Dutch businessman Arno Klijbroek is the founder and owner of ATM Trade management. He had been living in Ukraine since he was 24, in 1997, and then decided to set up his own company in Ukraine in 2000. In this interview, he tells about his times during Euromaidan, how the Association Agreement impacts Dutch business, and why he would vote yes in the referendum. This is an abridged version of an interview given to Ukraine Today.
In 2000, Klijbroek realized that lots of things were just about to happen in Ukraine and decided to start a company of his own. Over more than 15 years, the company has been providing legal and practical support to foreign investors on Ukrainian market, with quite good success. Was investing in Ukraine in 2000 a wild shot? Partly – at the time there were fewer foreign companies in Ukraine than there are now, but Ukraine was very much in the spotlight as one of the countries that just had opened up for business, so there was lots of interest from them. Most of the clients of ATM Management are Dutch companies that want to enter into the Ukrainian market, and they have had very good business from the year it was founded, especially until 2010, when the now disgraced Yanukovych came to power.
The company fared well through 4 presidents and 2 revolutions
From 2000 to 2016, Ukraine went through the presidency of Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and now Poroshenko. As well as the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Euromaidan in 2013-2014. Until 2008 things went pretty well, but 2010 to 2013-2014 were the most difficult years. When Yanukovych became President in 2010 and started tightening the screws on businesses, the mood changed – it wasn’t clear where Ukraine was going, and new foreign investors were not coming any more. ATM Trade Management survived because of a stable client base, but others had to close. Mr.Klijbroek considered having to move out of the country, but didn’t: “Since I invested so much of my life into Ukraine, what made me stay is a desire for Ukraine to see the growth, also to get through this period. I’m very glad that we stuck through and at the moment we’re moving ahead again and for the time being we will definitely be here.”
After the victory of Euromaidan and election of a pro-Western government, the trend is positive again, Mr.Klijbroek told: “Starting from last year, we see a positive dynamic again, that people are actively approaching us, that they want to go ahead again. We had progress, some foreign investors are ready to invest in Ukraine, we’re working with the few new companies now, and they’re step by step coming into Ukraine again.”
When the Euromaidan protests just started, his first emotion was pride for the Ukrainian people: “I very well remember the first demonstration – there was the first march of the millions where probably really about a million people flowed through the center and made it clear that enough is enough. This is what everybody wanted to see long before, but before that time people were afraid. And at that point people got rid of their fear and took their destiny to their own hands from that moment almost. I’m really amazed by how people start through for three months and managed to get rid of the second biggest dictator in the Eastern Europe.”
Even when times got rough and Euromaidan activists were being killed on the streets, he never thought of leaving the country and went to the demonstrations together with the family. “We were living through it day by day, and like many people in Kyiv concerned with how we could help these people by small logistic aid or by collecting money to provide medical supplies or things like that, not about leaving.”
Watch the whole interview:
Business in Ukraine possible only by bribes – a misperception
Unfortunately, Ukraine is a country plagued by corruption. But ATM Trade Management always steered away from it.
“Our policy has always been and also our advise to our clients has always been to steer clean from it. My personal experience is that being able to do business in Ukraine only by bribe is a misconception – it is definitely not the case. However, because of the bureaucracy, it has always taken more time to get through the different procedures that exist. Many of our clients have developed successful businesses and stayed clear really as much as possible of corrupt practices. But it’s mostly matter of taking time and not wanting to rush things.”
For his friends in Holland, Ukraine was Russia
“I go back to Holland regularly so people would say Ok, you’re back from Russia! No, sorry, it’s Ukraine.
For many people in Holland, the Soviet Union that ended, Russia, and the different independent states that emerged are sort of a blur. not a very clear picture. However, nowadays more people realize that Ukraine and Russia are two different countries. Now, when people visit him in Kyiv, they are all pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere, daily life, and people they met.
Association Agreement already boosts business operation
Starting from 1 January 2016, certain provisions of the Association Agreement have come into force in Ukraine. Mr.Klijbroek says that it is positively impacting the business situation in Ukraine from the end of 2015 already. ATM Trade Management saw an influx of new clients that wanted to start new a business here or extend existing business. The Association Agreement is the major motor in that – it gives expectations that doing business will become more easy. All Dutch exporters are waiting for it, as it will be much cheaper and easier to export products to Ukraine.
Are there benefits for The Netherlands from the Association Agreement? It will make trading easier, and since Holland is a trading country, there will be many benefits. Until a few years ago when the economy was more or less functioning, export from Holland to Ukraine was over EUR 1bn. After Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed aggression in eastern Ukraine, export from Holland to Ukraine has dropped quite significantly. However, Mr.Klijbroek is sure that if Ukraine is allowed to develop normally and there is a stable economy and stable trade relationships, export from Holland to Ukraine will easily jump several hundred millions in quite a short period.
Referendum initiators know little about Ukraine or the agreement itself
As for the referendum that is to take place in The Netherlands on 6 April, Mr.Klijbroek does not support its initiators, who according to him are misusing the Association Agreement for their purposes. “The group that initiated this referendum is basically an anti-European group. These people claim to be pro-democracy, saying they want more of it. Of course, what the Association Agreement really does is promote democracy on a larger scale in Ukraine. It will help Ukraine develop democratically. Listening to the people that initiated this referendum, you would probably be surprised to learn that they proudly claim that they have never read the Association Agreement. Most of them have never been even in Ukraine.”
However, there is a positive note to referendum about the Association Agreement being held: Ukraine is in the news in The Netherlands for the last month, and there are also quite a lot of objective and positive news about Ukraine and the positive developments that are taking place. “I’m quite confident that the people that took a little time to understand what the Association Agreement is about and what Ukraine is going through would vote in favor for the Association Agreement. Also there are quite many people in Holland as well that don’t understand why there should be a referendum, they are very much bothered that it’s going to cost the Dutch taxpayers 40 million Euros and that could’ve been spent on many other good things,” Mr.Klijbroek noted.
Mr.Klijbroek encourages everyone to vote yes.
First of all, it’s good for Holland. Second, for trade reasons. It’s good for Ukraine because it really stimulates the development of the democratic institutions and normalization of legislation. I would say people also should understand what a no-vote would mean, basically, a support vote for Russia. And Russia is the country that is also responsible for the death of 200 Dutch people on an MH17 crash. I think that’s also very important for the Dutch people to understand that a No vote is basically a support vote for Putin. It will play in his cards and anybody that really understands this would find it very hard to ignore it as well.