Aus­trian am­bas­sador sees 2019 shap­ing up as big year for cul­ture

Kyiv Post - - Business - BY BRIAN BON­NER BON­[email protected]

While 2018 is still here, Aus­trian Am­bas­sador to Ukraine Her­mine Pop­peller is al­ready look­ing ahead to the next year for at least three rea­sons.

One is that the two na­tions will cel­e­brate the year of Aus­trian cul­ture in Ukraine and Ukrainian cul­ture in Aus­tria.

An­other is the March 31 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, fol­lowed by par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in au­tumn.

If Ukraine can hold a free and fair demo­cratic vote amid Rus­sia's war and all its other chal­lenges, then Pop­peller said its lead­ers will gain re­spect among Ukraini­ans and the na­tion's West­ern part­ners, in­clud­ing Aus­tria. A suc­cess­ful elec­tion will show "democ­racy is here and can­not be stopped," she said. "I do hope for a fair and trans­par­ent elec­tion cam­paign, and fair and trans­par­ent elec­tions."

And thirdly, 2019 could be Pop­peller's last year in Ukraine. She ar­rived in 2015, and four years is the nor­mal tour of duty for Aus­trian am­bas­sadors. She says she has not been told by her Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs yet when she will leave Ukraine and where she will go.

Be­yond those is­sues, Aus­tria closes out an ac­tive year on Dec. 31, hold­ing the ro­tat­ing pres­i­dency of the Coun­cil of the Euro­pean Union in the last six months.

Aus­tria has also been sub­jected to harsh crit­i­cism, in Ukraine and else­where, for its at­tempts to build closer ties with Rus­sia amid the Krem­lin's law­less­ness in Syria, where it has vi­o­lently propped up dic­ta­tor Bashar al As­sad; in Great Bri­tain, where its chem­i­cal weapons at­tack killed a Bri­tish ci­ti­zen; and, es­pe­cially, in Ukraine, where the Krem­lin war has killed at least 10,300 peo­ple and dis­mem­bered the na­tion.

Aus­tria's young chan­cel­lor, Se­bas­tian Kurz, is crit­i­cized as an anti-im­mi­gra­tion na­tion­al­ist who is more com­fort­able with the likes of Vik­tor Or­ban, Hun­gary's au­thor­i­tar­ian pres­i­dent, than demo­cratic lead­ers.

Also, Pop­peller's boss, For­eign Min­is­ter Karin Kneissl, dis­gusted peo­ple world­wide — and in Ukraine, es­pe­cially — by first invit­ing Rus­sian dic­ta­tor Vladimir Putin to her wed-

ding in Au­gust and then danc­ing with him in a fa­mous pho­to­graph from the event.

An­swer­ing the crit­i­cisms, Pop­peller says that Kurz, and es­pe­cially Aus­tria, are get­ting a bad rap on im­mi­gra­tion. She said Aus­tria took in the sec­ond-largest num­ber of Syr­ian refugees per capita af­ter Swe­den, prompt­ing Aus­tri­ans to sup­port lim­its.

As for the wed­ding dance, Pop­peller wouldn't give her opin­ion about whether Kneis­sel made a fool­ish de­ci­sion, con­sid­er­ing all the peo­ple who the Rus­sian pres­i­dent is re­spon­si­ble for mur­der­ing. She said few peo­ple ask her about the dance be­cause it's not an im­por­tant is­sue.

She com­part­men­tal­izes Aus­trian re­la­tions with Ukraine and Rus­sia.

She said Aus­tria sup­ports Ukraine's ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity and "will never ac­cept" Rus­sia's il­le­gal an­nex­a­tion of the Crimean penin­sula in 2014, the start of the broader Krem­lin war. "Noth­ing has changed," she said. "We are a sup­porter of Ukraine."

The Aus­trian chan­cel­lor, fol­low­ing Rus­sia's at­tack on three Ukrainian navy ves­sels and cap­ture of 24 sailors on Nov. 25, "made a clear state­ment" that the Krem­lin should free the Ukrainian pris­on­ers and re­turn the three Ukrainian ves­sels that it seized. More­over, she said Kurz "warned the es­ca­la­tion should not take place" in the seas, and in­ter­na­tional law must be obeyed.

"Our po­si­tion to Rus­sia is an­other is­sue," she said. "We think it’s im­por­tant to have an open chan­nel for dis­cus­sion if we are talk­ing about solv­ing con­flicts with­out mil­i­tary means. We have to talk and we have to have open channels for those talks."

She said that once all the "facts are on the ta­ble," then the Euro­pean Union can dis­cuss whether fur­ther eco­nomic sanc­tions against Rus­sia are needed.

What about Fir­tash?

Pop­peller says she has "no idea" when the Aus­trian Supreme Court will rule on Amer­ica's at­tempt to ex­tra­dite ex­iled Ukrainian bil­lion­aire oli­garch Dmytro Fir­tash on cor­rup­tion charges that he de­nies.

The U. S. has been seek­ing Fir­tash's ex­tra­di­tion to stand trial in fed­eral court since his ar­rest in 2014. But she said that the de­lays are not un­usual for such cases.

Fir­tash was ar­rested in Aus­tria on March 12, 2014, at the re­quest of U.S. au­thor­i­ties. He is charged with pay­ing a bribe worth $18.5 mil­lion to re­ceive a per­mit for min­ing op­er­a­tions in In­dia. Fir­tash has called the charges false and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, aimed at lim­it­ing his in­flu­ence in Ukraine.

Ac­cess to war front

She also is watch­ing the war zone in Ukraine, and the ef­fect of a 30-day mar­tial law that Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko and par­lia­ment have im­posed un­til Dec. 26.

Some for­eign cor­re­spon­dents have com­plained about Ukraine's at­tempts to re­strict ac­cess in the eastern Don­bas.

"It would be good if they could get ac­cess to those ar­eas," Pop­peller said. "If peo­ple do not get any news about those ar­eas, how can they know what is go­ing on? As soon as you re­strict me­dia cover, there could be sus­pi­cions about ' do we have any­thing to hide. There are se­cu­rity is­sues, and I know that Ukraine has to check cre­den­tials, but free­dom of the press is one of the most im­por­tant things.

'At­tacks on democ­racy'

Like many in Ukraine, Pop­peller calls the fre­quency and sever­ity of the at­tacks on ac­tivists through­out Ukraine "an alarm­ing trend." She called on Ukraine's gov­ern­ment and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to "do ev­ery­thing to fol­low up on those cases and catch the per­pe­tra­tors and bring them to jus­tice."

She called th­ese in­ci­dents "at­tacks against democ­racy."

Over­all, "re­form in the jus­tice sec­tor and fight against cor­rup­tion is a very dif­fi­cult is­sue," she said. "It is rel­a­tively easy to write laws and bring re­forms on pa­per."

The am­bas­sador said that Aus­tria wants the anti-cor­rup­tion court to start its work in 2019.

"We are all wait­ing for this court to start work­ing next year which would be a re­ally, re­ally good sign," she said. "It's one of the most im­por­tant things for for­eign in­vestors: They would like to be able to de­fend the case in court. You have to rely on a good court sys­tem."

While Pop­peller said "the pace of re­forms could be a lit­tle bit faster," Aus­trian busi­ness­peo­ple in Ukraine re­port that "things are get­ting bet­ter" in terms of busi­ness cli­mate, in­clud­ing re­duc­ing bu­reau­cracy, and im­proved re­li­a­bil­ity of courts.

"A lot of those un­nec­es­sary hur­dles were taken away al­ready, but there's still a lot of red tape, but still, it's get­ting bet­ter and more trans­par­ent and eas­ier for in­vestors," she said.

With re­spect to Aus­trian busi­nesses work­ing in Ukraine, she said the ex­ist­ing ones are en­larg­ing their in­vest­ment as the na­tion's econ­omy steadily im­proves (with gross do­mes­tic prod­uct ex­pected to hit $120 bil- lion, a 3 per­cent im­prove­ment over the pre­vi­ous year, in 2018).

But she has not seen any new and big Aus­trian in­vestors en­ter the mar­ket.

Aus­trian pres­i­dency

Aus­tria, as one of the Euro­pean Union's 28 mem­bers, is tak­ing its turn lead­ing the bloc. Its re­cent stint as ro­tat­ing pres­i­dent, which ends on Dec. 31, has seen a fo­cus on se­cu­rity is­sues, in­clud­ing stop­ping il­le­gal mi­gra­tion and pro­mot­ing dig­i­tal­iza­tion, and min­i­miz­ing the losses to both sides from Brexit, the United King­dom's com­ing di­vorce from the EU next year.

Aus­tria has stressed the im­por­tance of im­prov­ing liv­ing con­di­tions in African na­tions that have been the source of big mi­gra­tion waves. Syr­ian refugees have also fled dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sads as­saults on civil­ians, in­clud­ing with chem­i­cal weapons, in sup­press­ing a revo­lu­tion against his rule.

"Aus­tria, af­ter Swe­den, is the coun­try that took in the most im­mi­grants at the height of the Syr­ian cri­sis per capita, so you could not say Aus­tria is anti-im­mi­gra­tion," she said. "What we have to have is or­derly im­mi­gra­tion … The im­age of Aus­tria as be­ing hos­tile to im­mi­grants is sim­ply not true."

Cul­tural plans in 2019

The year saw two top-level meet­ings be­tween the two na­tions. Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko hosted his Aus­trian coun­ter­part, Alexan­der Van der Bellen, for a three-day of­fi­cial visit in March. And then in Septem­ber, Poroshenko hosted Kurz. They pro­claimed at a news con­fer­ence fol­low­ing their meet­ing that 2019 would be the year of cul­tural ex­changes for both coun­tries.

"Cul­tural diplo­macy is a very re­li­able and ef­fec­tive tool for the devel­op­ment of re­la­tions be­tween our na­tions, be­tween our coun­tries,” Poroshenko said. "At all lev­els, we felt very strong sup­port from our Aus­trian part­ners."

Kurz, ac­cord­ing to Poroshenko's of­fi­cial web­site, said on Sept. 4: "We are very close at the in­ter­per­sonal level and I am very glad that we were able to agree on a com­mon year of cul­ture that will make the peo­ple of Ukraine and Aus­tria closer. Both na­tions will ben­e­fit from this, it will en­rich them."

Pop­peller said that the sched­ule of events is still be­ing worked out, but it will in­clude sci­en­tific, artis­tic, lit­er­ary and youth ex­changes as well as fes­ti­vals and his­tor­i­cal stud­ies.

"We have to sup­port those who try to spread the im­age of Ukraine as a very creative coun­try," she said.

She sin­gled out the work of Ukrainian au­thor, Te­tiana Maliarchuk, who writes both in Ukrainian and Ger­man, and who won the pres­ti­gious Inge­borg Bach­mann Award in 2018. She lives in Vi­enna.

The am­bas­sador said that "there are a lot of very good Ukrainian writ­ers," and ex­pressed hope that the 2019 cul­tural fo­cus will "reach a lot of peo­ple" in both coun­tries.

Aus­trian Am­bas­sador to Ukraine Her­mine Pop­peller speaks with the Kyiv Post on July 20, 2017 in her of­fice in Kyiv. (Kostyan­tyn Ch­er­nichkin)

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