An Interview by State Secretary Markus Ederer. Published in the September/October 2015 issue of the Berlin Policy Journal .
Berlin is more deeply engaged in solving the situation in eastern Ukraine than ever before in an international conflict. State Secretary of the German Foreign Office Markus Ederer on the attempts to make “Minsk” work.
Ukraine is not only fighting for full control of its national territory while also having to reform the country economically. Ukraine is also in the midst of a search of identity, finishing the process of independence that started 25 years ago. What is it really about: building or rebuilding, state building or nation building?
Both. If you want to talk about “nation building”, I would prefer the word “rebuilding”. In terms of “state building”, I would go with “building”. It’s essentially about predominantly Russian-speaking territories under separatists’ control and the debate, with constitutional ramifications, about Russian as a second official language. And about the fact that people, whether ethnic Russians or Ukrainians, used to coexist peacefully but now define themselves in mutual opposition. In that instance, we are definitely talking about “nation rebuilding”.
Can “nation building” be fostered and supported from the outside?
Based on our various experiences in Afghanistan and other places, I tend to be skeptical. It’s a challenge to be met by the states themselves and really a question of ownership. Quite often it is impossible to penetrate the cultural conditions and internal differences of a nation or state. It can only really work if the communities of a country actually want to come together and if the majorities are willing to provide minorities with rights that deserve to be called that. From the outside, it is more reasonable to focus on state building: to see to it that some basic conditions exist conducive for nation building within that state and its citizens.
Especially in western Ukraine there seems to be such an ownership and a tremendous commitment among the civil society to building a functional state largely free of corruption?
Absolutely – but I don’t think the idea of “state building” in western Ukraine necessarily has a beneficial influence on those we call separatists in Eastern Ukraine. In Kiev there are certainly movements that believe it would be best to try to realign a part of Ukraine with the West and leave behind the part that claims it does not want to go that way. That is certainly not our policy, not the Ukrainian government’s, and, interestingly, not Russia’s. Putin has repeatedly emphasized that those territories should remain part of Ukraine, but under conditions that are now being negotiated, that we defined in Minsk and that are interpreted differently and that are, therefore, disputed. I think that it has to be our task, as much as is feasible, to get the fighting down to zero, to continue mediating between both conflicting parties through the Trilateral Contact Group, to build a stable framework for future political processes without loss of face for either side, and to help Ukraine reinstate sovereignty over its whole territory. It involves constitutional reforms and the status of the territories currently controlled by the separatists. It involves facilitating people coming together.
And how can this be achieved – beyond the diplomatic efforts in the context of the Minsk Protocol?
In the German-led Working Group on Economic Development, for example, we try to forge ahead, even with relatively small projects where both sides take an economic interest. We try to re-establish and improve the infrastructure cohesion in Ukraine with certain areas of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. That way, we managed to reestablish the train connection that delivers anthracite coal in large quantities from the separatists’ areas to the Ukrainian side, which has no coal but a plant with the technical capacity to burn it. One side produces again; the other’s energy crisis is alleviated. To build this type of connection through infrastructural projects that serve the interest of both sides is part of our philosophy.
Why does Moscow, in your opinion, show so much interest in keeping the defecting territories in Ukraine? It may not be due to Moscow’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty as a state, but rather to the possibility of interfering with a “nation building project” that is oriented towards the West?
It hasn’t been a secret that we consider Russia to be part of the problem. That is the reason for the sanctions regime we put in place. It’s no secret, either, that Russia actively supports the so-called People’s Republics in their operations. At the same time, we believe that a solution can only be found if and when Russia intends to be part of a solution.
The annexation of Crimea is a politically and militarily costly undertaking. Does that fact offer a solution – one that does not entail a federalization, in other words, a special status for the defecting territories, but a “universalization” of the concept of the citizen, a concept that respects cultural difference as well as bilingualism? Aside from the language question – that is precisely the content of the Minsk Protocol: following elections, the territories would have legitimate representatives and receive a special status. That status is addressed in a footnote of the Minsk documents and that status is to be referred to in the constitution and adopted by the Ukrainian parliament via a special status law. With regard to the language question, the original law aiming to abolish Russian as a second official langue was shelved quickly. In South Tyrol and elsewhere it has been shown that the coexistence of two official languages is possible. A solution in the vein of South Tyrol would not be the worst solution. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, being responsible for constitutional and minority issues, has already provided the Ukrainians with various options.
There is not only the delay in time but daily fighting in violation of the Protocol. Is the Protocol in danger?
As of September 1 we observe a ceasefire that holds. But as one of the driving forces in the process, we are the last ones to deny that the process is fragile and may still collapse. Many resources are in place to keep the process on track. We have taken various initiatives, especially during the summer, to actively tackle the difficult state of affairs. We are in direct dialogue with all sides in the Normandy format. We try to identify possible areas of compromise and progress. We actively support Ukraine in many ways, wherever we can, for example, by guaranteeing a €500 million credit and €200 million annually for bilateral projects. There is the entire IMF package. We counsel Ukraine in their negotiations with the Commission and with Russia regarding the whole issue of implementation of the EU Association Agreement. But as a good council we also try to make clear where their performance could be improved.
What are the odds of Minsk succeeding?
Recently, Russia has become somewhat more constructive in our talks on the implementation of Minsk. At the same time, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s political scope of action in Kiev seems increasingly limited. For the time being, he is not identified in Ukrainian public perception with any economic and social success, yet. I am hopeful that we will make further progress with Minsk. If it were possible to severely reduce the fighting by the end of the year and move forward on the issue of local elections in certain areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, hopefully completely, then we would have taken an enormous step.
Is the fighting even controlled entirely by Moscow or Kiev?
In our assessment, the major decisions on fighting or ceasefire are and need to be taken in Moscow and Kiev. We also see that the line of command does not always extend to every unit on either side. Plus, what I would call a local conflict economy has taken root. Too many individuals and groups make a living of the hostilities, terror and extortion in the areas held by separatist forces, smuggling at the line of control, their salaries paid for by combat activity. All of these factors taken together make it so difficult to consolidate the ceasefire as foreseen in the Minsk Agreements.
Reproduced with kind permission of the Berlin Policy Journal.