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Are Italians anti-Ukrainian? An interview with Ukraine’s ambassador to Italy

Yevhen Perelyhin, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Italy,
Article by: Serhiy Sydorenko
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an unofficial  list of the five to six countries of the European Union whose positions on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict are the most dangerous for Ukraine. Italy is near the top on the list. With the third largest economy in the EU, Italy is known for its pro-Russian sentiments. In Italy’s parliament there are two powerful parties that openly oppose Ukraine’s rapprochement with the EU, and in Italian media there are references to “Ukrainian Nazis.” Italy’s consulate in Kyiv is considered among the toughest.

However, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Italy, Yevhen Perelyhin, does not consider the situation catastrophic and is trying to do the impossible. It should be noted that he often succeeds.

European Pravda met with Perelyhin in Rome late last week during the NATO conference on hybrid threats. He was preparing the Kyiv visit of the Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni, scheduled for Tuesday, May 5. At the same time, the ambassador was forced to “handle” the scandal connected with the declaration by an  Italian  official who announced the imminent suspension of sanctions against the Russian Federation.

We discussed these issues and examined the question of how the son of former premier Alexei Azarov managed to conceal property in Italy and why the Ukrainian embassy is involved in litigation regarding the property of Arkady Rotenberg, one of Putin’s closest friends.

We began the conversation with questions about the inexplicable delay in Rome’s ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Two thirds of EU countries have already ratified the Association Agreement with Ukraine in their parliaments. A few have ratified it in one of the chambers. Only six countries, including Italy, have not conducted any voting on the agreement. What is the problem?

Italians say they have a more complex procedure than other countries, but the reasons are not convincing. In fact, the Italian government has taken a very long time to prepare for the ratification of the package of association agreements — with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia. We have repeatedly reminded them that as early as last October the prime minister had promised to do this quickly. Finally, at the end of February and the beginning of March, the government completed its part and submitted it to parliament, but parliament has not considered it yet because it has other domestic priorities. In Rome there is the issue of distrust of the government. The ruling party could split, and finally there is the problem of migrants from the South.

In fact, Italy’s position right now is this: they say they will “not be the last” (to ratify the Agreement with Ukraine ). Well, we would like to believe that. I expect that before the summer holidays, that is before August, Italy’s parliament will complete the procedure.

In Ukraine, Rome is generally viewed as a pro-Russian capital.  A prime example is the announcement by the Italian government official who opposed the extension of the sanctions (against Russia).

He said something that was even much worse; he announced that the refusal to extend sanctions is the government’s position. This is why immediately after that declaration I directed all diplomatic efforts to Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we had several very specific questions: most notably, since when does a mid-level official get to change the official government position and why such statements are made on the day of the Ukraine-EU summit, at a time when the EU is announcing a different position. As you know, I received an answer: The MFA confirmed that sanctions will remain in force and that they are linked to compliance with the Minsk agreement. However, similar statements have been made from time to time. Unfortunately, the issues of Ukraine and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine have become instruments of internal struggle between the parties and a tool for attracting voters.

We can draw an analogy  with the NATO question in Ukraine. For many years communists and others exploited this issue, frightened people and mobilized their electorates. Unfortunately, in Italy a few foreign policy issues — especially the Ukrainian ones — have also become instruments of internal political struggle. Two powerful parties are against the existence of the European Union itself — the Lega Nord (Northern League), which has dozens of deputies in the European Parliament as well as the national parliament, and the Five Star movement, which has gained 20% during the most recent national elections.

Both the right-wing and left-wing radicals are opposed to Ukraine’s membership in the EU and against the Europe’s rapprochement with the US.

And what is wrong with America?

They say that the transatlantic cooperation (including the US-EU transatlantic free trade agreement) will result in imperialists absorbing Italy’s national identity. I’m not joking, that’s what they say. When I came to work in Italy I had the impression that I had returned to the USSR during the period of perestroika, where everything was raging, where there was freedom of speech but the old symbols had not gone away. “Imperialism,” “Americans,” the idea that the EU undermines sovereignty and that’s why we need to leave it, and so on.

But this means that in society there is a demand for this rhetoric, that society is largely pro-Russian or even anti-Ukrainian.

Pro-Russian sentiments exist, certainly, but anti-Ukrainian ones definitely do not. There is no equivalence between these two concepts.

And in order to understand the source of the pro-Russian sentiments, it is important to remember how tied Italy has been to Russia, to the Soviet Union and even to tsarist Russia. It is enough to remember that the Italian energy company ENI has worked with the USSR since 1955. The first gas that the Soviet Union exported to Western Europe was to Italy, in 1969. The first car factory in Tolyatti (also known as Togliatti, a city in Samara Oblast, in Russia — Ed.), if you remember, was built by Italians… I’m not talking about distant history, about the fact that embassies have been opened as early as in the XVII century (the area reserved for the residence of the Russian ambassador is larger than the Vatican area — EP).

Based on these ancient and well-developed relations between Italy and Russia, a certain portion of society wants to have very friendly relations with what they now call the “new Russia.”

Don’t you thing that at some point Italy will revise its official position on sanctions?

No, I would not even consider such a thing. The official position and my contacts do not allow us even to assume theoretically that Italy, which up to now has faithfully carried out its agreements at the level of the G7, NATO and the EU, would now abandon them.

And this was confirmed a few days ago at the meeting between President Obama and (Matteo) Renzi in Washington. Italy is the only country in Europe that has seized and frozen the assets and real estate of Putin’s friend Rotenberg and has seized assets of Alexei Azarov, the son of the former prime minister of Ukraine.

Six properties of Rotenberg have been seized — in Sardinia, in Lazio and Rome. Although Rotenberg’s attorneys have now sued the Financial Guard (police force responsible for enforcing financial laws — Ed.) and the Ministry of Finance of Italy, the pre-trial process is taking place. Ukraine is a third party in this trial, so that is why I’m informed about it.

In the fall of 2014, land properties and real estate were seized from Alexei Azarov. During 2012-2013 they had been acquired by the Italian Agosto 2012 company, which is associated with Azarov’s Austrian companies. Therefore, Italy is demonstrating in practice that it is willing to act within the framework of EU’s sanctions agreements.

However, there is another potential threat, and it should be taken into account. It was discussed today at the NATO conference. If  for us, for Poland, and for the Baltic states, the threat from the East is the number one threat, we have to understand that for Italy the main threat is from the South (the crisis in the Mediterranean and the Middle East). And we cannot demand the same kind of rhetoric from Italy as is expressed by our neighbors.

You say that Italians are pro-Russian but not anti-Ukrainian. However, there is a negative bias in certain media sources, specifically against Ukraine. On the embassy site right now you have posted your open letter to the top ANSA news agency, which went as far as to present Ukraine’s anti-communist law as proof of neo-Nazism, with relevant commentary from Jewish organizations.

The conflict in not with ANSA. Unfortunately, there are the same contradictions with Corriere della Sera and with La Repubblica (the largest newspapers in Italy — Ed.).

The problem is that they present any information on Ukraine through their correspondents in Moscow. We have been fighting this (practice) for a year now and are unable do anything about it.

Do you know what was the first ANSA news report the evening of parliamentary elections in Ukraine? About the fact that the “Right Sector” entered parliament and that nationalists-fascists would be in the Verkhovna Rada. This was reported by the Moscow edition of ANSA. In similar fashion, the Moscow edition has been commenting on the law banning Nazi and communist ideology.

Why from Moscow, why not from Rome? It’s not clear, but it is continuing the same way as during Soviet times.

And so far there is is no news bureaus of any serious Italian publication or agency in Ukraine. In television reporting things have improved somewhat. The national broadcaster RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana) consistently sends its correspondent to Kyiv.

It is understood that we have to offer Italians something, some exclusive conditions that would convince them to cover Ukrainian events from Ukraine. I already have the complete agreement and support from the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior that if the Italians decide to cover events in the ATO zone from the Ukrainian side, they will be given all necessary permissions. But let’s speak frankly. Quite a few news reports originate in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they (the reporters) end up via Russia. I even had a case where I was invited into the studio of one  of the TV channels to discuss the Mariupol tragedy, while in the background they were showing footage and interpretations by their correspondent in Donetsk.

We have finally “broken through” to La Repubblica. They went to Kyiv to interview the prime minister and (for the first time in Italy!) have begun to cite Ukrainian information agencies occasionally. However, without permanent news bureaus in Kyiv, the problem will persist. Frankly I don’t know how to bring about a change in the system.

We already have an entire Ministry of Information. This is their main duty!

Yes this is their area. But as far as we can see at the embassy, the Ministry of Information is just beginning to work. Yes, they need to create a free media center for foreign journalists — with internet access and all necessary equipment. There needs to be the ability to travel to the ATO zone, to get information, comments.

When we discussed this interview you noted that we need for Italy to be a real partner of Ukraine. How can we do it when everything is so difficult?

This is especially so because of the economy. President Poroshenko has discussed the participation of Italian business in the privatization process in Ukraine with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Renzi has agreed.

However, for that that to happen we need to have real Italian companies sending information back to Italy that business is Ukraine is convenient and profitable. That it is really feasible, and not the way it is now.

Today, for example, the media are publishing the appeal of the UniCredit group about  the judicial “outrage” in Ukraine, about how the district court judge demanded that UniCredit pay millions to unknown people. And no matter what I say in Italy about our judicial reform, they will simply show me the UniCredit letter and ask: where are the changes?

Or we can mention the Ferrero (Italian candy manufacturer — Ed.) matter. (A Ukrainian court denied protection for the Raffaello trademark — Ed.). To read the  history of business in Ukraine makes you want to weep.

You know that Indesit (one of the leading European manufacturers and distributors of major domestic appliances — Ed.) and De’Longhi (manufacturer of coffee machines and small appliances) were informed by the State Committee for Standardization that they did not pass the standards in Ukraine. Only after some “manipulation” was the matter resolved.

The issue of business is a key one. I recently had a conversation with the governor of the Veneto region, who said that the companies in his region have lost billions because of sanctions and therefore he is against sanctions. But we can offer the Italians our market — some 40-million — which could interest them.

The second direction is interregional cooperation, cooperation in the cultural sphere. The regions are very strong in Italy and we need to work with them. But this is difficult to do for lack of money.

Third, are the diplomatic efforts. I understand that the state service is being rebuilt now, but today diplomacy needs to be financed not at a survival level but on a level that would allow it to be effective. We need to finance events. We need to understand that if an event organized by Ukrainian diplomats is to attract top guests, it needs to be at a prestigious location. That means that a conference room in the center of Rome needs to be rented.

We can organize these events one-off , but we do not have the means for systematic work.

Is it even realistic to consider Italy a “true partner” in a situation where there is a clear pro-Russian mood in the country?

Indeed, the pro-Russian sentiments in Italian society and political elites represent the greatest challenge for our embassy and for our country. But I believe it is possible to turn Italy into a true partner for Ukraine.

We must meet and talk daily with those who consider Russia their strategic partner, who believe that Russia has a right to its “spheres of influence.” It is necessary to write almost daily to Italian media, refuting published materials. This is the objective reality today in Italy.

This is what we encounter when we look for support in the party circles, the business circles (here the business climate in Ukraine is an obstacle) and in the local population with the help of our huge community. Our problem is that we have insufficient financial resources for action.

However, the ruling party in Italy supports us, thank God. The government today does not have personal relationships or obligations to the Russian leadership. This is not a Berlusconi-Putin pact. Renzi  first saw Putin six months ago when the latter came to Milan. On the contrary, the Poroshenko-Renzi relationship, where the two see each other regularly and phone each other at least once every 2-3 weeks, gives grounds for optimism. In the same fashion, personal relations are being established between the ministers — the heads of the Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Justice. Yatseniuk was also here and has met with Renzi.

By the way, few know that at that time Renzi was telling Yatseniuk about business problems that dated from long ago — most of which have been resolved. That is, we already have certain results.

No wonder that UniCredit, which was looking for a buyer for eighteen months, held a $250 million recapitalization a month ago and announced it would remain in Ukraine.

Similar examples eventually will allow us to say that Ukraine and Italy are real partners. We can achieve that, and then we will reach a point where we are heard, and not just listened to out of politeness. But we must realize that we will not be able to separate Italy from its history of relations with Russia, since it is based on memories, sometimes very emotional ones.

By the way, the problem of viewing Ukraine through Russia does not exist only among journalists. A similar situation exists in Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Ukraine is handled by people who previously worked in Moscow.

Indeed, there is such a subjective history. The diplomatic advisor to the president of Italy is the former ambassador to Russia. The diplomatic advisor at Italy’s Ministry of Defense worked in Moscow for eight years. The director of the department responsible for Ukraine also worked in Russia, and none of them have worked in Ukraine.

So when you come to your fellow diplomat to talk about the situation, your interlocutor sometimes poses questions as if he had just read the Russian Pravda. But this subjective factor can be overcome. After all, the diplomats who have worked not only in Ukraine but especially in Poland or Slovakia understand us.

When it comes to the threat from the South and the migration of thousands to Italy, do you expect the visa policy to become tougher?

No, Italy’s Ministry of Internal Affairs does not link the visa policy to the illegal migration from the South. The reason is simple. The threat from the South is not a question of visas. These migrants are trying to enter the EU by sea without visas, without documents. It doesn’t matter if visas are issued with more or less difficulty because the flow of illegal migrants will not be affected.

Nevertheless, doesn’t Italy already have one of the toughest Schengen consulates in Ukraine? Meanwhile, in Russia, according to statistics, 98-99% applicants at the Italian consulate are receiving the long multi-visas. Why the difference?

The Italian side says that the issue of the visa regime is a matter of national security. The number of Russian citizens who have remained in Italy over the past 10 years is minimal. Unfortunately, the number of Ukrainians is considerable, and today the responsible travelers, including the preferential categories — students, business people — are suffering because of the past history, because during the 1990-2000 years very many Ukrainians have stayed here illegally. This is a fact. But we must recognize that the visa practice has much improved under the current ambassador Fabrizio Romano. Although I agree, the Italian practice has not reached the average for the Schengen area. Meanwhile, Ukrainians, unlike immigrants from other countries here, are valued the most.

In Italy there are 230,000 Ukrainians that have received residence permits. And all the prefects, including  also the Foreign Minister of Italy, will tell you both officially and unofficially that of all the foreign communities in Italy they are the most happy with the Ukrainian one. We do not represent a threat, we work hard. Our people are integrating, they speak perfect Italian — sometimes even better than the Italians themselves.

What do we expect from the visit of Italy’s foreign minister?

We expect official confirmation that Italy has not changed its position on sanctions. The issues that are of greatest concern to us will be discussed during the visit. Then there will be other visits by Italian officials, and we will need to establish regular communication.

I want to emphasize that Italians are very emotional people. We received hundreds of letters and calls of support after (the massacres) in Volnovakha and Mariupol. But they also react emotionally to other news. And this is why they are demonstrating near our embassy — especially the elites, artists, public figures who shape public opinion — about the dog shelter that was burned near Kyiv.

They expect that even under conditions of war, the attitude towards animals will be European. We took advantage of Minister Avakov’s visit to Rome and promised that this matter would be investigated. But now that we have said “A” we need to follow with “B” and “C”.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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