Question: On 21 December Brussels hosted a final ministerial meeting to discuss Russia’s concerns over Ukraine’s and the EU’s intention to start the temporary application of the trade and economic section of their 2014 Association Agreement (AA) from 1 January 2016. The Foreign Ministry wrote on its website that the sides failed to reach agreement at that meeting. What is the reason for the lack of results?
Maria Zakharova: We said everything in that comment. We are indeed disappointed because we were sincere and persistent in our efforts to come to terms. Our experts held 16 rounds of talks and all in vain. It transpired that the consent of the EU and Ukraine to delay the application of the AA trade and economic section was merely a manoeuvre and a tactical trick, whereas in reality neither Brussels nor Kiev was going to come to terms on anything. Moreover, throughout this period, Ukraine was openly tailoring its legislation to the AA requirements. The EU was turning a blind eye to these efforts, routinely referring to Ukraine’s “sovereign choice.” In reality, Ukraine is being pushed to violate its bilateral commitments to us, including those on the CIS free trade area, while we are told to look at this as nothing special and not to react.
Question: The Ukrainian media claim that during the talks Russia insisted on keeping in place “backward and obsolete” requirements and standards in Ukraine and went out of its way to prevent the EU-Ukraine association. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin said Russia demands that Ukraine should join all of the bans on supplies of goods from third countries introduced by Russia. Is this so?
Maria Zakharova: This is not an unwitting distortion of our position but a deliberate manipulation of facts. We merely suggested that there be a transitional period during which Russian and Ukrainian enterprises could use both the EU’s and GOST standards (given the quality of produce matches these standards) that had been drafted in the CIS in the past few years with Ukraine’s active participation. There are no grounds to call them obsolete. They are indeed different from the EU’s – sometimes substantially and sometimes just a bit, which is normal. Most modern states have their own system of technical regulations. The arrangement we proposed would not contradict the AA norms, while the enterprises of both countries would receive an opportunity to comfortably adapt to the changing market conditions.
Thus, Ukraine’s assertion does not correspond to reality. The talk about technical progress conceals the real interest of the partners – to oust Russian exporters from the traditional market by artificial means. This move will add problems to Ukraine’s business as well. We are already used to the lack of elementary logic and common sense in many actions of the Ukrainian authorities, and that is up to them but in this case our interests are at stake and we may sustain real financial losses. So we are not going to accept this situation.
As for the afore-mentioned statements by Mr Klimkin, he is bound to know that the suggested formulas are designed to prevent the re-export to Russia of food products that are banned for sanitary and phyto-sanitary reasons, something Ukraine is obliged to do under international law. No one demands that Kiev should comply with other bans in its relations with third countries. What’s the point of misguiding Ukrainians? This is a question for the Ukrainian minister.
Question: Why enshrine in the joint document what Ukraine is obliged to do anyway?
Maria Zakharova: Because we know the worth of “verbal agreements” and want Kiev and Brussels to bear responsibility together for the failure to comply with what seems to be such obvious commitments. There are also doubts regarding the EU’s real intentions. For a long time, the EU tried to convince us on the record that it was not going to face Ukraine and our other common neighbours with a choice – either the EU or Russia – in the framework of its Eastern Partnership initiative. While holding non-transparent talks with Ukraine on the AA, the EU was reassuring us that the signing of this agreement would not damage our interests. In the meantime, Brussels knew very well what it was doing, as it deliberately laid the groundwork for an artificial split between two fraternal nations, the economies of which are so closely intertwined.
We warned about the danger of this scenario, but our warnings were ignored. As a result, there was the anti-constitutional coup on the Maidan, Crimea’s voluntary accession to Russia, a civil war in Ukraine, the radicalisation of political life, thousands of victims, a disintegrating economy and lots of new problems. Certain forces are shamelessly trying to blame Russia for all these troubles, forgetting who was twisting the arms of the then Ukrainian Government to impose on Ukraine this unprofitable and crippling agreement. The outcome of this experiment on people is still unclear. We do not want to be a part of it. Let those who made this mess bear responsibility for it. Yet we have our own interests that we are not going to forego.
Question: In an interview ahead of the ministerial meeting in Brussels, EU Ambassador to Ukraine Jan Tombinski claimed that the terms of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement were known five years before it was signed. However, you say that the negotiation process was not transparent. Could you comment on these remarks?
Maria Zakharova: We are accustomed to the fact that it is useless trying to look for the truth in the remarks of EU officials on the Eastern Partnership as a whole and the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in particular. It is difficult to say what their motives are. It seems that their only motivation is to sell this document to the Ukrainian and European public, the benefits of which are dubious for Ukraine, to put it mildly, while the losses are obvious. What a load of fantasies and brazen lies we had to hear on this issue from the EU in recent years! Suffice it to recall the remarks of EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, to the effect that Russia purportedly had its own draft agreement with the EU, similar to Ukraine’s, work on which was simply put on hold for various reasons. It turns out that Russia may do what Ukraine may not! It’s only that he left out of the equation the fact that the New Basic Agreement between Russia and the EU is incomparable to the Association Agreement in the scope of obligations involved and is equal. Russia would simply not have accepted anything less no matter how much the EU might have wanted it to. However, the word was out, the public heard it, but no one bothered to refute it.
The same goes for the transparency of negotiations on the Association Agreement. Mr Tombinski is not the only one who keeps saying that this process was transparent for us and that Russia knew everything but missed the bus. It cottoned on and is now trying to impede Ukraine’s European integration. This sounds fine but is out of sync with reality. The text of the draft Association Agreement with the appendices (and they are very important for the assessment of its content) was not officially published until the summer of 2014. Only a small group of experts worked on it. Not only Russia but even Ukrainian business people knew nothing about the agreements that had been reached. What’s more, we were assured that the signing of the Association Agreement would not in any way affect Ukraine’s obligations within the framework of the CIS or bilateral agreements with us. As it turns out, it has affected them very much. Ukraine is unable to meet a significant part of them. Today, the EU and Ukrainian authorities no longer deny this.
It should also be recalled that following the publication of the draft, the Ukrainian public was somewhat stunned. There were a lot of critical remarks against the Association Agreement, which were eventually heeded by the country’s leaders at the time. But who remembers this today? In today’s post-Maidan Ukraine, it is not so much politically incorrect as dangerous to criticise the Association Agreement and European integration. In addition, the EU wants to dispel all doubts as soon as possible, feeding Ukrainian society all sorts of political promises, such as, for example, the prospect of visa-free travel. As if this alone is enough to ensure the well-being of a country with a 40 million population! Average people have other things to think about. They have to survive. The Association Agreement is the last concern on their minds, especially considering that everyone on TV is saying that this is a success, a breakthrough and a harbinger of a bright future.
Question: What has Russia been trying to achieve at the negotiations? Why did these demands prove excessive for the EU and Ukraine?
Maria Zakharova: It was important for us, above all, to secure guarantees that Ukraine will adhere to its obligations to us in the framework of bilateral and multilateral agreements even after the temporary application of the AA trade and economic section. After all, it is not us who created a situation where the rules of trade between Moscow and Kiev start changing without our interests and positions taken into account. In essence, as I said earlier, leaving aside the fine rhetoric about Ukraine’s sovereign choice, the modernising effect of its transition to EU norms and standards, and so on, the EU is simply trying to crowd Russia out of the Ukrainian market. Even if the volume of our trade with Ukraine has significantly declined recently (mainly due to the accelerating crisis-related phenomena in our neighbour’s economy), we have to think about the time when it will begin to recover and grow. This is when the “innovations” pushed through by the EU will become a real trade barrier to Russian companies and businesses. Why should we tolerate this situation?
Question: Did the EU and Ukraine take a unified stance during the talks?
Maria Zakharova: The tone was set by the EU, and the Ukrainians tried to be in line with the EU approach. Occasionally, things went to ridiculous lengths, although there’s nothing funny about it. Even when during the final stages of the negotiations the Ukrainian representatives demonstrated their willingness to discuss matters that cause our concern and try to reach an agreement on them – which was quite possible at times – they got slapped on the wrist by European Commission members claiming that it allegedly contradicted EU law. To our proposals to discuss these issues in a trilateral format, which we called for from day one, the EC said that it’s between them and the Ukrainians, and we should stay out of it.
Question: The EU believes we overreacted to their decision to create a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU, saying that there are many such zones around the world and that they don’t bother neighbouring countries. Why are we so critical about creating such a free trade zone? Isn’t it good for Ukraine, and why can’t Ukraine be part of two free trade zones, one with the EU and one with Russia/the CIS?
Maria Zakharova: The EU deliberately understates the scope of its free trade zone agreement with Ukraine. It’s not a standard, but a deep and comprehensive one, whereby Ukraine must unconditionally adopt the EU rules and standards. This is the problem. How this can be reconciled with its commitments as a CIS member is a question which has so far remained unanswered. Say, in May 2015, Russia, alongside other EAEU countries, signed a free trade agreement with Vietnam. On December 2, Hanoi finalised the agreement on establishing a free trade zone with the EU. However, Vietnam hasn’t assumed the game-changing obligations to switch to EU standards, so the terms and conditions for our companies on Vietnam’s market have remained intact. In addition, Vietnam continues to honour its obligations with regard to us, and we see no risks of it failing to do so in the future. However, Ukraine is different.
Essentially, Kiev was forced to sign the same agreement and to assume the same scope of obligations as Poland, the Baltic states and other candidates for EU membership. But there’s a difference: candidate countries had their prospects of EU membership clearly spelled out. This provided them with an opportunity to have equal access to the EU common market. No such promise was given to Ukraine. Moreover, the Association Agreement includes numerous quotas and restrictions, which makes it a one-way-street document that opens the Ukrainian market to European goods. The former Ukrainian leaders saw the light at the last moment and refused to sign it, but our Western colleagues thought otherwise. The result is what happened.
In addition to its role of a disenfranchised EU market participant, Ukraine is now in danger of losing the Russian market as well, which is unlikely to promote its growth. We wanted to avoid such a scenario, and shield ourselves against EU products making it to Russia under the guise of Ukrainian goods and against a significant increase in exports of Ukrainian goods ousted from the Ukrainian market by EU products. If the Ukrainian politicians believe that giving their economy up to the EU is good for their country, so be it. We, and many independent experts, see this differently, but we are not imposing our view of the situation. We just want to avoid getting hurt in the current situation.
Question: What other specific measures, in addition to using both standards at the same time, which you have already mentioned, did Russia offer during the talks?
Maria Zakharova: Our proposals can be summarised as follows. First, as I mentioned, we wanted Ukraine to provide a written confirmation that it will be able to meet its CIS obligations and bilateral agreements with us after it signs the Association Agreement.
In addition, we wanted the process of the Ukrainian sanitary and phytosanitary control bodies switching to EU standards to be transparent. As is known, we have many questions for the European Union in this area, and we didn’t want them to spill over into our relations with Kiev. Also, we pushed for prompt provision of comprehensive information about EU goods and vehicles supplied to Ukraine. Without it, it is impossible to assess the risk of EU goods getting re-exported to Russia. The ensuing developments have confirmed the validity of such a question coming from us: a sharp increase in the amount of goods delivered from Ukraine in recent months has been reported. We believe that the risk of these products coming from Europe is quite high. We have also come up with a number of technical proposals, but they were all turned down. The only thing the EU proposed was to create monitoring working groups on the key problem areas, but these groups weren’t vested with any powers. We have nothing against such groups, but what’s the point of creating them? Making reports? This is unlikely to resolve any problems. No alternative effective mechanism was offered.
Most importantly, we insisted on all agreements having a binding force for Ukraine, the EU and Russia. However, the EU and the Ukrainians were willing to sign only communiqués, which are not binding. That didn’t suit us. Explanations provided by Brussels to the effect that it doesn’t have enough time for carrying out proper procedures with the member states that are needed for a legally binding document doesn’t hold water. We discussed this form of agreement 18 months ago. Such excuses are just indicative of their initial unwillingness to agree with Russia on anything.
During the talks in Brussels, the Russian delegation was prepared to seek mutually acceptable solutions until the last moment. To see this, all you have to do is to go over the text to see our proposals, which we were making before almost every round. The talks were terminated by the EU.
What’s all the more surprising is that Brussels and Kiev are shamelessly trying to put the blame for what happened on us. Well, we are used to it, and we came prepared. Apparently, this is all the EU and the Ukrainian diplomacy are capable of now.