenging. But I think we do understand that we are going through a moment where especially those countries that have a commitment to a rules-based international order and multilateralism need to be more active, to work together, and to be more cohesive.
So, there is an alliance of multilateralists, of which Canada is a member, that includes countries like France, Germany, Japan. And we are coordinating more than ever, and we are trying to ensure that the interests of especially middle-powers – that includes Ukraine – are respected.
The Canadian government won the elections. With different results. However, it’s more or less the same leadership. What can Ukrainians expect from Canada regarding our relations? What would you like the Canadian role to be in this very volatile international environment where – I just want to nail it down – the U.S. isn’t there, we know about the issues in the U.K., we know that in Germany Angela Merkel will leave, France is now engaged so much in the Middle East – that’s not a very favoring environment. So, what Canada – the country Ukrainians trust – can do?
I think partly it is to continue with the commitments we’ve already made, and that is both our military and police missions are extended to 2022. So you can count on that. We will be launching some new projects at inclusive economic development, especially targeting Ukraine’s south and east, in the coming months. And we will be as active, if not more, internationally in supporting a positive case for Ukraine. But for that, Ukraine has to be able to articulate the positive case or itself.
It’s hard to be positive about a country where people are beating themselves around the head all the time about how “we’re not good enough for this”, or “everybody else except me in this country is terrible at that”.
Again, you’re not going to have a perfect consensus, no country does. But you need to have a positive external consensus of most political forces that allow friends to work with something.
I’m hoping your parliament has created a commission to think about what a solution for eastern Ukraine might look like, a sort of Ukrainian solution, and I’m hoping that could be something that’s realistic, and that’s something that friends and partners of Ukraine can get behind.