Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine: ‘Visa-free travel puts us back on Europe’s map’

MO* spoke with Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympusch-Tsintsadze in Kiev, at a historic moment. After years of negotiation, the visa-free travel and the Association Agreement, which led to war with Russia and was hanging by a thread after the Dutch referendum, finally got through. ‘This is a civilizational shift.’

© Pieter Stockmans

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, vice-prime minister and minister of European Integration of Ukraine

Since June 11, Ukrainians can travel within the Schengen area without a visa. On June 8, the Ukranian Parliament decided to make NATO membership a strategic objective of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Both facts did not receive as much coverage as the British and French parliamentary elections on the same dates, but they are nevertheless important.

The most important news came on May 30, two days before this interview with Deputy Prime Minister Ivanna Klympusch-Tsintsadze: the Dutch Senate approved the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine. A major boost for the Ukrainian government.

‘We will permanently end our dependency on Soviet governance systems. Ukraine is coming home.’

During a year, there was a chance the Association Agreement would be abandoned after a Dutch majority voted against it in a referendum. This would have been a disaster for the Ukrainian government, that had been trying to convince its population the 2014 revolution was worth it. Three years ago, disagreement about the Association Agreement led to an uprising and a war with Russia that already cost 10.000 lives.

Reforms under the Association Agreement and the visa-free travel will adapt all Ukrainian governance systems in economy and politics to the EU.

No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister is not afraid to use big words: ‘This is a civilizational shift. We are very thankful to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He has kept his promise to cooperate with the Dutch parliament to ratify the Association Agreement.’

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze comes from a family of Ukrainian patriots. She studied international law and worked as a journalist in the US. During the turbulent 1990s, she worked for the EastWest Institute in Kiev. During the years 2000, she was a BBC Ukrainian correspondent in the US and Georgia. Between 2009 and 2011, she was the director of the Open Ukraine Charity Fund. This organization was established by former Minister of Foreign Affairs Arseniy Yatsenyuk who would become Prime Minister after the 2014 uprising. The Open Ukraine Charity Fund collaborates with NATO, the American Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Endowment for Democracy. In 2014, Yatsenyuk was one of the leaders of the opposition and organizers of the uprising against President Yanukovych. As director of Yalta European Strategy, a leading lobby organisation for the European integration of Ukraine, Klympush-Tsintsadze met one world leader after another. On 14 April 2016, she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for European Integration in the Grojsman government.At the request of the Netherlands, the Association Agreement explicitly states it is not a step towards EU membership. Are you disappointed?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Well, to be honest, yes, I regret this. Even though the prospect of membership has never officially been the goal of this agreement.

Is there still something to work towards if the EU is not offering Ukraine a perspective on membership? The carrot of visa-free travel and the Association Agreement have helped the Ukrainian government and parliament to push through controversial reforms.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: We will not stop these reforms just because we can travel without a visa. The change of geopolitical direction that we committed to in 2014 has now received a stamp of approval by the entire EU.

This is the start of a historic period in the history of our country. This is our chance to change the country and to align all governance systems with EU standards. We will permanently end our dependency on Soviet governance systems. Ukraine is coming home.

You mean Ukrainians will increasingly consider themselves as part of the “European world” instead the “Russian world”?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Personally, I regret that our country, for a while, was nowhere to be found on the European map because we had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately Europeans do not remember that throughout history Ukraine has always been a European nation.

The revolution of 2014 was a clear signal to the Ukrainian authorities at that time, that they had deviated from the path that we had chosen when we regained our independence in 1991: the return to Europe.

‘Irreversible reforms will finally align Ukraine with the EU. Can you blame us for not trusting Russia?’

The visa-free travel is about much more than just travel without a visa. What kinds of reforms were needed to obtain the visa exemption?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: The 144 extensive and irreversible reforms that we had to make under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan (VLAP) will finally align Ukraine with the EU.

After the revolution of 2014, governments, Parliament, President, civil society and the media stood united behind that common programme. For example, we created a migration service. There is now an asylum system and there are reception centres for refugees on Ukrainian territory.

We ratified all legal documents about readmission of Ukrainian nationals and others that are illegally staying in EU Member States. We created a system for the protection of personal data. We voted for an anti-discrimination legislation.

These reforms were not just an easy tick box. We went from drafting laws in order to discuss them in Parliament and vote them, to their implementation. Establishing institutes, freeing up budgets to enable their functioning, creating systems, hiring staff, opening public property registers, and so on.

Establishing anti-corruption agencies was the main reform?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: We had to establish the full circle of anti-corruption agencies. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption (the electronic system of asset and income declaration for civil servants and officials is part of this agency), an anti-corruption court, a National Agency for Detection and Management of Assets Obtained through Corruption.

This agency is now organising an open selection process to hire staff. If the Court finds that properties were illegally obtained, the State will now be able to recover them.

Why do employees of anti-corruption NGOs have to report their private assets in the same way as civil servants and officials? Transparency International Ukraine talked to MO* about “harassment” of anti-corruption NGOs and a “counter-revolution” in Parliament.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: You should be asking this question to the Members of Parliament who voted in favour of this law.

© Pieter Stockmans

Vice-prime minister Klympush-Tsintsadze next to European commissioner Johannes Hahn during the launch of the EU-Ukraine Anti-Corruption Initiative in Kiev

You were sitting next to European Commissioner Johannes Hahn during the launch of the EU-Ukraine Anti-Corruption Initiative when he said: ‘I am concerned about legislative proposals that change e-declarations or hinder the work of anti-corruption agencies. I will discuss this with the President and the Prime Minister.’

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: NGOs, including Transparency International Ukraine, are part of a working group with members of Parliament and of the Cabinet of President Poroshenko.

This working group is drafting proposals to make the work of anti-corruption NGOs more transparent without using the system of the e-declarations for public servants and officials. I am aware this will give us difficult discussions in Parliament.

‘Unfortunately we do not get the same support from the EU as the Baltic States and Poland. Even though we chose the EU as our final destination.’

Will Ukraine ever join the EU? Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin wants a “strengthened association” with the EU?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Both Ukrainians and EU citizens first want to see proof that the current reforms are successful. In just one sector, for instance, food safety, we have to adopt 500 documents, set up laboratories for the safety of products, and create an entire management in that area. And that is just in one area.

But who knows, perhaps there will be a strengthened association with the EU. Another type of membership of a different kind of EU.

Ukrainians opted for the EU and NATO as our destination. We are carrying out all the necessary reforms to get there. And we are confident that, by the time that we have finished our homework, EU Member States will have worked out among themselves what kind of Union they want.

The billionaire George Soros, who supports Ukrainian NGOs financially, advocates for an EU in which not all Member States have the same kind of membership. Instead of a Europe that is on its way on different speeds towards the same “ever closer Union”, he proposes a Union that leaves Member States the freedom to follow different tracks. Even President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker is talking about different kinds of Unions: coalitions of the willing that will further integrate around the euro, trade, defense, migration, taxes, social security,… Maybe one day non-EU countries might join such coalitions?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: You must decide in Brussels what kind of Union you want to offer to countries that are eager to be involved. We appreciate the support of the EU, but unfortunately it’s not comparable to the kind of assistance the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia, Croatia received.

The mood in Brussels was still hopeful and confident. The majority of Europeans were in favour of further integration and expansion. Today, many Europeans consider the EU as an enemy, they are afraid of the expansion. We are aware that Ukraine is in the eye of the storm.

‘We are thankful to Prime Minister Rutte for the approval of the Association Agreement. For us, this is a civilisational shift.’

The Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine suddenly became the challenge of our time.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: We became the victim of a battle between Euroscepticism and Eurocentrism in European capitals. European societies need to understand the real nature of Euroscepticism. There were so many myths about Ukraine and the Association Agreement. Russian games in EU Member States are undermining the already low self-confidence in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron is aware of this.

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: I am sure many Ukrainians were grateful to Macron for his clear position, standing next to Putin in Versailles, that RT and Sputnik are propaganda channels of the Kremlin. They are instruments with which the Kremlin takes advantage of the openness of EU societies, of democracy in the West, to exploit weaknesses.

Russian President Putin knows that European populist parties will block Ukraine’s path to the EU. He supports them. Are you worried about that?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: Of course. It’s all about Ukraine. The Kremlin exploits each small friction whenever they see one. If they see a small gap, they deepen it. They create divisions between countries and within countries, to add new obstacles to the European integration of Ukraine and to break the European consensus around sanctions against Russia.

There has been so much debate about whether the EU should maintain sanctions against Russia or not. We do not see a reason to even discuss this. Russia has done nothing to comply with international law and follow the Minsk agreements.

They look you straight in the eye and tell you they are not present in the Donbass, that they have never sent military personnel to the region. But where did the hundreds of tanks in the occupied territories come from then?

‘The Russian games in Western Europe, it’s all about Ukraine.’

Why would President Macron be able to do what President Hollande could not: increase the chances of peace between Ukraine and Russia?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: We were already happy that Macron won, considering the alternative. France will enter the new negotiations with Russia with a principled attitude: respect for international law, Western values, fundamental principles of international law. President Macron will not sacrifice these principles in a deal with Russia.

Look, we were completely disoriented after the 2014 revolution. President Yanukovich fled the country, there was no chain of command. During these chaotic months, Russia managed to annex the Crimea illegally and invade the Donbass. But they did not expect that we would fight back. Putin underestimated Ukraine when he attacked us.

© Pieter Stockmans


You mean, fighting back by decisively choosing the EU path?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: They attacked us because we decisively chose the EU path. They use the frontline as a point from which they can destabilize the situation every day, by firing artillery, destroying civilian homes, attacking schools and hospitals. The number of civilian casualties has increased substantially again.

Will the visa-free travel and the Association Agreement not further complicate relations with Russia?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: But we want to join Europe. Can you blame Ukrainians for simply not trusting Russia? Russia has attacked Ukraine many times throughout history. Millions of Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death in 1932-1933 in the most fertile part of the Soviet Union. In 1938, another wave of terror against the elite followed.

During the Second World War, there were mass murders by Stalin and Hitler in the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, as described in Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands. In 1947, there was another artificial famine on Ukrainian territory. And then Soviet terror until the 1990s. Is it so surprising that we imagine a future with the EU as more stable?

‘The new Ukraine, as a neighbouring country on the road towards democracy and freedom, is a threat to Russia’s dictatorial regime.’

If the integration of Ukraine in the EU succeeds, it could become an inspiration for Ukrainians in the self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist republics in the Donbass. And maybe one day also for Russian citizens and the Russian opposition?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: It is not a question of “if”. There is no other way. It comes down to our survival as a nation. Concerning Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories: of course, our intention is that they enjoy the freedoms and rights in the same way as other Ukrainians. Visa-free travel will improve the lives of Ukrainians, and that could inspire them in the long term to opt for Ukraine.

Whether our success will inspire Russian citizens is hard to say. Change in Russia would require a national uprising, simultaneously in different parts of that gigantic country.

Many Russians do not agree with the path the Kremlin has chosen for them, but I do not know if they are willing to follow democracy and freedom. I can say this based on my experience of life in the Soviet Union. We lived in a constant state of fear. Starting from elementary school they hammered us on European and American flaws. This is happening once again in Russia.

Unfortunately, Russians struggle with oppression, fear and pervasive propaganda. The Kremlin uses myths and propaganda to ensure citizens do not pursue political improvement. In this respect, the new Ukraine, as a neighbouring country on the road towards democracy and freedom, is a threat to the dictatorial regime that is in power in Russia.

Are you afraid of the American President Trump and contacts between his entourage and Russia?

Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: The US is Ukraine’s most important ally. Even if it is difficult, painful and uncomfortable, we must continue to put pressure on the Russian leadership to stop their aggressive and illegal behaviour.

Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, provided that Europe, the US and China would protect the country if our sovereignty would be threatened. The protection of Ukraine against Russia is consistent with those agreements.

A stronger relationship between the US and Russia could lead to weakened support for the defense of Ukraine. But US foreign policy is still being built on national self-interest. A more stable Eastern Europe and an alignment of this part of the world with the West is in the national interest of the US.

But mostly we rely on ourselves: Ukraine has spent 5 percent of its GDP on defense and security. This is far beyond the 2 percent NATO demands of its members.

At six o’clock in the morning of June 11, Deputy Prime Minister Klympush-Tsintsadze gave a speech at the Central Station of Kiev, before the departure of the first “visa-free train” to the Polish city of Przemysl, on the border with the EU. On board: some forty activists, experts and journalists that had closely followed negotiations and reforms under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan during the last ten years. The festive train was organized by the NGO Europe without Barriers, and supported by the EU and George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation.

© Europe Without Barriers


© Europe Without Barriers


Translation by Jori De Coster

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