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At the YES Ukrainian lunch held at the Munich Security Conference


Dear all!

Once again pleased to see you all. And while Ambassador Ischinger was telling that he is happy about having such a great Ukrainian delegation here, I was looking around and I have to say, I am happy to see such a delegation of Ukrainian friends here in this room. You cannot but win with such friends as with whom you are surrounded for this lunch. So, thank you all for coming – familiar faces in the international scene. I know we all need to pull hard and keep pulling until there is peace in Ukraine.

Because for three years I've been the President, once a week I get a report about Ukraine and each time it starts with the number of people who have been injured or died in the conflict. What can I tell you about it? Whatever we think about armistices, agreed or not agreed, these numbers keep ticking. They also keep ticking on now, while we are having lunch. Ukraine is not in a frozen conflict, it is in a forgotten conflict because many people want to forget it. But I can assure you that it is not a frozen conflict. It is very hot, an ongoing conflict.

When I went to see the conflict line (in 2018), my travel schedule had to be altered because the village I was supposed to visit, had come under heavy shelling just the previous evening. So, for once, at least in three years for me, it had been even more practical experience than just reading these numbers each week. But I keep reading these numbers each week, if needed, I keep reading them out.

On the other hand, where I am more optimistic is what is happening in Ukraine today. I remember a year ago we met here to discuss choices ahead and we did not know which choice Ukrainian people will really take. Status quo, radical change, change toward what they knew already – might be. And well, Ukrainian people took a brave decision – President Zelensky received 73 percent of votes in the 2nd round. This is a huge mandate. This is a mandate which allows a political leader to really change the situation. Since my dear friend Volodymyr (Zelensky) is not yet here, I can tell you all, but probably most of you know it, if he keeps pushing and doing these reforms, then never mind the good results. This number will come down. This percentage of support will not survive. The task ahead of him is too hard and we all know it. Yet, we also know that he is ready to risk it because this is why he was elected. He is not one of those political leaders who are satisfied with the position itself. But he gets up every morning and thinks of what to do. How can he use this support? And I can see that he is working hard.

Yet we cannot say that, for example, Ukrainian people trust their judicial system more. The numbers are really low, in single digits. But we see that he is working hard to change that. There is the Anti-Corruption Law, the first successful reading of the Farmland Bill. What I really like is that there is also quite a lot of work being done to make Ukrainian people more involved in managing their own country. The devolution of the regions, for example.

I would also like to mention the upcoming land reform because, for a country that exited the Soviet Union at the same time as my own country, the land reform has been long overdue. If you cannot have landed as an asset, you cannot borrow. If you cannot borrow, you cannot develop the economy. So, this is an extremely important thing to get done.

When I had my first meeting with President Zelensky (in May 2018), I asked him about a good reform which has been done in the last year. Should we, Estonians, who have been heavily involved in these reforms, continue sharing our knowhow or will the baby get thrown out with the bathwater? He clearly said that there was good progress in the digitalization of the country and that these processes will continue. And they do continue. And we are speaking of a country which is struggling. Germany is very much struggling in doing something in digital which Ukraine took in its stride. Ukraine has Trembita. It is the platform on which all the Ukrainian public services will be digitally based in a couple of years. Think of it – it is a country at war, a country that does not have high-income rankings, but it is a country that is ready to offer digital services to tens of millions of people. To me, it sounds nothing less than promising for the Ukrainian economy the future.

As I told in the YES conference in Kyiv (in September 2019), I do not see in Europe any other region which could compete for foreign investments better than Ukraine. But on one condition – the rule of law. The second condition – the rule of law. The third condition – the rule of law. If Ukraine can achieve that, I am quite sure that there will be a lot of foreign investments coming in. Because Europe is full of money looking for a place to invest and get some return. Ukraine is there, ready to grow, full of potential, lacking only this one thing – the rule of law. And you know, all the rich people in Ukraine, your assets will be worth much more when Ukraine will be the country of rule of law. Because of the assets are in such a country, they will be much more liquid and their value will increase. I am rather sure that it is in the interests of absolutely everybody in Ukraine – business people, ordinary people, public sector – to rebuild Ukraine and I am quite confident that you will support and help your President to do so.

Ukraine's economy grew 3,4 percent last year and the forecast for this year is 4 percent. This is exceptional. If I may make a little advertisement for business people in this room. But there is still something else, which I cannot stress enough. This is the excellent tool at the disposal of the people and businesses of Ukraine. It is the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (AA/DCFTA) with the European Union. Only Europeans can pronounce Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement but actually this is what makes Ukraine really economically part of Europe. If a country once gains access to the European market, this country is out of the woods, I can tell you. Estonia was helped this way and I quite sure that this will be the case with Ukraine. So, the picture looks pretty good.

There is a lot of work to be done, plans are good. What about the execution? I know there is not a president in the world that is more impatient than President Zelensky. He is working hard to get the reforms done. And if he cannot make it, then we do not know what comes next. But I count on him being able to do it, so I am optimistic about Ukraine's domestic development but I have to come back to the topic that worries me much more. That is the external environment.

Russia clearly continues to support the rebels in the Donbas region. The casualties this year amount to already twenty. And what does Russia do? Actually, Russia seems to be interested in getting itself out of the corner over the Ukrainian question. I am worried about Europe’s eagerness to help Russia in a way that we might do this on the expense of Ukraine.

I have told this equation many times. I know there is this game going on. Russia moves 2 percent and since we are so eager to normalize these relations, we say that it was in fact 20 percent. Something gets done. It is no small thing. Exchange of prisoners and congratulations on being free, but it is a tiny step. The war continues. Crimea remains occupied. Three vessels were returned and it is a good thing. A good and a positive thing. But it was a problem created by Russia in Kerch Strait. Why are we so happy and eager to recognize that this was an important step? No, it was a small step. It was exactly one of those so-called 2 percent steps which only our side in our eagerness is sometimes ready to count as 20 percent. It was not a big step.

What would be a big step? President Zelensky took his big step. That was the promise of devolution of the regions of Ukraine. Not only Donbas, but all the regions of Ukraine. It was a huge step and politically it was not an easy one to take. Yet, he did it. What should we demand from the other side as a step of the same magnitude? In my understanding, nothing less than total withdrawal from Donbass region, and the monitoring mission. Where? On the border between Ukraine and Russia. I repeat, on the border, not on the conflict line. And only then can we have democratic elections in the (Donbas) region.

I do not think we should somehow try to make a compromise where President Zelensky has to give more than he already did with the devolution decision. I think we should stand strong with Ukraine. And the reason for this is very simple – after Georgia, we did not stand strong at all. And then Crimea happened, the avalanche arrived in Ukraine. We are not standing strong only for Ukraine. We are standing strong for Europe. Europe without wars. Because if we let these red lines to be passed, if we return to the business as usual, the question is what happens next? Because the equation will be: after Georgia – six months maybe, after Ukraine – six years maybe, after the next conflict – where it is tolerable. The western side, the rule of law side, the liberal democratic side will be so eager. And we will repeat the pattern because of our eagerness. So, we need to have strategic patience, I've said it so many times, and I cannot repeat it more. This is the best way we can help Ukraine in the future.