In Depth, 16/08/2021

Interview with Ambassador Liubov Nepop on Occasion of 30th Anniversary of Ukraine Independence

Ukraine is preparing for its 30th anniversary of independence on August 24, 2021, with three main key events. These will be attended by international high-level political guests, business partners and friends alike. In addition, an international press convention relating to this auspicious occasion will take place in Kyiv on August 22-24.

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba has announced that the events will begin with the inauguration of the Crimean Platform summit on August 23. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky says Ukraine is launching the Crimean Platform to return the issue of the de-occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula to the active international agenda.

Minister Kuleba said the summit will focus on further activities in five priority areas: continuation of the non-recognition policy; an increase of the sanction pressure on Russia; special attention to the security in the Azov-Black Sea region; protection of human rights and international humanitarian law in the occupied territory; and counteraction to the environmental and economic consequences of the Russian occupation of Crimea.

“Crimea has already become for Russia a suitcase without a handle,” Kuleba noted. “The Crimea Platform will turn it into unbearable cargo.”

The first Kyiv summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen will also take place on the same date, August 23. This is an initiative of the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska. As she points out: “It is time to demonstrate the power of ‘soft power’ around the world to change our societies and our countries for the better.”

And the celebration of Independence Day, on August 24, will be launched with a grand military parade. This event will have a very symbolic meaning as respect for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, who have been heroically confronting Russian aggression for more than seven years and still today continue defending Ukraine.

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, The Kharkiv Observer through The Budapest Times asked the Ambassador of Ukraine to Hungary Her Excellency Liubov Nepop about the celebration, the feelings of Ukrainians in this regard and other topics.

Ambassador of Ukraine to Hungary Her Excellency Liubov Nepop

Your Excellency, Ukraine has reached this 30th anniversary despite having to overcome so much in recent times. May I give my personal congratulations to you and your country? The first thing I learned about Ukrainians, they are very wilful, defiant and forward-thinking people. It’s clear their focus is now working towards a more prosperous future. How do you summarise post-1991 Ukraine?

Thank you for your warm words.

If I should describe this period with one sentence, I would say it was a period when our dreams became reality and at the same time, we learned that it takes longer to reach our goals than we hoped at the beginning.

It is worth mentioning that in 1991 Ukraine didn’t receive, but restored its independence.

The Ukrainian state, despite its relatively short recent history, has deep historical roots, which go to the era of Kyiv Rus and even deeper, connecting us with the Trypillian culture, which was one of the oldest cultures in the world and existed at the territory of modern Ukraine.

It’s important to remember this fact when some people are still trying to present Ukraine as a young state born only 30 years ago, and Ukrainians as a newly created nation, or even more as one that does not exist, being only a part of “one nation” with Russians.

Freedom and independence weren’t given to Ukrainians as a gift in 1991. We were fighting for this for centuries. Remember only the dramatic events of the 20th century, when we became independent and created the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917, which was further captured by the Soviet regime. By the way, did you know that the Ukrainian People’s Republic had its embassy here in Budapest, which was closed the last among all Ukrainian embassies, in 1924, already after our country lost its independence and became a part of the USSR?

Remember Holodomor in 1932-33, when the Soviet regime killed millions of Ukrainians with hunger just because they didn’t give up their identity.

Remember our victims of the Second World War and the fight of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against both Nazi and Soviet regimes.

It is important to remember all these facts to finally stop the practice whereby some people are still trying to identify Ukraine as a part of the mythical post-Soviet space, not wanting to acknowledge that our country’s membership in the Soviet Union was not our wish and it was only one episode in our centuries-old history. Such a “post-Soviet” approach just nourishes Moscow’s desire to justify the theory of its “sphere of influence.”

Although Ukraine, alongside the West, is still generally uncertain about Russia’s next move and when the occupations will end. Ukraine, regardless of Western forces, must always be one step ahead of Russian President Putin to achieve not only continual independence but security for the West in general. Are we winning? Or is the West being too soft and concessional with him?

You are completely right. Unfortunately, since 2014 up to now Ukraine has been forced to fight for its territorial integrity, resisting Russian aggression. Seven percent of our territory – the Crimean Peninsula and part of the east – are under Russian occupation, and in the east, we already have more than 14,000 dead.

On 23 August we will launch the work of the Crimean Platform summit gathering leaders and high-ranking representatives of about 40 countries. It will be the first of the events to mark the 30th anniversary of our independence. Our main goal is to establish one platform that will be dealing with the de-occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. It is important as we all know that the Minsk agreements are dealing only with Russian aggression in the east of Ukraine.

In the east, we still need more international pressure to stop Russian aggression. And it is important to pay attention to the fact that Russian military presence in the occupied territories and along Ukrainian borders has increased extremely since spring this year and we all have to be ready for any kind of Russian provocation, including during the final stage of their military exercises “Zapad 2021” in September.

Are we winning? Or is the West being too soft and concessional with Putin? My answer is that we are not losing. Everyday shelling from the aggressor, use of weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements, snipers who are simply killing our defenders in eastern Ukraine, is enough reason to understand that only by increasing political and sanctions pressure on Russia we will be able to restore not only territorial integrity of Ukraine but also respect for the international law.

In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia. The international reaction was too soft. Russia took it as an encouragement to go further. Ukraine became the next victim. And we are still fighting.

Who will be next? In my opinion, the answers to these questions depend on our joint efforts.

One thing is certain. Ukraine and its allies can win only together. Or lose, if somebody still thinks that it is worth appeasing the aggressor and continuing business as usual with Russia.

My numerous trips to Ukraine have given me great pleasure and I saw much, for instance, it’s still clear that Ukraine, whatever the risks, wants to join the EU and NATO and cut off from the pre- and post-Soviet Union entirely, regardless of Putin’s vanity. How do you and Ukraine deal with the cynics who are dismissive of Ukraine’s future aspirations? As some have said to me, “Why is the war still on? Are there any real differences between Russia and Ukraine?”

On August 2 the American “Foreign Affairs” magazine published an article by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, “Ukraine Is Part of the West. NATO and the EU Should Treat It That Way.”

I would strongly recommend reading this article to those asking such questions.

There is still war because we have Russian aggression against Ukraine. There is no “fraternal war.” There is a military attack of one country – Russia – on another sovereign country – Ukraine, occupation of its territory and killing of its people.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spares no effort to promote the false historical narrative that Ukrainians and Russians constitute “one nation.” His recent 5300-word opus on the subject has reportedly become compulsory reading for the Russian military. This reductive approach serves the Kremlin’s imperialistic aims. Putin wishes to reassemble the countries of the former Soviet Union and reverse what he calls the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” But for millions of people across the region, the Soviet Union’s collapse was not a catastrophe. It was a liberation.

And don’t forget, Russian top politicians once said that they look at the “Russian sphere of interests” as not only this region but to the whole region of the former Warsaw Pact.

As Minister Kuleba wrote in the above-mentioned article, Ukraine’s membership in NATO and the EU will not just reinforce progress in Ukraine, it will also help unify the West once more. As a player in Central and Eastern Europe and the Black Sea, Ukraine has much to offer as part of NATO on matters of regional security. The country’s capable armed forces have invaluable combat experience from fighting Russian troops since the 2014 invasion. No current NATO member possesses such experience or the knowledge that comes with it. And when it comes to cybersecurity and fighting disinformation, few countries rival Ukraine’s ability to both recognize and counter Russian tactics.

Ukraine also has a vital role to play in ensuring Europe’s energy independence. For decades we have been a reliable transit country for gas supplies to Europe. We plan to remain so, despite Russia’s attempts to bypass the Ukrainian system with projects such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It can’t be taken as a purely economic project because it has clear political goals and not less clear security threats not only for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe. So, we further count on support to prevent its finalization and its exploitation, calling on our partners to think about not only ours but also their own security.

And what would you say about reforms in Ukraine and its economic development?

We are taking every effort to ensure that our country moves dynamically forward, strengthens democratic institutions, develops economically, becomes more attractive to investors, more convenient for travelers and more likable for tourists.

Currently, Ukraine is one of the most attractive countries for investment with a developing economy. The country is transforming and de-monopolizing such sectors of the economy as energy and infrastructure, including attracting foreign investment to these sectors.

I would like to emphasize that today the Ukrainian economy is open to new investments. New because dozens of foreign and international companies and global brands already operate on the Ukrainian market.

While promoting large-scale development projects such as in big construction, Ukraine has also improved its legislative basis for large investments in infrastructure development.

The law “On State Assistance to Investment Projects with Significant Investments in Ukraine” was adopted and now our “investment nannies” will assist the companies wishing to invest in Ukraine. We have also created the Exporters and Investors Council in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, which has become a practical tool for achieving new horizons in economic cooperation with our foreign partners.

And with its huge potential for producing green hydrogen through solar and wind energy, Ukraine is well-positioned to contribute to Europe’s green transition. Other elements of Ukraine’s economy show enormous promise too, from its demonstrated capacity for digitalization to an agricultural sector with the potential to guarantee global food security.

Finally, we also will continue to simplify, digitalize our administrative services, procedures and processes, repeal unnecessary regulations and improve the quality of our education systems.

There has been some controversy in recent times in Ukrainian-Hungarian relations. How are they today?

In December we will mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Hungary, and I think it is a good occasion to bring our cooperation to a new level.

We have a very active dialogue between our foreign ministers and are trying to move step by step to overcome those misunderstandings that overshadow our bilateral relations.

This year we have created a Working Group on education to discuss how we can cooperate in the implementation of education reform in Ukraine to satisfy the needs of representatives of the Hungarian minority according to the new legislation. The Working Group has already met twice and is preparing for the third meeting.

Recently co-chairs of the Commission on National Minorities discussed further steps to prepare for a meeting of the commission. Last year we renewed the work of the commission on economic cooperation and it will meet again in September.

We are working on the development of cross-border infrastructure.

This year Ukrainian servicemen took part in the international military exercise Saber Guardian 2021 in Hungary, which is very important to increase our defense capability and interoperability with our international partners on our way to Euro-Atlantic integration.

So, although we can’t say that our relations are already fully normalized, we are working to achieve this result.

Moving on from politics and the past, let’s go on to modern-day Ukraine life and culture. The embassy and the Ukraine community will host this 30th-anniversary event here in Budapest. Please tell me something more about this.

We’ll have a series of events in Ukraine that will be broadcast, and events here in different places in Hungary at the end of August and in September as well. I would like to recommend following the Facebook page of the Embassy of Ukraine in Hungary to get more information about them.

And there is one thing that I would like to especially mention. I would like to encourage everybody to look at Buda Castle (Budavár) in the evening on Ukraine’s Independence Day on 24 August. I hope you will like it.

For those new to Ukraine and who still know little about this country, please describe the best attributes of its life and culture to first-time tourists. And what this country has to offer in terms of things to see and do.

I think Ukraine is a country that can offer a lot. We have beautiful nature: the sea for swimming, mountains for skiing, mineral waters. You can find medieval, renaissance and modern architecture. One of the popular destinations for tourists currently is Chornobyl. We shouldn’t forget about culinary and wine tours, medical tourism, different festivals, which also attract attention.

So, you can find really everything, much depends on you. And it’s close to Hungary, at an affordable price and, which is not less important, with a high level of service.

Please tell me something about Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka and why they are so important to Ukraine today. What are your favorite quotes of wisdom from them?

Taras Shevchenko is the biggest Ukrainian writer, whose name is closely connected to the Ukrainian fight for freedom. It’s like Petőfi for Hungarians.

Lesya Ukrainka is also not only a writer but a symbol of strong women, fighting for the freedom of their country. This year we marked the 200th anniversary of her birthday.

I would also mention here Ivan Franko, who together with Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka for Ukrainians are the main symbols of the fight for freedom and independence of Ukraine, symbols of the Ukrainian spirit. There is no Ukrainian who wouldn’t know these names. Even more. In every crucial moment of our history, we quote them and find inspiration in their poetry.

You asked me about my favorite quotes from them. There are a lot but probably if I have to choose only one from each of them, I would say:

“Keep fighting – you are sure to win!” from Taras Shevchenko.

“It is a shame to lean and submit to fate.” from Lesya Ukrainka.

“Scale down this cliff! Let not the heat, nor the cold

Dare stop us! Withstand the difficulty, and the thirst, and hunger.

For it is designated for you to break down this rock.” from Ivan Franko.

Finally, what are the hidden and secret ingredients that distinguish the symbolic Ukrainian borsch soup from all others? Or is this matter still a secret?

I think the most secret ingredient of the Ukrainian borsch is love – love of life, of your country and of your family. At least I am sure that these feelings will help you cook really delicious borsch.

We have applied to UNESCO to get borsch included in the world cultural heritage.

By the way, if you would like to test it, you can do so even in Budapest at Ukran Udvar restaurant, which will meet you with its authentic atmosphere and delicious Ukrainian cuisine.

And one of the events dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence is about borsch.

Famous Ukrainian chef Yevhen Klopotenko has announced an action where everybody can share their own recipe of borsch and participate in cooking 3 million liters of it by Independence Day.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created a club of chefs to promote Ukrainian gastronomy to the world. So, we do believe that we have a lot to offer to those who like good food.

And I do think that just as membership of Ukraine in the European Union and NATO will make these organizations stronger, so Ukrainian cuisine, including borsch, will make European and world cuisine richer.

Ambassador, thank you. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!)

Heroiam Slava! (Glory to Heroes!)

Text and photos: Alexander Stemp