“Ukraine needs to declare neutrality.”
That is not a popular position in Kyiv and nor would it please Washington or Berlin. Luckily Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France who is suggesting it, is not in a position to push it on Ukraine. But because he is not in office, de Villepin can say out loud what others are just thinking and he has remained an important voice in Europe for this reason.
“We live in a world of distrust. There is tension between Europe and Russia, between the countries on the shores of the South China Sea. Dialogue is the key. If you understand the fears of the person in front of you then you have made a huge step towards finding the solution to your problems,” de Villepin told bne IntelliNews on the sidelines of the Dialogue of Civilisations’ Rhodes Forum on October 6.
The theme of a rift ran through almost all the debates at the Rhodes conference where academics, presidents, prime ministers and civil society groups gather each year on the Greek island to debate the problems of the world. The conclusion was that polarisation is getting worse, creating an increasingly dangerous situation and no one has any real solutions to the problems.
“We see new rifts in Europe, between the EU and Russia, and within Europe too amongst the western democracies. And we seem to be failing to find solutions to these problems. Other countries, like Turkey, seem to be choosing authoritarian paths to deal with these problems,” says de Villepin. “Why are the presidents of Moldova and Bulgaria pro-Russia? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.”
But none of these problems are new, argues de Villepin, who is probably most famous for his impassioned speech to the UN assembly arguing against the US invasion of Iraq. He suggests we have been naïve following the fall of the Berlin Wall 23 years ago on October 3, 1989.
“Was it the end of history? The end of something? Wrong,” de Villepin says, getting into a full rhetorical flow. “If there was a winner, then there has to be a looser. The liberal capitalist western view of the world was the winner. But the loser was the rest of the world. You can’t win a fight by a knock out blow in international politics. We forgot about the inequalities that were created. We forgot about the poverty. We forgot about epidemics, the displaced. The world has been suffering in 1989, with 9/11 in 2001, with the Iraq war in 2003 and with the financial crisis in 2008. It’s time we woke up and saw what the real world looks like.”
But probably the most controversial comments de Villepin made concerned Ukraine. Europe, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has nailed its flag to the post on the Minsk II process, which has now stalled and is going nowhere. De Villepin suggests it is time to reassess the situation and look at alternatives.
“You have to ask yourself: what is the future of Ukraine? Where is it going geopolitically, historically and culturally? But it is clear that the country will have to have relations with the US, Russia and the EU. So the obvious solution is for Ukraine to declare neutrality,” de Villepin says.
It's a solution that will please nobody, but could work. The country is sharply divided into pro-EU and pro-Russia camps that are roughly split along a line through the middle of the country. Europe, and especially the US, could accept this proposal, as while they don’t necessarily want Ukraine in their camp, their support for Ukraine was to keep it out of Russia’s camp. Of all the players, the Kremlin would possibility be the most happy with this solution given one of its major goals includes preventing Ukraine from ever joining Nato.
De Villepin believes the Normandy format meetings are the mechanism that can deliver on this idea and help carve out a new status for Ukraine in the heart of Europe that would be acceptable to everyone. That doesn't preclude close ties with the EU and expanded trading relations under the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) that has just gone into effect. Russia has said all along that it doesn't have any objection to the DCFTA, provided it reflects and takes into account its own interests, as the Ukraine/Russia border used to be open and tariff free.
De Villepin doesn't have the power or a formal role to make this happen. But his suggestion of neutrality for Ukraine is indicative of a growing “Ukraine fatigue” amongst donors as Kyiv backslides on almost the whole of its IMF programme commitments. The Rada just passed a pension reform that was one of several crucial reforms demanded by the IMF, but watered down the terms. It is also proposing to renege on promises to hike domestic gas tariffs just as the heating season starts by significantly reducing the amount by which they will be increased. And a proposed land market reform has been abandoned completely and won’t be attempted until after the presidential elections in 2019 – if then. All this has partly been made possible by a recent $3bn Eurobond issue that has considerably weakened the IMF’s leverage and the government says it has more bond placements in the pipeline for next year too. But resolving the conflict with Russia is the starting point for any long-term reform and recovery of the country.
“Neutrality would create a new situation for politics and the economy. Then Russia and the US could find solutions where their own interests are not the issue. The only interest that counts in this situation is: what is in the best interests of the Ukrainian people. We need to forget about dreams as they won’t solve anything,” says de Villepin.