New ambassador in Kiev: It’s on me to live up to the reputation Lithuania earned in Ukraine

Janukonis had spent four years in the Lithuanian Embassy as the deputy of Petras Vaitiekūnas, the former ambassador, putting his hands on the two countries’ political and economic affairs, which let him get well acquainted with people around and even master Ukrainian commendably.

“The country is very universal and the situation, perhaps contrary to the understanding by some, is very dynamic, so following up on all the developments is not an easy task,” says the appointed ambassador.

As Lithuania and Ukraine, the EU aspirant, have worked out a very special liaison along the European path, keeping up the pace and nurturing the positive image Lithuania has earned in Ukraine will be the diplomat’s major task from the start.

“Ukrainians do look up to us admiringly and feel gratitude. Lithuania’s opinion, on any issue, is very valued (in Ukraine) and, without exaggeration, Ukraine sees us as one of its dearest friends and staunchest supporters in the stand-off with Russia. So, definitely, all this puts huge pressure on us and adds extra responsibility,” ambassador emphasized.

Asked what was the advice he received from the departing ambassador, Janukonis told The Lithuania Tribune that Vaitiekūnas’ main suggestion was “to try comprehend” the ongoing process in Ukraine as a “very important development” for entire Europe, including for Lithuania.

“So he wished me to preserve this feeling in whatever I do here. I obviously feel the responsibility to cherish the instruction, as our national security does depend on how things evolve in Ukraine,” Janukonis underlined.

Second, he says, the Lithuanian embassy wishes to share Lithuania’s EU accession experience with Ukraine which has indicated its desire to join the union, too.

“Last but not least, sure, is the protection of Lithuanian business interests in Ukraine,” the ambassador says.

Last year, trade between Lithuania and Ukraine has surpassed one billion euros and has largely escaped the effects of Ukraine’s economic recession.

“To my knowledge, all Lithuanian entrepreneurs who run business in Ukraine are set to stay in the country and continue their operations,” ambassador noted.

However, he says, “no one on either side dares” to talk about revving up trade efforts before the economy bottoms out.

Getting investors’ trust in Ukraine’ deteriorating economy up, despite the 17 percent plunge it took in the first quarter of this year, can be a hard task.

“On the other hand, however, business sees the Ukrainian Government’s resolve to go on with reforms and this is promising,” the ambassador says. “The country’s economic potential is huge.”

Ukraine has been dealing with the difficulties on its way relatively well until now, but some of the politically-motivated assassinations and possible entanglement of some of the Ukrainian Government’s officials in multi-million euro privatization schemes in Kiev have dented the country’s image among its Western partners.

Reflecting on the assessment, Janukonis says there have been “some notorious criminal acts” that may have raised additional questions from the Western partners, but the situation is not as “desperate” as it may seem, he insists.

“Many in the West perhaps expect faster reforms in Ukraine and are not always quite happy with the pace and the results. But, certainly, there is the determination to keep reforming the country. The Ukrainian Government effectively does everything right, just there’s a desire for quicker and more tangible results,” ambassador acknowledged.

As Ukraine looks forward to holding general elections in the coming autumn, “a lot” hinges on their outcome, he says.

“The campaign will, undoubtedly, be hot and tense as any other electoral campaign in the country,” says Janukonis.

He admits it is hard, at this point, to predict the Ukrainian voters’ political predilections, especially since the electoral campaign is only picking up.

To note, Ukraine’s Communist Party has been banned by the incumbent Government, while the ousted president’s Party of Regions is disguising itself under numerous offshoots under different names.

“Most of them have coalesced under Ukraine’s Opposition Bloc,” the ambassador explains.

Asked to assess the bloc’s chances in the upcoming ballot, Janukonis admits that, with the country’s economy deteriorating further, social tensions in the country are likely to rise and trigger more criticism against the incumbent Government.

“The opposition is trying obviously to exploit all the lapses and is targeting the disappointed electorate,” the diplomat says. He adds: “The variety of opinions and political views is traditionally very high in Ukraine.”

Besides, characteristically to Ukraine, fluctuations of the voters’ moods are also a headache for the ruling party.

What about daily life in a country effectively at war?

“I believe that many people in Europe and Lithuania, too, tend to picture the situation in Ukraine too dramatically. In fact, life in biggest Ukrainian cities, including Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Lvov and even Kharkov, flows in its usual way,” ambassador underlines.

Local restaurants and supermarkets are full of customers and, contrary to the popular myth, there is no shortage of provisions.

“Believe me or not, but people there lead their ordinary lives: they go to supermarkets, as well as local cinemas, concerts and other social gatherings,” Janukonis pointed out.

Yet the military conflict in the country’s east, he agrees, does put a “murky tinge” both on official talk and conversations on the street.

“But contrary to another myth, there is no mayhem in the country whatsoever,” he underlines.

Still, with the purchasing power down two and a half times, the population is uneasy about the economic future, which poses some risks for the incumbent Government.

“Obviously, the period is not a simple one economically,” the diplomat agrees.

Asked to comment on results from the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga, from which Ukraine, many say, returned home empty-handed, Janukonis says that neither the Ukrainian Government nor Lithuania believe that the partnership has been a failure.

“As a matter of fact, there is understanding that the European Union has to be consistent with the policy, but, yes, there has been some disappointment in Ukraine following the meeting,” the new ambassador admits.

Still, he says, tenporary setbacks should not overshadow the many achievements from the partnership.

“Look, the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement will go in effect from 2016, which is big. Moldova and Georgia are nearing agreement on a visa-free regime with the European Union, so the prospects for Eastern Partnership are good,” Janukonis insists.

Lithuania’s interest in the situation, described by many as a limbo, is to encourage the European Union to send the EU aspirants “a clear message” on the unwavering continuity of the collaboration, he says.

“The limbo you’re referring to for me is, first of all, about the Eastern Partnership countries’ unfulfilled expectations, which are big, like in the case of Ukraine, which had hoped that Riga Summit will pave the way, in one way or another, to a visa-free regime with the desired club,” the diplomat notes.

“But at the end of the day, there is understanding, in Ukraine, too, that a long walk awaits ahead in this pursuit, and Lithuania, certainly, is the best proof that the effort pays off in the end,” Janukonis emphasizes to The Lithuania Tribune.

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