Ambassador of France: Ukraine needs to make progress in the fight against corruption and the rule of law
An exclusive interview with Ambassador of France to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins for the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency:
Text: Nataliia Pushkaruk
- Recently President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed with President Emmanuel Macron France's assistance to Ukraine in obtaining a high-quality licensed vaccine against COVID-19. Can you please tell more details about it?
- First of all I would like to state that I am glad, as the French Ambassador to Ukraine, to observe that there are very good and friendly relations between President Macron and President Zelenskyy. They are of the same age, they are young, dynamic. Both of them are sincerely committed to reform their country. It is good that they have established in two years a very good personal relationship. The discussion you are referring to took place in usual exchanges of view. They are calling each other once every one or two months. It is not just normal discussion between heads of state; it is really a friendly one and long one. This recent conversation lasted one hour and a half. It is a lot for this level of responsibility. And this is a signal of high personal quality of feelings between our two heads of state.
Concerning the vaccine, it is true that presidents discussed this matter. We will do our best to respond to President Zelenskyy's request. You know the system: it [Editor’s note : the vaccine] goes through the EU. Therefore, President Macron has signaled Ukraine’s request to his colleagues from the EU, and we are waiting for a new global response to it.
It is a tough issue because as you know there is not enough vaccine everywhere, everyone is in need of vaccines. Anyway, we will do our best to respond to this legitimate request from President Zelenskyy in the context I have mentioned earlier.
- Do you support the idea that the EU should help countries of Eastern Partnership, in particular Ukraine, get the vaccine from COVID-19?
- Definitely, I do.
- More than a year has passed since negotiations of leaders in Normandy format. To your mind, is this format still alive? Whether it needs some change and involvement of other parties, for example the USA?
- On this matter, we have a very pragmatic approach. We try to follow this say: "do not fix it if it's not broken". Currently, the Normandy Format is the only one working, successful. It did not achieve all its goals, but at least it exists. It is functioning, for instance a meeting between the diplomatic advisors of the Format was supposed to take place on January 22, although it has been postponed because of the tragic fire in Kharkiv. One year ago in Paris we were satisfied by the results we got there.
- Some politics and experts say that Normandy Format isn't so successful as we expected. The real result of Paris summit was long term ceasefire. Of course it's very important, we understand it. But we don't see any progress in other issues for example political ones. Do you think that Normandy Format has a potential to solve this problem, to make progress in the future?
- Sometimes, we focus too much on the format, rather than on the substance. The lack of results (I can agree with this) is not a question of format. If you change the format it does not necessarily mean that you will get better results. Better results will be because there will be progress in the confidence and in the political will to make peace and to achieve the goals. It is not a question of format. If you break a thermometer, it will not help you to avoid fever.
There is a confidence between the four heads of states and the four advisors, they know each other very well. Mr Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, is very much involved, and together they have produced results. The ceasefire is the most important one. It was vital to stop the killings. The exchange of prisoners was another very important result.
Of course, it is not enough for one year, but at least it has produced some good results and important ones. Of course, if there are bеtter ideas we are open for discussion. However, it has to be proven that it will be better than the existing Normandy format.
- How do you assess the implementation of agreements of the leaders of the Normandy Four in Paris by Ukraine and by Russia?
- We are worried. We see that there is a lack of political will on some participants’ side to go further.
But we got a ceasefire. We see that Ukraine has done its part for example if you look at the opening of crossing points. I have been to Shchastia. Ukraine has done its homework but there is no reciprocity from the other side so they are not open yet, and this is a disappointment.
- To your mind, when a new summit of Normandy Four can be held? Don't you think that Russian president Putin deliberately plays for time for example until elections in Germany?
- I do not want to speculate on this kind of question. Our point is that we will convene a new summit if there is enough substance for it. At this very moment we do not consider that the situation allows it. My president is totally ready to participate in a new summit, there is absolutely no problem, he has already devoted a lot of time to the Normandy Format and he is ready to do more.
- Ukraine and Russia have different points of view on the main question - political exit from this conflict. Are there any signs that these points of view can get closer during this year? Do you see a silver lining in this issue?
- It is difficult to know this because we do not have the capacity to read President Putin's mind. From France's point of view, it is difficult to answer this question. It is better to ask president Putin himself. France is open, available, and if there is any breakthrough, we will join it and participate with pleasure if it is helpful.
- What do you think about the current situation in Donbas? Is this a frozen conflict or is it going to be frozen? What are the threats of freezing the conflict?
- I do not like this kind of concept because the meaning is not clear. We have seen in Nagorno-Karabakh that a frozen conflict can become “hot” in one day.
In Ukraine, the conflict is not frozen, and I do not know whether it would be better otherwise. For the moment, we are focusing all our efforts on reaching results within the Normandy Format and in the Minsk process. This is our main objective.
Maybe you know that my predecessor Ambassador Dumont is now one of President Macron’s diplomatic advisors. She visited Ukraine in December. She met with President Zelenskyy, and had a lot of other meetings. Ambassador Dumont is very much involved into the negotiations. She is working hard to obtain results for Ukraine and bringing peace to the region.
- Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov presented a bill on the state policy of the transition period. Have you already examined it?
- Currently, we are considering this draft law, both in Paris and in Kyiv. We also discuss it with our partners, in particular with Germany, to reach a common position. This is why I would prefer not to react now. A common reaction to this draft law will be out shortly.
- Ukrainian side prepared the "Plan of joint steps" for the Trilateral Contact Group which contains a proposal for a complete end to the conflict and demilitarization of certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions at the beginning of 2021 in order to create all the necessary conditions for holding local elections there on March 31. How do you assess its initiative? Do you think elections can be held there in the end of March?
- We very well understand Ukraine's concerns about this issue, which is of public interest. We share Ukraine's view that no election can be held until security conditions are secured. However, the goal must be to hold elections as soon as possible, as voting and ruling through elected bodies is a core condition of democracy.
- I'm sure you've heard about the idea of a free economic zone in the Donbas: do you think it is possible to implement it and do you see the real wish of Ukrainian authorities to realize this project?
- On this, we do not have a very firm point view. We are observing this initiative. Why not?
Maybe it sounds a little bit brutal, but I think this is not really our business. It is up to Ukrainians to decide the best solution for Donbas now and after the country is reunified. For sure, there will be a need for very strong financial support for this region to be developed because the economic situation there is dire and the needs are very important.
Speaking of Donbas, in a few weeks, mid-February, we will organize together with Sweden and with a French non-governmental organization named Acted, a seminar about the situation in this region from the environmental point of view. Indeed, we are concerned about the environmental situation over there – and not only. The pandemic makes it a bit more difficult to organize, but we do our best to hold this event anyway, in a mixt format, both online and in person. It will take place in Kyiv. The objective, with this discussion, is to advocate for coordinated efforts to improve the management of environmental risks in the region impacted by the conflict.
- What conditions should be provided by Ukrainian authorities so that international companies are able to come to this region and not be afraid to invest in it?
- Of course, security is important. But the issue is broader than that. If you want to attract a foreign investor to Donbas as well as to other parts of the country, you need to have progress in the fight against corruption and the rule of law. Indeed, these are the two main obstacles for foreign investors to come to Ukraine. These are very strong prerequisites for Ukraine: fight against corruption and rule of law. As a foreign company, you will never invest in a country where justice is not reliable or where you are not sure that your investment will be protected.
- How does France feel about the idea of Crimean Platform, initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and is your country ready to join it?
- It is a very interesting initiative. We of course are looking at it with great interest. We interacted with the deputy minister of Foreign affairs in charge Emine Dzhaparova. There are contacts between two ministries and we will have more, that is for sure because we have never recognized the situation in Crimea. We are also in contact with our EU colleagues on this issue and we are coordinating with them. It is something that we closely monitor from diplomatic point of view.
- To your mind what is the main goal of this platform: is it a place for discussion or should it be something else?
- For the moment, we are in a very preliminary phase. I have met Mrs. Dzhaparova several times, they've produced some ground papers about this initiative. So, they're under consideration in Paris and in Brussels. But it's not clear exactly at this very moment what is the purpose of this platform. My understanding is that it is a platform for discussion about political situation in Crimea. This is useful but for what purpose - it remains to be seen.
In principle we are supportive and to answer your question - yes, we will join it. But there's some need for clarification, obviously. The launch of this platform is supposed to take place on 23rd of August so we have some time.
- What do you think about the fight against corruption in Ukraine? Don't you think there's a lack of progress here?
- I must highlight my disappointment. And it is not only my disappointment, not the disappointment of France, it is the disappointment of G7 countries. I guess you follow our Tweets. It is clear that we are frustrated about the situation, in particular when it comes to the conflict around the Constitutional Court. It is also clear that we consider the ruling of October 27 as a major setback for Ukraine’s fight against corruption, because some important aspects of the legislation was put in danger, was removed, like the provisions on the criminal responsibility for wrong e-declarations, and the one defining the powers of the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption. We are concerned, and for the moment, we do not see enough progress.
- Mr. Ambassador, to your mind, why it happens? Why the fight against corruption isn't so successful in Ukraine?
- I think there are many reasons for that. Probably, there are some strong vested interests and it is difficult to remove the people at stake from power. Also probably, there is a lack of legal tools to push forward the reforms and lack of legal expertise. For example when laws are drafted they are not sufficiently well drafted to support the examination from the Constitutional Court. There is some lack of technicalities and we are ready to provide legal support. Anyway, our conclusion is that currently the situation is not satisfactory.
- Who is responsible for this: Ukrainian authorities, the President, government, Verkhovna Rada?
- I do not want to enter into a blame game. But I would say that some players of the judiciary and some oligarchs are the main obstacles for reforms at the moment. It is very difficult to reform a country if you do not have a clean judiciary with you.
I do think that president Zelenskyy is sincerely convinced of the need of reforms and that he is pushing in that direction. But there are some very big obstacles.
- What clear steps should be taken to overcome this crisis?
- It is a long way. You need a very strong political will. You need also very strong backing from the Rada, and sometimes it is lacking. And you also need the support of the international community, the G7 in particular and the EU. We will be supportive for example for the selection panel. We are ready to provide international experts to participate in those panels, to select competent and ethically adequate judges, prosecutors. We are ready to bring the technical expertise that I have mentioned before and to bring this support.
If we put it all together, - political will from the top, political support from Rada - things could change in the right direction. We need a new push to reinforce efforts, this is clear.
- The President's Office said that President Emmanuel Macron is going to visit Ukraine in the first half of 2021. When exactly can we expect this visit and what do you think about its significance?
- The principle of a visit is agreed, for as I have said there is a very good relationship between the two presidents and President Macron is very keen to come. President Zelenskyy confirmed several times the invitation.
There is a lack of visits at the highest level between our two countries. The last French President who officially visited Ukraine was Jacques Chirac, in 1998. It was a very long time ago. Therefore, there's a need for it. And there is a lot of substance for such a high level visit.
We do not have a date at the moment because of the pandemic. President Macron does not travel at the moment. He did not leave France since mid-December now. His last visit was to Brussels, not a bilateral one and not very far.
I want to be very prudent, but my expectation is that this visit could occur by the end of the first semester.
About the substance, there will be a lot to focus on. There are some very important bilateral programs: helicopters, patrol boats, locomotives, water plant facilities in Mariupol. We have some other projects in Luhansk area. This is just for economy. The cultural, scientific, university and linguistic part is a big one too.
I can tell you that if President Macron comes, he will be overloaded with projects and programs.
Political dimension will obviously also be at the core of a presidential visit.
- When will the contract for the purchase of cargo locomotives between Ukrzaliznytsia and the French company Alstom be signed? Is it ready to be signed during the visit of French president to Ukraine?
- It's an ongoing process, it's going well, in particular it got very good push during the last joint economic commission on last November 26 and 27 between Ukrainian Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov on the one hand and French Minister of the Economy, Finance and Recovery, Bruno Le Maire on the other hand. By the way it was a very successful meeting, even if it was online.
Yes, it is clear that if the President comes this agreement will be in the basket of his visit. If he is not coming we will try to find another occasion to finalize this contract.
At this moment the contract is not finalized, there are ongoing discussions, they are going well so far, fingers crossed. This contract in very important one because it's key for Ukraine to be capable to export its grain and for this you need to have electric locomotives to access European market.
- What exactly is provided by this agreement?
- It is a bit too early to say but what I can say is that's a major one. What I say is that this project will foresee the delivery by the French company Alstom of 50 to 80 multi-system electric locomotives to the Ukrainian Railways, Ukrzalyznytsia. These e-locos are planned to be deployed for operations on Ukrainian Railways’s major freight routes across the country.
There is a high element of cooperation, it's not only about locomotives. If it is finalized it's going to be a real and very strong partnership between France and Ukraine in this key area of rail transportation. Agreement will be supported by very important and interesting loan from the French Treasury, in accordance to OECD rules. So financial dimension is very significant. It is also a signal that Ukraine is important for France because we don't provide this kind of financial instrument for all countries because it's expensive for French treasury. We have provided this special loan because it's Ukraine and your country is an important partner for France.
- Ukrainian ambassador to France said that the cooperation with Alstom be expanded on construction of high-speed railway tracks between Kyiv and Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa. Is it going to happen?
- Yes, it also could be a part of a global package, and Alstom is already looking into this project..
France will not just sell. There're some partners who want just to sell their product and then they don't care. The French offer goes further, since we propose a share of localization, , maintenance, exchange of expertise, trainings and global package about speed railway between Kyiv and Odessa,. It is a comprehensive package. And also quality. Of course, we have some competitors in locomotives, probably you could get cheaper locomotives but not of the same quality and not part of the same package. This is the attractiveness of our comprehensive proposal.
- How is the contract with Airbus Helicopters SAS being implemented, how many more deliveries are planned?
- It is a good example of this kind of flexible programs that I've mentioned. Helicopters contract is going very well. We established very good and strong relationship with the Ministry of interior, client of Airbus. Now the contract is going full speed and this year 27 new helicopters are coming to Ukraine which is a big challenge. Because you can bring 27 helicopters but you need maintenance, place to stock helicopters, training for pilots and so on. It is easy to bring helicopters to Ukraine, but it is much more difficult to maintain them, , to train the pilots. This is very complex matter. And for Ukraine it's a change of culture because former culture in this sector came from the Soviet Union. Now it is going to the West, with new standards and new language, because it is moving from Russian to English. But of course these helicopters are more modern and efficient. With them Ukraine enters in the XXIst century.
My understanding (but you have to ask Mr. Avakov himself) is that Ukraine is very satisfied with helicopters received. And they will make a big difference for example in the fight against forest fires. With new helicopters, firemen will be much more efficient and stand for civil security for example when there's road accidents to bring people to hospitals. If you have good helicopters working days and nights that is making big difference for Ukraine and it can save lives.
- How is the project of joint construction of patrol boats with OCEA going on? Has the building of boats already started in particular at the Ukrainian enterprise Nibulon and when to expect the final results?
- Construction has started in France and started in Mykolaiv in Ukraine in December 2020. Deliveries will begin at the end of 2021. . This is a 136-mln euros project, receiving a financial support from the French government, through a loan of the French Treasury (40 million of euros) and Bpi France (76 million of euros).
Nibulon is a very impressive partner. It is a young company but with very good expertise. I was in Mykolaiv with Minister Avakov for the launching of this project, on July 22, last year. This project is very well on time. I am very sure it will also be successful. There are 20 patrol boats of 32 meters. They will bring new element of security for Ukraine because patrols are both for the rivers and the seas. Maybe you know that the structure is aluminum and this is very important element for technologies because it is lighter. As for the Helicopters, there are state of the art.
- Are there any plans to invest in a project to change the water supply system in the Popasnyansky district of the Luhansk region?
- On this we decided to go step by step. The first step was Mariupol water plant. Now it is launched and ongoing. We have decided to replicate the same kind of project in Luhansk region in Popasnyansky district. A consortium of companies was chosen in December last year. Also, there's huge delegation of 20 people from French companies to assist the project that will come in the coming days. They will go to Popasna for analyzing the situation.
It is a very complex issue because it is very close to the contact line, and you have to come and assess security situation. This is very important. We are having regular contacts with the governor of Luhansk Mr. Gaidai. He is very happy of the work we're doing. We have already granted a 64M EUR loan for the Mariupol project. In the Luhansk oblast, the envelope could amount to 70 M EUR.-
How is going on the work on an agreement on mutual recognition and exchange of driver's licenses? When the visit of the French expert mission is scheduled?
- Very soon. Next week, on January 29, we will have a meeting at the Ukrainian Ministry of internal affairs. It is a delicate matter, because of course we have to be confident that driving licenses are compatible with standards in the EU. This is why a technical assessment need to take place, and why a mission is coming soon.
- Mr. Ambassador, we are talking about successful projects now, successful cases of cooperation between France and Ukraine. Don't you think that these successful cases are only possible when some representatives of Ukrainian authorities, for example Minister Avakov or the President play the role of so called umbrella of the project?
- It is for you to say that. It is just a simple observation that we do work very well with Minister Avakov and his team, they are good interlocutors, they are professionals, and sometimes they push us to get responds. But in the end we can see the results with helicopters or patrol boats.
However, I do not want to mention only Minister Avakov, because for the water plant in Mariupol our interlocutors were Mr. Reznikov and his team. We have also established a very good relationship.
However, it is true that it helps when you have very strong professionals to discuss with.
But, of course at the very end the global supervision and the political input come from President Zelensky and Prime Minister Schmihal themselves. In particular, I am thankful to President Zelensky who devotes a close attention to this strategic partnership between France and Ukraine.