Q: You took part in the 12th Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting (Sept. 10–12). What are your impressions?
BHL: I was struck by Victor Pinchuk’s ability to bring together people as diverse as Shimon Peres and Tony Blair; Elton John and Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Bill Clinton and an Australian billionaire who talked about new forms of slavery; and former French cabinet minister Pierre Lellouche and Lawrence Summers, not to mention the surrealist video appearance of Donald Trump. I know of no event like it in Europe. There is Davos, of course. But I find at Yalta, now held in Kyiv, a poetic dimension that is missing from Davos, which is all business all the time.
Q: You come to Kyiv regularly. What did you find this time?
A country exhausted but still on its feet. Bled by the war but, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expectations, standing firm. People are tired, of course, having suffered so much over the past two years,having made so many sacrifices. And it would be so good to be able to see, or at least glimpse, some light at the end of the tunnel. But despite all this Ukraine is not giving up. And my feeling is that confidence in Petro Poroshenko, in his broad strategic choices, remains intact. There is some social discontent, I suppose. Economic problems, of course. But, at bottom, Putin has not succeeded in dividing the country or in sowing doubt.
Q: You met with President Poroshenko. What is your take?
I saw him twice. First at YES, where he gave a very strong and churchillian speech. And then again today (Sept. 12), privately, to discuss the international situation, Ukraine and France,as well as other topics. His position is very clear.He will continue to observe the letter of the Minsk accords. But he will not tolerate any failure of the other side—I mean the Russians—to do the same. And that does not mean just observing the ceasefire. It also applies to the question of elections. The Minsk signatories agreed not to accept phony elections not held under Ukrainian law. Which means that if rogue elections were to take place in October in the eastern part of the country that would pose a problem for all four participants in the Normandy format. All four would be accountable. Starting with Putin, of course.
Q: Some in Ukraine believe that reforms are not proceeding fast enough.
BHL: From the outside looking in, I find the opposite: that reforms are moving quickly. Notably the creation of institutional tools to combat the deadly plague of corruption.Compare Ukraine with Greece. Greece is already a member of the European Union, and, as such, was supposed to have met the conditions required for integration into Europe years ago. It has just shown ushow far behind it is, how reluctant it is to construct the bare minimum of a functioning state without which membership in Europe makes no sense.Ukraine, by contrast, is looking like the model student in the European classroom. The reforms that Greece has not accomplished in the space of ten years, you are doing in one. Which,incidentally, points to a real injustice: Greece, a failed state that defies the European community and still has not done much to modernize, receives 20 times more money than Ukraine, which, despite the war, is charging ahead with reforms. That is not right.
Q: Was that the theme of your presentation at the YES Annual Meeting?
BHL: Yes, one of them. The other was truth in the face of the war of narratives between Russia and Ukraine. Remember what George Orwell said about history being the bedside reading of tyrants? Well, that is how Putin is behaving. He is waging war with tanks but also with words, with distortions of history, with revisionism. I gave three examples of those revisions in my presentation at YES: That of the eastern provinces supposedly persecuted by the evil fascists of the west. That of the Holodomor, where the Kremlin’s historians are devoting considerable energy to revising the figures downward, to minimizing the crime, to submerging it in a food crisis that supposedly affected the entire Soviet Union, and to denying that there was ever any intention to do harm. And finally that of the liberation of Auschwitz: I showed (quickly, but, I hope, effectively) that it is historically accurate to say that Ukrainian soldiers liberated the camp.
Q: A year ago you launched the idea of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine. Where does that stand?
It is in the early stages. The two large Ukrainian federations (employers and workers) have adopted the idea. The president of the employers’ federation, DmitrO Firtash, commissioned a group of international experts whose recommendations are expected in the next few weeks. What will those recommendations be? I have no idea. I know only that the experts in question are recognized authorities in their fields and that new ideas could appear on building a state based on the rule of law, on public finances, on ways to eradicate corruption, on setting up a health system, and so on. Afterwards, if the proposals really are good, they will belong to Ukrainian civil society.
Q: Do you feel that Europe remains engaged by the Ukrainian question? With Greece, which you mentioned, and now with the refugee crisis, is there not a risk that Ukraine will be forgotten?
BHL: No. Because, for Europe, Ukraine is not just another question. It is a central question. Perhaps the central question. It is like a front line separating Europe from the new, expansionist Russian empire. You are the front line. You are the sentinel. The defense of Ukraine is, for Europe, a question of self defense. It is not a humanitarian question. It is not even a question of growth, economic partnership etc. What is at stake in Ukraine is truly the security and the future of the continent.