Interview with Ukrainian Ambassador: the Baltic Way showed that you will win

H. E. Ambassador Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi at the National Library
H. E. Ambassador Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi at the National Library

On August 23 the Baltic States celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way human chain which stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn and on August 24 Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day.  H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi, the Ukrainian ambassador to Lithuania, spoke to the Lithuania Tribune about the Baltic Way and about the Ukrainian history, which is very closely connected to Lithuania. We also spoke about today’s Ukraine and its European and Euro Atlantic aspirations. ‘We were sure that you would win,’ the Ambassador said to us.

Dear Ambassador, on August 24 is Ukraine’s Day of Independence. How is this day acknowledged in different parts of Ukraine?

One of the key reasons – along with the imperfect system of so-called “administrative planned” or “command” economy, the repressive totalitarian regime and voluntaristic domestic and foreign policies – why the Soviet Union was finally destroyed were national liberation movements throughout all former Soviet Republics. In the case of Ukraine, there were also another two critically essential reasons that stoked anti-Soviet sentiments.

These are the defeat of the USSR in the senseless Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989, which had cost Ukrainians thousands of their fathers, sons and brothers, as well as the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant of April 26, 1986, which clearly showed all the rottenness and cynicism of the Communist Party’s bosses.

As a result, in 1989 a number of patriotic activists and former dissidents, who had spent almost dozens of years in Soviet camps under politically motivated charges, founded the People’s Movement of Ukraine, also known as “Rukh” (Lithuania’s Sąjūdis analog), a civil and political organization which rallied people united by the idea of Ukraine’s independence. In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that such a movement did not start from anything.

In 1976 a group of Ukrainian dissidents founded a Ukrainian civic group to promote the implementation of the Helsinki Accords. The goal of the group was to push for implementation of the formally proclaimed (but never implemented in the Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic on the ground) civic rights, freedoms and the norms of international law codified within the Accords. During the next three years, nearly all of the members of that group received prison terms, while the Soviet authorities continued to persecute Ukrainian writers, historians, cultural activists whose works had the marks of Ukrainian patriotism.

Moreover, in 1984-1985 human rights activists Yurii Lytvyn, Valerii Marchenko, Oleksa Tykhyi and Vasyl Stus were tortured to death in Soviet camps. Under pressure from the opposition and popular demonstrations, the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian SSR adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty on July 16, 1990. This document proclaimed the independence of Ukraine in all spheres of public life, the supremacy of the Constitution of Ukraine over the laws and Constitution of the Ukrainian SSR, the right of Ukraine to have its armed forces, internal forces, security bodies and so forth.

In October 1990, Ukraine was shaken by a students’ hunger strike, also known as the “Revolution on Granite”, in a tent encampment on the Independence Square (Maidan) in Kyiv. The starving students, many of whom became famous Ukrainian politicians, scientists, writers, public officers and civic activists, achieved the resignation of the Government and withdrawal of Ukraine from the USSR. Almost within a year, after the bloody and tragic events in Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania, several Soviet leaders resorted to a coup, which was not supported by Ukrainians.

H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi at the Seimas
H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi at the Seimas

Local Ukrainians actively participated in confrontations with the troops that had been sent to suppress popular demonstrations in Moscow. The blue and yellow Ukrainian flag were even raised over a group of tanks that had switched to the protesters’ side. Under the pressure of mass demonstrations in Kyiv and all over the Ukrainian regions, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine on August 24, 1991.

The Act of the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine was confirmed by a popular referendum on December 01, 1991 with the astonishing result of 92,3% in favour. In particular, Ukraine’s independence was supported in all the regions of Ukraine without any exceptions, including the Crimea and Sevastopol, Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

And here is the answer to your question how this day is acknowledged in my Country – we celebrate it as a Day of Unity. This day is the most important and decisive holiday which reminds us – the Ukrainians – that we have only one Motherland and it is our duty and honour to build it up as an independent and sovereign state despite any threats and challenges.

Some historians say that for some former Soviet Republics, their Independence just dropped out of the sky and they did not know what to do with it. And some say that it was a case in Ukraine too. What do you have to say to those pundits?

My initial response to those pundits would be quite simple – they are not right. Ukrainians hardly submitted to the Soviet regime; our Resistance movement was powerful. That is why the prison terms received by the Ukrainian patriots from the former KGB had been so harsh.

For example, Vasyl Stus got 15 years in prison and died behind bars at the beginning of so-called “Perestroika” in 1985. Levko Lukyanenko – 15 years, Myroslav Marynovych – 15 years, Yurii Lytvyn – 15 years (on the 24th of August, 1984 he was found in his cell with his stomach cut open, on the 5th of October he died in the prison hospital in the Perm region of Russia), Vasyl Ovsienko – 15 years, Mykhailo Horyn – 15 years.

This is just a very brief list; one may find hundreds and hundreds of other names. And I am not even mentioning Ukraine’s insurgency movement of 1942-1956 when the Ukrainian people, like Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, staged an armed resistance to the robust totalitarian regime for more than a decade.

Before that, Ukrainians had been severely devastated during the Second World War – out of 7 million who fought in the Soviet Army forces, some 3 million were killed, while a significant part became disabled. Thus, the so-called “great victory”, as Russia still pretends, would hardly be possible without Ukrainians.

Nevertheless, such a significant contribution to the victory over Nazism did not stop the Stalin regime from further persecutions of the Ukrainian nation. We need to mention also our losses during the 1932-1933 Holodomor of the Ukrainian people, which was the most significant genocidal action ever committed by the USSR and one of the most massive genocides in the history of humankind. According to modern research, the Holodomor took the lives of some seven million Ukrainians. So, we have paid an extremely high price to live in our sovereign and independent State. We will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who are fighting for their freedom. 

In the nineties, Lithuania felt massive support from its diaspora abroad. We know of the enormous Ukrainian diaspora in Canada. Did you also feel their support back then?

Ukrainians around the whole world, with their hearts and minds, are always with Ukraine. I had the opportunity to meet them in many countries, and my personal experience speaks precisely about that.

The existing support of the global Ukrainian community is, without exaggerations, significant for the development of the Ukrainian state.

It brings immense happiness to be together, being often far away from each other, to be like-minded and, at the same time, open for any discussions.

Once, in Italy, where we have one of the most significant communities, a well-known politician told me: you should feel fortunate being an official representative of your people because each Ukrainian is an excellent ambassador of your culture, your values, your history and could be a real example for others.

Every meeting with representatives of the Ukrainian community, wherever I am, reminds me of those words.

Lithuanians are proud of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and a significant territory of modern Ukraine was a huge part of it. How is this heritage looked upon in Ukraine?

You are right, a big part of modern Ukraine was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In general, a substantial number of Ukrainian historians claim that as long as Lithuania’s Grand Dukes acted as the unifiers of the historical lands of the Kyivan state, respected the rights of the Ukrainian nobility (“neither touched old things nor introduced new things”), accepted Ukrainian culture and the Orthodox faith, the Ukrainian nobility and people ensured the success of the Grand Duchy.

H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with Lithuanian and Urkrainian military in Kaunas
H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with Lithuanian and Ukrainian military in Kaunas

Ukrainians joined the Grand Duchy based on mutual agreements, “as an equal join an equal and a free man joins a free man”. What is important is the lesson one may learn from our joint history –  every time we were shoulder-to-shoulder, we could defeat any enemy. It was proven, in particular, on the 8th of September, 1514 at the Battle of Orsha when the allied forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland, under the command of Grand Hetman Kostyantyn Ostrogski, Ukrainian by origin, crushed the 80,000-strong Moscovite army.

As a result, the “Aušros Vartų Dievo Motina“ (the Gate of Dawn), as a symbol of that glorious victory, became one of the most sacred places to visit in Lithuania. The Holy Trinity Church that was built to mark that victory, at the expense of Kostyantyn Ostrogski, became one of the centres for the local Ukrainian community to meet in Vilnius. These are the symbols of our longstanding unity.

Sometimes it is felt that after breaking away from the USSR, Ukraine and Lithuania have turned different directions. Do you have the same feeling, and has it changed now?

Of course, I don’t. Ukraine has always been striving for its European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Otherwise, the Revolution on Granite, which I have already mentioned, the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity would never have happened. We have made our clear choice, and we are paying a very high price for it because of the ongoing Russian aggression in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, in a part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

On the other hand, not everything depends on us – from the very first day of their restored independences in 1991, the Baltic States got an evident signal that they are welcomed within the EU and NATO. The ink under the Association Agreements with the EU had not yet been drawn, but the Baltic States already had a clear European perspective.

We are an ancient European nation connected with other European nations by numerous historical events. And it is not about our way to Europe, because we are already in Europe and we are an inevitable part of Europe. It is about our joining the structures that already exist in Europe, in particular, the EU and NATO. These are the structures that have already proven their effectiveness, namely, in economic, defence and security spheres.

We want to replicate that success which, I hope, will be in the interests of not only Ukraine. In this regard, we are incredibly grateful to our Lithuanian friends for believing in us and for trusting us. Brotherly Lithuania, your people, have always rendered us sincere and profound support, from the European and Euro-Atlantic integration to reforming Ukraine’s army and rebuilding Ukraine’s Donbas.

In what ways could Lithuania help Ukraine more, and in what ways can Ukraine help Lithuania?

Ukraine is not alone: so long as we have such a robust Lithuanian voice in support of Ukraine and its Nation within the EU and NATO, we can be sure that the issues related to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will always find the proper robust response from the European and Euro-Atlantic communities. Moreover, in many cases, our Lithuanian partners are playing the leading role, especially where internal procedures within the European or Euro-Atlantic institutions are concerned.

There is a clear understanding that Ukraine has made unprecedented progress: despite the Russian aggression which resulted in the temporary occupation of a part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, Ukraine has successfully implemented a number of painful, but necessary and decisive reforms in various spheres, including those in the context of implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Such progress, to a great extent, has been possible because of the sincere and active assistance of Lithuania.

Ukrainian-Lithuanian relations of strategic partnership could serve as an example to follow by other EU and the NATO Member States: there is not even a single issue on which we do not share a common view, especially about Ukraine’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

The strategic partnership means the opening of new possibilities and opportunities for growth: we continue identifying new and innovative projects to benefit both our States and Nations. In this regard, I would like to underline Lithuania’s readiness to be actively involved in the implementation of the Ukrainian initiative addressed to all Ukrainian partners within the EU to take under their patronage for war-torn cities and villages in the Government-controlled territory of Ukraine’s Donbas.

I am happy to note that Lithuania is already assisting with the reconstruction of one of the secondary schools in the city of Avdiivka – and we much appreciate it. I firmly believe that it could serve as an excellent example for all the other EU Member States, and other partners too, of how to practically help Ukrainians in these tough and challenging times.

Regarding how we could help Lithuania – the answer is simple: Ukraine as an EU and NATO Member State will make Europe a more secure and prosperous place to live.

What was the main trigger for the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and what outcome did president Putin anticipate from it?

The most misleading thought of the Russian leadership was, and remains, that the idea of an independent Ukrainian state is being imposed on society by its political elites. However, throughout the history of Ukraine, where more than one hundred and thirty nationalities live, is a story about dreaming of being a true host at our own home, a hospitable homeowner. A dream that in this home people will live according to God’s commandments, with a sincere respect to human dignity and freedom.

H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with Ukrainian soldiers at the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai
H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with Ukrainian soldiers at the Hill of Crosses in Šiauliai

Russia first occupied the Crimea region and then unleashed the conflict in the East of Ukraine. The purpose of these actions was, first of all, to return Ukraine to the sphere of influence of Moscow and prevent the European vector of development of Ukraine; to not allow Ukrainians to live by the same rules and to share the same values as other Europeans.

In what way did the Russian aggression change Ukraine the most?

Russian aggression primarily contributed to the unification of Ukraine, the growth of patriotism, and national identity. The war forced us to intensify reforms in the military and economic spheres. Today, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are among the most combat-ready in Europe and continue their development and modernisation.

Ukrainians and Russians are often called brotherly nations, or at least have been in the past. Do you think that this brother-like relationship is possible again?

It would make sense to return to this question after we restore the sovereignty of Ukraine within its internationally-recognised borders. After Russia releases all Ukrainian hostages, political prisoners and prisoners of war who are illegally detained in Russia or in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas. There are a number of other, equally important preconditions, but these are the important ones.

How big is the Ukrainian community in Lithuania? Are they active in keeping their Ukrainian identity? What is the role of the embassy in this process?

According to the Statistics Department of Lithuania, as of the beginning of 2018, there were 21,067 Lithuanian citizens of Ukrainian ethnicity (0.75% of the total population) living in the country. Ethnic Ukrainians predominantly live in such cities as Vilnius, Klaipeda, Kaunas, Visaginas, Siauliai, and Jonava.

There is a total of 11 regional organizations in Lithuania including the Vilnius Ukrainian community, the Association of Baltic Ukrainians in Klaipeda, the “Rodyna” (“Family”) cultural and educational centre in Klaipėda, the Kaunas Ukrainian community, the Visaginas Ukrainian community, the Ukrainian community of the Jonava region, the “Carpathians” community of Ukrainians in Šiauliai, the “Prosvit” (“Education”) culture and folklore club in Klaipėda, and the “Zorya” (“Dawn”) youth association in Vilnius.

H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with the Ukrainian national music enthusiasts
H. E. Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi with the Ukrainian national music enthusiasts

The Greek Catholic Holy Trinity Church in Vilnius is another significant religious and cultural centre for Ukrainians in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian National Radio and Television channel (“LRT”) weekly broadcasts “Trembita”, a Ukrainian-language program; a Ukrainian-language radio program “Kalynovi grona” (“Bunch of Cranberry Bush”) airs every two weeks on “LRT”. The Holy Trinity Church of Vilnius has been issuing “Parafiyalne Slovo” (“The Parish Word”) newspaper in Ukrainian every week since 2000. The “Rodyna” cultural and educational centre has established its online presence.

The Association of Baltic Ukrainians in Klaipėda publishes the “Slovo and Holos” (“Word and Voice”) newsletter. The information web-portal “Ukraine Tomorrow” was launched in Lithuania in 2018 by Mr Ruslan Skrobač, one of the local Ukrainian community’s activists.

The Ukrainian community is extremely active and plays a vital role in deepening our bilateral relations. They are sincere patriots of the Ukrainian-Lithuanian partnership, and through their cultural and humanitarian initiatives, they make a considerable contribution to the strengthening of our centuries-old brotherhood.

The Ukrainian community of Lithuania, jointly with the Embassy of Ukraine, hold regular cultural, educational and civic events aimed at, among other things, drawing the attention of society to the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, the European aspirations of Ukraine.  They jointly popularising the notion of essential dates in Ukrainian history, maintaining the joint historical and cultural heritage, and enhancing the bilateral friendly relations between our societies.

In December 2016, by the initiative of the Embassy, the Public Council at the Embassy of Ukraine in Lithuania started its activity with the participation of the heads of the organisations of the Ukrainian community in Lithuania. We consult with the community, we hear each other, and our relationship is based on mutual respect.

Where do you think Lithuanian-Ukrainian cooperation could improve?

Relations between Ukraine and the Republic of Lithuania are based on historical traditions and constitute a strategic alliance, which illustrates in full extent the existing dynamic political dialogue at every level. This promotes trade cooperation including in the context of implementing the provisions of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union (EU) in regards to the establishment of an in-depth and comprehensive free trade area (DCFTA), as well as intensive interpersonal contacts.

2018 marked the tenth anniversary of the strategic partnership between Ukraine and the Republic of Lithuania, while the key areas of bilateral relations were specified in corresponding “roadmaps”. The latest document of that sort, titled “The Roadmap of the development of strategic partnership between Ukraine and the Republic of Lithuania for the term of the years 2019-2020”, was signed by the Presidents of Ukraine and Lithuania on December 7, 2018, during the official visit of the Lithuanian President to our country.

The positive dynamic of our bilateral relations should not create a feeling that the final goal has been already achieved. Instead, it gives an impetus to both countries and our brotherly nations to move forward. We could do a lot to further intensify our business contacts, cultural and humanitarian cooperation as well as to extend people-to-people connections, especially between the youth.

What are the main projects of the Ukrainian embassy in Lithuania? I remember you were mentioning handball?

We are delighted that the International Veterans Handball Tournament for the Ambassador of Ukraine Cup in the Republic of Lithuania already lives, since 2016, its own life. This year it will be held for the fourth time, and for the second time – in the city of Varena. The first two tournaments were held in the city of Garliava.

H. E. Ambassador Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyiat the handall tournament
H. E. Ambassador Volodymyr Yatsenkivskyi at the handball tournament

This sports event has already found supporters in Lithuania, Ukraine, and in other countries of the region, and the number of tournament participants is expanding. We are delighted that all these people have had an excellent opportunity to be together again, to prepare themselves, within a year, for a new future meeting, to feel young still, needy and unforgotten.

We are proud that this tournament has already become a tradition, and we believe that our other ideas will also be actively supported, such as, for example, the Bike ride “Together for Peace”, dedicated to May, 8 – the Day of the Victory over Nazism.

The purpose and task of the Embassy is not only to conduct our own effective diplomacy initiatives. It is with the great aspiration that we assist with the initiatives of others. We want Lithuanians to know as much about Ukraine as we do, and vice versa.

The cultural and humanitarian space between our countries is filled with high activity of different people, so we often become organisers or co-organisers of various events. For example, days of Ukrainian movie, photo and art exhibitions, music festivals aimed to draw the attention of Lithuanian society both to the vast cultural heritage of Ukraine and to the struggle of our people for the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.

I would also like to include a question about the latest Parliament elections in Ukraine.

 The Ninth Convocation of Ukraine’s Parliament will shape the reform priorities in Ukraine. The significant majority secured by the Servant of the People’s party in the parliamentary elections (July 21, 2019) provides the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with a strong platform for reforms.

Those include fighting corruption, securing the independence of the judiciary, re-criminalising illegal enrichment and abolishing the immunity of MPs, de-monopolization and deregulation of Ukraine’s economy, developing an attractive investment climate and driving a culture of innovation, as well as promoting Ukraine’s digital economy and digital governance.

The election results have proven that Ukrainians are eager and ready for a swift and ambitious program of reforms. The stated goals of the newly elected President and the Parliament are to bring peace to Ukraine, to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and restore its territorial integrity, to implement systemic reforms, and to strengthen the nation’s defence capabilities, while full EU and NATO membership remain top foreign policy priorities.

Concerning the EU, Ukraine is seeking deeper integration in the spheres of energy, the digital marketplace, justice and internal affairs, access to the customs union and trade facilitation.

Concerning NATO, our key priorities include the implementation of the law on national security, reform of key institutions including the Security Service of Ukraine and the wider defence industry, securing democratic civil control of security and the defence sector. Ukraine also adheres to its commitments in the framework of cooperation with international financial institutions.

Regarding the energy sphere, we talk about the security of gas transit through Ukraine and its accumulation in the Ukrainian repositories, for it will be the guarantee of energy security both for Ukraine and Europe. This is an appropriate method of ensuring a fair and safe European gas market. We would also like to highlight the facilitation of an attractive investment climate and business protections: as of July 2019, over 160 outdated regulations that created obstacles for businesses have been rescinded. Moreover, full-scale privatisation, which will allow Ukraine to divest its non-core assets, is to be introduced. The liberalisation of Ukraine’s land market is also planned.

As for the anti-corruption reform, all formal obstacles have been overcome which will enable the launch of the High Anti-Corruption Court, scheduled to commence activities on 5 September 2019. Short-term priorities include the fight against smuggling and bribery. On July 8, 2019, the President of Ukraine submitted a draft law that aims to ensure a more useful overview of criminal cases concerning top-level public officials. The draft law also seeks to secure the independence of NABU (“National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine”) and SAP (“Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office”). 

High priority is being given to the digital economy and the further implementation of e-government. The main goal here is to have a “state in a smartphone” which minimises the interaction between business and bureaucrats to decrease the human factor and the possibility of corruption. In July 2019, the President signed an Order on e-services development that will create a single e-services web-portal.

And last, but not least, decentralisation reform is soon to be finalized with the strengthening of communities’ role in the decision-making process on local issues.

August 23 is an important day for Lithuanians and all nations who have suffered from Stalin and Hitler in this part of the World (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939).  I would like to ask H.E. Ambassador how this date affected Ukraine and the Ukrainians.

This pact became the trigger for the Second World War – the bloodiest tragedy in the history of humankind. As a result, during that war, the total Ukrainian losses are estimated to be between 8 to 10 million lives. Moreover, more than 700 Ukrainian cities and towns were destroyed along with tens of thousands of villages.

In particular, Kyiv was 85% destroyed, Kharkiv – 70%, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhya and Poltava suffered great devastation, and Ternopil was almost completely destroyed. Nearly 2 million homes were destroyed which resulted in more than 10 million homeless people. Overall, Ukraine’s material losses in the war were about $100 billion.

On August 23, 30 years ago, the Baltic Way took place – hence, the 30th anniversary of this event.  Could you please answer the question regarding how this action of civilian power was seen then, in 1989?

Our fates are very much interconnected – the destinies of nations which have always been dreaming of their freedom. Your success means our success. We were extremely pleased and honoured to see your Baltic Unity, your inspiring fight for independence and freedom. We were sure that you would win.

May I assure you that all the Ukrainians throughout the whole world prayed to the Lord that you would win because we wanted you to succeed. To mark the 71st anniversary of the signing of the Act Zluky (Act of Unity) in 1990, over 300,000 Ukrainians created a human chain (approx. 482 km) from the capital of Ukraine Kyiv to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on the 21st of January, 1990. The human chain, the largest public demonstration in Ukraine since the beginning of so-called “perestroika” and “glasnost”, was also, to a great extent, inspired by the Baltic Way.

Taking the opportunity, I would like to sincerely congratulate our brothers and sisters from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia with the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. Glory to You All and Glory to Ukraine!

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