Rasa Juknevičienė: “The entire country joins NATO, not just the Defense or Foreign Ministries”
“The entire country joins NATO, not just the Defense or Foreign Ministries”
President of the NATO PA on the importance of constitutional changes in Ukraine, the prospects that the Alliance will expand again, and various ways to resolve the conflict between Hungary and Ukraine
During her recent visit to Ukraine, President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (PA), Rasa Juknevičienė spoke to The Ukrainian Week about the importance of constitutional changes in Ukraine, the prospects that the Alliance will expand again, and various ways to resolve the conflict between Hungary and Ukraine.
What are the Parliamentary Assembly’s priorities?
— I became president of this Assembly not that long ago and it turns out that my term will not be that long. But I have been a member since 1999, which is nearly 20 years, with a small break when I became Minister of Defense because members of Government cannot belong to the Parliamentary Assembly. So I have a good idea of the role this Assembly plays. Right now my priorities are two and they are equally important to me. One is Euroatlantic ties, a issue I would never have thought just a few years ago that we would have to return to — to talk about how much America there is in Europe or whether America needs Europe or not. I’m scheduled to visit the US in November, where I plan to meet my colleagues in the Congress. Of course, we’d like to see more of them in the PA because they work very constructively and have a positive impact on the legislature. The second priority is the question of Ukraine and Georgia. We must keep working with these countries, as they are our partners, especially in the East. For me, as a representative of Latvia, this is very important. As earlier, we are trying to do as much as possible for countries like Ukraine and Georgia, who want to join us in the European Union and in NATO. That’s why I visited Ukraine after I was in Moldova, and next I plan to go to Georgia. At the same time, as president, I can’t let slip other issues, such as relations with the Balkan countries. And so I also just recently visited Montenegro, which has joined the Alliance, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
How much sense does it make to change Ukraine’s Constitution to specifically mention a Euroatlantic orientation, as President Poroshenko has suggested?
— I’m very much in favor of this. The minute Ukrainians elected a new Verkhovna Rada, new delegations came to the Assembly. We had several opportunities to talk with them about what’s most important to Ukraine today: to choose its path. As I understand it, this is path is European, oriented towards the EU and towards membership in NATO. That makes it very important that this current Rada do this, so that there won’t an opportunity to walk away from this path, which we’ve seen more than once in the past. Ukraine first applied to NATO, then Yanukovych said that the country supposedly doesn’t want this. We weren’t where, in fact, it was going. The one thing that can help here is legislation.
In this sense, it’s very good that you passed the new law on national security. We were in the same situation in Lithuania in 1996. At that point we unanimously voted in favor of a new law on national security that specifically stated that Euroatlantic integration and membership in NATO and the EU were all part of our national security. Prior to that we passed a constitutional act as an attachment to the Constitution that specifically forbade joining any kind of post-soviet union. Together with the law on national security, this act we now call the “little Constitution” because to change it, it will need a constitutional majority of voices in the legislature.
What political factors do you see today as working in favor of Ukraine joining NATO?
— I might surprise you, but I would say Putin. Unfortunately, people have died and considerable losses continue to this day. But who was able to change the situation in Ukrainian society the most? The Kremlin. Its attack on Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and what’s going on in the eastern part of the country to this day, where Russia has effectively occupied this region — all these events led to major upheaval in Ukraine. Most people understood who was who, which hadn’t been the case before. For the Alliance, the main thing is that the people want to join. If this will isn’t there, no one will take them in without their wishes. This
is a democratic state and NATO is a democratic institution. The fact that we see nearly half of Ukrainians wanting membership is having a serious impact on politicians in the Alliance who are monitoring the situation. Reforms are also important, of course. Some people seem to think, oh, so we reformed out Armed Forces, security bureau and other security bodies and that’s enough. This is clearly part of the criteria for joining NATO, but the entire country joins NATO, not just the Defense and Foreign Ministries. Issues around corruption, the economy, and the way the political system works also have to be resolved. Without this, membership is impossible. If you have a ready army but lack a democratic system that functions properly so that people can come to power from election to election in a democratic manner, nothing will happen. Time is currently in your favor. Ukraine only submitted an application for membership a few years ago. Lithuania joined NATO 11 years after it first applied. My advice would be this: worry less about whether you will be accepted or not and when. Do everything that is necessary, as though you already had the Membership Action Plan. Work so that, when the day comes, everyone will see that you are completely prepared. Like Finland and Sweden. They aren’t members of NATO. Of course, someone can point out that the situation is very different there and it would be inappropriate to compare Sweden to Ukraine. But I deliberately chose this example. Today their standards are such that in some cases they are higher than what the Alliance requires. And so if these countries apply, they will be accepted literally the next day, because they are ready and are already very active in NATO’s military exercises. Putin helped them understand this.
In March, NATO recognized Ukraine as an aspirant country. How has this affected political dialog?
— Clearly, the acceptance of a country into NATO is primarily a political decision. Country legislatures actively influence this process, which is why every member has to ratify the agreement. This means the role of parliaments is too high. I would say, quite frankly, that not all NATO members see membership for Ukraine and Georgia the same. This depends a lot on the political forces in a given parliament. To change this situation requires serious effort. Indeed, your latest delegation has worked very well, as I can compare it to previous delegations. For instance, you were able to get an agreement to hold a NATO PA session in Kyiv in 2020, which will bring together delegates from all member countries, including those with associated status. Several hundred people will get together who are responsible for security in Europe and North America. This is a key event. The very fact that your delegation was able to persuade others to hold the session in Ukraine speaks a lot, because some were saying that it wasn’t worth annoying Russia, that it was premature and could give out the wrong message — that Ukraine will soon become a member. However, when we held such a session in Lithuania in 2001 with the NATO PA, we also weren’t a member, but three years later, we joined. I’m not saying that the same will necessarily happen with Ukraine, but there’s no reason not to think in that direction as this is one of the steps forward. The legislature, the Government, NGOs and the people themselves are all responsible for getting Ukraine into NATO. Above all, the state itself. It’s time to reject the idea that reforms need to be done for the sake of the Alliance and not first of all for your country.
How might the dispute between Ukraine and Hungary be resolved, given that it affects dialog with NATO?
— I was among the parliamentarians — and we were the majority — who signed the letter to Hungary’s legislature. In it, we said that we had difficulty understanding why issues between two countries were being used as instrument to prevent Ukraine from joining the Alliance and to block negotiations with the Ukrainian side. As far as I know, many delegations in the PA also don’t support Hungary’s blocking of contacts at the ministerial and presidential levels. This is definitely not normal. Of course, the Hungarians can have their own views on language, and Ukrainians theirs. But these kinds of issues should be raised at the intergovernment level, which is how other countries have handled such situations, for instance, Poland. Poland also has minorities that live in Ukraine and there are some issues, but they resolve them at the bilateral level. We at the NATO PA will try to mediate so that the Ukrainian and Hungarian delegations can get together at the next session in Halifax in Canada. Your delegation wants to initiate such a meeting. The situation somewhat resembles the situation with Macedonia, which has long been ready to accede, but Greece kept vetoing a decision.
What is your strategic view of the prospects for a future expansion of NATO?
— If Macedonia manages to resolve the issue of its name, it won’t have any problems acceding to NATO. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also an applicant country. However, some disputes have come up between the Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs, and opinion is divided. I also think that NATO will be pleased to accept Finland and Sweden, if this decision were to come up. After the annexation of Crimea, five Swedish parties have changed their platforms and added the intention to join the Alliance. That’s quite the breakthrough in the thinking of a people that has maintained neutrality for 200 years. A similar process has taken place in Finland. Also recall, for instance, that Georgia is no less ready, in terms of meeting all the criteria, than Montenegro, but, of course, Russia has arranged territorial obstacles. Still, I think this depends largely on the political will on both sides, meaning Georgia and NATO. The problem is resolvable. We already have an example of such a situation in the Alliance: Western Germany belonged, while Eastern Germany was part of the Warsaw Pact. So if Georgia itself were to show a more imaginative approach to resolving its situation, it could be next. And, of course, there’s Ukraine. You are the newest aspirant and so, of course, it’s going to take time. Democratic elections have to be held, and it’s important that there’s no regression. That’s why many in the Alliance could be thinking, let’s see who they pick, because someone could come who turns around and says that Ukraine doesn’t need NATO. Politicians are discussing this, watching the situation evolve, waiting. Mainly this means changes to the Constitution: will they happen or won’t they? They’re waiting for the outcome of the elections to see who comes to power: will we see similar declarations and work on the necessary changes? It’s not about left or right parties. For the EU, it’s completely clear that reforms need to keep going in order to join the Union. The same is true for NATO. If Ukraine moves away from this course, more problems will come up. To wrap things up, I’d like to just say one thing: I’m in Ukraine to thank you. We are grateful to the people who are maintaining the country’s defense on the eastern front. You are protecting u. Not everyone in the European Union and NATO seems to understand this. But I feel this very strongly and want to express thanks on behalf of myself personally and the Lithuanian people.