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“If there are ambitions to change the country, you just have to go ahead and do it.” Interview with Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal

Denys Shmygal

The recent visit of the Ukrainian high-level delegation to Brussels has been embraced by the leaders of the European institutions and the Members of the European Parliament.

Both prime minister Denys Shmyhal and vice-prime minister for European integration Olga Stefanishyna and their counterparts discussed the issues of deepening of the European integration of Ukraine as well as Russian occupation of Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, efforts to release political prisoners, and Crimean Platform initiative. And we used the opportunity, and talked to the Head of Ukrainian government.

Mr. Prime Minister, what specific steps has Ukraine taken on the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration in economic, political or, perhaps, some other areas during your tenure?

European integration is enshrined in the Constitution, so the path towards Europe is absolutely unwavering to us. Each of the reforms that we currently carry out in Ukraine — and there are more than 20 of them — is a specific step of Ukraine towards European integration. In particular, the launched projects include joint work within the framework of the Green Deal. We also started negotiations on the renewal of trade annexes to the Association Agreement. We signed an agreement on bus transportation, and this year we expect to sign the Common Aviation Area Agreement. In addition, we intensified the work on signing the Agreement on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products. Each of the ministers in our Cabinet has a deputy for European integration, and, therefore, we work systematically in all areas.

In your opinion, what have you failed to achieve? Is there a goal you have not reached yet, being in the process so far?

Everything we want to achieve and what was set as our goal is currently being implemented. Of course, Ukraine has very limited time to perform the work that took decades for other countries. I mean improving people’s lives, building new infrastructure, reaching a qualitatively new level of economic freedom and creating a favourable business climate. The work is being done in all these areas. We raise minimum wages, raise pensions, launch large-scale road construction and social infrastructure projects, implement all the necessary projects in order to enter the top 30 of the Doing Business Ranking. Of course, when achieving the goals, new ones emerge in this process. It’s absolutely natural. Ukraine changes every day. And it will change further, for the sake of Ukrainians.

The Government intends to deepen cooperation with Ukrainians living abroad. You have declared this intention repeatedly, and this is also a desire of the President of Ukraine. Could you tell us which specific mechanisms will be used?

Meetings with representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora are included in the program of almost every foreign visit of the Government team. Millions of Ukrainians live in foreign countries, and today they are the best ambassadors and promoters of Ukraine all over the world. Therefore, of course, we must keep in touch with the Ukrainian diaspora. By the way, I had a very fruitful and interesting meeting with the leaders of the Ukrainian World Congress in all countries, and we agreed that the UWC forum would be held in Kyiv on the 30th anniversary of independence. Of course, the interaction mechanisms are developed at the state level as well. One of them is drafting a concept of the state target program of cooperation with Ukrainians living abroad, in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy are involved.

An additional question. You spoke about drafting a concept of cooperation with Ukrainians living abroad. Could you share a rough estimate of when this concept should be ready? Did you set a deadline?

The concept must be presented in early May. This is the first step. Afterwards, it will be submitted for an in-depth discussion, including with the involvement of Ukrainians living abroad, and then set forth in a relevant program.

My next question concerns vaccine passports. Ukraine announced that it would support the initiative for the introduction of vaccine passports if the EU countries or the EU itself introduces such passports. Mr. Liashko [Chief State Sanitary Doctor of Ukraine] said that Ukraine would not introduce vaccine passports but it would issue certificates, international certificates of vaccination that already existed before. We see that the WHO’s position and the position of the EU are diverging. But what is your position on this issue? And if Ukraine still introduces such passports at the request of the EU, won’t this step contradict the visa-free travel regime terms? If the EU introduces vaccine passports, how is the visa-free regime ensured for Ukrainians who will not be vaccinated?

I do not see any threats to the visa-free travel regime. The regime is in effect, and we also touched on this topic during our visit to Brussels. Ukraine is ready to introduce vaccine passports in any form. If it is an electronic form, we have a state register of vaccinated people. Based on this register, it will now be possible to obtain an international certificate of vaccination very quickly. That is why we will now follow closely and listen to the consolidated position of Europe and the world. We are ready for any scenario, because we understand that the coronavirus is a difficult challenge, and we need to look for new approaches.

Will Ukraine require citizens of other countries to show such passports or certificates?

I will answer the same way: we will focus on the experience of European countries, as well as consider the recommendations of international institutions. The coronavirus pandemic has affected the whole world, so we must all work together to find best practices on how to overcome it and return to normal life.

The next question is quite difficult, in my opinion. International experts and MEPs talk about the Ukrainian government’s inaction in the fight against corruption. How can you, how can we dispel these fears? I will add that my personal experience shows that now there are very few people in Brussels who support Ukraine, and we were very pleased to see so many messages and so many meetings when you came to Brussels! It seems to me that the prime minister of no other country has received as much attention as you have during this COVID-19 period! And it was very nice to see that. However, in everyday life, we see that Ukraine is still not mentioned very positively when speaking about the fight against corruption, if it is mentioned at all. They switch over to Belarus, to Navalny, and the issue of Ukraine is forgotten and closed. How can we hold attention?

Thank you for this. We actually fostered much effort to make this visit really intensive and successful. Regarding the fight against corruption, institutional changes, which should create conditions under which corruption will be simply impossible, are important to us. Here are three factors indicating that our Government takes a more active approach to this problem than was taken before: 1) Reducing the share of the state authorities in the economy. In 2020, we had a very successful start of “small-scale privatization” when the budget received more funds than over the previous two years combined. This year, we have a “large-scale privatization” planned, which will help to ensure that even a possibility of corruption is eliminated completely. All international and domestic experts say this will be one of the biggest anti-corruption steps. 2) Creating market conditions and markets. We are the first Government that really started working systematically on the issue of setting up energy markets. In the second half of 2020, the gas market for households was launched in Ukraine. For 30 years, politicians were afraid to do that, partially because they were interested in the absence of such markets for various reasons. 3) Carrying out digitization and deregulation. When businesses or citizens do not come into personal contact with officials, it always reduces the opportunities for corruption. We are actively digitizing all services. Everything becomes open and transparent. This applies to auctions, licenses, registers, etc. In addition, it contributes to the fact that citizens and businesses no longer need such a large number of paper certificates, the issuance of which often carries corruption risks. This year, Ukraine plans to completely switch over to a paperless format when officials will no longer be able to demand any information in physical paper forms.

I want to thank you for this list because we will try to convey this information as well. The last question. Your personal experience: what have you learned as a manager, as a person, as a professional over the past year? What advice would you give to young people who have ambitions to change the country?

If there are ambitions to change the country, you just have to go ahead and do it. You do not wait for someone to do this.

Of course, last year was difficult. The pandemic, the war with Russia — both military and hybrid — and reforms that must continue against all odds. In addition, we had floods, droughts and a pandemic.

So, the year was difficult. Of course, it teaches us that we must fight for our state and people. This is a unique chance when the President, the Government and the majority in the Verkhovna Rada work as a whole. It is very important that today there is only one desire to make a breakthrough — a breakthrough in the fight against corruption, the development of our state and infrastructure, increasing living standards, and in the achievement of an objective that Ukraine should be in the family of the European Union states.

Marta Barandiy, editor in chief of Brussels Ukraїna Review

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