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Rebecca Harms: Nation building is a bottom-up process in Ukraine

Rebecca Harms. Courtesy Image
Rebecca Harms: Nation building is a bottom-up process in Ukraine
Article by: Interview by Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Your strong pro-Ukrainian position is unusual among European politicians. How do you get across the things you know about Ukraine to your German and European colleagues?

It’s important for Ukrainians to know that while not everybody has deep knowledge about Ukrainian-Russian situation, many of my colleagues are well informed. The arguments we have in the European Parliament, among the European institutions, or also among Parliaments of our member-states show that there are different opinions on how to deal with Russia and the development in Ukraine in this context. I still feel that so far the  pro-Ukrainian position, or, lets say, pro-support for democratic development in Ukraine camp is strong and has a majority in the European Union.

What other opinions exist among EU politicians on the situation in Ukraine?

First of all, from my point of view the largest problem is that too many politicians and especially some of the governments of European Union do not have Ukraine in mind when they make decisions about Ukraine, but rather they have certain ideas on what is right or wrong in their strategy towards Mr. Putin, the Kremlin, or Russia. This complicates the situation for Ukraine and for Ukrainian supporters from the very beginning. However, as I said, so far as Friends of Ukraine in the European Parliament, or as pro-Democracy or pro-Euromaidan camp across the European Union, we managed to organize majorities to support Ukraine, to support reform process in Ukraine and also to support economic sanctions against Russia to achieve ceasefire and implementation of Minsk agreements in  eastern Ukraine.

Speaking about the Minsk agreements – the ceasefire regime is violated almost every day in Ukraine. What would be the best actions for Ukraine to take in this situation?

The best is to try to implement what has been agreed. I say this knowing all the problems, including the political problems created by pushing for a unilateral implementation by Ukraine. It is best to be open and frank on what creates political problems during the implementation in international discussions, but also on what creates problems on the ground in Donbas, to describe what is the problem with the demarcation line and demilitarized corridor, to describe what problems ordinary citizens who live in this zone along the demarcation line face and how difficult it is for Ukrainians to try to achieve what has been agreed; to make it clear again and again that control over the border between Ukraine and Russia is a fundamental requirement for successful implementation of the Minsk agreement and for achieving peace in Donbas.

How can we communicate the message about Russia’s violations of the Minsk regime better?

We have to continue to communicate that there are not only political problems with implementing the Minsk agreements, but that there are also significant impediments on the ground in Donbas to implementing the agreements, which have not been created by Ukraine. I think it is a very difficult situation from the very beginning, but so far I have not discovered any real alternative to the Minsk agreements. As I see it, the major problem is that international attention for events taking place in Donbas is absent, and the international public wants to see the situation getting better because now they have other issues in other parts of the World. The only way to help in this situation is to communicate the real situation on the ground.

Related: 12 months of Minsk-2. Examining a year of violations

The situation in Syria is making some European politicians consider Putin as an ally.

So far talking to Mr. Putin has helped nobody in Syria, beside Assad.
Putin supported Assad from the very beginning with weapons, for example, but he increased this support with helping him with air strikes. Meanwhile, many Russian soldiers and lots of military equipment from Russia are in Syria, and he is actively playing a role and helping Assad against the rebels, mainly, against those who in the beginning were a pro-Syrian army and what is left from it. So ISIS doesn’t at all play a major role in this strategy of Mr. Putin. During the last days we saw a tremendous escalation against civilians, which resulted in a new wave of refugees, tens of thousands, that are now waiting along the Syrian-Turkish border. It is the result of strategy of Mr. Putin to recreate a kind of Assadstan in Syria and to achieve as much territorial control for Assad before he starts seriously participate in the negotiations in Geneva.

I know that there will be probably no solution for Syria without talking to Mr. Putin. But so far talking to Mr. Putin has helped nobody in Syria, beside Assad. So the solution in this situation is that the international community, United States and Europe must in the United Nations and also bilaterally talk to Mr. Putin to stop this war and his involvement in this way in Syria and to negotiate this peaceful solution if possible in Geneva. What I see right now and what I feared from the very beginning when everybody said we have to talk to Mr. Putin is that on the one hand you have to talk to Mr. Putin, on the other hand it is also clear that he follows other ideas. So to compromise on Ukraine because of Syria would not decrease problems for Ukraine or Europeans, but will increase problems for Europeans.

Russia spends a lot of money on propaganda in Europe. What measures do you see to counter this? What does Europe, and Germany in particular, already do in this sphere?

It’s amazing in a negative way how successful Russia Today and Sputnik and even the troll factory achieve their goal and create uncertainty and misinformation on what is going on in Russia and Ukraine or even on what is going on in Germany, in Türkiye or in Syria. In democratic system you should not go for fighting propaganda and misinformation by escalating people’s moods by the same means. I think that so far Europeans decided to do the right thing by responding to propaganda with true information based on the free media system. State propaganda can never ever replace true information based on the work of independent journalism. I think we can do more and we should create more space for quality journalism also in Russian. For example, some weeks ago we saw this riots of Russians in Germany because of the case of the girl Lisa. They organized protests accusing German authorities in protecting criminals who abused this girl. Nothing was true, but it created a wave of protests continuing until today. Even Lavrov makes it an issue. So this case recently showed how Germany also can be affected by this kind of misinformation or propaganda.

Should new media be created?

I don’t think we need to create more media. Rather, better ways would be to strengthen independent media in Eastern European countries, based on advice by Endowment for democracy. New state-created media can never be the best way to respond.

And what is your opinion on media which are funded as NGOs?

From the very beginning I supported Hromadske, Ukrainska Pravda, Stop Fake, the work of the Crisis Media Center etc. To support what journalists are doing anyway is good, but to create propaganda media for the European Union would be wrong. What we also need more is outspoken reaction against these dirty propaganda methods by Russia, to give our citizens clear understanding that Russia Today is nothing, but a propaganda channel to spoil the minds of citizens in democratic countries.


In the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement, we see Eurosceptic sentiments being turned into anti-Ukrainian ones. Why is this happening?

What I see happening to the Ukrainian issue relates more to the skepticism of Dutch citizens towards the EU since 2004. In the early years of this century, there was skepticism among the Dutch citizens on the accession of the Warsaw Pact states to the European Union. This led to the refusal of the European constitution in the referendum in the Netherlands together with the refusal of the constitution in France. This blocked the process of achieving a common European constitution for the whole European Union. Since then in some of the member states this skepticism towards enlargement has not disappeared. So Ukraine now is another issue where they focus their skepticism on. This vote is not against Ukraine, but against Brussels, if they are successful, what I hope they will not be.

Read also: With Dutch referendum, Ukraine becomes a tool of populist politics

What benefits do you see for EU citizens from Ukraine’s eurointegration?

The Association Agreement for me was always a good step in between European Union and Ukraine. The fulfillment of requirements of the Association Agreement will help Ukrainians to achieve rule of law as the foundation for democracy and also to fight corruption. For the EU, it is very important that in our neighborhood we have stable and democratic societies. The Association agreement is important not only for Ukraine, it is in the Europeans’ deepest interests.

Do you see any changes in Ukraine since Euromaidan?

This is something we talked very often during months of Euromaidan and still I think it is a new reality for Ukrainian society. The process of true nation building is still ongoing in Ukraine, as civil society is very much engaged with the fate of this nation. I am not among those who expected it to be very easy or without problems. It is ongoing. What makes me engaged in the Ukrainian issue that I see its not a top-down it is a bottom-up process and the President and the Government of Ukraine should take it much more seriously than they are doing it so far.

What can civil society do to facilitate reforming the Government?

There is one idea which I hear over and over when I come to Kyiv or to other places in Ukraine: if the Government is not doing what we want it to do, then we will have a third Maidan, and this will be a very different Maidan, and they will see how serious we can be. I think what Ukraine does not need is another Maidan. What Ukraine needs is civil society and all the citizens believing in the reform process. The step by Aivaras Abromavicius recently week to give up his post was a very serious alert signal about the need to strengthen the fight against corruption and to make it pertain to those who still have immunity, like people in the Government or in the Presidential office.

Read also: A year of reforms in Ukraine. The best, the worst, and why they are so slow

Coming back to Russia. It is observable, especially in Germany, as we see with the recent news on Siemens, that many want to return to the business as usual mode. In what way do you think it’s possible to resist this Nebenaußenpolitik? What aguments work against the short-term benefits of monetary gain?

Economic relations with Russia for a long time have been seen as the best way to achieve better development in Russia. So the whole idea of what in Germany we call Ostpolitik was that in the end you can achieve better democratic development by increasing the intensity of economic contacts which creates benefits for both sides –  in EU, in Germany and also in Russia. I think over the years we had to acknowledge that this was not a very successful idea. Despite the fact that we have very good economic relations, Russia developed to the worst with president Putin over the last years. Since the annexation of Crimea and planned destabilization of Donbas by Russia we know that our so far strategy can not be the only strategy we relay on, so since this is an escalation towards not only Ukraine, but also the EU. The EU together with United States decided that refusing military escalation from our side or refusing a military solution does not mean business as usual, but means tough diplomacy based on economic sanctions. I will continue to advocate it towards Siemens and towards other companies as I see many risks for the EU in the current situation with the Kremlin.

Read also: Russian-German nur geschäft, or strategy for bypassing sanctions

Is there some punishment for Siemens?

So far there is no punishment for Siemens. Now, we have a difficult debate on whether our economic sanctions make sense. I was satisfied with Ms. Merkel confirming that she is convinced that sanctions should be held until the full implementation of the most important pillars of the Minsk Agreements. What I see, in addition to keeping sanctions as an instrument of solidarity with Ukraine, it is also important that EU is getting again very serious with Ukrainian Government and the President on reforms, especially reforms on following the rule of law and the fight against corruption. The real victory for Euromaidan we will find in the reform process in Ukraine. From the very beginning, Russia is targeting this reform process and is trying everything to stop democratic development and development of rule of law in Ukraine.

The last question is not to a politician, but to a film director. Once you said that you would like to shoot a film about your friendship with Ukraine. What is the most important thing you would want to tell about the country?

I face a challenge when I have discussions, for example, with citizens in the Netherlands, in France or in Switzerland, and discover that for them Ukraine is so far away. I am convinced that Ukraine is much closer not only in terms of distance, but also in thinking and in the way how people live and organize themselves. Ukraine is much closer to the other EU states than people think. It can be discovered only if you make Europeans familiar with Ukrainians. Europeans in Germany, France, the Netherlands and UK should know how Europeans in Ukraine live. I think it mainly can be done by showing the lives of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. I always thought it would be great to make a film together with former colleagues which simply shows my friends, because this is such a diverse group of people all over Ukraine that it would easily show the whole spectrum of European Ukrainians and would help people to better understand what the country is about.

Edited by: Alya Shandra
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