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Heads up – Embassy 31

Marking a milestone

Volodymr Khandogiy used to be a multi-millionaire, but Ukraine’s Ambassador to London does not miss the zeroes on his paycheck.

Smiling, he takes a card folder off his shelf with examples of Ukrainian ‘coupons’ or Karbovanets, the currency introduced shortly after independence, with some notes denominated in millions.

“My salary was 10 million – and the inflation rate was 1000 per cent! Nobody knew how to organise the economy,” he recalls.

This year, Ukraine celebrates 20 years of independence and the country has made huge strides since those early chaotic days. “We have emerged from the Soviet Union into a recognised European democracy, which other countries took centuries to achieve,” says the Ambassador.

He was a diplomat at the UN when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed and he remembers the intense diplomatic activity. “The race was on to get recognition, establish diplomatic relations and open embassies around the world,” says Khandogiy, who was deputy foreign minister from 1995-98. He developed the habit of keeping menus from meetings and his collection is a reminder of his extensive travels.

In 1998 he was appointed Ambassador to Canada, then Netherlands in 2000-02 (where he also served on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), followed by six years in Belgium as Ambassador and Ukraine’s Head of Mission to NATO.

A decade after he first served as Deputy Foreign Minister, he was given the job again (2006-2007). By then the political landscape in Ukraine had changed following the Orange Revolution. Khandogiy was in charge of US, Europe and Nato relations and was later promoted to First Deputy Minister.

Then for seven months in 2009 he served as Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs (March-October 2009), a tough brief which included smoothing over ties with Russia after the bitter row over gas price hikes plunged relations into a deep freeze.

“Ukraine and Russia are like Siamese twins – we don’t always get along but we cannot live without each other,” says the Ambassador with a wry smile. “But today our relations are on a much better footing.”

On the critical issue of energy security for Ukraine and Europe, the Ambassador says: “We need to find a fair solution to the issue of pricing to satisfy all the parties – Russia as a producer, Europe as a consumer and Ukraine as a transit country. It’s not in our interests to disrupt the flow of oil or gas to the West because we get profit from it. What happened in the past was politically rather than economically motivated.”

A photo on the Ambassador’s shelf depicts him and the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov playing football with each other. It prompts the obvious question whether Ukraine feels like a geopolitical football between Europe and Russia.

“We are where we are – in the middle,” smiles Khandogiy, adding that the government elected last year prefers to take a pragmatic approach: “Our basic principle from now on is to be a good neighbour to all.”

Ukraine, which is in the process of finalising an association agreement with the EU, is stepping up its campaign for full membership. It’s an aspiration supported by more than three quarters of the population, yet the EU is not so unequivocal, he remarks.

“We are going to have to make some sacrifices to enter the European free trade zone, so we would like a provision in the agreement that gives us a clear-cut signal that, provided we meet the requirements, we will become a member down the line. Some countries, the UK among them, are keen for us to join, but there are countries that are reluctant.”

NATO membership, meanwhile, divides opinion in Ukraine, and has been put on ice. “It has to do with the reminiscences of the Cold War,” explains Khandogiy. “But we have not given up on NATO; rather the government wants to develop pragmatic relations that are in the interests of NATO and Ukraine.”

This sort of pragmatic approach is the hallmark of the Yanokovich administration, which will focus on delivering reforms in the economy, the justice system, social security and fighting against “intolerable” corruption, says Khandogiy.

The key to this is political stability, he adds: “Following the Orange Revolution we had a tug-o-war between the three branches of power but today we have a president, government and parliament working together.”

The Ambassador hopes political stability will start to attract investment to boost Ukraine’s economy which was hit hard by the global financial crisis. “Now we are climbing out of this difficult situation slowly but steadily,” he says.

Overcoming adversity is something Ukrainians have done many times in their long history, surviving war, famine – and nuclear meltdown. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and this month Ukraine hosts an international conference on nuclear safety, an issue made all the more relevant by the nuclear crisis in Japan following the earthquake.

We can learn from history, says Ambassador Khandogiy – perhaps his hobby of collecting antique table lighters in car-boot sales has taught him that if you look carefully among the relics of the past, you often find a light.

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HE Mr Volodymr Khandogiy

“Following the Orange Revolution we had a tug-o-war between the three branches of power but today we have a president, government and parliament working together”

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