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A Fly on the Wall in Brussels

The rest of the notorious ‘sniper’ phone conversation is an edifying peek at the EU’s approach to Kyiv.

by Barbara Frye 11 March 2014

Most of us are used to politicians lying or at least being stingy with the truth in public. That’s one reason leaked telephone conversations or diplomatic cables are met with such glee: they tell us what those leaders are really thinking, when they think we’re not listening.


So the leaked telephone call between Estonia’s foreign minister, Urmas Paet, and the EU’s foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, in which Paet relayed one physician-activist’s contention that the same snipers had been firing on police and protesters alike in Kyiv – and that those snipers are linked to Ukraine’s new coalition government – was a bull’s eye for those who want to discredit the new government.


Adding to the indictment was Paet’s account of his conversations with some activists who, he said, hold in low esteem most members of the new government.


All of this deserves an airing and the sniper allegations certainly deserve an investigation (which, by the way, both Paet and Ashton supported, although they disagreed on whether Ukraine’s interim government did).


But let us not be stingy with the truth, either. There are other, non-sniper-related, parts of that conversation that bear repeating, too.


EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visits protesters on the streets of Kyiv in December. To her right is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, now the interim prime minister. Photo by European External Action Service - EEAS/Flickr


Just back from a visit to Ukraine, Paet calls for “this very clear message which is needed that it’s not enough that there is change of government but the same real reforms, real, you know, action to increase the level of trust, otherwise it will end badly.”


To which Ashton gives a quick rundown of the financial aid that Brussels is considering for Ukraine, then adds:


On the political side, we’ve worked out resources we’ve got and I offered to civil society and to [interim Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk and [Vitali] Klitschko and everybody I met yesterday, ‘We can offer you people who know how to do political and economic reform. The countries that are closest to Ukraine have themselves been through dramatic changes and have done big political and economic reforms, so we’ve got loads of experience to give you, which we’re happy to give.’ I said to the people in Maidan, ‘Yes, you want real reforms, but you’ve got to get through the short term first. So you need to find ways in which you can establish a process that will have anti-corruption at its heart, that will have people working alongside until the elections and that you can be confident in the process.’


But I also said to them, ‘If you simply barricade the buildings now and the government doesn’t function, we can’t get money in, because we need a partner to partner with.’


And I said to the opposition leaders, shortly to become government, ‘You need to reach out to Maidan, you need to be, you know, engaging with them. You also need to get ordinary police officers back on the streets under a new sense of their role, so that people feel safe.’


I said to the Party of the Regions people, ‘You have to go and lay flowers where the people died. You have to show that you understand what has happened here because what you’re experiencing is anger of people who’ve seen the way that Yanukovych lived and the corruption, and they assume you’re all the same. And also the people who’ve lost people who feel that, you know, he ordered that to happen.’ There’s quite a lot of shock in the city, I think, a lot of sadness and shock, and that’s going to come out in some very strange ways if they’re not careful.


This is exactly what we should expect from European (or any) leaders: engagement with all sides, an embrace of reform and reconciliation, a rejection of corruption, and a focus on short- and long-term perspectives for the country’s development.


I look forward to the leak of an unguarded telephone conversation between Vladimir Putin and his political allies in Crimea (or anyone) in which the Russian president articulates the same values.

Barbara Frye is TOL's managing editor.
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