Roman Waschuk: “Ukraine is seen as a victim, but it is competing and developing”

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What has Ukraine proved to be stronger in? Does the nationalization of enterprises affect the country's investment potential, how is our business restored, and what is the impact of the Ukrainian diaspora on Canadian politics? We discussed these questions with Roman Vashchuk - the Canadian diplomat of Ukrainian origin, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Canada to Ukraine in 2014-2019, and the business ombudsman.

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While in Kyiv, you came under two large-scale missile attacks.

Yes. I think it's more of an accident. I do not believe that Moscow pays much attention to my presence or absence.

But at that time, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency was also there. Maybe, that was related?

This allows for a much better understanding of the extremely difficult conditions in which Ukrainian businesses and government work now, when people need to go from the workplace to the shelter and back several times a day, even with interruptions in the power supply. It must be experienced, understood, and felt so that you can explain it to others.

What is your most vivid impression from this visit, what do you feel when leaving Ukraine?

I think everyone is getting used to the conditions of this war. There are people who left at the beginning of the war, and then, in the summer, came back when it became a little calmer. There are those for whom it may become more difficult and inconvenient to work in the winter, and they will move somewhere again.

I divide my time between Krakow and Ukraine. I am going to the congress of business ombudsmen in Warsaw, which will start on Saturday. But now, leaving Ukraine requires more time and endurance than before.

In 2019, when you resigned of your Ambassador duties, you held a very interesting speech saying that Ukraine is a complex country, and the Ukrainians themselves often don’t understand it. It’s very diverse, there are different people with various traditions and views. They speak different languages, go to different churches. This complicates understanding, in particular for representatives of the West. Have any points been added, has Ukraine become easier - or more difficult to understand?

One difficulty has been added. Recently, I spoke with one of my compatriots, who works for a Finnish organization here in Kyiv. She often has to explain to people in Helsinki that life in Ukraine goes on, and that the TV pictures they see, especially very dramatic moments, are not a complete picture of the daily life of Ukrainians. This week, by the way, I had a conversation with British specialists who said: "When we think about reconstruction, we proceed from the fact that nothing is developing in Ukraine now." I told them: "This is not true at all. There are certain sectors and firms that are developing well." At the conference of the Kyiv Economic Forum, it was said that in dollar terms, the IT sector of Ukraine increased by 13 per cent in the first nine months of this year. In a sense, as terrible as this war is, it forces people to be resourceful, and it becomes an existential question. This means that in some cases, innovation in the private sector or governance is accelerating compared to peacetime.

The difference between Ukraine and the peaceful world is that even people who are very sympathetic [of Ukraine] see it primarily as a victim. But it is an active subject who not only struggles but also develops in a certain way.

Perhaps, this is a problem of the general narrative that goes from official Kyiv to Ukrainian diplomacy, where we often present ourselves this way, is it?

This is always a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is necessary to show the atrocities that the Russian Federation perpetrates on the Ukrainian people, because this causes both sympathy and a willingness to help. And on the other hand - you can't bend the stick, so as not to leave the impression of victimhood. It seems to me that President Zelenskyi combines vulnerability and strength in his speeches. I think it should be done in the future.

As a business ombudsman, what do you think about the nationalization of large enterprises, such as "Ukrnafta", "KrAZ", and others, without looking at who their owners are? What is this signal?

War is an extreme time, and sometimes, one needs to make decisions that would never be made in peacetime. Such an extreme case is what happened secretly from Ukrainian citizens around "Motor Sich", where we see a number of very serious allegations not only of economic fraud, but also of state treason. In wartime, the state can seize production facilities for its defense purposes. It happened in different countries, and now it happened in Ukraine. Does it affect the overall investment potential of Ukraine? I think it doesn’t.

I was among the participants in the event organized by the American Chamber of Commerce, which took place in Ukraine half an hour after the alarm went off. The mood there was optimistic, with an eye on the future potential even as to how many firms could be revived, their capacities until mid-October. Of course, after the bombing of the infrastructure, it became more difficult. But I talked with representatives of companies that by October, they had already reached the production level of October in the previous year, while others were able to recover by 60-70 per cent. We saw the announcement that Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest is the first to invest 500 million US dollars in an investment fund designed to restore Ukraine's infrastructure. Therefore, I do not see that it has any incredible negative impact on the overall picture.

Do topics of corruption in Ukraine remain important and loud? For example, the fact that the infamous Vovk has been elected a judge of the District Administrative Court of Kyiv for the fifth time. Or the story about the head of the Dnipropetrovsk region's military administration, who spent one and a half billion of budget funds. These stories seem to have come from a parallel life, we don't want something like this now, during the war. We don't want to believe in “business as usual in the Ukrainian version”.

Being a business ombudsman and not a crime ombudsman, I will not comment on these individual cases. Instead, I will tell you what is the matter of the statements and complaints we receive from businesses. A certain "abnormal normalization" has taken place. Nearly from the beginning of the summer, when state bodies began to work, inspections were resumed. In some places, enterprises were “suspended” under both tax and law enforcement inspection. These are the norms that should not be returned. These are habits that must be abandoned during the current war situation.

Can Ukraine have problems with democracy because of these decisions? It is not known how long the war will last...

It is not worth hoping for the full flowering of basic democracy during a full-scale war. Projecting the fact that someone's good friend received some contracts and that this is the end of democracy in Ukraine is false logic. We see that there is room for discussion. There are some problems, and here the disconnection of three channels remains a stain on the media environment. Because there is no legal reason for disconnecting these channels from the T2 digital network. We appealed to various authorities about this. There is a problem of non-regulation of the "Unified Marathon" [joint news marathon of the Ukrainian TV-channels], which is allegedly the state’s project, but simultaneously a voluntary grouping of private and public broadcasters. Therefore, it requires the attention of lawmakers. And if some legislation is missing, then it must be adopted.

But returning to 2019 and your words, at such moments, Ukrainians do not understand that security issues are more important. Will it be relevant in the future?

Of course, safety issues are now in the first place.

In your opinion, did Ukraine sufficiently prepare for this war? Weren’t these circumstances not mitigated?

I think it was difficult for many to imagine such a war on such a scale. You know, I was a bit of Cassandra in Kyiv in January-February, but even for me, this was unexpected. Although I served in different countries and have a family history that should teach me something. One can always assume that it could've been done better. All Western neighbours, who are now close allies of Ukrainians, say that after an event or damage, a person suddenly becomes very wise. This, of course, can be discarded now. But from the way Ukraine got out of that situation, it is clear that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did prepare, they had plans for various possibilities, and the state structures managed to maintain control over the situation: after recovering, they continued to coordinate the defense of Ukraine.

Ukraine turned out to be more stable than everyone thought, right?

Yes, much more stable. This perception that it is a very fragile, dysfunctional country has been somewhat dispelled. I was interested to read on social networks how one economist, who was mostly in favour of privatization and liquidation of all state-owned enterprises, said: "You know, now I saw what “Ukrzaliznytsia” was doing in wartime. I come to the conclusion that sometimes, it’s not bad to have state-owned companies that can deal with things holistically." I suspect that if the Ukrainian railway was privatized and dismembered, as it is in some European countries, in Britain, for instance, - then it would have to be renationalized, as happened with "KrAZ" [Ukrainian truck constructing company] and other enterprises, in order to have a stable railway in wartime conditions.

What did this war show about Russia itself? Your parents were forced to emigrate from Ukrainian territory during the Second World War. Would you tell us a bit of your family story?

It shows that Russia and Russians are not evolving, but are stuck in the behaviour patterns from the middle of the Stalin era.

Sometimes it seems that they know how to degrade for several decades at once, they can have such "rollbacks".

If to go on a long excursion, my maternal grandfather Mykola was arrested by the Polish authorities in August 1939 during mobilization, and then imprisoned in Chortkiv. He was released when the Soviet troops entered on September 17 and the Polish authorities fell. He was warned: "Mykola, the Bolsheviks are already looking for you, you are on their list." Maybe they took over the list from the previous government - it isn’t known. Then he planned to flee to the West and tried to convince his lawyer colleague from the same County Union in the town of Buchach. Being a person of centrist, moderate views, he said: "Mykola, you were in Ukraine during the liberation struggle, you are a controversial person. And I was a prisoner in Italy. After all, they are not the Bolsheviks who were there 20 years ago.” He helped my grandfather get a car and go to the West. However, he himself stayed behind. A week later he was arrested and then shot.

Those who believe that the Bolsheviks or the nature of Russian imperialism have changed in 20s or even 90s are wrong.

Canadian volunteer Ustia Stefanchuk and I talked about the fact that we often have certain illusory ideas about Canada: it seems to us to be a better country, an "ideal Ukraine", where Ukrainians have an extremely high weight, and successful Ukrainians reinforce this impression. How influential is the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada? Khrystia Freeland can become the Secretary General of NATO, and this would be a very good sign for us. But what can it affect?

No country should be idealized. The mass resettlement of people to different countries continues - from Poland to Norway, Canada, or Australia. Living in other societies, people who were forced to leave realized what they lost in Ukraine. And also the fact that life elsewhere is not as beautiful, or idyllic, as they imagined it. This is a kind of reality test, and I think that because of such a test, many people began to appreciate Ukraine.

Is there an influential Ukrainian diaspora in Canada? Yes, it is, compared to other countries of the world. Does it fully control Canadian foreign and domestic policy? No, but no one would want any one national group to do that.

Read also: «This war exposes the truth about ourselves,» – Canadian volunteer Ustia Stefanchuk

Three or four weeks ago, I was at the Congress of Ukrainians in Canada in Winnipeg, where almost 500 delegates gathered. There were the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of International Development, the Premier of Manitoba, the mayor of the city, and various deputies. And this shows how seriously the federal government treats Ukrainians. So, the Ukrainian community is people who are reckoned with, but who cannot dictate to all other Canadians what and how they think. Of course, Canada, the Canadian government is not some branch of Ukraine.

How to bring back those people who left? How tragic is it for the Ukrainian economy, the further development of Ukraine after the war and victory? How to attract more specialists who were not born here, but could be useful due to their experience?

Ukraine must be comfortable, first of all, for the citizens of Ukraine themselves.

I am exaggerating a little, but until February 24, the social contract in Ukraine was as follows: the state exists for itself, so do the citizens. From time to time, they organize a revolution, the state tries to correct itself, but does not do it completely and begins to return to its previous condition. Such a social contract will be impossible after victory. Ukraine can no longer be a country that simply tolerates its own population on the basis that it has nowhere to go. Also, Ukrainians cannot be people who simply tolerate their state more than they actively influence it, because they have already shed so much blood for it, so many of them ended up abroad... 

In a word, Ukraine must be a magnet state that will attract its own citizens. Ukraine is now forced to compete for its own people. Some may say that it is scary, womder how it can be like this. But think about the period 2017-2021, when Ukrainian employers had to compete with other countries. This was the period of the greatest increase in salaries in Ukraine, even official ones, precisely because there was external competition. From such an angle, this situation can have a healthy effect on Ukraine, which must actively build itself, cling on and really become more attractive to its own citizens.

At the Kyiv Economic Forum, there was a session on the IT and high-tech sectors. There, the Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov said that the tax and organizational structure of "Diia City" should be attractive for businesses in this area. Representatives of large companies, in particular Lviv, confirmed that this is the most attractive tax and organizational structure in Europe, if not in the world. Ukraine must consciously make such decisions.

For you, what will be the victory of Ukraine in this war? Can we be an ordinary country in Europe, or are we doomed to be something more?

Such a dream was real a few years ago. I myself said that it would be ideal if Ukraine simply became a normal country. But because of this war, this phase will not happen in the coming years. After the victory, Ukraine will be a vanguard state in many ways, will combine the preservation of a certain level of democracy with a militant determination that is not typical for normal, calm Western and Central European countries. Unfortunately, this war cut off Ukraine's path to mundane calm normality. But due to accelerated economic and social processes, it created an opportunity for Ukraine to be breakthrough in some ways. People outside Ukraine, who take a closer look at this, break their stereotypes about this country and see a certain potential in it. In the future, they will learn from Ukraine, not come here to preach to Ukrainians what they should want or see.

Andrii Saichuk spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, translated by Vitalii Holich

Full or partial republication of the text without the written consent of the editors is prohibited and considered a violation of copyright.

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