CD: Your Excellency Ambassador Scherba, congratulations for the successful European Song Contest recently hosted by your country! How would you estimate the importance of a major international event like the ESC for your country?
Olexander Scherba: First of all, it is very important for us how this all began - with an impressive victory of our Ukrainian singer Jamala in Stockholm. A victory in a face-off with the Russian contestant, during a war with Russia, with a song referring to the fate of Crimean Tatars under Stalin - it was a victory that we needed perhaps the most. It felt good and meant a lot. I have to admit: after the announcement of the result, I was cheering up so loudly I might have woken up some of my neighbors. The same was happening all over Ukraine. This was a moment of joy and happiness in a rather dark and unhappy time.
But with this win, came a new honor and responsibility: to host the next song contest. We took it up right away as an exciting possibility to show Ukraine in a better light, than it happens in the everyday press. We didn’t want to build any kind of "Potemkin villages". We just wanted to show the true Ukraine. You might have heard what people say after visiting Kyiv. They get surprised, even stunned. After reading all the negative press, after all the bad headlines they immerse in a positive, friendly and beautiful city. We wanted more people to experience it, to show what a vibrant, modern European city Kyiv is. I hope we reached this "wow!"-effect in May 2017!
Does the ESC have any further implications apart from presenting your country as a touristic destination?
Of course. The Contest is a change of pace, a change of tone switching from the negative headlines to a deeply joyous event. We do expect more tourists, but first of all we do expect the world to realize the war is only affecting six percent of Ukrainian territory. Other than that it is a peaceful country that has plenty to offer to the rest of the world – business-wise, tourism-wise and culture-wise.
And the last but not least: we took the motto "Celebrate Diversity!" seriously. Ukraine is a very diverse nation, which still has to come to terms with things like homophobia, xenophobia, nationalism. The Contest helped to raise the flag and to remind Ukrainians what positive thing diversity is. It also reminded us that a truly European state (and we want to become one!) isn't possible without a deep respect to all minorities.
Maybe the ESC might strengthen the pressure on Russia to pull back from the Crimea which it has annexed in March 2014. Do you have any signs that there might be a reunification of Ukraine and the Crimea?
I am absolutely confident about that. You just need to consider the facts. Crimea cannot function without Ukraine. Where did the supplies and water come from in previous years? From Ukraine? Who re-built Crimea after the WWII? Ukraine. Now Russia tries to make people forget about it. But you can’t fight the reality. You can probably get some supplies over the so-called Kerch Bridge that the occupants are building (although many don't think it would hold!). But what about the water? How would you get the irrigation water over a bridge? Without Ukraine's water, Crimea turns into a desert. So, it's probably about time that decision-makers in Moscow, instead of indulging their imperial instincts think about what is legal and what is right for Crimea. One thing is clear to me: the annexation is illegal and wrong for it.
So the next negotiations would be about that water?
I don‘t know what the negotiations will be. But there can be only one premise of negotiations: restoring international law. Which says: Crimea is Ukraine. On the top of that, the simple truth is: no one was standing in anyone's way in Crimea before Putin's "green little men" popped up. No human rights violations, no ethnic purges. The annexation was an unnecessary, dumb tour de force that damaged everyone's interest - including Russia's. To fundamentally destroy the relationship with Ukraine, to deal a heavy blow to Europe's security, to become a global problem - and for what? Just to tickle the imperial ego of some? - That was a criminal and unnecessary move that the whole Europe, the whole world pays for.
Is there any feeling in the Ukraine that your country is in danger of – at the most extreme – a Russian occupation?
Oh, let's try to stay on a more positive side (smiles). But you are right in one thing: we in the Ukraine and all other European countries are at a point where we should listen very carefully to the tones and moves that come from Russia and Moscow. They aren't very encouraging at this point. Yet, the chance for peace and law isn't completely ruined yet. All it takes is some change of attitude on Russia's side.
Before we get the curve to the many more promising aspects, can you please give us an overlook about the current situation of the conflict in the region of Luhansk and Donetsk where peace isn't in sight yet? Is there any chance to implement the Minsk Agreement soon?
The Minsk Agreement can be implemented very fast once Moscow makes the decision to steer clear of Ukrainian territory. Once its soldiers ("on vacation" of not) are withdrawn - the war is over. Thousands armed Russian citizens in the Eastern Ukraine must go. Ukrainian border must be under Ukrainian control. Once that happens, there is no obstacle for peace. But I have a feeling that official Moscow is still waiting for something.
It seems at times, they are looking forward to the moment when the United Europe falls apart, when the anti-EU moods and political forces take over. They call it "the coming conservative revolution". I also hope that after the presidential elections in Austria and France, after the recent local elections in Germany, they will finally realize: Europe isn't about to collapse, Europeans will hold to all the positive things that the United Europe brought in the last half a century. And one more thing: if Russians look forward to a new division on the continent and in the world - I think they are in for a bitter disappointment. It won't happen. And at any case, Ukraine surely won't put up with being a Russian zone of influence again.
How would you judge the recent death of the OSCE observer there?
This is a terrible tragedy which is the responsibility of the occupants and their proxies who control the place where the incident occurred. To my knowledge, the explosion happened in the afternoon, when the monitors where heading back after completing their mission on that day. Which means: the explosive wasn't there in the morning, but someone put it on their way in the afternoon. What would be the motive of that, other than scaring them off and keeping this part of Ukraine under a 100% Russian control, as it is the case now?
Still, I do hope that it won't weaken the determination of the OSCE SMM monitors to help bringing peace back to Ukraine. We want peace - and, by all accounts, it won't come without international help and pressure on those who came to our land and created these so-called "people's republics".
Because of Austria‘s Presidency of the OSCE, does this incident have any implications for the bilateral relations between Austria and the Ukraine?
On the contrary. We very much appreciate what Austria does in the OSCE. Austria took the right tone from the very beginning: put the ordeal of civilians above other aspects of the war - and try to help. This applies for political decisions, just as much as for rendering humanitarian help and upholding the sanctions on Russia.
So how would you paint the current bilateral relations between the Ukraine and Austria which actually date back deep into the times of the monarchy when Lemberg, for example, has been been an Austrian city?
Those memories are, in fact, alive and rather warm. Western Ukrainians call Austria "babtsja Avstrija" which translates as "grandma Austria". You still can find portraits of emperor Franz Josef I in some countryside homes. A Franz Josef sculpture stands in Chernivtsi (Tschernowitz). A Maria Theresia monument stands in Uzhgorod.
However, even more than "the grandma Austria" we like today's vibrant, modern, young and future-oriented Austria. You might be a small European country, but you are a giant among our partners. The most obvious example: Raiffeisenbank International has become one of the biggest foreign banks and one of the biggest investors in the country (by the way, congratulations to Raiffeisen on a very successful financial year 2016 in Ukraine!). In the insurance industry we have a very healthy competition between Uniqa and the Vienna Insurance Group which lead the market. Fischer Sports is for years very successful, producing sport equipment in Ukraine's west. I can go on and on with these positive examples.
Yet, Ukraine has much more to offer. Look at the agriculture sector which is booming! Look at the IT-Sector, with Ukraine increasingly dominating the outsourcing market in Europe. On the one hand, we have one of the highest proportions of the people with a university degree to the overall population. On the other hand, the labor costs are rather low. The latter point is unfortunate for us, but a timely point for investors to enter the market.
Coming to the European perspective - What would be the next milestone to-wards more integration since the Association Agreement went into action with the beginning of 2016?
We are extremely appreciative about the upcoming visa-free regime. As a point of appreciation and recognition of our effort on the European way, this step is of utmost importance - most of all psychologically. Europe stands for freedom. And this newly acquired freedom of movement for our citizens means that we are on the right way and that European decision-makers do appreciate this immensely difficult transformation that we undergo.
And as to the economic advantages of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the EU - it bears fruit. The European Union is already our economic partner number 1. We are very much aware that we live in a new economic reality. After Russia decided not to be our friend anymore, we have to be looking out for other markets. In Europe, Asia, Africa. Clearly, the EU market is extremely competitive. But not impossible to compete. Europe is our inspiration and our future. And we think it is obvious that Ukraine as a new developing market will be instrumental for Europe's economic future as well. Mark my words: Ukraine will be "the next hot thing" for investors and for Europe as a whole.