Oleksandr Shcherba, Ukrainian Ambassador to Austria, is quite active on his Facebook. He never hesitates to take part in a debate or discussion. He immediately responded on the pages of the leading Austrian periodical, Die Presse, to presidential candidate Norbert Hoffer’s statements about the lifting of sanctions against Russia and that the idea of Crimea as part of Ukraine was fundamentally erroneous. He also addressed a resonant message to the Europeans after the verdict in the Nadia Savchenko case. This diplomat is making every effort for the voice of Ukraine to be heard by the international community. Will this suffice to combat Russia’s propaganda machine? More on this in the following exclusive interview.
The first question posed the ambassador was about how bad the growing popularity of the Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs, the Freedom Party of Austria, with its presidential candidate Norbert Hoffer, is for Ukraine.
“The Freedom Party is actually far ahead of others in terms of popularity. As in the case with other rightist parties in Europe, the paradox is that this popularity is caused not by increasing public support, but by the decreasing support for a united Europe, with European optimism being replaced by rightist populism. As for sanctions against Russia, the idea of lifting them is widespread in the business and public circles. Politicians only reflect these moods and that is why I have to keep being a public figure. I’m trying to get across to the man in the street in the first place. Whether diplomacy will suffice to overcome these general European trends and outweigh the interests of big business that spell billions [of euros] is another matter. We have to keep active, keep moving forward because there is no alternative.”
Is the voice of Ukraine strong enough to counter such large scale campaigns as the Putinversteher one?
“On the one hand, there are active diplomats and nearly 12,000-strong ethnic Ukrainian community in Austria. On the other hand, Russia is quite active here, using unlimited financial resources. They can afford to rent the best palaces in Vienna for Russian banquets, presentations, avant-garde exhibits (with most guest stars actually being of Ukrainian and Jewish parentage). They can build a ramified network of various ‘interested’ experts. Can we get the better of this huge machine, relying only on enthusiasm and good will? Hard to say. We are serving the right cause and this is very important. We must keep up the good job. We simply can’t say that we’ve done all we could, period.”
UKRAINE, A NEW SPACE FOR EUROPEAN GROWTH
The Ukrainian community in Vienna is quite active, as evidenced by their rallies for Nadia Savchenko. After the verdict was read out in court, you addressed a message to the Europeans, urging them to pluck up the courage, look Russia in the eyes, and realize that it openly scorns “gay Europe.” What else could be done to help convey the stand taken by Ukraine to politicians and society?
“We mustn’t remain silent. You don’t always know that your voice will be heard. If you are a Ukrainian and live abroad, you mustn’t remain silent. You must talk to people living next door, publish your comments, write leaflets addressing politicians, collect money for Ukraine. You can’t just sit and sigh, saying tough luck for Ukraine with its politicians and people. I was so glad when almost 200 people gathered to demonstrate their support for Nadia Savchenko – and the fact didn’t pass unnoticed by Austrians. I write articles, meet with politicians, experts, students, businesspeople, for this means being active.
“Most importantly, we need more good news from Ukraine, a bigger presence of Ukrainian business. We’re trying to open the door for Ukrainian companies to operate on the Austrian market, to use the advantage of the Free Trade Area. Austria must understand that it will lose much by distancing itself from Russia, but that it also stands to gain much in Ukraine. Ukraine must present itself the way it is, a new space for European growth.”
There is the Ukrainian Circle, Vienna investors’ club under the embassy’s auspices. What do you think are the prospects of Austrian investments in Ukraine?
“These prospects are very real. Austria wants to invest in Ukraine, like other European countries. Ukraine is a land of vast opportunities and large market, and it is practically next door to Austria. What better place for inland investment? If only we could overcome the red tape, build a new image of our country, then investments would come pouring in. And there is definitely investment demand in Austria.
“The problem is Ukraine’s [international] image. There have been too many bitter disillusionments in Ukraine over the past couple of decades. This club was attached to the embassy in order to rid of them, to show Ukraine for what it really is. This club is an elite ground for business talks, for exchanging interesting and good news about Ukraine. On March 15, Johan Boden, the Swedish founder of Chumak Co., was invited to a club meeting. The man had come to Ukraine when he was 21 and eventually headed one of Ukraine’s largest food companies after the Soviet period. This successful Swedish businessman would often use the words ‘we Ukrainians…’ and this is much more important than tons of propaganda material.”
EUROPE IS LIVING IN A DIFFERENT REALITY
The subject of Ukraine appears to have faded into the background of European media, with such pressing issues as refugees and terrorism being at the forefront of the public mind, especially in view of what happened in Brussels. Do you think this will boost public support for the rightists in Europe?
“I don’t think that the absence of the Ukrainian theme on front pages is a very bad sign. The front pages are for hair-raising, breathtaking news, so the absence of Ukraine there means that there is less blood being shed there, God be praised. How the issue of sanctions will be resolved is a purely political matter. I hope that Austria will keep within the European mainstream rather than take a radical stand. Regrettably, right radical parties have been gaining strength all over Europe and Austria is no exception. This process will continue.”
You mean the influence of these parties will increase?
“I see no obstacles there.”
Is this having an impact on the presidential campaign?
“This is an important factor, but I don’t see it as a crucial one. The rightist radical Freedom Party’s candidate joined the race rather late, he is not in the lead, even though he is being supported. On the other hand, one shouldn’t underestimate rightist populism because it will continue playing a major role in domestic politics for quite some time.”
Norbert Hoffer has made statements in support of the anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement, something previously unheard of. What is Europe’s response?
“Europe is no longer shocked because Europe is living in a totally different reality than 10-15 years back. This reality is harsher and often more cynical. Radical anti-European parties have appeared in each country, including Germany, and their influence has been on an upward curve. This is something we have to keep in mind and brace ourselves to see members of these parties move from opposition to actual power.”
UNITED EUROPE HONEYMOON LONG SINCE PASSED
What about European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s initiative of a security alliance?
“That’s the logical consequence of events that have taken place over the past several years. The United Europe honeymoon is long since passed. Now is the time to consider joint protection of common national frontiers and combat terrorism, how to keep the Union in one piece with growing discord in the minds of Europeans.”
On April 6, the Dutch will hold a referendum on the Association Agreement. What do you predict?
“I don’t like predicting. This referendum is an important move, but I don’t think it is a decisive one. Ukraine and Europe signed the agreement and to me this is the most important thing. The Rubicon has been crossed. No one will be able to lower the level of our relationships with the EU after it was synchronously raised.”
AUSTRIAN PRESIDENT’S “TRAUMA”
Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer is to visit Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin in early April. What do you make of this visit as a diplomat?
“It means that the President of Austria has included Russia in the list of the last visits while in office. What concerns me is that Ukraine isn’t on that list.”
“President Fischer’s relationships with Ukraine are complicated. Azarov announced official Kyiv’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement precisely when Yanukovych was on a working visit to Vienna – and I mean the announcement was made exactly when Fischer and Yanukovych were in press conference. As Yanukovych was reiterating Ukraine’s irreversible European choice, Fischer was handed a sheet of paper with the latest news from Kyiv. I have since been constantly reminded of this coincidence, so I guess [the president must have sustained] a trauma of sorts.”
The issue of Ukrainian cultural centers abroad became topical after the revolution. Will there be a center in Austria?
“Objectively, there is no such center. We have a cultural attache and premises in Vienna suburbs that have been repaired, but no cultural center. The premises are rather a mini-dorm for cultural figures and officials on business trips. We hope to sell the premises in the suburb and buy smaller premises in downtown Vienna. We want to have a real cultural center that could be active, where we could carry out various cultural projects. We have such plans.”