Interview to 5.ua, published on 11/08/2015
– Why Ukraine? Why have you decided to work here?
I was leaving in different European countries for many years, mainly in the post-communist space: Latvia, Poland, Hungary – and traveling a lot across the region. Back in 2011, I had an opportunity to come and live in Ukraine, for personal reasons. I moved in back in April 2011. Following different set of meetings and opportunities, I started to work as a journalist and as a correspondent for French-speaking media. I never thought about leaving Ukraine since, and I already know that my life will intimately connected to this country for many years to come.
– Before Maidand and the war, Western mass media spoke little of Ukraine. Was Ukraine interesting in any way?
It’s not exactly that simple. Ukraine has been interesting to the world and to world media for a long time. Not interesting in terms of event and sensational affairs – but interesting in terms of discovering a country, cultural and folk stories, etc. Same thing happens with every country in the world – you don’t hear much about Iran, Argentina, Chad or Sweden apart from big events that produce an international echo.
Even if Western media were not talking about and discussing Ukraine every day, as it has been the case for the past two years, Ukraine was interesting anyway and mentioned on a regular basis. It was this big post-Soviet country, 46-million inhabitant strong, on the doorsteps of the EU and Russia, very diverse from Lviv to Donetsk, from Chernobyl to Crimea…
I can assure you that, as a foreign correspondent, I had plenty of work from the very beginning – Spring 2011 – until the start of the EuroMaidan. The difference which then occurred was in terms of quantity (I started to produce much more) and quality (I had much less time to focus on real issues as I was reporting on hard news)
– What kind of Ukrainians problems were you interested in before Maidan?
As a foreign correspondent connected more and more to Ukraine, I tried to associate my work and my personal interests – try to find some stories that were interesting in the country and relevant for a Western audience. Of course – the rise of the Family, Tymoshenko in jail, the language law, gas imports from Russia, perspectives of extracting shale gas, Euro 2012, the Kurchenko miracle, the Chocolate war, etc.
Yet it is important not to see journalism – and foreign reporting in Ukraine – not only as a matter of reporting on problems. Ukraine being this huge country, full of ideas and new initiatives that we saw booming on Maidan, I had the opportunity to report on local initiatives to improve villages’ lives, on citizen mobilisation against illegal construction projects, on new media, on innovating businesses, on cultural projects, etc.
This is something you might see on my blog if you scroll back in the past: www.nouvellesest.com
– You have traveled all over Ukraine. What is the difference between its regions?
The country is very diverse yet I would never have said that it was a divided country, at least not before the artificial divisions created by the annexation of Crimea and the war. Differences are obvious between Kyiv, Lviv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Chernivtsi, Uzhgorod… Evidently, one sees different regions and geographies, different pieces of history, different economic structures, different relations with different neighbouring countries… What I saw as similarities: a solid layer of persisting sovietism, gastronomy, infrastructures, political life.
– Which region do you like best of all?
Tough question. I really enjoy Lviv, Vinnitsia, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa as cities. I am really fond of the Carpathian mountains, I love the countryside around Kharkiv and Chernihiv, I like spending time in Volyn, and the Dnipro basin, between Kaniv and Kherson, is wonderfully nice. Tough question.
Of course. I followed the crowd from Maidan to the top of Instititutska vulica on 18th in the morning, attended the whole eruption of violence on the revolutionaries’ side, ran away with them to escape the police, witnessed the Berkut invading Maidan to its half, spent the whole night and the whole day after on Maidan. For the whole time of the Revolution, I passed by Maidan practically everyday.
Exhausted, I went to get a few hours of sleep in the night of the 19th February. I woke up the next day at something like 11 am: the tragic shooting on Institutska was over. By the time I went down to Maidan, there were many corpses lying, although many had already been taken away. The rest of the day is very… blurry.
– Did you contact with police and Berkut?
During the Revolution – no. I had contacts with politicians of the Party of Regions and government officials. Not with law enforcement units.
– You were in the East. In what cities?
Oh. Tough question again. I have really been in many different places, from Kharkiv to Mariupol. If you want to know more, please be more specific.
– Have you been in dangerous situations?
Just like everyone else I think, starting with barricades on Maidan and Institutska vulica. Many different situations in Donbass, starting with uncomfortable controls at block posts and checkpoints and traveling to Debaltseve during the siege of the city.
To be mentioned: since I do not work with photo nor video (I do text and radio), I am not looking for the heavy fighting. I try to focus on the economic-social-humanitarian consequences of the war. For example – I have never been interested to go to Donetsk airport because of that.
– Did you contact with separatists?
Of course. It is one of the advantages of being a foreign correspondent: I can talk to all sides of the conflict. I attended press conferences, conducted interviews, witnessed many events on the separatist side.
– How do local people relate with foreign journalists?
With both distrust and eagerness to communicate. Local people who have stayed and/or support the separatist rule know that most Western media condemn the actions of the pro-Russian and Russian forces. Hence, they require from Western journalists to “write and tell the truth”. At the same time, they genuinely wish to communicate on their griefs and pains – they do have many things to talk about.
One interesting thing: in the localities that went back and forth from separatist to Ukrainian sides, local residents only remember the Ukrainian attacks and the harm done by Ukrainian forces. That kind of psychological schizophrenia – either voluntary or not – is a serious problem when discussing with local residents.
When it comes to working there, it has to be mentioned that the environment is not free -even for foreign journalists. When tackling issues connected to politics, smuggling, presence and action of Russian troops, nationalisation of economic assets and political pressures, it is hard to collect information and to work safely. The Ukrainian side is very tough with the “propusk” and the permits to travel freely in the ATO zone. But the separatists are tough with everything: press accreditations, traveling permits and requests for interviews.
– In your opinion what caused events in Donbass?
As far as I can tell, it’s a tragic combination of factors. First, the dramatic economic downfall of Donbass, which was entertained by local administration and oligarchs, and neglected by Kyiv. It created a serious discontent in the region and a psychological misunderstanding: Donbass people were working hard. In their minds, working hard meant producing wealth and feeding the rest of the country. Most of them did not see – or did not want to see further. Hence, they did not understand the prejudice against Donbass expressed in other regions of Ukraine and felt – still feel – oppressed and frustrated and angry and attacked.
Second: manipulation by all sides: local elite and oligarchs, local media, Ukrainian media, Russian media.
Third: an imperialist design from the Russian side: both from Kremlin authorities and adventuring ultra-nationalist such as Strelkov and Boroday. The war in Donbass seems to be only a part of a wider plan to destabilise Ukraine and create a kind of NovoRossiya.
Fourth: The influx of fighters from different countries, different ideological backgrounds and for different purposes: ideology, adventure, looting, escaping some miserable lives in Ural or even in France, etc. The presence of these adventurers and mercenaries in the conflict has blurred all markers.
Fifth: a very weak and inadequate answer from central authorities in Kyiv, for various reasons. Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Ilovaisk, Debaltseve, etc. Ukrainian politicians and military high command have made serious mistakes along the way. Despite official speeches, it seems to me now that the central government does not want to get back Donbass. None of the initiatives in Kyiv makes me think that they want it back.
– How overcome the consequences after war in that territories?
There are some obvious elements: to take good care of the IDPs and to develop the country in a way that fully counters Russian propaganda and to make it so that people in Donbass may see their future in Ukraine.
As for the general situation, it is going to be painful and to take a long time. I do not have the answers to that: it is up to the Ukrainians to find their own answers.
– How to restore the people’s trust?
Same answer that above. Plus a serious work on providing quality, reliable information, so as to counter Russian propaganda.
– The current Ukrainian government has chosen the decentralization. In your opinion, is that right way? Can it cause separatist sentiment in the future?
First thing: decentralisation is good in itself as a political process. Yet it can only produce results within a political and administrative system that is itself functional. And we all know that know, despite the first post-revolutionary reforms, Ukraine is not a functional state. It seems necessary to reform the state, lustrate the administration, fight against corruption before thinking that decentralisation might be an answer to some problems.
As for the risk of separatist movements to rise up, I do not believe in it. A separatist movement is a result of an economic, political and media construct. Not a result of decentralisation.
– How French perceive Ukrainian events?
French public opinion has not fully understood the development of Ukrainian events. Because of ignorance, because of historical misunderstandings, because of the strength of Russian propaganda, because of the weakness of the communication strategy of the Ukrainian authorities and because of a very strong, irrational anti-americanism in France, which hide the vices of Russian imperialism.
In general, I would say that Russian actions really scare off the majority of French public opinion – how far is Putin going to go? What does he want? – Yet it does not mean that French public opinion trusts Ukraine and Ukrainian authorities – because of exaggerated prejudice against Ukrainian volunteer battalions and Praviy Sektor, because of endemic corruption and because of caution with Ukrainian revolutions (the Orange Revolution did not produce the results a Western public opinion had expected, unlike Georgia…)
– Recently a delegation of French deputies visited Crimea. It was their personal initiative? Or they must agree it with the senate?
It was their own right and prerogative. The fact that French MPs have some affiliations with Russia and try to entertain a good relationship with the Kremlin is not a surprise. The real question is: what does it take to have a similar French parliamentarian delegation in Ukraine?
– France and Russia decided to terminate the contract about Mistrals. Why this process was so long? Why did France hesitate for a long time?
There is one simple explanation: political cowardice. that’s the only way to explain this long-lasting affair. You know that French officials have not really been in phase with Ukrainian events – Foreign minister Laurent Fabius was still asking for the agreement between Yanukovych and the “united opposition” to be implemented even AFTER Yanukovych fled from the country and the regime had been changed…
– How do you think, do Ukrainian government make everything to rapprochement with the European Union?
It seems to me that is the case, as long as speeches and passing the necessary reforms are concerned. We shall see whether these speeches are translated by actions and these reforms are concretely implemented: that’s the key.
There is a problem with communication -again. When Petro Porochenko promises a liberalisation of the visa-regime by 1st January 2015 (!) or an EU candidate status by 2020… It is hard to believe this is possible.
Finally, the other element of the problem lays with the EU itself: Europeans are not clear enough with Ukraine and cannot give it some certain perspectives. It is a problem.
– How do you think, when Ukraine will get visa-free regime?
It is very hard to say. The war in Donbass, the smuggling in Zakapartia and of course the corruption of customs and border-guards corps are serious obstacles.
– What should make Ukrainians to become European nation?
Ukrainians are a European nation by history, geography, culture and ambition. Yet to become European in the modern sense of the term, we are talking about respecting the spirit and the rules of the current European integration: rule of law, freedom of speech, accountability of the authorities, structural fight against corruption, etc. Being European TODAY is not only being a country on the map: it is about belonging a community of values.