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'Important to Make Distinction Between Accepting Terrorism and Talking to Terrorists' – Sweden’s Amb. Thyberg
5 December, 2019

Tobias Thyberg has been the Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine since September 2019. Before that, he was the Swedish ambassador to Afghanistan. Hromadske discussed with Ambassador Thyberg not only the similarities between Afghanistan and Ukraine – which, however, are much smaller than the differences, as Tobias Thyberg believes – but also the pace of reforms under the current Ukrainian government, Sweden’s stance on Nord Stream 2, as well as its feminist foreign policy.


Ambassador, welcome to Ukraine, to Kyiv, and to our Hromadske studio. You are coming to Ukraine from Afghanistan. How is it to be an ambassador in a country at war, what makes it different? This is a very different place, as Ukrainians think, compared to Afghanistan. But what do you already think could be the relevant knowledge and experience for you?

First of all, thank you so much for having me here at Hromadske. It’s superb to be allowed to be your guest. Of course, as you say, the differences between Afghanistan and Ukraine are much bigger than the similarities, but there are a few things in common. One of them is that both countries are countries that are facing the challenge of having to reform while there is a conflict ongoing. And I think that is something [that] makes any reform work much more difficult.

The second thing which strikes me as being similar is that both Afghanistan and Ukraine are countries in difficult neighborhoods with difficult neighbors who are making the work of reforming the country that much more cumbersome. And I think the third thing which comes to mind, the third similarity between Ukraine and Afghanistan that had struck me is the very high level of corruption in both countries, and how that is a problem which has really damaging development both in Afghanistan and in Ukraine.

So those would be the similarities, but otherwise, it's mostly differences.

One of your first trips was to Mariupol. And also you've been to the frontline. What are your first impressions from Ukraine looking also at this experience? 

My visit to Mariupol was I think a bit of an eye-opener. Ukraine is, of course, a big country and the conflict in a way can sometimes feel distant from Kyiv. So I think it's extremely important for me to have had the opportunity to travel to the conflict line.

And if you ask about what my major impressions from the visit are, it is simply the level of human suffering of the many Ukrainians who live close to the line of conflict. And I think there it really is very important that the new leadership of Ukraine has made such a determined effort and has made clear its intention to improve the humanitarian situation for those living close to the conflict.

There are obvious priorities for any embassy of a Democratic government in Ukraine – like promoting rule of law, promoting human rights, promoting democracy. But what are maybe more precise priorities set up to you as the new Ambassador of Sweden to Ukraine?

Sweden does a lot of things in Ukraine. We are heavily involved here as the reform partners of the Ukrainian government, we're here as political partners of Ukraine, we have a lot of business interest.

But at the same time, I think for me it's quite simple to boil down what Swedish interests in Ukraine are. And it comes down to two things, to be frank. The first one is to help Ukraine as much as we can to restore its territorial integrity and ensure its full sovereignty. And we do that primarily as members of the European Union. And what that means, for instance, is insisting that the E.U. maintain its policy of sanctions against Russia until the reasons why those sanctions were once introduced no longer are there. And that of course means, among other things, the full restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Our second priority in Ukraine is to assist in the reform process. Ukraine has huge challenges. It's made great progress in its 25+ years since independence, but a lot of work remains in economic reform, in fighting corruption, legal, judicial reform. And we try to be as helpful as we can to our Ukrainian partners in making those reforms successful.

Do you make it catch up with the pace of the reforms? For us, it’s quite challenging, I should say. We were complaining that it was too slow. Now there are a lot of people complaining “too fast”. There is no way to look at the laws which were adopted by the parliament.

I arrived on September 2, so I don’t feel the contrast between now and before the change in government. Overall, we are very encouraged by the determination of the Ukrainian leadership to move forward with reforms. 

Having said that, you do point to one thing which seems to be a fact of life currently in Ukraine which is this extremely high pace of reforms. Parliament is working in the famous “turbo-regime”. And I think there is a sort of two things here which would be important not only for the Swedish government as partners of Ukraine but also which appears to me to be important to Swedish businesses who are working in Ukraine. The number one is the importance of communication and consultations, so that the lawmakers and the government have an open dialogue with Ukrainian civil society, with media, with foreign partners to explain their policies.

And the second thing is, to be clear, about the long-term reform goals. This is something where I think that the Ukrainian government could arguably do even more in terms of explaining its long-term economic policies, so that businesses, and international partners, and civil society have clarity on where the government is heading with economic reforms. But overall it's a positive picture.

Ambassador Tobias Thyberg speaks to Hromadske on November 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

But now a lot of international investors and also foreign governments expressed their concern that, for instance, long-awaited land reform suggests that most possibly foreigners won't buy the land. It's not like suggesting ... We talked to some people in the Servant of the People party. They’re in favor but they want to [hold] a referendum. And we know that public opinion is against that. To what extent that is a concern for you?

The first thing I'd say about land reform is that it is a hugely complex and at the same time an extremely important reform. There is such great potential in Ukrainian agriculture which demands reform in order to be fully realized. 

The second thing I'd say is that land reform in any country is extremely complex. Because it's not only about economic issues – it's about the attachment to the land which is something that is important in any country. And I think maybe in particular in Ukraine, in view of its history both in the ’90s and earlier in the 20th century. So as a foreigner, I would be careful to have any very fixed recommendations as to how Ukrainians should deal with land reform.

But I will say one thing: there's a number of Swedish investors who have done a huge work in the Ukrainian agriculture sector to employ Ukrainians, invested heavily in increasing the productivity of the land that they work on. And I think it will be very important that Ukraine make sure that however the land reform is carried out that it is done in a way that those foreign companies who've been here working in Ukrainian agriculture for many years, that their investments are safeguarded and that their interest is safeguarded, and that there are no retroactive laws being put in place.

How would you generally describe for our viewers the presence of the Swedish business here in Ukraine? As we understand, for instance, there are some more symbolic things. So for many internationals would be a surprise that neither IKEA nor a retailer like H&M [exists] here. For instance, they do exist in Russia, which, for a lot of Ukrainians, is considered to be more corrupt than Ukraine. How do you see that, how would you also explain that, are there any plans with that?

First of all, H&M is in Ukraine. They have three shops in Kyiv, so I think ...

I understand they are there. It’s good that they started, but they are still too small compared to what you usually have in any European capital.

First of all, there are many Swedish companies in Ukraine. And they're active in everything from industry to renewable energy, to retail, to IT. IT is an extremely dynamic part of the Ukrainian economy. So there's a broad Swedish business presence here.

At the same time, as you mentioned, IKEA is not here. I'm not a spokesperson for IKEA, they make their own decisions, so that's up to them to answer those questions. But I will say one thing: look, let's face it – there are serious problems with the business and investment climate in Ukraine, there are serious problems with corruption, there are serious problems both in the judiciary and other institutions.

So, I know for a fact that IKEA has a very strong interest in establishing a presence in Ukraine. And I think they're working as much as they can in that direction. But the question isn't really primarily for foreign representatives. I think the question should be asked to Ukrainian authorities themselves, why aren't these companies here even more than they already are.

Ambassador Tobias Thyberg speaks to Hromadske on November 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

By the way, before and after the investment forum in Mariupol, which was aimed to explain that one should also invest in the region, which is very close, some kilometers away from the frontline, do you think these even symbolic gestures from the government changed something? Because you may think that “unless you reform the judiciary, all these nice forums, maybe they don't really make that much sense”?

I think everything is necessary. I think legislation is necessary, but it’s also extremely useful that while the government is working to reform,  which it is doing very actively and that's something we very much support, I do think it's important that the government also works to communicate about Ukraine and to spread the proper image about the many strengths that are there in the Ukrainian economy.

Take Mariupol for example. I think in recent years Mariupol has been most famous for being close to the conflict, for being close to the contact line. Mariupol suffered terribly under the conflict.

But at the same time, there's another side to Mariupol. There’s a Swedish company called Beetroot, which has a wonderful IT presence in Mariupol, it’s employing a lot of people. They're extremely positive about the developments. I think it's very welcome that the Ukrainian government is making such efforts to show that all the good stories they are there in Ukraine. And I think Mariupol is one of those.

You mentioned that Sweden supports Ukraine also as the country which worked with the sanctions against Russia, which is connected to the war. At the same time, the big discussion is the construction of the Nord Stream 2 which Ukrainians are very concerned with. Many would say this contradicts the E.U. goals because it increases the dependence of the European Union on Russia, but at the same time also symbolically it looks like the countries, which are our allies, still do the business with Russia, which had been proven to be, let's say, not always ethical. And Russia uses gas and oil as their weapon as well, we know that here. How would you explain that Sweden has more or less also agreed that the Nord Stream 2 happens? That would be maybe a bigger question by the people rather than like “Oh, we keep the sanctions”.

I fully understand that Nord Stream is an extremely controversial issue in Ukraine. And just to be very clear on one point, Sweden does not support Nord Stream. In 2018 the Swedish government received an application from Nord Stream 2 for permission to lay pipelines that would go through the exclusive economic zone. When our authorities received that application we studied it from the point of view of legality: does the application apply with international law, does the application apply with Swedish national law. And we came to the conclusion that there was no legal possibility for Sweden to deny this application since it was absolutely in line with the law.

So, for Sweden, there was not a question of denying this permission, but that is not the same thing as saying that Sweden supports Nord Stream 2. However, I would say that for Sweden it is absolutely crucial that international relations, both economic and political, be based on international law. And so if that is something that we preach to the rest of the world then, of course, it is something which we also need to apply at home.

I think that I can thank you for speaking for the support of the Crimean political prisoner. You also in your public, online appearances supported the activity for the solidarity with the detained journalist Stanislav Aseev in the Donbas. Of course, there is some movement, because Ukrainians are happy that this year there were political prisoners freed – we’re speaking about people like Oleg Sentsov. The others are still there. But what it feels is that there is very little way the international community today can do in order to force Russia to free the political prisoners. We are speaking about dozens, up to hundreds of Crimean Tatars detained in occupied Crimea and in Russia, mainly with political accusations. It doesn’t really lead to something. How do you think we can operate in this war, what do you think could be done, also by the countries who stand up for human rights?

I very much agree with you that Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea is a huge problem, and I think it's a problem which the world needs to have patience and remain very firm in the face of this problem going forward. I think one of the most important things we can do is to ensure that there is no creeping normalization of this illegal annexation.

The European Union has sanctions in place in response to Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, and it's something which we bring up in our political dialogue with Russia.

Certainly, Sweden's position is that those sanctions must remain in place until the reason why they were introduced are no longer there, and in the case of Crimea, of course, that means the restoration of Ukraine's control over Crimea and Sevastopol.

But I think we also need to be aware that this is a problem which is not going to become solved particularly soon, and so I think it's extremely important Ukraine and its international partners have a very long-term approach to the issue. And there I think to bring it up in the public, in media, in our political dialogue with Russia, and to take every opportunity to remind ourselves and the world that Crimea is illegally occupied by Russia – I think that is extremely important.

Ambassador Tobias Thyberg speaks to Hromadske on November 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

Sweden has kind of declared a female foreign policy. What does it mean?

The feminist foreign policy is a policy that puts at its center the need to ensure that women enjoy equal rights, equal political representation, and equal economic resources as men – that's the basis of the feminist foreign policy.

How you pursue that? What are you doing with that?

We do it in basically every sphere of our activities. So, if you're looking, for instance, at our development cooperation, at our reform cooperation, we do it by making sure that all the projects, all the programs that we have in place, for instance, in a cooperation with a country like Ukraine, contribute to ensuring that those goals of rights, representation, and resources are somehow pursued. 

So, to take the example of our work with the Ukrainian finance ministry, we're working very closely with them on gender budgeting. What that means is quite simply that when the bureaucrats in the ministry of finance sit and plan for the needs which need to be met through the Ukrainian budget, that those needs are clearly analyzed from the point of view of the needs of women, and the needs of men, and that those needs are both properly met. That is one very clear example. It can mean, for instance, what will building this bridge mean for the women in a town, and what will it mean for the men in a town.

Another example could be our support for civil society organizations that promote the political rights of women. Another example could be in our political dialogue with our counterparts, for instance, in Ukraine to ensure that electoral reform is done in a way to ensure that in the future we will have a more equal representation of women and men in Ukrainian politics, for instance.

So, the way we see it, the feminist foreign policy is something that we can apply in almost every sphere.

Another one could be the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lots of studies have shown that conflicts which are resolved in a way that involves both women and men in the areas which are affected by that conflict, those types of an agreement have a much higher chance of surviving over time than peace agreements which only involve men. So, that's another example.

So, basically there is only the imagination that limits how much you can pursue a feminist foreign policy. 

How successful were you in pursuing a female foreign policy in Afghanistan?

Even in Afghanistan, we do a feminist foreign policy and everything, we did it.

For instance, we give a lot of support to developing the educational system in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban, the proportion of Afghan girls who go to school has risen from practically nothing to a third. That still way less than it should be, but at least it's a huge improvement from what it was. So that's one example – education.

Did you receive kind of a critique from the larger part of the society for that? 

No, I didn't. I know that there is a debate in society, but I can tell you one thing: Sweden was never criticized for pursuing the rights of Afghan girls to an education, and I would seriously like to see the person who would be bold enough to come out into the open and say that girls should not have an education. So no, I've never met this criticism.

Ambassador Tobias Thyberg speaks to Hromadske on November 26, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

The Taliban [were] for some time considered a terrorist group that nobody could talk to. And later we understood that there are talks with the Taliban members, there is some way of not just containment, but kind of talking to them. And I think that the Ukrainians don't really know about that, because, of course, we have in mind our conflict, and saying like, “you don't talk to the terrorists, you don't talk to this kind of the people”. What is the discussion in Afghan society? Because it's quite a recent phenomenon.

I think it's very important to make a distinction between accepting terrorism and talking to terrorists. I think at the end of the day, no conflict can be resolved without dialogue.

I doubt whether it is often a productive policy to say that “we refuse to talk to X, we refuse to talk to Y”. So I think talking to your opponent in the conflict is not the same thing as accepting the means that that opponent applies. And I think that idea is the foundation of the dialogue ongoing with the Taliban. Talking to them does not mean that one accepts the methods that they use.

Was there a lot of controversy in the society, how was it discussed?

There was a lot of debate, lots of debate. But my sense is that most Afghans whom I spoke to and interacted with agreed that dialogue was necessary in order to end the conflict.

Greta Thunberg is a world star celebrity fighting for avoiding a climate crisis. How she's seen inside Sweden? And do you think that the Swedes consider her like the Swedish ambassador, and how do you think Sweden can build on her recognition globally? Not every country has such a young celebrity.

I haven't read any studies on the level of Greta Thunberg’s popularity in Sweden, so I have no answer to your question. But it would surprise me if she didn't enjoy a very high level of public support in Sweden, because in Sweden, I think, there is a very wide and broad recognition that climate change is arguably the number one challenge facing all humans on the planet today. And that is certainly also the position of the Swedish government.

I think one of the things that are remarkable about Greta Thunberg is that she grasps the width of the challenge, she understands that this issue will not be resolved unless there is very strong cooperation between governments, between governments and civil society, bringing in business, and really creating a global coalition determined to fight climate change. And so I think that's one reason why she has become such a successful champion for the fight against climate change.

What Sweden as a country can do with that recognition, and popularity, in order to do it here in Ukraine?

Climate change is at the forefront of Swedish policy in Ukraine as well, energy efficiency is one of the areas that we're working very hard to support Ukraine in increasing.

Ukraine is infamous for being one of Europe's least energy-efficient countries. If Ukraine were to increase its energy efficiency, it would not only reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, it would also reduce its dependence on imported Russian gas. So I think there's a very strong both environmental and security argument for increased energy efficiency in Ukraine. And the good story is that since the level of Ukrainian energy efficiency is so low, there are huge gains that can be made by improving it.

After these few months that you are here, what are your main impressions, the main takeaways? It's not a long time so far, yet something already to mention.

Well, a few takeaways are the very strong determination of Ukrainians to create a successful Ukraine. I think that is the one key takeaway that I take with me. Another one is the strong determination of Ukraine's current leadership to pursue reforms, That's another thing which has really struck me since I got here. Another thing which has really, really struck me is the engagement of Ukrainian civil society, of Ukrainian debate, and the openness, and the freedom of debate which is part of the policy process in Ukraine. That's another great strength, I believe, of the Ukrainian society.

Another thing which might seem sort of silly, but has struck me, is how incredibly good the food is in Ukraine. I'm mentioning it not because it was a big surprise, but it's something I hadn't thought of before I came here. And I don't think I've ever been to a country where I've had so much good and so varied food as in Ukraine. So that's also a big plus.

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