Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Situation in Ukraine: Ukrainian Ambassador
We will commence in public session. I have received an apology from Senator David Norris, who is unable to be with us this afternoon. I ask members, witnesses and persons in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off for the duration of the meeting, as they interfere, even in silent mode, with the recording equipment.
This meeting has been specially convened to hear the views of the Ukrainian ambassador to Ireland, H. E. Mr. Sergii Reva. We will meet the Russia ambassador next Wednesday afternoon. On behalf of the members, I welcome the ambassador to the meeting. He has been a very good friend to the committee since his appointment and has come into Leinster House regularly to meet members. I have met with him regularly myself and always find him very open and frank.
We are all aware of recent events in Ukraine, including the ongoing crisis in Crimea. The ambassador is here to give his perspective on the situation, which is changing almost on a daily basis. We hope the crisis will be settled by diplomacy and that Ukraine can return to settling its own political affairs, with fresh elections and a bright future. The ambassador is very welcome and we look forward to hearing his views. After he has made his presentation, I will invite questions from members.
H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva:
I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address the committee at this crucial moment in the history of my country. I know that members are sincerely concerned about developments there. In fact, we in Ukraine are facing a moment of truth. For all civilised states and people, for each and every European to whom human values are not blank words, the situation is clear - Russian troops have invaded the territory of Ukraine in Crimea under the illegal and groundless excuse of protecting its Russian-speaking population.
Invasion by Russian troops of the territory of sovereign Ukraine is a brutal breach of international law and the guarantees of security to our state given by Russia itself. It is an evident violation of the United Nations Charter. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia bears a special responsibility to safeguard peace and security. The invasion is also a breach of the OSCE Helsinki Final Act, as well as Russia's specific commitments to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and the bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership of 1997, under which it recognised existing Ukrainian boarders. Russia's actions are likewise a clear breach of the Ukrainian constitution, which specifically recognises the territorial integrity of the country and states that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea may only organise referenda on local matters, not on the modification of the territorial configuration of Ukraine.
Nobody should be susceptible to Russian propaganda which seek to persuade the world it is a peacemaker, wishing only to protect ethnic Russians within the territory of our country from so-called fascists and nationalists. Nobody and nothing threatens Russians or representatives of other nationalities living in Ukraine, including in Crimea. Being a Crimean by origin - I was born in Sebastopol and my mother still lives there - I know the situation in the region quite well. Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and other nationalities have been living there peacefully for decades. The only bone of contention is to do with language. However, allegations that the Russian speaking-population in Crimea has been deprived of its right to speak Russian are just not true. The abolition by the Ukrainian Parliament of a controversial and mainly politically motivated law on state language policy, adopted two years ago, has been vetoed by the acting President and hence remains in force. There is no reference to depriving Russians of the right to speak their own language. That is not true.
Other problems in Crimea, which are primarily social and economic in nature, occur in every country in the world and are similar to those in other regions of Ukraine. In any case, it is my strong conviction that all problems and misunderstandings which are natural in difficult times can and must be solved through peaceful means, without foreign intervention and with the assistance of international security and human rights institutions, such as the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Council of Europe.
Russia is finding more and more excuses to try to justify its aggressive actions. On Monday, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations stated that the former President Yanukovych had appealed to the Russian President to bring troops into Ukraine and produced a sheet of paper with Yanukovych’s signature.I deliberately do not wish to dwell on the moral side of this issue. Even the closest allies of Yanukovych in Ukraine were outraged at his disgusting act of using a foreign army against his own people. According to the Constitution of Ukraine, only the Verkhovna Rada - the Parliament of Ukraine - can legally allow foreign troops to enter the country. As this power is not available to the President, former President Yanukovych did not have the right to invite foreign troops to enter the country. The unprovoked Russian aggression is the price Ukraine is paying for its wish to determine its own future and live as a free and independent state. It is destroying democracy and the European choice gained through struggle by the Ukrainian people.
I will not rehearse the events that led to the current crisis as the facts are well known. The joint committee is well informed about the agreement reached on 21 February between the opposition and ex-President through the good offices of the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Germany and France. The key element of the agreement was the restoration of the Constitution of 2004, which limits the powers of the President. On the day after it was signed, Yanukovych publicly renounced the agreement and stated that he had no intention of signing the law adopted by the Parliament to this end. He later fled Kiev for an unknown destination, leaving behind a ruined economy, a plundered state budget and many luxury private estates and other belongings. Members will be well aware of the details from television broadcasts and reports in the The Irish Times.
Taking into account the absence of a legitimate Government of Ukraine, which resigned in late January, and the President's decision to remove himself from exercising his functions, the Verkhovna Rada, being the only legitimate authority, assumed all power and responsibility for Ukraine on 22 February. Mr. Turchynov was elected as the new speaker of the Parliament. The Verkhovna Rada, in full compliance with the Constitution, conferred on the new speaker the powers of the President of Ukraine until pre-term presidential elections are held on 25 May 2014. I ask that the Dáil and Seanad send representatives to monitor these elections. Many Irish parliamentarians visited Ukraine for previous parliamentary elections and we very much appreciate their objective, unbiased and impartial position. I hope, therefore, that the Irish Parliament will consider the possibility of sending representatives to Ukraine for the forthcoming presidential elections. Mr. Turchynov is the acting President of Ukraine and only assumed this role because someone must exercise the function. Under the Constitution, this role should be assumed by the Speaker of Parliament.
A new Government was formed last Thursday and all European Union member states, including Ireland, as well as the United States and other democracies have recognised the legitimacy of the new state power in Ukraine. However, Russia considers it illegitimate, stating that the opposition has not abided by the agreement of 21 February. This allegation is groundless and non-constructive. The agreement was not fulfilled by ex-President Yanukovych who, as I stated, refused to sign the new law restoring the previous Constitution. Moreover, the Russian position is surprising given that Russia had a representative on the negotiation group, Mr. Lukin, an experienced diplomat and former ambassador to the United States and, I believe, a former ombudsman. Mr. Lukin refused to recognise the agreement before it was signed.
On 1 March 1 2014, Ukrainians and the whole civilised world were shocked by the adoption by Russian law-makers of a decision that gives consent to unleash a war against Ukraine.As of today, a large number of Russian troops have been deployed in Ukraine. I do not propose to discuss this deployment in detail. President Putinstated yesterday that there was no need to send Russian forces to Ukraineat present. I would welcome these words if Russia started to act accordingly. This will require it to take a number of steps. Russia must stop aggression and immediately withdraw its armed forces to the areas where they are permanently stationed in accordance with bilateral agreements on the stationing of the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. It must disarm the so-called self-defence forces, which are heavily equipped with Russian arms and munitions. It must start negotiations through the good offices of the United Nations and OSCE representatives, with the aim of de-escalating the situation. It must also agree to hold consultations, as foreseen in the bilateral treaty of 1997 and the Budapest memorandum.
We are grateful to the Government of Ireland and Irish people who have shown that they are not indifferent to recent events for their support for Ukraine at this difficult moment in our history. Ukraine appreciates Ireland's firm position enunciated in three successive statements by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. We believe this support will continue to be effective, sustainable and concrete. We see we are not alone at this difficult moment. I call on you, distinguished Irish parliamentarians, to raise your voice and use all your political influence and authority to stop the aggression and prevent a war in the very centre of Europe.
I thank the ambassador for his frank contribution on the grave situation in Ukraine. I condemn the actions of Russia and hope a peaceful solution will be found. I also hope the ongoing diplomatic efforts in Paris, where representatives of the United States, the European Union and Russia will meet today, and tomorrow's meeting of European Union leaders will lead to a peaceful solution that will ward off the current danger. An Irish Army officer, Colonel Patrick McDaniel, who is stationed in Vienna, has joined the OSCE observer mission which arrived in Odessa today. Colonel McDaniel is a military officer in Ireland's permanent mission to the OSCE.
I welcome the ambassador and empathise sincerely with him on the difficulties facing his country. He may be aware that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade came before the joint committee yesterday to discuss a post-European Council meeting report. The meeting dealt at length with various issues.
In his concluding remarks the ambassador referred to successive statements made by the Tánaiste as being supportive and understanding of the position of his people. As an Opposition spokesperson, I fully concur with the sentiments expressed by the Tánaiste on behalf of the Government. Those sentiments reflect the views of my party.
The ambassador referred to 16,000 Russian troops in Crimea. As he is aware, President Putin has denied that the Russian-speaking soldiers who are occupying key military sites in Crimea are members of Russia's special forces. Is the ambassador in a position to indicate whether the identity, status and allegiance of these soldiers been independently verified? The Chairman quite rightly referred to the OSCE mission. There were early indications that observers from the OSCE might be prevented from entering the Crimean Peninsula. Can the ambassador provide an update on that matter?
Media reports this morning indicated that there had been a failure to reach agreement at the Budapest talks involving Britain, the United States and Ukraine and that Russia did not participate in those talks. Is there any indication of a change in attitude on the part of the Russian Government in respect of the Budapest memorandum?
I must inform the Chairman that I am due to attend another meeting and that I may not be able to be present for much of the remainder of this one.
H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva:
I thank the Deputy for his questions, which were very much to the point. In the context of Russian statements regarding the origin of the troops in the Crimea, a well known argument has been put forward to the effect that they are not Russian military personnel but are rather members of the local militia or self-defence service. Look at those people. The argument to which I refer would sound ridiculous if the situation - and the consequences relating to it - were not so dangerous. Nobody can deny that they are wearing Russian uniforms or carrying Russian machine guns, grenade launchers and other equipment. However, it has been stated that - allegedly - they could buy these uniforms in stores. They could buy jackets and perhaps even helmets, but what about weapons such as machine guns and grenade launchers? Do members believe that the weapons to which I refer could be bought in a store? I am from Sevastopol and I have never come across a store in which such armaments are sold. What about the armoured personnel carriers they are using?
The Deputy referred to the OSCE mission. From the very beginning we were in favour of the latter and we invited international observers to come to Ukraine. Members may have doubts about or may wish to question the information I am supplying, particularly as I am an interested party. They can also doubt any information provided by our Russian colleagues. Let the international community send impartial and unbiased observers into Ukraine in order to see what is happening. Who are the people who seized administrative buildings? Who blocked Ukrainian military units from performing their duties? Who are they? Are there any doubts as to who they might be? I think I was clear enough when I referred to this matter earlier.
As far as the Budapest memorandum is concerned, I referred to many international laws breached by Russia. What is the Budapest memorandum? Members may recall that Ukraine was the first state in the world to renounce its nuclear arsenal. I have been involved in the arena of diplomacy for 35 years and I can inform the committee that I was there and I recall how difficult was the decision we made in this regard. If we still had nuclear weapons, perhaps Russia would not be behaving in quite the same way. However, we gave up our nuclear weapons and passed them - through international control - to Russia. We received clear-cut guarantees from the Russian Federation, the United States, the UK and, later on, France and China in the context of the Budapest memorandum. What are the provisions of the memorandum? All the countries to which I refer are guarantors. According to the memorandum, Russia is a guarantor of our territorial integrity. Can members imagine this? What are the obligations under the memorandum? Not only is Russia a guarantor, it must also refrain from exerting economic pressure. I do not want to recall the gas war and other problems with Russia in the economic sphere since the memorandum was signed.
Let us speak about security. Another provision is that when problems arise, Ukraine can call for immediate consultations with the guarantors. We did so. We immediately asked for a meeting with the Russian representatives in order that we might discuss and de-escalate the situation at the port. What was the answer we received? We were told that it was an internal matter and that Crimea was part of Ukraine. It was stated that Crimea was ours and that we should settle our own problems. We were also informed that this was not a matter in respect of which the Budapest memorandum should apply. So far, I have no information about changes in the Russian position.
I welcome the ambassador. As Deputy Smith stated, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade came before the committee yesterday. There is a general consensus among those of all parties and none in the Houses of the Oireachtas with regard to condemning what is happening in Ukraine. We have been brought to the brink in respect of this matter and I hope people will pause and consider the direction in which matters could potentially move.
I disagree with the ambassador's comments on nuclear weapons. If Ukraine had access to nuclear weapons, Russia would have moved in much more quickly. Will he outline his opinion on how the EU has dealt with the crisis in Ukraine since it first began? At yesterday's meeting, there appeared to be consensus on the point that Ukraine was placed in an unfair position in that it was given only two options, namely, to tie its future to the EU or to tie it to Russia. Many of us believe that it might have been possible to reach a compromise between the two. Those responsible for negotiating with the Ukraine on behalf of the EU should be given their P45s. I am of the view that the individuals in question performed poorly and that they were not very supportive of Ukraine in the lead-up to the current crisis.
Russia is playing out its hand and has taken de factocontrol of Crimea. I commend the authorities in Kiev on showing such resolute restraint in the face of the aggression we have seen. What should happen now? Is the ambassador of the view that a political deal can be struck by the parties involved? Could such a deal be arrived at soon? Is he of the view that sanctions should be imposed on Russia until it removes its forces? Many people believe that the EU is merely huffing and puffing and that there is very little it can do. If sanctions are imposed, they will have an adverse impact on many countries throughout the EU. I do not know how effective sanctions would be in the context of affecting Russia's strategy in Ukraine.
Like many others, I am very concerned about the level of involvement of the far right in pro-EU protests and violence in Kiev. This matter was also touched on at yesterday's meeting. Those on the far right have used the power vacuum in order to secure posts in the new Ukrainian Government. I include in this the new Deputy Prime Minister and the head of the defence forces. As his country's ambassador to Ireland, I do not know if Mr. Reva can comment on that matter.
The Secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and National Defence Committee is Andriy Parubiy, who was the founder of the Social National Party of Ukraine, which in my view was a fascist party styled on Hitler's Nazis and whose membership was restricted to ethnic Ukrainians. Alongside him is the Deputy Secretary of the National Security and National Defence Committee, Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, a group of hardline nationalist street fighters who previously boasted they were ready for armed action to free Ukraine. We now have the new Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksandr Sych, who is a member of the far right Svoboda Party which the World Jewish Congress called on the EU to consider banning last year along with Greece's Golden Dawn. There has been a huge increase in anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish citizens in Kiev and the Rabbi of Kiev has advised Jewish citizens to leave the city. There are shades of the past in the attacks on Jewish citizens and people.
The ambassador may not be able to answer, but many of us cannot understand how a neo-fascist party like Svoboda has been given the Deputy Prime Minister's position as well as two other ministerial posts. I realise that Svoboda got 10% of votes in the last election, but now seven Government Ministers have strong links to the extreme right. I find it extremely worrying. It sends a disturbing message to all ethnic and linguistic minorities in the Ukraine. I note that when the new Government came to power, it removed Russian as a national language. How was this done? Was that mistaken? In this tense and hostile environment, why was this decision seen as necessary and important? It sent out negative signals.
I welcome our guests and thank them for attending. To what extent, if any, was consideration given in 2004 to joining NATO? Was it possible to join NATO at that stage? Most eastern bloc countries at that time made an application to join NATO as a first step before making an application to join the European Union. If that had been done at the time, would it have averted the crisis and Russian invasion?
Many references have been made to the extreme right and extreme left who are involved in street protests. I can understand how people may exploit a situation when there is a breakdown in law and order, as has happened. Notwithstanding that, there were 70 to 100 people killed by snipers in the course of the demonstrations which took place. That was deliberate killing involving the selection of targets, as has been a feature in some areas over the past 100 years. To what extent were those targets selected and what was the background of the people killed? Were they supportive of, or participants in, any particular groups?
Is it accepted that Russian-speaking minorities or majorities have the right to use their language as they see fit? Is it recognised that minorities as well as majorities have a right to democratic processes, including due process, and equality of treatment? I acknowledge that a difficult situation obtains, but it is important from the point of view of neighbours in the European Union that those rights are accepted and exist in fact. No group can be excluded or deemed not to be entitled to democratic procedures.
Yulia Tymoshenko was released. Some of my colleagues do not agree that she was a positive influence, but she was in prison for a number of years, as were others. Some of us believe that prison is not the appropriate place for political opponents. They are entitled to democratic procedures in the normal way. What condition are those prisoners in now who were released?
I remind the ambassador that I have great respect, admiration and affiliation with the people in Ukraine. I do not distinguish in my attitudes to the Ukrainians. I do not distinguish between those from the east and those from the west. I do not distinguish in my definition of a Ukrainian between Russian speakers, Romanian speakers, Ukrainian speakers, Hungarian speakers or Polish speakers. My vision of Ukraine is as a united entity. I have been critical of the fact that the west, through the European Union, did not pay due consideration to the rights, role and significance of Russian speaking Ukrainians. When they were forging the eastern partnership, unfortunately, from my political perspective and view of life, they neglected desperately an engagement and dialogue on the future of Ukraine in an agreement with the European Union. They spoke with those they thought were the pro-western, pro-European side. I have been critical of Europe in that it should have seen the tell-tale signs when Armenia pulled out of the partnership under duress from Russia. Antennae should have gone up and attention should have been paid to what the Russians were doing to pressurise those countries engaging with Europe in the context of an eastern partnership.
I will not apologise in saying to the ambassador that terrible mistakes were made in Kiev. The role of Europe was very important when the French, Poles and Germans negotiated an agreement with the ambassador's Government. They negotiated that very important agreement on 21 February 2014. As Europe was looking for a long period for the release of Tymoshenko, she was released. She did not do the Ukrainian cause any great favours by asking those at the barricades to continue the very next day after the agreement was made with the French, Poles and Germans.
The parliamentarians were attempting to come to terms with very complex political issues. Having said that, I want to look on the bright side for Ukraine. It is not right that Right Sector has four ministries. Svoboda does not play a progressive role but it is a voice and it has to be listened to and engaged with. Therefore, the very next day after the agreement was struck on 21 February, the parliament made a silly decision to revoke the language agreement whereby the regions could have a second language. I congratulate the acting President, Mr. Turchynov, who vetoed that decision of parliament which was taken in haste in what must have been a very fraught atmosphere.
I believe the parliamentarians made a mistake. His Excellency will appreciate that all of Europe, in particular the French, the Poles and the Germans who had negotiated the deals were very disappointed with that decision. Having said that, we must condemn out of hand the role of the Russians in Ukraine. The diplomacy that the Russians seem to engage in, and there is history attached to it, is that if one does not listen to what the Russians say, one will get a hard fist. An invasion has occurred.
It is to be applauded that the OSCE has put in observers very quickly. It is a rolling issue and we do not know if the OSCE observers have been allowed into the country. One member of the Defence Forces is assigned to OSCE. Thirteen countries have sent in observers with the OSCE. I hope the Russians will allow this observation mission to play a role in Ukraine.
I hope that Ireland will play a more significant role, given the history of the OSCE and that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade recently served as its chairman. It would play a more significant role in the presence of long-term observers and short-term observers of the elections in Ukraine, which are planned for 25 May. Tragically, Ireland has only sent one LTO to Ukraine. That is an amazing miscalculation by Ireland Inc. DoesMr. Reva think it would be possible to have presidential elections throughout Ukraine on 25 May? If it is feasible, my argument is that our Government, other European governments and all affiliates of the OSCE must flood Ukraine with observers to reassure the people from the eastern and western sector that personnel with OSCE election monitoring hats will ensure that, whatever way they vote, the people are guaranteed that their votes will be interpreted fairly by the OSCE. I understand some 900 STOs are spoken of and the more we can send to observe the pre-term presidential election the better. I would appreciate a reply to my question on whether it will be feasible to hold elections in the current circumstances.
I thank the ambassador for his presentation to members today. We in Ireland would empathise with H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva in respecting the integrity of Ukraine's boundaries. We are a small island that still suffers from occupation by a foreign power. We very much stand with Ukraine on the integrity of its borders. In the course of his submission, the ambassador stated: "[I]t is my strong conviction that all problems and misunderstandings which are natural for difficult times can and must be resolved peacefully without foreign intervention with [the] help of [international] security and human rights". I fully agree with that statement. I do not know if the ambassador saw a programme on TV 3, which showed an excerpt of a tape between the US ambassador to Ukraine and one of the female senior diplomats in the US State Department. It showed quite a degree of involvement by the US with some of the political parties in Ukraine. It could be classified on one hand as being of assistance but also, others might interpret it as interfering. What is the ambassador's interpretation of that discussion?
An issue that arose yesterday was that the peaceful protest that emanated in Kiev, since the abandonment of the agreement with the EU at the end of last year, at some stage morphed into something more serious than just peaceful protest. Will His Excellency comment on some of the radical elements who may have infiltrated the protest, and may have gone beyond peaceful protest, ultimately creating the situation that it has given rise to?
Will the ambassador give us a flavour, from his perspective, of how important Crimea is to the Russian Federation, in particular as a source of access to the Baltic Sea? My understanding is that of the 16,000 troops, some 10,000 were already in Crimea, and an additional 6,000 special forces came to buttress them, giving rise to fear of a serious threat of occupation. It is interesting that one army officer who defected from Ukraine to the Russian side yesterday endeavoured to get his colleagues to join him but apparently they all refused. That is significant and shows the degree of solidarity among the Ukrainian military in the Crimea area. That is a positive development.
His Excellency referred to the economic difficulties. I know that Ukraine has suffered from economic difficulties for some time. Will he give us an idea of the fiscal deficit, the rate of unemployment so that we can get a flavour of the severity of the difficulties? Does he agree with the proposition that if Ukraine is to extricate itself from financial and economic difficulties, it will require external assistance that will come from the east and the west, in other words that Russia, the European Union and others have a part to play in that?
Will the ambassador comment on the OSCE observer mission? I understand the mission will only be in the Ukraine for a brief period. Does he have any suggestions on what needs to be done to buttress that initiative?
I welcome H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva and his colleague to our meeting. I commend the restrained and measured response shown by the Ukrainian State in the face of extraordinary aggression from the Russian Federation. It is clear to me that the Russian Federation and President Putin feel threatened by the demands made by the Ukrainian people in terms of constitutional reform, liberal democracy and freedom. I am aware of the view of the Tánaiste and the European Union that a solution to this dreadful series of events has to be found but it must be achieved through the multilateral frameworks that exist and that have been used successfully in the context of resolving similar issues over the years. I would not agree with some of the remarks, if I heard him correctly, made by Deputy Crowe that the far right took to the street to support closer relationships with the European Union. In fact, the far right in Ukraine has more to fear from closer relationships with the European Union than the status quo. It is demonstrably clear that this would be the case. The type of institutional reforms encouraged by the European Union would ensure that Ukraine would be a very cold place for neo-Nazis and for those who occupy positions on the far right.
President Putin has used the threat of the far right as a convenient fig-leaf to justify the invasion of Crimea. I am glad it is acknowledged that Crimea has been invaded. The territorial integrity of Ukraine has been undermined and has been violated and international law has been violated. That is a demonstrable fact. In the context of the de-escalation of the dispute and the hope of a negotiated peaceful resolution to it, I would be anxious to see it ensured that the constitutional reform path that Ukraine was on would not be diverted from.
I also hope that the EU will continue to support the aims of the Ukrainian people in the type of constitutional reform that a significant number of them believe is required. Is it the ambassador's view that the Ukrainian people still continue to demand the type of institutional and constitutional reform that they demanded prior to the integrity of their border being compromised by invasion? I do not want the reform path that Ukraine was on to be diminished or undermined by any settlement that might emerge. I appreciate that resolving this difficult and complex set of circumstances may involve a sacrifice from all sides to the dispute, but is it the ambassador's opinion that Ukraine should remain on the reform path and that this not become a casualty of any settlement?
H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva:
I will try to do my best, but if members have additional questions or my explanations are not clear, we can discuss them after this meeting.
If I am not mistaken, the first question was on the role of the EU and the possibility of a compromise. We cannot but thank the EU for its prompt reaction to the events. The EU countries and the High Representative, Baroness Ashton, were instrumental in settling the internal political situation in Kiev. For three months, there were unrest, clashes and riots in Kiev. European Ministers, the High Representative, Commissioner Štefan Füle and others visited there practically every week. They watched, gave advice and tried to help settle the situation. It was finally settled. Of course, the agreement of 21 February is not perfect, but there were riots in the street and police were shooting people. I remind the committee that almost 100 people were shot dead on the streets. I will be frank - at the time, I prayed for any agreement that could stop the violence and bloodshed. Do not be too exigent of agreements made under such pressures. I will not hide the fact that we were on the brink of civil war.
I believe the questioner meant our relationship with Russia when referring to a compromise. A compromise is possible and we always strive for compromise in our dialogue. That was our exact intention. In diplomacy, when a menace arises, the first step generally is to sit down at a negotiating table to discuss it. There are many problems to be discussed in this case. I have never stated that the situation in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine is ideal. I am not just referring to the east, but also to the west. The country is in crisis, that is the bitter reality, but we should discuss all matters at the negotiating table through dialogue, not at gunpoint.
I welcome any positive step taken by Russia in reaction to our constructive proposals to start negotiations and consultations. I will be frank - Russia does not recognise our new power. Mr. Sergey Lavrov, whom I have known personally since the 1990s or so, did not reply to calls from my Minister. The Minister did not ask him to discuss the Olympic Games or football. He wanted to discuss the threat of war in our home. The Russian side did not react to our appeals.
The Security Council's sitting and the rather firm stand taken by the EU and the US are positive movements, but the situation is fragile. Please do not believe that, after yesterday's statement by Mr. Putin, everything will go smoothly or there is peace. There is no peace. Russian troops are still trying to seize our military units. Those units have their own arms, though. A spark can explode this situation at any moment. Even as we discuss it, there may be clashes breaking out and soldiers firing. There is no guarantee. The two military forces are in place and it could happen at any time.
The first precondition necessary to start negotiations is to take a step back and withdraw troops to their permanent bases. We can then start the negotiations. We are open to having them. We have never tried to avoid or hide from negotiations on the acute questions of radical forces, secessionists, nationalists, Nazis and so on.
I did not refer to another matter in my statement because I did not want to take up too much of the committee's time. Regarding the question of why this situation came to bloodshed and riots in the streets, it was down to ex-President Yanukovych. Reverting to a part of my speech that I did not read out, what happened was due to Yanukovych's sudden reverse from the path of Ukraine's European integration last November and his unwillingness to listen to people who were on the streets for more than three months in the fog and winter when the temperature was 25 degrees below zero. People are still there. The first protests were peaceful. My son, an 18 year old student, protested because he was frustrated with the decision to postpone signing the integration agreement. What did these people receive from the President? Nothing. Quite the contrary, a peaceful gathering on the night of 30 November was dispersed brutally. People were beaten with sticks to their hands and legs. The committee should remember these facts.
The protest then became more radical. Is it good or bad? Of course, it is bad. Nobody denies that there are many radical extremist forces among the protestors. The committee saw this. They have thrown Molotov cocktails at policemen and have thrown stones. I never justified those actions and nobody could justify them but I would like the committee to understand why those radical forces appeared, became stronger and now have a voice. They were more active on the street and through their own sacrifices forced the authorities to come to the negotiating table. It is a rather complicated process. I do not have an open and unconditional answer to the Deputy's question.
Of course, there are radical forces. They are everywhere and in such difficult moments, they appear, become more active and gain some support among the population. It is always like this when a crisis takes place. It is everywhere but I would like to stress one thing. They are facts but these radical forces and ultra-nationalists have nothing to do with Crimea. There was no extremist, radical or representative of Svoboda or the right in Crimea, Donetsk, or other eastern regions. They are in the western part of the country and in Kiev. Nobody can deny this.
As far as the permission of the Government is concerned, being a diplomat, I cannot command this. When assessing this situation, I ask the committee to be impartial, unbiased and objective and to take all of the circumstances into account - what has led to such a situation. As has always happened in our history, such situations can be overcome. It will be settled. Professionals and constructive people will come to the Government. To this end, it is very important to hold presidential elections on 25 May 2014 because the Russian Federation and possibly some members of the committee still question the authority of the acting president. He is not pretending to be a president. He understands that he is acting president. He is mainly serving as speaker of the parliament. Of course, he must sign because according to the constitution, in order for a law to come into force, it should be signed by the president. Somebody must sign them. I did not hear any statement from Mr. Turchinov proving that he pretends to be a fully fledged president. I think that in two months' time, we will have a new legitimate legally elected president. I ask the committee's support once again to help in this matter.
I think all the political forces and population of Ukraine support holding elections because there is no other way out of this situation. Everybody supports it. Even people in Crimea support the idea. At least, they supported it before the Russian invasion. Even now, they support this idea. I did not hear about any opposition to the idea of holding pre-term elections. Of course, the conflict in Crimea can impede in some way the holding of these elections. I thought about this in Crimea but I hope that the situation will be settled and elections will take place.
As far as the Russian language is concerned, nobody denies their right to hold power. It was always like this in our history. Our former prime minister was Russian who did not even speak Ukrainian. I am half Russian and have never hidden the fact that I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. I am from Sevastopol. I did not study Ukrainian at school because there was no Ukrainian school in Sevastopol at that time. Now we are accused of undertaking so-called Ukrainianisation but think about this. For centuries, the process of Russification took place in our country. I am a vivid example of this but my children speak excellent Ukrainian. My daughter wrote poems in Ukrainian. This is natural because if a member of the committee speaks a bit of Russian, he or she can confirm that Russian and Ukrainian are very close. It is not like Irish and English. The languages are very close so it just needs a small effort to study Ukrainian. Every Russian understands at least 60% of Ukrainian without special knowledge so it is not a source of conflict. As I said in my presentation, for decades, people have been living peacefully in Crimea.
I will be frank with the committee. Yesterday, I asked my mother who is Russian and lives in Sevastopol whether she has any problems with the Ukrainian language. She told me that she did not. She told me that she always spoke Russian and did not have a word of Ukrainian but she had no problems because all people in Sevastopol and Simferapol and even most people in Kiev speak Russian. Language is not a problem. The only problem my mother has is with instructions on some medical prescriptions which are in Ukrainian. Of course, I fully agree that this is stupid. I know our health minister gave instructions long ago to make instructions available in Russian and Ukrainian. Would the committee agree that all these problems, which I believe are minor, should not justify military action? Let us not call it aggression or intervention. How can one sovereign country which calls us brothers intervene with this military force and their troops just to ensure whatever end? No radical force, fascists or extremists are there. They are in the capital and western Ukraine but they are not in Crimea and Sevastopol so this allegation is completely groundless.
The committee knows that Yulia Tymoshenko was released, which was one of the first decisions of the new configuration of the parliament. Elections took place in October 2011 as members of the committee know because they were there. The composition of the parliament has not changed. A new coalition has been formed. I draw the committee's attention to the fact that all decisions on changes to the constitution of 2004 were approved and adopted by a constitutional majority of more than 300 votes out of 450 members of the parliament. Even representatives of the party of the former regional governor and Communists voted for this so there is general consensus in the parliament and there was no question about this.
What about the constitution? Of course, it is not perfect. A member asked me about the importance of constitutional reform. Of course, it is important. Let us be frank.
No constitution is perfect and the constitutional changes in 2004 were not perfect. As the committee may know, there was a big divergence between the President and the Parliament after the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004 when the constitution was introduced. That was due to the fact that the division of power was not clear, specific or perfectly stipulated in the constitution. That is still a problem. That is why even in the Yanukovych period a special working group was created and now its work has speeded up. It has a special target to prepare and elaborate a new constitution. Nobody wants to stop it or say that the constitution was our goal and it is perfect - No. I would like to explain to the committee that coming back to the constitution was a compromise at this stage on 21 February this year when all of the riots and unrest took place on the streets. People and protestors agree that the constitution limits the power of the President but nobody imagined that he would flee. Mr. Yanukovych had a right to put forward his candidacy to be the new President but he fled. He is hiding somewhere in Russia but issues statements, holds press conferences, etc., and invited Russia to send its troops into our territory. Can the committee imagine that?
The OSCE mission is clear on presidential elections. How important is Crimea to Russia? It is very important and we realise that. Perhaps members already know the history of the region. Before 1954, Crimea was Soviet Russian Federation territory. In 1954, in honour of the 300th anniversary of Ukraine's reunification with Russia, a decision was legally adopted by the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Soviet Union to make the territory Ukrainian SSR territory. When the Soviet Union collapsed and ceased to exist there was agreement that all former soviet republics remain within their borders as stated in the 1997 Treaty on Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership between the Ukraine and Russia.
We realise as important the fact that there is a large Russian-speaking population in the country but it is difficult to say how many. Some Russian mass media claim that they are in the majority but that is not true. The last reliable data is the 2001 census, 13 years ago, and the situation will have changed since then. It is my assessment that the part of Russians and maybe Ukrainians also have diminished because the area is part of the Tatars who are Muslims and the birth rate is higher in that population. That is my assessment of the situation and my view does not come from official data. I think that the part of Tatars has increased. If we rely on the 2001 data, then in Crimea the population is comprised of 58% of Russians, between 24% and 25% Ukrainians and between 12% and 13% Tatars. Of course 58% is a substantial figure but it is not 90%. The Crimean population is not so homogenous as the Irish population. Perhaps the committee cannot imagine such a situation because the Irish population is comprised mostly of Irish people. In Crimea there are tens if not hundreds of nationalities. There are Tatars - and this is difficult to say in English - Armenians, Jews, Romanians, Bulgarians, etc.
As far as the rights of Crimea, last December the Vice Prime Minister of the autonomous Republic of Crimea led a visit of a high-level delegation to Ireland. The Chairman of the committee met him and spoke to him. He was also greeted by the Taoiseach and Ceann Comhairle. The delegation visited the Dáil and the Seanad and attended a plenary meeting of the Dáil. They were received as an official delegation and shown all due respect.
We understand the role of Russia and we are ready to hold open discussions with it like partners, neighbours, and peoples who share historical roots and lives and are connected economically, historically and culturally. Russian writers are our writers and the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko is well known in Russian. There is nothing to divide or split us. With such a background how can we accept actions and the introduction of force? We would understand if Russia expressed its concern and tried to initiate negotiations and express openly, as we say "in the face", all of its dissatisfaction, concerns, etc. Instead, without any negotiations and consultations, Russia introduced force.
It is no secret that the economic situation is very difficult in the Ukraine. I do not want to infer but I think that this is the direct consequence of Mr. Yanukovych's policy. The figures were well known but when he came to power our foreign indebtedness was three times less than now. It is $75 billion now, which is a huge sum for Ukraine. Of course Russian help and financial assistance would greatly assist in overcoming such debt. Russia has now adopted the position of not recognising our Government and it does not abide with previous agreement with Mr. Yanukovych. Of course we cannot insist now but yesterday I heard that Gazprom, a well known state company that supplies gas to Ukraine, said it would announce a lower price which we agreed last December. While we had an indebtedness problem before now, Russia did not like this announcement. I think its reason is quite open.
In these circumstances we need international help. Let us recall the slogan used by Mr. Yanukovych when he came to power. He said, "I promise you improvement tomorrow". Everyone can see what improvements there was. Mr. Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of the Ukraine, speaking before his appointment said openly, "Dear Competitors, I don't promise you improvement either today or tomorrow because we are in crisis but I promise you reforms - real reform."
I very much hope that if the reform process is started we will receive a loan and stand-by credit from the IMF in addition to bilateral help.
I know the recession is not over yet, but I hope Ireland will join the common efforts of the EU member states to help the Ukraine at this very difficult time. Ireland has proved to be our friend. I will never forget that Ireland has consistently supported the process of Ukrainian integration and the Tánaiste took part in the meeting of the EU Friends of Ukraine. I appeal to the committee to help us in this very difficult moment.
I thank the Chairman and members for their time and I invite them to put specific questions.
H.E. Mr. Sergii Reva:
That is a very interesting question. As my curriculum vitaeshows, I was the political director in early 2000 and members may remember that back in 2002, if I am not mistaken, we took a historic decision to establish a Council for Defence and Security of Ukraine, stating that our strategic goal was to join NATO. Many may have forgotten the background to this decision. At that time Mr. Putin said that he did not rule out the possibility of Russia joining NATO. His statement is to be found on the historical file. At that time joining NATO would not have been viewed as anti-Russian. Unfortunately, step by step, the Russian position towards NATO has changed. Russia openly opposed all our steps to join NATO. The NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 was a crucial moment. Mr. Putin attended that summit and spoke to each and every Head of State or Government, stating that Ukraine was not a state but merely an entity and therefore had no right to become a member of NATO. He tried to persuade his partners in Germany and France and other European states. The decision was to grant Ukraine membership of the action plan, a programme of preparation. I tried to explain to my colleagues the role of NATO. Many people in Ukraine and in Russia still live under a regime of Soviet propaganda, which views NATO as an aggressive military bloc.
Having studied the substance of the NATO treaty, I understand it is a political, defence and military organisation of democratic states. We were not admitted to NATO because we did not meet the requirements of NATO. To be a member of NATO, states must respect human rights. States do not usually have significant armed forces. When Mr. Yanukovych came to power, one of his first steps was to adopt a law on a so-called non-bloc status of Ukraine. That was to take account of the concerns of Russia about our intention to become a member of NATO.
As of two weeks ago, during this turbulent time, they should not raise the question of joining NATO. I am afraid that after these events public opinion in Ukraine will be radicalised and will be pro-NATO. The people believe NATO will guarantee our security and territorial integrity. Unfortunately Russia proved that it cannot guarantee it. I do not want to repeat these words, but do members understand what the Russian Federation is doing to Ukraine? Many people in Ukraine see that NATO can guarantee it. Because of our relationship with Russia we should not discuss this very delicate topic.
We will see what will happen in Ukraine, Russia, Europe and NATO. I believe we should come back to this issue at some stage in the future, but we should not discuss it now, especially in the current circumstances where it could provoke a more furious response from Russia. I do not think it is wise to raise the matter now.
Mr. Reva has been very passionate about his country and his fellow people. Many diplomatic colleagues are in the Visitors Gallery and it was good to see him having a friendly conversation with his Russian colleagues.
If President Putin was listening in the Kremlin, what would Mr. Reva say to him?
I sincerely thank Mr. Reva for his presence and for being so open and frank with us. He is passionate about his role as Ukrainian ambassador to Ireland. We will return to this issue when the Russian ambassador will come before us next Wednesday.