"We might live in a dangerous world soon"

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Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski about the necessities of sanctions against Russia, the European future of Ukraine and the role of the EU in laundering money.

Radoslaw Sikorski, 51, foreign minister of Poland since 2007 studied in England since 1981 and became Poland correspondent of the "Sunday Times" after the fall of the Iron curtain. He then also briefly acted as advisor for media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Since 1992 Sikorski has been a member of various Polish governments. Under the conservative prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski he was defense minister, now he serves under the pro-European and German-friendly government of Donald Tusk., who like Sikorski is a member of the liberal Civic Platform Party. Sikorski, known for his sharp tongue, negotiated together with the German and French foreign ministers an agreement between then president Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition on February 21 in Kiev. "If you don't sign this", he told the protesters on Maidan, "You will get martial law. You will all die." Sikorski is married to US historian Anne Applebaum.

Profil: You were crucial in negotiating the agreement of February 21. Do you see room for compromise now? Can the government in Kiev live with the fact that Crimea will stay under Russian control?

Sikorski: An armed takeover of territory would be an extremely difficult matter for any government to accept. And Ukraine should be congratulated for how responsibly it has handled the situation. Which is why we have avoided casualties so far. I hope we continue to avoid casualties and the best way to continue to do that would be for Russia to start talking to the government in Kiev which has got 82 Percent of approval in a democratically elected parliament.

Profil: The Russian government sees it differently and calls the events in the Ukraine a “coup”.

Sikorski: But it is a fact that this government was democratically legitimized. What we need to reach among all parties is respect for international norms and rules that we have developed after the horrible experiences of the 20iest century – the Second World War and the Cold War. We have agreed in Europe that issues to do with ethnic minorities should be handled by bodies that we have created for that purpose – OSCE with its headquarters in Vienna. And the Council of Europe. Almost every country in Europe has some issues with minorities. But we have learned to resolve these issues through dissolving boundaries and satisfying legitimate aspirations and not through changing borders by force. I expect people in Austria to know as much as we do in Poland what a dangerous precedent the Russian Anschluss of Crimea is.

Profil: Are you worried that it will flair up around you – in the Baltics?

Sikorski: A few days ago I was in Narva, a border town of Estonia on the Russian border. Inhabited by 97 percent Russians. If countries start granting themselves the right to intervene militarily supposedly in defense of their cultural compatriots we will end up in a very dangerous world.

Profil: Which sanctions would you like to impose on Russia? A travel ban for Russian officals responsible for the Crimea takeover? And a freeze for their assets in the West? The UK is not very much in favour of anything which could harm London as financial hub.

Sikorski: The UK like all governments are estimating costs.  That is only reasonable. We also have huge trade and big investments in Russia. And in Austria you have big interest in the Ukraine and Russia, too. We are discussing various options now among the European Union members and the United States. If nothing is done to deescalate tensions and the so called “referendum” in Crimea is held on Sunday, we will present a list of sanctions at the  foreign affairs council on Monday in Brussels.

Profil: So what will you as foreign minister of Poland ask for?

Sikorski: We in the EU have done sanctions before. We have imposed – Austria supported this, too – sanctions on Mr. Yanukovich and his thieves. But sanctions should not be a semi judicial way of punishing politicians after they have fallen from power. They should rather be an instrument of policy to affect the behavior while politicians are still in power: For when they lie to their own people that they don’t have bank accounts abroad. Or when they lie that they have no assets and that they are poor as church mice. At the same time they are laundering their stolen funds through banks and companies in countries of EU to build their horrible tasteless residencies. We as Europe need to decide whether we want to participate in this process of stealing property from the people of these countries.

Profil: Would you then not need to ask for sanctions imposed on the president of Russia, Wladimir Putin, who officially has a salary of 90.000 Euros per year?

Sikorski: Heads of State always enjoy some immunity. But we have seen something unprecedented. The upper house of the Russian parliament voted on March 1st to justify a military intervention in a neighbouring country for no particular reason. I don’t know how people in Austria feel about this, but we feel worried about it.

Profil: How can we convince the Russians to back down? Sanctions might lead to an even harsher aggression. Putin seems to be in aggressive mood since his Sochi games did not make the world love the Russian more….

Sikorski: Actually, we Poles loved the Olympic games in Sochi. They were well organized and we won four gold medals!

Profil: Congratulations.

Sikorksi: Sanctions do not always work – but in South Africa they worked and in Iran they seem to have worked. The EU should play to its strength. We have the largest economy on earth and we are the place where Russian oligarchs and Russian decision makers seem to like sending their wives on shopping trips and their daughters to university. Well, that requires that in Europe we should all behave like Europeans.

Profil: How drastically will the first sanctions of Europe and America against Russia since the end of the Cold War change the political climate in Europe?

Sikorksi: We are all consumers of Russian gas and Russian oil. Austria is, again, an important hub for the distribution of Russian gas. And good luck to you in that business. But our consumers in Europe have been overpaying for that gas for years because of monopoly clauses in various contracts. The Chinese are offering up to 160 Dollars per 1000 cubic meter for Russian gas. Internal price in the United States is 60 Dollars pe. And Poland pays up to 400! We pay more than Germany even though we are closer to the sources.

Profil:  You should have had a Polish Gerhard Schröder in Putin’s court…

Sikorski: It is shameful for a former German chancellor to be an employee of Gazprom. The European Commission should speed up its work on creating a competitive European gas market and make sure that companies obey rules of free market. So that we can continue to buy Russian gas but protect the interests of our consumers.

Profil: You strongly supported the opposition in the Ukraine even before president Viktor Yanukovich left the country. The Germans openly supported Vitali Klitschko. Was your support too one sided for this very sensitive situation?

Sikorski: We should not interfere in the presidential election campaign in the Ukraine.  It’s up to the Ukrainian people to decide. All I can say is that prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk is someone who is experienced, a former foreign minister. He is also someone who is competent and patriotic. He seems to be ready to carry out difficult reforms, which Ukraine needs to put its finances in order. I will also say that it is absurd to denounce him as a radical given the fact that already in our negotiations on the 20th of February it was assumed that Arseni Yatseniuk would become prime minister. It was accepted by all of us – including the special envoy from the Kremlin, Ambassador Vladimir  Lukin.

Profil: Many observers are astonished how rational the Polish government has been in the whole debate about Ukraine – after all Lwiw was once Lwow and part of Poland.

Sikorski: I am upset that you find it astonishing that we are rational.

Profil: Even in Austria we sometimes still feel closeness to cities and regions which have formerly been part of the Austrian empire.

Sikorski: We Poles did not enjoy being torn apart by neighbors, including by Austria. And we are not about to start doing it to our neighbors. You Austrian have learned your lessons, too.

Profil: Did we?

Sikorski: I was skiing in the Dolomites with my family, when I had to go to Kiev last month. South Tyrol was once a part of Austria. Nationalist passions were vivid there as late as the Seventies. And you Austrians managed to make a deal with Italy on greater local autonomy including in the tax area while respecting the results of WW1 and WW2 and Italian souveranity. That is the way we have learned to deal with these issues. And this is the method that should be used further East, too. And not sending in special forces.

Profil: Was it shocking for you how quickly people in the West and in the East were ready to go back to old stereotypes of Russians invading Europe and fascism raising its head again in the West?

Sikorski: In each country there are people, which you would not invite home for dinner. In Austria you had Jörg Haider. In the Ukraine there are also some pretty radical people, but this is not what the Maidan was about. It was the protest of a whole generation of educated young Ukrainians who were hoping that Ukraine would go Poland’s way toward Europe. This hope was suddenly snatched from them by president Yanukovich actually acting under the threat of a trade boycott by Russia. And this is what the protests on Maidan were about. Then it swelled. And you can always find some radicals if you are dealing with tens of thousands of people. But one of the upsetting things in this crisis is that Russian propaganda has whipped up nationalist passions which are going to be very difficult to calm down again. To my knowledge not a single Russian or Russian speaker has so far been harmed. The only victims so far were some Ukrainians and Western journalists, who were whipped and beaten up by a group of Russian Cossacks.

Profil: It was maybe not very clever on the other hand of the Ukrainian interim government to immediately renounce the law about the rights of the Russian minority which included the use the Russian language as an official language.

Sikorski: It was not the Ukrainian government, which renounced it. It was the parliament before forming the government. And quite rightly the acting president vetoed that change. So there was the possibility of a mistake that never materialized. And I don’t see any evidence of Russian minority or Russian speakers having their rights limited in Eastern Ukraine or Crimea. And if there are any concerns – please send OSCE observers. Send the mission of the council of Europe. Like we do for example on the issue of the Polish minority in Lithuania. If there is a problem, we demand the special rapporteur of the council of Europe to go, check the situation and report back.

Profil: Russian media loves to report on the wealth of the oligarchs who were appointed as governors of cities like Donetsk. Was it clever to appoint a new class of super rich?

Sikorski: 35 percent of the wealth of Russia is owned by 110 individuals. I guess Russia knows a lot about oligarchic control of a country. I think what happened was that the Russian side was hoping to persuade the oligarchs to support a Russian intervention. And I think the criticism now is a result of disappointment.

Profil: When you came to study in the UK in 1981 martial law was introduced in Poland and you got political asylum. You are a personal example for how Poland found a good and safe place among the nations – in the European Union. Is this the reason why you and your government are now the voice of reason?

Sikorski: Perhaps? Just as we succeeded eventually to free ourselves from communist oppression in reforming our country and going to the European institutions, we believe that the longterm trend for Ukraine is the same. When you meet these young people in Kiev that is exactly what they say: We know it will be worse before it gets better. We need to carry out painful reforms, but we would like Ukraine to go Poland’s way. And when millions of people want that, it will be impossible to stop them. Russia has been radically underestimating the power of these people.

Profil: So far Ukraine is in deep crisis. What do you offer Ukraine now as first aid? EU membership? The old association agreement? Nato membership?

Sikorski: Nato membership is not in the cards. We are only talking about an EU association agreement at this stage. Free trade is not directed against anybody. Including Russia. We have carried out detailed studies, which prove that Russia will benefit from Ukraine having an association agreement with Europe. Just like Russia has benefited from Poland’s membership in the European Union. We now trade with Russia many times more than we did before.

Profil: Do you think European integration should get stronger not despite of but because of the recent crisis?

Sikorski: The situation in the Ukraine is another example of how the European Union should have even more cooperation in the Foreign policy field. I am speaking at an event to Euroskeptics in London and I want to ask them frankly: Do you really think that Britain could achieve anything acting alone over Syria, Iran or Ukraine? We know the answer to that. All European States are small by global measure. It is just that not all of them have realized this yet.

Profil: If you would be offered the post of European policy chief after Catherine Ashton - would you take it?

Sikorski: I’ not a candidate.

 

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz