Ex-EU am­bas­sador to Rus­sia ‘happy’ to speak his mind

Kyiv Post - - National - BY BRIAN BONNER [email protected]

Un­bur­dened by the need to al­ways be diplo­matic and take into con­sid­er­a­tion the views of all 28 Euro­pean Union na­tions, for­mer EU am­bas­sador to Rus­sia Vy­gau­das Usackas is en­joy­ing his new-found free­dom to speak his mind since leav­ing the post he held since Septem­ber 2013.

“I am ex­tremely happy to be a free man," the Lithua­nian told the Kyiv Post dur­ing an Oct. 18 in­ter­view be­tween his meet­ings with ad­vis­ers to Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko and with For­eign Min­is­ter Pavlo Klimkin.

Usackas penned a pop­u­lar op-ed pub­lished on Oct. 1, the day he stopped be­ing EU am­bas­sador, in The Guardian. In the Lon­don news­pa­per, he warned that the West and Rus­sia will be en­gaged in long-term clashes be­cause of pro­found dif­fer­ences in val­ues. Head­lined "The West must de­fend its val­ues against Putin's Rus­sia," Usackas called for greater Western unity, strength and fo­cus on end­ing Rus­sia's war against Ukraine.

"The EU should step up sup­port to Kyiv in its ju­di­cial and eco­nomic mod­ern­iza­tion project and at­tempts to tackle cor­rup­tion. This is crit­i­cal to en­sure both con­tin­ued Western sup­port and the Ukrainian peo­ple's back­ing for their cho­sen Euro­pean path," Usackas wrote. "We need not only to ac­knowl­edge Ukraine's Euro­pean as­pi­ra­tions but at some point grant them a path to­wards EU mem­ber­ship … A suc­cess­ful Ukraine will con­trib­ute to sta­bil­ity in our re­gion and rep­re­sent a pow­er­ful ex­am­ple for the Rus­sian peo­ple."

Noth­ing has changed in his views, Usackas said.

What's changed, the 52-year-old mar­ried fa­ther of two chil­dren said, is his abil­ity speak his views pub­licly.

No 'wish­ful think­ing'

"I've been al­ways con­sis­tent with my mes­sages. I was prob­a­bly not that pub­lic and de­tailed as I put it in my op-ed," Usackas said. "In my ca­pac­ity as EU am­bas­sador, I was al­ways try­ing to con­vey the mes­sage of a sense of re­al­ism and bring­ing Euro­pean lead­er­ship to grasp the re­al­i­ties, rather than wish­ful think­ing, with which we were led for far too long."

Usackas is widely touted as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for the 2019 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in his na­tive Lithua­nia, where he was the Baltic na­tion's for­eign min­is­ter. Be­sides his Moscow post­ing, he's also been the EU spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Afghanista­n and Lithua­nia's am­bas­sador to the United States, Mex­ico and the United King­dom.

He is now a lec­turer at the In­sti­tute of Europe's Kaunus In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Lithua­nia. He has joined the Euro­pean Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. And he is a mem-

ber of the Friends of Ukraine group led by ex-NATO Sec­re­tary General An­ders Fogh Ras­mussen, who is a paid ad­viser to Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko.

End­ing Rus­sia's war

De­spite dif­fer­ences among the 28 EU mem­ber na­tions, Usackas said he is proud that "we man­aged to re­spond in a pretty rough way" to Rus­sia's in­va­sion of Ukraine. He thinks sanc­tions should stay in place un­til the Krem­lin re­turns Crimea to Ukraine and ends the war in the eastern Don­bas.

He also sup­ports "equip­ping Ukraine's mil­i­tary forces in a way to be able to de­fend their own coun­try," in­clud­ing with lethal de­fen­sive weapons, with­out pro­vok­ing Rus­sia need­lessly.

But he doubts that eco­nomic sanc­tions will change Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin's at­tempts to sub­ju­gate Ukraine.

"To be hon­est, I don't see Pres­i­dent Putin re­mov­ing his lever­age for a con­sid­er­able time," Usackas said. "The Krem­lin will try to in­flu­ence and cre­ate ob­sta­cles to Ukraine's Euro­peaniza­tion as much as they can. That per­cep­tion has trig­gered the ap­proval of a ma­jor­ity of Rus­sians that the Euro­peaniza­tion of Ukraine rep­re­sents a threat to the Rus­sian po­lit­i­cal regime it­self."

The Krem­lin, he said, is count­ing on Ukraine to stay di­vided and fail so that hope­fully, in the 2019 elec­tion or the next one, Ukrainian vot­ers once again elect a pro-Rus­sian pres­i­dent.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Usackas said that "it is in our in­ter­ests to get Rus­sia to play a con­struc­tive role" in the world, in­clud­ing in for­eign pol­icy hotspots of Iran, Syria, Libya and else­where, while stay­ing strong and re­silient in the face of Rus­sian at­tempts to di­vide and weaken the West and Ukraine.

He said that "Euro­pean ac­tions have to be first and fore­most in sup­port of Ukraine's re­silience." He also fa­vors en­gag­ing di­rectly with the Rus­sian peo­ple on vis­its and ex­changes, in sup­port of hu­man rights and civil so­ci­ety. The more that Rus­sians are ex­posed to the re­al­i­ties of the out­side world, the less op­por­tu­ni­ties the Krem­lin will have ma­nip­u­late the mind­set of the local pop­u­la­tion." His hope is that Rus­sians "will fol­low the path" of Ukraini­ans in Ge­or­gians in choos­ing a demo­cratic so­ci­ety, rather than the cur­rent one in which Putin gov­erns as he wishes "with no checks and bal­ances."

Ukraine's cor­rup­tion

On Ukraine's do­mes­tic front, Usackas said he's im­pressed by the "amaz­ing re­silience" Ukraini­ans have shown since Rus­sia's 2014 in­va­sion and two years of eco­nomic re­ces­sion that ended only in 2016.

But, he said, Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine's other po­lit­i­cal lead­ers need to be more re­spon­sive to the Ukrainian peo­ple in com­bat­ting cor­rup­tion, es­tab­lish­ing an in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary and dis­lodg­ing the oli­garchy.

"Ukraine has been far too com­pla­cent for far too long," Usackas said. "Ukraine be­lat­edly chose the path of re­forms and Euro­pean des­ti­na­tion. That is why the Krem­lin acted the way it acted."

Ukraine can still get back on the path to even­tual EU and NATO mem­ber­ship only with rad­i­cal change, he said.

He re­minded that few peo­ple gave Lithua­nia, with less than 3 mil­lion peo­ple, any chance of join­ing the EU and NATO in the 1990s. But they suc­ceeded in do­ing both in 2004.

"We made our home­work and re­forms and lob­bied Congress and the White House to prove that we are ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing our­selves and that we share the val­ues of the com­mu­nity of free na­tions," he said.

'Come from within'

Ukraine "has a his­tor­i­cal chance and can­not af­ford to fail" again, Usackas said, in get­ting "rid of the past prac­tices, of oli­garchic schemes. I know Ukraini­ans dis­like it, but Ukraine has the la­bel of be­ing one of the most if not the most cor­rupt Euro­pean coun­tries."

Ukraini­ans want their leader to change that. They can do so by im­ple­ment­ing com­mit­ments un­der the po­lit­i­cal and trade agree­ment with the EU and with the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and by putting an anti-cor­rup­tion court and in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary in place.

"That's what the peo­ple want on the streets," he said.

A Lithua­nian-led pro­posal will be aired at the Brus­sels Nov. 24 EU Eastern Part­ner­ship Sum­mit, call­ing for a mas­sive an­nual in­vest­ment of at least 5 bil­lion eu­ros per year into Ukraine. Usackas called it a "noble" pro­posal, but he said that for it to be adopted by the EU, Ukraine will have to show greater progress.

"We need to get some more re­sults so we can con­tinue to sup­port Ukraine," he said. "Cor­rupt prac­tices are an im­mi­nent threat to that re­la­tion­ship. We can do as much as we can as for­eign part­ners, as the ones who deliever aid and help the coun­try. We will, of course, con­di­tion our re­la­tion­shp to re­moval of cor­rupt prac­tices. But it has to come from within."

Ukraine is in a bet­ter po­si­tion to do so than Rus­sia.

"What I hope and what I see is a vi­brant and ex­tremely ac­tive and coura­geous civic so­ci­ety and free so­ci­ety of Ukraine," he said. "There is no com­par­i­son with Rus­sia. There are no lim­i­ta­tions of free ex­pres­sion and as­so­ci­a­ton of the peo­ple and free speech."

Not 'soft' on Poroshenko

He said that in all his meet­ings with Ukrainian lead­ers “I am even more straight­foward than I see in the Kyiv Post. We're not go­ing soft on Poroshenko. The EU is not go­ing soft on Poroshenko. The EU is not go­ing soft on cor­rupt prac­tices in Ukraine. At the end of the day, it's go­ing to be Ukrainans by them­sevles. That's the ad­vice to Poroshenko. No one — apart from the Poles, Lithua­ni­ans and a few oth­ers — no one is wait­ing for Ukraine in the EU. If you are in­ter­ested, you have to give up those cor­rupt prac­tices and you have to be more saintly than the pope."

In­stead, he said, Ukrainian of­fi­cials have taken to point­ing fin­gers at cor­rup­tion on other coun­tries. They're miss­ing the point in sev­eral re­spects, he said, in­clud­ing the fact that in­de­pen­dent ju­di­cia­ries ex­ist in many Western na­tions, serv­ing as a de­ter­rent to cor­rup­tion.

"We're not on the de­mand­ing side" of the re­la­tion­ship with Ukraine, Usackas said of na­tions al­ready in the EU and NATO. "They're on the de­mand­ing side."

Vy­gau­das Usackas, who served as the Euro­pean Union’s am­bas­sador to Rus­sia from Septem­ber 2013 un­til Oct. 1 of this year, speaks with the Kyiv Post in the news­pa­per’s of­fice on Oct. 18. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

Vy­gau­das Usackas, then Euro­pean Union Am­bas­sador to Rus­sia, flow­ers with other am­bas­sadors on Feb. 28, 2016, at the spot where Rus­sian op­po­si­tion leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead, to mark the one-year an­niver­sary of Nemtsov’s as­sas­si­na­tion. (AFP)

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