When did you arrive in Ukraine to take your position and what were you first impressions?
I was lucky enough to arrive on 14 June 2008, which was the day Paul McCartney played his big concert on Maidan in the pouring rain. I arrived at the airport that afternoon and then went to see Paul McCartney, so it was a great and memorable start. I was in Moscow from 1992 to 1995 so I already had some experience with the former Soviet UNI0N. Arriving in Ukraine it was clear, as the famous book title says, Ukraine is not Russia. It’s a very different place with different vibes and a different feel. I’ve been struck throughout my time here by the dynamism of Ukraine and the potential of the country, but I am also very aware that a lot still needs to be done.
You say Ukraine is different from Russia. What differences do you see?
It’s quite well known that Ukraine is a leader in democracy in the region. The media scene here, of which What’s On is a part, is lively and much less constrained than in other parts of the region. We’ve had a series of elections in Ukraine which have been observed by the OSCE and ODIHR, which have been recognised as meeting, in the main part, the requirements of these bodies, and have been free and fair. All that is to Ukraine’s credit.
You mention press freedoms, and there have been a lot of reports about restrictions being imposed upon the press since the new government came to power. Does the British Government have any concerns about this?
It’s important that we all continue to monitor closely what’s going on in Ukraine. The president has made it clear he attaches great importance to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. It’s very good to hear that, but at the same time, we all know we’ve got to see it on the ground, and that’s going to be very important over the coming months. It’s also important to bear in mind that conditions for EU membership include the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which state that there must be stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities. That is fundamental if Ukraine’s wish to move closer to the EU is to be realised. I am sure the Ukrainian government and President Yanukovych are well aware of this.
It’s a little difficult to tell exactly what direction the current government wishes to take: whether indeed it wants to move closer to the EU, or whether it would rather move closer to Russia. What is your opinion?
In the first place, this is not a zero sum game. We’re not saying that for Ukraine to move closer to Europe it must in someway not be friendly with Russia. I am sure President Yanukovych and the government are keen to follow Ukrainian national interests, as is right and proper. We would certainly see Ukraine’s national interests being best served by moving closer to the EU. I think most Ukrainian people would also see this as being in Ukraine’s long-term interests. If you ask most Ukrainians if they wished their country was more like those in Europe, they will all say, ‘Yes please.’ So it seems to me that the direction of travel is pretty clear. At the same time, you have to do a lot of work to get good results. We’re in the middle of some very important negotiations between the EU and Ukraine. On the one hand, there are some elements of those negotiations, for example agricultural tariffs and tariffs on cars, which are going to be very tough to resolve, but there are many other areas where enormous progress is being made on a day-by-day basis.
The EU seems to be quite divided when it comes to Ukraine’s membership: some countries are very supportive, and others appear to be strongly against. Where does the British Government stand on this issue?
The British Government has long been a strong supporter of Ukraine’s European integration ambitions and that includes giving Ukraine a membership perspective, which is Euro-jargon for saying you will join the EU when you’re ready. Clearly, that’s not going to happen tomorrow. Ukraine needs to do a lot of work to become ready. The EU is a rules-based organisation whose membership involves giving up a certain degree of sovereignty, and it’s rules are binding. So that means when a country is signing up to EU commitments it has to be quite clear what it is agreeing to. Getting ready to join the EU, for example, in the area of agricultural food standards, requires a lot of hard work. So it can’t happen over night. At the same time you’re right, different countries within the EU have different views on its long-term future: some are more in favour of widening the UNI0N while others would prefer to deepen the UNI0N. Ukraine has to persuade all of these countries that it is in the interest of the EU and its members for Ukraine to become a member in due course. The UK is already convinced of that, but not all member countries are so sure.
Recently Foreign Minister Hryshenko met with top EU officials and said that visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Europe was high on the agenda. Do you think this is something that will happen soon?
This is something that is the subject of active negotiations between Ukraine and the EU. I think it’s realistic for Ukraine first to look for visa facilitation, which makes obtaining visas easier, and then in the longer term it should look to meeting the conditions that will allow visa-free travel. It is important to recognise that within countries of the EU there is a lively debate about immigration. For example, there has been a lot of discussion in the British press recently about a home office study that showed that twenty percent of the people that had come to the UK on student visas were still living there after five years. So there is a balance to be struck between the wishes of everyone to facilitate travel – nobody likes visa regimes as they certainly don’t make any money for anyone and are a profound nuisance for travellers of every kind – and safeguarding the legitimate wishes of people who want to make sure their own livelihoods are not threatened by uncontrolled immigration.
So it sounds as if visa-free travel for Ukrainians is still some way in the future. Would you agree?
I think there will have to be tough negotiations about visa-free travel in order to make it possible, and that will need to reflect the interests of both sides. Everyone is realistic in this debate. They know there are immigration pressures from some countries into the EU. At the same time, the EU has a clear list of requirements that controls, for example, how many passports people can get. We have a constant issue with the fact that there are far more Ukrainians with diplomatic passports than British citizens. There are lots of detailed issues that need to be addressed, but once those issues are addressed it will be possible to make progress.
The visa process has been made easier, but there are still many people getting rejected for visas. Do you have any advice for people applying for a visa to the UK?
Yes, I have several pieces of advice. First of all, I am very proud of our visa section and the work it does. They work under a lot of pressure and I think in general the work they do is very good. We’ve done a lot of work to try and improve things, for example, getting rid of queues outside the visa section by taking bookings online. So, what should you do if you want to visit the UK for the first time? First of all, you should leave yourself plenty of time. I wrote a blog about this:
And I would encourage What’s On readers to look at that as there’s a lot of practical advice in there. The second thing is that there is quite detailed advice on the website about how exactly to apply. People are invited to give certain types of information. There are ten categories of which six are mandatory, and I would ask everyone to give the maximum information to increase their chances of getting their visa approved without trouble. In particular, the visa officials are very keen to see evidence of your financial status, which preferably means bank details.
That can often be a problem for Ukrainians because many of them don’t use banks.
Yes, well that is going to make it more difficult for them to get a visa, because the visa officials need to know applicants are sound financially. I would also add that people should not provide false documents. We get a steady stream of false documents, and our officials are trained to spot them. We will always try and corroborate documents and if they are found to be false the applicant will receive a mandatory ten-year ban. Please do not be tempted to use false documents.
What cooperation, economically or culturally, is currently taking place between the Ukrainian and British Governments?
There are a lot of areas where we do day-to-day cooperation with the government and Ukrainian society in general. For example, on trade and investment, Britain is the sixth largest investor in Ukraine with a stock of inward investment of around $2.4 billion from the UK, and that’s creating real jobs for Ukraine and Ukrainian people. There is a recent example of a large British bank which is setting up a state-of-the-art technical support centre here in Ukraine using highly qualified Ukrainian IT specialists. This isn’t a call centre, this is people who know how to construct complex computer software systems. It will employ hundreds of these people, and they are recruiting them now to work here in Kyiv supporting the operations of the bank around the world. This is a good example of how our countries can work together. We are also, as an embassy, organising a major exhibition that will take place in December to promote UK companies that are active here in Ukraine. In other areas we’re active with the Ukrainian government in supporting economic development and their European integration aspirations. A third area I will mention briefly is defence cooperation. In 2009 for example, the British Ministry of Defence supported fifty different projects in Ukraine, to help develop the Ukrainian armed forces, which included training, English language schools for officers and joint exercises.
Regarding British companies investing in Ukraine, there is a big question about rule of law here in Ukraine. Do you get a lot of complaints from British companies about things like corporate raiding or contract disputes?
We have a commercial section here at the embassy. Part of their job is to promote British exports and to help stimulate inward investment from Ukraine to the UK as well as the other way round. It often happens that British businessmen come to us and say they have a problem. We’re always here to help, and we’ve been involved in a number of cases where we’ve intervened with different agencies or individuals in order to try and unblock difficulties. I do talk a great deal to British investors who are already here, ones who are considering coming here, and ones who have looked at the market and decided against it. What kind of problems do we see here? There is undoubtedly a problem with the ease of doing business in Ukraine. The latest issue of the Ease of Doing Business index from the World Bank places Ukraine at position 143 out of 186 countries. If you look at the countries around the 143 position, they’re not the kind of countries, I would guess, most Ukrainians would want to be associated with. The Ukrainian government and the president have said repeatedly that they wish to take action on over regulation and to cut back on corruption. I welcome them saying that, but it’s very important those statements are followed up by action on the ground. It will be very tough and will take time to make progress. I’ve heard there is a package of legislation coming forward aimed at combating corruption. I hope that is correct, and that it will be enforced vigorously.
It often seems that local businessman and politicians don’t like the idea of inward investment because they see it as taking something that could be theirs. Do you come across that a lot?
There is in every country a tension between the interests of the business elite and the interests of the country as a whole. That applies in Ukraine as well as everywhere else. I think the leadership of Ukraine needs to take a clear view on whether it is indeed welcoming inward investment because that is good for Ukraine as a country, or whether it is only going to protect the interests of big business groups who do not always welcome more competition.
One thing one often hears here when talking about corruption is that corruption is everywhere. There have been some rather embarrassing stories in the last few months about corruption in the UK government. How do you feel corruption in the UK compares to corruption in Ukraine?
There is of course an argument that it is in human nature to better oneself in any way one can if there are no rules to prevent it. So of course, no country can claim it is entirely free from corruption. However, if you look at it objectively it is quite clear that the instances of corruption individual citizens experience are much greater in some countries than in others. And there are some very simple things that can be done to help this. For example, in the UK there are no fines levied by the police. There are no circumstances in the UK when a policeman can ask you for money – there are no on-the-spot fines. That removes one possible area for corruption, which I would argue is a good thing. And it is a good model other countries could look at.
Finally, our readers would like to know what you do in your spare time, and where you like to do it.
I am very privileged in that I have a job that often involves evening activities such as attending functions. That takes up a lot of what would otherwise be my free time. Having said that, I greatly enjoy walking. I walk around Kyiv at great length at the weekend and often walk to and from work if the weather is reasonable. I have some Ukrainian friends and expatriate friends with whom I spend time, which is always enjoyable. I like to go down to the beaches sometime, and I’m not afraid of putting my foot in the Dnipro. I also do quite a bit of writing in my spare time, which is a hobby of mine.