Despite all the obstacles on the part of aggressive Russia, which defiantly rejects all European values, Ukraine is confidently walking the path of European integration. In particular, our country is represented in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At this platform, Ukraine is constantly raising topical issues related to the temporary occupation of Crimea, the loss of control over its territories in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the murder of human rights defenders and much more.
In January, the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was headed by Maria Mezentseva. In an interview with Kateryna Bratko for the Brussels Ukraїna Review journal, she spoke about the adoption of the resolution “Human rights violations committed against Crimean Tatars in Crimea,” which is extremely important for Ukraine. Also, with the proactive participation of our delegation, our country has finally ratified the Protocol on Ukraine’s accession to the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe, an international initiative to combat drug abuse.
Мs. Mezentseva, you are the head of the Permanent Delegation of the Verkhovna Rada to the PACE and you are in favour of changing the approaches and strategies of Ukraine. How do you see them in such a difficult time for our country?
We must clearly realise that temporary occupation, loss of control over our territories, and killing of defenders are our sore points. Therefore, it may seem that Ukraine raises only the issue of punishing Russia. In fact, this is not the case. The issue of Russia is a matter of the values and foundations of the Council of Europe, which has been daringly undermined over the past 70 years. It is also a matter of promoting democracy and human rights, vaccination and the environment, sustainable development and displaced persons. That is, there are many problems that are relevant to us.
One of the promising tracks in the works may be the issue of gender equality. In order to complement a number of Ukrainian achievements in this area, a campaign for ratification in the parliament of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, signed in 2011, will be held. We have already held a number of initiatives, round tables, negotiations, and so on.
Our delegation is also reviewing a number of initiated, but not completed, initiatives. Therefore, with the proactive participation of our delegation, Ukraine has finally ratified the Protocol on Ukraine’s accession to the Pompidou Group of the Council of Europe, an international initiative to combat drug abuse.
The participation of Ukrainian experts in the work of the Group will facilitate the creation and implementation of programmes for addiction treatment, care and rehabilitation of people with substance abuse disorders, as well as the exchange of information on trends in drug trafficking and use. I will only add that Ukraine has been working on completing the procedure for joining this institution for almost 10 years, and we have succeeded.
How would you describe Ukraine’s new approach to working in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the fight against Russia?
Russia was “returned” to the PACE for dialogue, as we all remember, but this is not happening. Instead, Moscow claims through its representatives that it thumbs its nose at the opinion of this internationally respected institution, in fact, the first pan-European parliamentary assembly in the post-war period. Therefore, the main thing for us is to constantly keep the issue of Crimea and Russian aggression on the agenda. We remain at the outpost of Ukrainian interests. The resumption of contacts with the Russian Federation, as well as attempts to establish cooperation, as they claim, is possible only after the return of all occupied territories to Ukraine, demilitarisation, and payment of fair compensation.
Separately, I would like to note that almost every statement addressed to them, to which each of the parliamentarians is entitled, is considered “offensive” and is disputed by representatives of the Russian delegation. In other words, they write “slander” and “denunciations” against members of the Ukrainian delegation. We are trying to respond to this with reasonable methods, but the last time, when the head of the Russian delegation, Petr Tolstoi, allowed himself to declare that all Ukrainians who disagree with their position and have patriotic sentiments “should be hung on lanterns” we, according to the Code of Conduct for members of the Parliamentary Assembly, sent a relevant, thoroughly legally worked out complaint to the President of the Assembly. It is currently being considered.
So, what are the main messages the Ukrainian delegation intends to convey to the PACE?
The main message is our proactive foundation: Ukraine is for the Council of Europe and the PACE, and not vice versa. The Russian Federation was “returned” to the PACE for the sole purpose of conducting a dialogue and trying to persuade it to adhere to the basic values enshrined in the Statute of the Council of Europe (Article 3). However, their cynicism lies in the fact that they do not cooperate with the Assembly and the problems covered by monitoring are not resolved. Instead, they believe that their restoration of rights is permanent, and they celebrate it.
Relations with Russia are the pain of the Ukrainian people. What results has our delegation to the PACE already achieved in this direction?
The most important thing we succeeded with in the last session was the adoption of the resolution “Human rights violations committed against Crimean Tatars in Crimea”. The Ukrainian delegation has done an incredible job of consolidating support for this issue among European parliamentarians and received it. The resolution says that since 2014, Russia has been temporarily occupying Crimea, which is part of the territory of Ukraine. Crimean Tatars experience serious violations of their rights; face killings, torture, and inhuman treatment. The work of journalists and the freedom of speech and assembly are unjustifiably restricted.
The document reaffirms that the international community does not recognise the attempted annexation of Crimea, and that Russia must be held accountable for gross mass human rights violations committed in the territory under its de facto control.
Cooperation with Belgium is also important for Ukraine. Maybe we need to remind Europe about the occupation of part of our territory more often?
As Co-Chair of the Parliamentary Friendship Group with Belgium, I would like to note that our relations are at a high level.
Belgium supports Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, as well as its path to European integration. Since the beginning of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine on 23 February 2014 and the subsequent occupation of part of Ukrainian territory, Belgium has consistently supported all phases of restrictive measures imposed by the European Union on Russia. Belgium provides humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons in Ukraine and participates in the financing of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. Their representatives work in the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.
Recently, with our active participation, Ukraine and the Kingdom of Belgium signed a memorandum of understanding on the protection and reproduction of water and the rational use of water resources.
With this document, the Belgian side confirms its readiness to transfer the Belgica research vessel to Ukraine free of charge. The 1984 vessel is in good condition and has unique, built-in equipment such as high-precision echo sounders. The memorandum provides for strengthening cooperation between Ukrainian and Belgian scientists on the joint study of the Black Sea, in particular the problem of raising the level of hydrogen sulfide. At the same time, the Belgian side invites Ukrainian experts to join the research work in the North Sea.
We also have ideas for strengthening cultural cooperation between our countries.
Angela Merkel has stepped down as chancellor. Do you think that relations between Germany and Ukraine will require transformation in this regard?
Germany really wants to see a stable, democratic and economically successful Ukraine, which is why their government has given us such a high level of support. Since 2014, Germany has provided Ukraine with a total of more than EUR 1.8 billion. This country is one of our most important trade and investment partners. They are the second largest supplier of Ukrainian imports and a key market for our exports.
After leaving the political life of such an important figure as Angela Merkel, who ruled one of the most powerful EU countries for 16 years, I believe that Ukraine should build harmonious relations with all its possible successors now and clarify its position on controversial issues to them. The focus of this reorientation must be more decisive than deepening Ukrainian relations, not only with the German government but also with a large political elite, industrial companies, and civil society. Also very revealing in this regard is a quote from a very important study conducted by Ukrainian analysts from the New Europe Centre: “The first step would be to audit the existing toolkit, i.e. to assess and possibly update the tools, frameworks or sectors related to Kyiv’s assistance received from Germany since 2014. The second recommendation would be to establish a high-level communication platform to maintain a permanent political dialogue on many aspects of the relationship.”
Recently, you, together with delegates from different European countries, visited Kherson, Crimean entry/exit checkpoints, met with the families of Crimean Tatars and internally displaced persons. What conclusions did the delegates make after this visit?
The main thing is that our international colleagues, both for themselves and for the whole world, have reaffirmed: Crimea is Ukraine. They visited two checkpoints. They saw that since 2019, the Ukrainian authorities have been able to build a modern Administrative Services Centre, providing more than 70 digitalised services, assessed the process of crossing, because now the Kalanchak entry/exit checkpoint can serve 2,500 people per day. They once again realised that this is the only legal way to Crimea, which can also be done by Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe Dunja Mijatović. Although we have been hearing about the obstacle on the part of Russia for two years, the crossing is completely open and she could have seen with her own eyes the flagrant violations of human rights on the peninsula. We are upset that this is not happening.
It was very important for our colleagues to communicate with journalists, representatives of the Crimean Tatar people, and students from the peninsula who study on the mainland. Everything they heard is already contained in the June resolution. That is completely true!
What impressed them the most?
Probably, the guests were most impressed by the personal stories of the Crimean people. They listened to them with bated breath. Let me remind you that after the occupation of Crimea by Russia, the security forces regularly carry out searches on the peninsula and detain activists and journalists. The invaders are especially aggressive towards members of the Mejlis, which is considered a banned organisation. People are very often accused of a fictitious article on terrorism, which the occupation authorities have made synonymous with freedom of thought, expression, use of their native language, and the like.
So, they got the emotions. They heard that Crimea lacks information about what is happening in Ukraine and in the world in general. We remembered once again how it all began.
It was very important to attend the Crimea Platform forum together with the presidents, ministers, and dignitaries.
Kyiv has already hosted the largest international event since Ukraine’s independence, the Crimea Platform forum, despite the fact that Russia has repeatedly protested against it being held. This is not surprising, because the forum discussed ways to return the peninsula annexed by Russia. What results have been achieved at this forum?
The official launch of the Crimea Platform was a historic and important day. The Verkhovna Rada finally passed important bills “On Indigenous Peoples” and repealed the discriminatory law “On the Crimea Free Economic Zone,” which also aroused a wave of emotions in Russia and beyond.
The international community has loudly stated that no one will put up with the established order on the peninsula and that Russia is the only one responsible for the occupation. This was evidenced by the powerful statements of delegates from 46 countries at four discussion panels, and the work will continue in the following areas: strengthening the international policy of non-recognition of Crimea; imposition of sanctions; counteracting human rights violations; ensuring the safety and freedom of navigation; and overcoming the economic and environmental consequences of the occupation, because the nature of the peninsula is simply being destroyed.
The Crimea Platform Telegram channel has even been created to inform more widely about all achievements, plans and opportunities. We should not forget about the most important humanitarian aspect and the large number of those illegally imprisoned in Crimea, missing persons and those awaiting the verdicts of Russian courts. All these stories have specific names. Human rights activists and lawyers are working with them and, of course, we all hope that they will be released soon!
Ukraine’s relations with Belarus are also difficult. Do our country’s diplomatic relations with this neighbour, which so actively supports aggressive Russia, require a revision?
We are trying to be active on this issue in the international arena, like in the PACE, for example. It was our delegation that actively promoted several resolutions on Belarus, as well as the creation of a special commission on events observed since the presidential election, and, after the forced landing of the Ryanair plane with the activist Roman Protasevich on board last May, participated in the debate on this topic, and actively promoted amendments to the files. The delegation even had a conversation with Ms. Tsikhanouskaya. The revision of relations is definitely needed. A real humanitarian catastrophe is ripe in Belarus, which has already caused waves of migration to the Baltic states and Poland. We will discuss this at the next PACE session. I would also say that Russia has found a haven for military exercises, various tactical plans, and potential control over a wider part of the border with Ukraine via Belarus, so we need to keep our finger on the pulse.
The pandemic has made adjustments in everyone’s life. What have you had to change in your life?
You know, being sick with the Delta coronavirus right now and having a little more time for sleep, books, in general for myself, I was once again convinced that health is the main thing, and if you don’t take care of yourself, nobody else will! The coronavirus has changed the life of the planet. Whenever we plan a trip or a large-scale international conference, the first thing we think about is restrictions. The world has definitely changed and we need to get used to the new reality. For me, the beginning of the pandemic was a time of manifestation of humanity, well-coordinated teamwork (when we were looking for the first ventilators, oxygen stations, masks and gloves), and total control of our actions. As for the Verkhovna Rada, we have more time for work.
KATERYNA BRATKO, FREELANCE JOURNALIST, OBSERVER, INTERVIEWER