Six priorities of the ambassador

Melissa O’ROURKE: “Australia remains a very strong supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”

Melissa O’Rourke was appointed as Australia’s second Ambassador to Ukraine in the fall of last year. She agreed to grant an interview to Den/The Day, her first interview to the Ukrainian media, only at the beginning of this year because of being busy, and kept her promise. Our first question to Madam Ambassador was why she chose to head the diplomatic mission in this country.

“I had an opportunity to spend some time in Ukraine once before as a tourist, and I served previously as deputy ambassador at Australia’s Embassy in Moscow, so I had a little bit of familiarity with the region. When the opportunity came up to have three years here in Ukraine, I jumped at it, because it is a very interesting time to be here, there is a lot happening, and Australia’s relationship with Ukraine is getting closer and closer.”

So, you can say what this day, January 22, means to Ukraine [the interview was recorded on that very day. – Author]?

“Yes, Unity Day goes back almost a hundred years in terms of specific events that you are celebrating. I am very much looking forward to going to the reception that President Poroshenko is hosting today to commemorate it and to learn firsthand about Unity Day. It is clearly a significant occasion for Ukrainians, and I wish you all the best for today.”

Incidentally, did you attend the reception the president gave at Mariinsky Palace last week?

“Yes, it was last Tuesday, I was at the President’s annual New Year reception. I felt deeply honored to be one of the first guests to see the newly renovated Mariinsky Palace. The restorers have done a fantastic job, the building looks amazing, and it was a very good opportunity to see the President, the Prime Minister and other senior members of the government early in the new year. Obviously, Ukraine has a big agenda this year, and I am proud to help support that.”

What message did you hear from the Ukrainian president or government at this reception?

“The President outlined some of the reform priorities, in terms of privatization, deregulation, looking at investment and the energy sector. Obviously, there is also work to be done to implement reforms enacted last year. The President talked about Donbas and Crimea and the efforts Ukraine is continuing to take at every available opportunity to bring them both ‘back home’ – that was the term that he used. He also had some very positive words about the support that international partners were providing to Ukraine.

“   The President has put forward a draft bill for the parliament’s consideration to set up an anti-corruption court. He made clear at the reception that this issue was also going to be a top priority for him. So, we look forward to hearing where that issue ends up landing in terms of having an anti-corruption court law enacted in Ukraine this year.”

Madam Ambassador, preparing for this interview, I read in Wikipedia that your country gained independence from the United Kingdom on January 1, 1901. But then I learned that Anna Twomey, a professor at the University if Sydney Law School, claims that Australia received independent status under your country’s Law on Independence dated March 3, 1986. Could you explain this contradiction?

“There are a number of significant dates in Australia’s history. Firstly, Independence Day is not what we are commemorating, it’s Australia Day – January 26. It means different things to different people, but ultimately, it is about providing an opportunity for people to come together, to celebrate where Australia has come from – our history, our culture, our diversity, our multiculturalism, our way of life. Prime Minister Turnbull raised this issue recently and said that ‘free countries debate their history, we do not deny it.’ Australia Day provides an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate all of our history.”

And when was it decided to celebrate Australia Day?

“There was some debate on that. It basically goes back to 1788 as January 26 is the date when the First Fleet of the British settlers arrived in Australia. There are number of other dates that could have been chosen, and people have different views one way or another about January 26. But for the time being, it’s the date that we mark as Australia Day, and we are very much looking forward to celebrating it.”

And now coming back to bilateral relations. As Ambassador, you clearly have some agenda priorities. What are your priorities for your three-year term in Ukraine?

“Any ambassador’s job is to try and advance their country’s interests and the bilateral relationship, and I am very fortunate that our relationship is in a pretty good shape. Australia and Ukraine have gotten a lot closer in recent years. It’s unfortunate that a key reason for that was the downing of MH17, which was a horrific tragedy. But as our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had said in the past, that terrible incident has actually ensured that the friendship between Australia and Ukraine will endure forever. We are united in working together to ensure that the perpetrators of that crime are brought to justice. We owe that to the victims and their families. Australia and Ukraine are united in that pursuit, and we work in the Joint Investigation Team with the Netherlands, Malaysia, and Belgium.

“Australia remains a very strong supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; we completely reject Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, as well as the actions it is taking in the Donbas. In fact, Australia has a foreign policy White Paper which came out in November last year, it’s basically our diplomatic blueprint for going forward. That document makes clear that we are strong supporters of international law, we do not like to see any attempts to subvert it, which is what we have seen with Russia’s aggression in the Donbas and its illegal annexation of Crimea, and we think that such acts undermine international security. That document also makes clear that Australia remains concerned and engaged on issues of MH17, Donbas, Crimea, and Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.  

“We take every opportunity in the international arena to support Ukraine in its endeavors. That includes supporting the annual resolution in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on the human rights situation in Crimea. Australia is also working with Ukraine from January 1 this year on the Human Rights Council. So, we have a number of avenues by which we are working with Ukraine to try and take forward that agenda.  

“On the trade front, certainly, our trade and investment relationship with Ukraine at the moment is modest. I will be looking for opportunities to see where Australian companies may be able to do more here in Ukraine to assist in areas like services, equipment, and technical advice and support in agriculture and mining. There are potential opportunities there, as well as in sectors like education.  

“A key component of investigating such opportunities will be engagement with Ukraine’s diaspora in Australia, which numbers 46,000 people. They are very active, they have links at the political level as well as with the business community, and they are, of course, very strong supporters of Ukraine. I am working closely with them to try and advance our bilateral relationship.

“We also do what we can on public diplomacy. We have brought a range of Australian artists to Ukraine, and helped to support their participation in festivals or other events. Indeed, we are having an Australian artist here shortly, Ana de la Vega, who is a flautist. She is performing at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine on January 29, partly in commemoration of our National Day. She will be performing with the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra and her husband who is a famous violinist, and the program features Mozart. An Australian jazz band, The Necks, toured last December, and we supported a photo display of Australian-Lithuanian photographer Olegas Truchanas last November. We have a touring display of some Indigenous art panels which we have taken to various parts of the country. We are looking forward to continuing our public diplomacy agenda in 2018 to try and bring a little piece of Australia to Ukraine.”

We in Ukraine noted the position of former Prime Minister Tony Abbot at the G20 Brisbane summit, who told Putin to clear off Ukraine. In what way do you think the world community can force Russia to re-adhere to the norms of international law, withdraw from Ukraine, and return Crimea?

“We take every opportunity to raise our disapproval of the course Russia is taking in terms of its illegal annexation of Crimea and the situation in the Donbas. Australia is also one of the countries that have introduced sanctions against a number of Russian officials, businessmen, etc. over their acts in both Crimea and the Donbas, and we have made it very clear that unless there is full implementation of the Minsk Agreements, these sanctions will remain in place. And indeed, they were renewed in the second half of 2017.

“In international fora, we are strong supporters of Ukraine, we do also take every opportunity to follow up with Russia. And having served also in Moscow, it was part of our job. When we had meetings with the Russian Foreign Ministry, we would always raise these issues. So, we are doing what we can, together with our international partners.”

What do you think of bringing to justice those who shot down the MH17 airliner?

“There is an investigation that continues to be in train. It is conducted by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), so representatives of the Netherlands, Ukraine, Australia, Malaysia, and Belgium, and it is an independent investigation. They are chasing down every lead, doing a very thorough review of the evidence, and doing what they can to get to the bottom of what happened. In time we will move to the prosecution phase. The JIT members have agreed that the prosecution will be a domestic prosecution in Dutch national courts, and Australia is contributing to that process.  

“We have a saying in my country that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We want the JIT to do a thorough job, so that we can get the perpetrators of this crime before the courts and get justice done – that is our objective. And as I said, that’s what we owe to the relatives and to the victims – there were 38 Australian citizens and residents on the plane. So, MH17 remains an issue that our country is very much focused on, and we are doing our part to get outcomes.”

Can you tell us if your country offered Ukraine assistance or support in carrying out reforms?

“Australia remains very supportive of Ukraine’s efforts in terms of the reform agenda. What the Ukrainian government is trying to do is very ambitious, because they are trying to implement reforms in a number of different sectors at the same time. We appreciate how difficult that is, but very much encourage Ukraine to continue down that path.  

“Certainly from Australia’s experience, we went through a very difficult time in the 1980s in terms of implementing fundamental structural reforms to our economy. There was a lot of short-term pain, as some industries closed down or had difficulties, there were job losses at that time, but it is now widely acknowledged that those reforms laid the groundwork for the success that is the Australian economy today. We have just entered the 27th year of our consecutive growth, that’s unprecedented in the developed world.

“For 27 years, our economy has consistently grown: this includes through the Asian financial crisis, through the global financial crisis, we continued to have an economy that grew, and the seeds for that were laid in the difficult reforms that we implemented. These reforms also helped us to address the challenges of globalization. So, I appreciate how difficult and challenging the reform agenda is for Ukraine, but we very much encourage you to stay the course because the rewards are worth it.”

But are there many Australian citizens, current or former politicians, who are helping Ukraine carry out reforms?  

“Our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was here in 2016 to contribute to a meeting that the President convened which was to talk about some of these issues. Individual Australians have also offered their expertise in different sectors. Of course, reform is an area where the EU countries, the US and Canada and others are very actively engaged in supporting Ukraine, as, indeed, are international organizations, including the IMF. So, Australia would be happy to share our expertise, because we do have a good story to tell. We take the opportunity to mention that to our Ukrainian counterparts whenever we can, and we are very supportive of the work that is already underway.”

It is believed that the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement will speed up reforms. And what are the prospects of signing agreements on free trade area and visa liberalization between our countries?

“The trade relationship between Australia and Ukraine is very modest. In terms of two-way trade, it’s only about $ 100 million a year, and in 2016 investment was about $ 150 million. I am hoping to be able to grow our trading relationship, but that’s going to be an ambitious task. Australia’s focus is on a number of free trade agreements we are already negotiating around the world, and we are hoping to start negotiations with the EU. So, at the moment, a free trade agreement with Ukraine is not something we are looking at, but I will be looking for avenues to try and advance our bilateral trade and investment relationship.  

Photo from the website

“In terms of your comment on visa liberalization, Australia actually has a universal visa policy for all countries. There are different avenues to apply for visas, but basically everyone needs a visa to come to Australia. Now, there have been advances in terms of Ukraine, because we now provide for electronic lodgment, so there is no need for Ukrainian citizens to come and fill out a paper application at an Australian embassy to request a visa. They can apply online, they get an answer the same way, and there is no requirement for a visa to be stuck in the passport, it’s all electronic and linked to Advanced Passenger Information System. We welcome Ukrainians coming down to Australia, but we have the same approach to everybody in terms of our requirements for visas to come to Australia. For Ukrainian citizens, their visa applications are managed by immigration staff working in our High Commission in London. We don’t have a visa processing role at our Embassy in Kyiv.”

You say in your welcoming address on the website: “The Embassy runs a small but targeted and high impact Direct Aid Program which has had real and lasting impacts for Ukrainian communities.” Could you explain this more in detail?  

“Certainly. The Direct Aid Program is a small grants program whereby we try to help some local communities address their development needs. Here in Ukraine, our grant budget on an annual basis is $190,000, so it’s not a lot of money, but we have been able to use it to a great effect. We have been trying to support projects across the country that look to support internally displaced people, disadvantaged or underprivileged women and children, and persons with a disability. Some of these projects have been in social areas, some have been in education, some have been in health.

“So, simple things, like providing a dental chair, which will enable some children from disadvantaged backgrounds to receive dental services. Or projects that try to provide training and support to help people that have been internally displaced to re-engage in society. We have also supported a project in prosthetics to help persons who have been injured in the conflict in the east.  

“This year, we are just finalizing our grants round. There are a number of projects that we will end up supporting that will have a broad geographic spread across the country. We have received over 400 applications for our grant round this year, so there is a lot of interest in what we are doing here, and we are very happy to be able to help. My objective this year is to get outside Kyiv and visit various parts of Ukraine, and a key component of those visits will be, where I can, to try and visit our grant recipients, to see in practice how they are utilizing our funds and implementing their projects.”

What about military cooperation? The previous ambassador said there were certain possibilities of cooperation with Ukraine in the military field.

“We have been providing some assistance. It’s a little dated now but a couple of years back, we did provide some winter kits – boots, coats and the like, to assist the Ukrainian forces that are operating in the east. There was also support for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission and other international organizations operating in the east.  

“What we are doing at the moment is that we are offering places for some Ukrainian military personnel to attend training courses in Australia. So this is both our Defense College and then some short-term courses that are run on different aspects of the international law and the like. So, we are continuing to provide that level of support.  

“We have an accredited defense attache, he is actually based in Berlin, but he will be making a visit to Kyiv before the end of January. We are very much looking forward to working with him as he establishes himself and gets his work going.  

“One of the other areas of cooperation that involves servicemen is Australia’s hosting of the next Invictus Games. So, Ukraine participated in the Toronto Games in the second half of 2017, and Canadians did a fantastic job in hosting those games. President Poroshenko was able to attend, and Ukraine’s 15 athletes managed to win 14 medals, which is a fantastic achievement. I had the opportunity to meet some of your athletes, and they are very inspirational individuals.  

“The next Games will be held in Sydney in October. The invitation to Ukraine has already been issued and accepted, so we are very much looking forward to welcoming Team Ukraine to Sydney. The Ukrainian diaspora in Australia are already actively engaged in terms of trying to work out the level of support they will be able to provide. So Invictus is another area where Australia and Ukraine are working closely together.

“I have been really impressed to discover just how much Ukrainians have embraced Invictus. It’s a fairly new concept, it has only been around for a few years, having been established by Prince Harry from the United Kingdom. It really is providing a great avenue for wounded veterans from a variety of conflicts to re-engage, and, participate in these team events. It’s a fantastic event.”

Last year our newspaper published a series of materials about the role of European monarchies in the development of democracies. We would like to hear your opinion about the role of British monarchy for your country. Did it, particularly, promote the development and stability of Australia?  

“The Queen of the United Kingdom remains the head of state officially for Australia, although in practice it is delegated to the Australian Governor-General to perform that role. The monarchy does not play a role in Australian politics at all, we have our own arrangements, an Australian parliament and our Constitution provide checks and balances, and outline requirements. There has been a long-running debate in Australia about whether or not the current arrangements are still working, or whether we should look to become a republic. In the past, there has been a referendum on the issue which did not get the necessary number of the votes, so it did not pass. So, for the time being, we are continuing with the existing arrangements. The Queen remains the head of state officially for Australia, but that role is delegated to a governor-general. The monarchy is far removed for most Australians.”

You perhaps know that your colleagues, the British and French ambassadors, use social media, particularly Twitter. Are you going to follow suit?  

“The Embassy has both a Twitter account and a Facebook account. I must admit I am still fairly new to both of these media, and so currently I am relying on my staff to assist me to do this, but we do have a social media presence. We have a fairly small number of followers, as we are a very small embassy, but we take every opportunity that we can to promote the events that we are doing and the key issues.”

Now that you have stayed in Kyiv for almost six months, can you say what you like here and what made a lasting impression on you?  

“I have gotten slightly attached to the National Opera. I have been able to see several performances of both ballet and opera, and I am becoming a real aficionado, so that is certainly something I am very much enjoying.

“Before winter really set in, it was very nice to be able to get around the city and see a lot more of what it has to offer, but my key objective for 2018 is to go out of Kyiv and spend more time seeing more of fantastic country. In the past, I have made brief visits to Lviv and Odesa. I enjoyed those visits a lot, and now I want to go back in my different capacity as the Ambassador.  

“This is a very big country – I think it is a lot bigger than many people in Europe and, indeed, in Australia realize. With more than 40 million people and the size of the landmass here, I think it is going to take me three years to try and get around to as much of the country as I can. But it’s certainly something that I want to start this year, including to participate where I can in some of the folk and music festivals that take place around the country.”

Maybe, you will begin to learn and then use the Ukrainian language, as the abovementioned British ambassador is doing?  

“I have my first Ukrainian lessons this week, but unfortunately, I am not convinced I’m actually going to become fluent during my time here. I certainly want to learn enough Ukrainian to be able to do the basics, and when I am doing speeches, to be able to do the first couple of lines, and last few sentences in Ukrainian. That’s what I am hoping to achieve with my Ukrainian classes in the next couple of months. But who knows? Maybe I will find time to learn a lot more. I am certainly committed to learning some Ukrainian.”