Former State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev received Ukrainian citizenship in May. He wrote on his Facebook at that time that he would "use the new status in order to obtain new foreign investment for the country", what would entail an increase in the welfare of Ukrainians. It became known in July that his company Trident Black Sea won the competition for the development of Ukrainian part of the Black Sea shelf. But now the Cabinet of Ministers must approve the results. What the implementation of this project will give Ukraine, which structure of the new government may be optimal and how to end the conflict in the Donbass after all - this is what OstroV and Ilya Ponomarev talk about.
- Have you already felt yourself a Ukrainian?
- A difficult question for me. During my residence in Ukraine, I was unable to unambiguously determine for myself what different people invest in their "Ukrainism". Because the identity within the country is so diverse: someone feels him/herself to be Ukrainian according to the ethnicity, others - according to the territorial principle, third - according to the linguistic one… In this sense, the example cited by my friend, director Vitaliy Manskiy, in the Family Relations movie is close to me. He himself is a native of Lviv, and filming this documentary, he came to his mother and asked her: who are our ancestors? She says: both Poles and Jews. "And what is your native language?", - he asks her. She replies: "Russian, but I speak Polish and I know Yiddish". And what is your nationality?" - "Ukrainian, of course!"
It seems to me that the uniqueness of Ukraine is that every person who comes here has the opportunity to feel part of this colorful, bustling and very interesting community. In this sense, of course, I fully feel like a Ukrainian.
- The decree of President Volodymyr Zelensky on the granting of citizenship to foreigners, including Russians, caused a lot of criticism in society. How dangerous is it from the point of view that new infiltrators will arrive?
- This is a question where there are more infiltrators – in the government bodies or among those who come. I am afraid that in the first case, there are more of them, despite the fact that they have been caught for five years. Filtration of foreign influence in the Ukrainian elite will go on painfully and for a very long time. In any case, I believe that the human capital that Ukraine will receive through the implementation of this decree is worth adopting it.
- Do you think we will see a stream of such people?
- As a rule, these are economically, socially or politically active people, who can help Ukraine in its development. I do not think the stream will be big. Critics of the decree believe that almost all of Moscow will immediately come here. Actually, it can affect 100-200 people. It is unlikely that this figure will reach 1000 people. Unfortunately, Ukraine already missed people in 2014-2016, when many left, and now they live in Europe and USA.
- The new government is being criticized that Ukraine has recently weakened its position in the international stage. In particular, we are talking about the return of the Russian Federation to PACE, and the possible return of Russia to the G8. Is Ukraine really in a losing position now?
- First of all, the questions on PACE and G8 differ in principle by the motivation of their Western partners. The story with PACE concerns exclusively the financial plane for the Council of Europe. From my point of view, this organization is, to put it mildly, stupid. It has a purely symbolic meaning, but, like any bureaucracy, it is expensive. PACE became dependent on Russian contributions. A lot has been done on the Ukrainian party so that Russia is not allowed there. However, the decision to return the Russian Federation to PACE was made a long time ago, and is not related to Zelensky and his team. Moreover, in fact, this is the area of responsibility of the Rada, and not the MFA. Yes, the fact itself is unpleasant, but I see no big cause to fall into despondency because of it.
As for the G8, this conversation is a direct consequence of what is happening in relations between Ukraine and Russia. The world community saw a window of opportunities for peace in the Donbass, so they ask Putin to agree with Zelensky, then they will do something too. The main motivation for the Kremlin in such agreements is precisely in lifting at least part of the sanctions and in general warming of relations with the West. Therefore, they send him a signal from there that everything is possible, but he should be more compliant with the Ukrainian president.
- That is, the subsequent dilution of sanctions for the Russian Federation is possible?
- Partial lifting of sanctions depends on the progress of possible deal on the Donbass. This is the only negotiating position offered to Putin. The Donbass costs about 3 billion a year for Russia – not a catastrophic amount. Therefore, Russia can hold the "frozen" status for a long time, but still Transnistria, Ossetia, and Karabakh together have cost several hundred million, and here the amount is sequence higher. Plus, the damage from the conflict with the West…
- What concessions can Putin make on the Donbass?
- Leave the Donbass, that is, surrender the separatists. He never intended to annex this territory. What does he want in return? Maximum lifting of sanctions. After all, not all sanctions are associated with the Donbass. Now most of them relate to the poisoning of the Skrypals and interference in the American election, so he can only receive a partial lifting of sanctions, not complete. But it is important for him to save his face to conclude a deal, to have the opportunity, from a propaganda point of view, to say inside Russia that we won. This can be done, for example, by resolving the issue of language for these territories. The most controversial position is position associated with the special status of Donbass. It is quite obvious that Ukraine will not go for a special status in the form of federalization, what Mr. Zelensky clearly and repeatedly spoke about. But it is not necessary to provide for federalization under a "special status". For example, it may be the presence of peacekeeping forces in this territory and external control for some time until restoration of the entire infrastructure. This is also a special management order, which does not contradict any letter of the Minsk agreements. Therefore, I believe that there is quite a lot of space for compromise. And the world community does not want to miss this moment. It, as well as the citizens of Ukraine, wants to fulfill Zelensky's main promise – about peace.
- That is, you do not admit the intensification of hostilities in the near future, do you?
- I can admit anything, because Putin is inclined to increase rates and escalate the situation. He believes that negotiations should be conducted from a power point of view and can go for escalation. But there are no direct prerequisites for this. We see that negotiations have begun – the first step is being taken in the form of the release of part of prisoners of war from both sides.
- Is the issue of hostages release also related to the G8?
- This is part of a big trade about peace in the Donbass. In this sense, they are interconnected.
- There were a lot of talks about their possible release in the information space before the election. Venediktov, said in an interview when he came to Kyiv that Putin did not intend to release Ukrainian sailors before the election.
- Venediktov said that this fact should be taken as a gift to Zelensky, otherwise the release would have played into Medvedchuk's hands before the election day. If Venediktov says so, then most likely, this is exactly what is being perceived in the Kremlin, although the logic is rather perverted.
- That is, Medvedchuk lost his position in front of Putin because of the election?
- Absolutely lost. Because he could not realize the things that he promised to Putin – that he will participate in the new system of power, will receive posts in the new Rada and in the government. This did not happen. But this loss of positions should not be exaggerated. Putin is a man who does not part with people and never dismisses them only for professional wrongdoing. He always imposes sanctions only for disloyalty. And if a person simply could not do something, it is rather taken into account when appointing to the next position, but rarely leads to quick punishment. Therefore, I think that in general, Medvedchuk's niche will remain the same. But at the same time, under the conditions of failures and along the line of Surkov, Medvedchuk and security officials, Putin got additional people who began to deal with the Ukrainian issue. In particular, Dmitry Kozak, whom Putin considers one of the strongest negotiators. He previously used Kozak in the negotiations on Transnistria. Nevertheless, Surkov remains responsible for the political side of the issue, and Kozak is entrusted with overseeing the economic aspect of the problem; it will be almost more important for reintegration than the military or political ones.
- Does this mean that Kozak's task is to make the conflict "frozen"?
- In no case. In Transnistria, he offered a scheme to get out of the frozen status, but as a result of the intervention of external forces, the Moldovan party refused at the last moment. So Kozak's presence in the negotiation picture is a positive sign.
- Recently, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Walker announced the readiness of the USA to join the Normandy format. How effective will such a platform be?
- I think this is a reasonable and long overdue step. Obama's big mistake was that he eliminated America from the formal negotiation process. It was his informed decision, allegedly, this is a European conflict, so let the Europeans solve it. Now Merkel is becoming more and more lame duck after the unsuccessful election, difficulties with the coalition and personal health problems. Against this background, Macron, driven by his ambitions, seeks to show vivid results both for the French citizens, and hoping for the growth of his status in Europe after the resignation of Chancellor Merkel. Therefore, Macron is least interested in expanding the Normandy format. The main parties concerned are Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Federation initially believed that it was necessary to resolve issues in Ukraine with the USA. Putin sincerely believes that Ukraine is an American puppet, and it is necessary to speak with the "owners". Ukraine, in turn, banks on the support of the American party, which is more consistent than Europeans, subject to economic pressure from the Russian Federation. I think the process will be more efficient in the new format.
- And what is your assessment of the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Kyiv?
- Netanyahu's visit is not accidental. They decided to attract him as an intermediary between Ukraine and Russia.
- Who exactly?
- It is difficult to say who is more interested in this. If you reason objectively, Mr. Zelensky is not so far from the Jewish lobby. It also remains strong surrounded by Trump and, of course, Putin. The latter is generally the main patron in the Russian Federation, supporter and organizer of financing the Jewish community.
Netanyahu is a logical choice for all parties to the conflict. Rather, the initiative came from Russia, since the Israeli prime minister constantly goes there, he has something to talk about with Putin - from the conflict in Syria to the Israeli-Russian business interests. But what is interesting, Netanyahu himself is also dependent on Ukraine, because the voices of the IDPs from here are not superfluous to him in his current political situation.
- Russian political scientist Alexey Chesnakov recently stated that there are two groups of influence in Russian politics, one of which wants to "surrender the Donbass", because they are tired of the Ukrainian issue. How much can you believe these words?
- I think that the Kremlin has more than two groups of influence. But Chesnakov, being Surkov's mouthpiece, does not want to further oppose those people who deal with the Ukrainian issue. He correctly says that on the one hand ("systemic liberals" in Russian political terminology) almost the entire government, including Medvedev, Kudrin, Nabiullina and others who dream that the Russian Federation has forgotten about Ukraine, because it prevents them from dealing with pressing economic problems and hinders the growth. On the other hand, there is a presidential party, rather complicated. Surkov, Patrushev and Kozak belong to it, but they are divided among themselves by spheres of influence and support groups oriented towards them.
- Is progress on the Crimean issue possible under Zelensky?
- This question is not for Zelensky, but for Putin. Progress on the Crimean issue will be when Putin ceases to lead the Russian Federation. If this happens under Zelensky, there will be changes under him. If not, then it will be under the next president of Ukraine.
- According to one of the Russian polls in the spring of this year, 19% of residents of the Russian Federation believe that the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula has done Russia more harm than expected. However, 65% of Russians see annexation as more beneficial. How do ordinary Russians now perceive the annexation of Crimea?
- Five years ago, 80% of Russians believed that the capture of the Crimea was good, but now it is less than 65%. Another 5 years will pass, and the figure will drop below 50%. This is an important prerequisite for the return of Crimea. Nothing good has happened in terms of living standards in the Russian Federation. Of course, the motivation of Russians is not always rational, because a simple person can not always draw a straight line between the causes and effects in this matter. However, the fact is obvious, and everyone already understands it: Crimea cost the Russians high price, and this price will only increase. There are calculations associated with the cumulative effect of the sanctions – reflected in rising prices and devaluation of the ruble, there is a reduction in government spending due to the need to make investments in the Crimea. So, every Russian annually loses (according to the most conservative estimates) more than $1000 from the consequences of annexation of the peninsula. But it is impossible to prove this to people, because their assessment is emotional in nature – "The Crimea is ours by rights". Most Russians believe that what happened was fair, and the "referendum" held there was fair. There was a time when I thought so, until I figured out what had happened.
- How do you assess the first 100 days of Zelensky's presidency?
- As Deng Xiaoping would say, too little time has passed to evaluate. The government has not yet been formed; there are not enough particular actions. Now we have a lot of emotional statements and actions. But personally I like it when the president disperses swindlers locally; when he speaks straight from the shoulder; when he clearly shows that he wants to break the corruption system of oligarchic capitalism. His team, at least, is not dominated by people who would like to steal something, but by idealists who want to do something for the country.
- Are you so sure of that?
- Absolutely. He himself is of that kind and has the appropriate team. Such people will dominate and set the tone, starting with the prime minister. It seems to me that my point of view coincides with the majority of Ukrainians who voted in the election for people supported by Zelensky. By the way, in this sense, I certainly feel like a full-fledged Ukrainian.
- Now the society talks a lot about the risks of usurpation of power in Ukraine, comparing Servant of the People with United Russia in the State Duma of the Russian Federation.
- The role of Servant of the People in the new Verkhovna Rada will look similar to the role of United Russia in the State Duma, but United Russia is a party of power bureaucracy and big business. The Servant of the people party has a different genesis. Yes, now there is a monopoly on power in Ukraine. You could even say that Zelensky now has more power in Ukraine than Putin has in Russia, but this does not mean that decisions will be made in order to earn money or usurp power, as Russian president does.
The very word "usurpation" bears a clear connotation of the illegality of actions – seizure of power against the will of citizens and political system of the country. Putin is a usurper, because he repeatedly violated the Constitution of the Russian Federation and falsified the election in order to rule the country. He stays in power much longer than the Constitution provides. On the contrary, Zelensky, as far as I can tell, is going to be one term, not two terms, as permitted by the Constitution of Ukraine. Of course, there is a risk – absolute power poisons absolutely, but for now, he does not show intentions to destroy democratic institutions in Ukraine, I hope he will not do this in the future as well.
- How do you assess the likelihood of face-to-face meeting between Zelensky and Putin in the near future and its productivity?
- I think it will take place in the near future. But not tomorrow. Initially, it is necessary that the teams coordinate their positions and outline the framework of possible compromises on both sides, designate the "red lines" which both countries cannot cross. According to my information, active work on this is already underway. If it is successful, we will face a breakthrough in ending the war in the Donbass.
- After the parliamentary elections, you published a post on facebook, where you presented your vision of structure of the Ukrainian government. Were your suggestions heard in the team of Zelensky?
- I discussed this structure with some candidates for prime ministers and members of Zelensky's team. Some of the proposals were received positively, and some were not.
- You think that it is necessary to abolish the Ministry of Justice, as well as to combine the Ministry of Education with the Ministry of Culture. Why?
- This is about my proposal to create the Ministry of National Education and Culture, which will deal with the inclusive development of the nation's human potential. As practice in many countries shows, combining the functions of secondary and higher education in one ministry is inefficient. There is a lot of routine in secondary education, in addition, higher education is a quality controller of schools, and when they are in the same department, universities often cover the gaps in the work of the lower levels. Finally, the task of higher education is scientific and innovative development of the country, therefore, a separate Ministry of Science and Innovations should be responsible for this, the results of which would be measured in the citation rate of Ukrainian scientists and amount of private investment in innovative projects in Ukraine. Therefore, I proposed to separate enlightenment and science, but I do not think that this will happen. But, as far as I know, the new government wants to create a serious ministry of human capital or social development, I do not know how it will be finally called. But it will concentrate all things related to the development of the Ukrainian people and concern for unlocking the potential of each individual, what is now distributed across different departments. I believe it will be a strong ministry, basic for culture, sports, and national development.
As for the humanitarian sphere, it seems to me that it is important not to lose the work of individual agencies operating under the leadership of Yevhen Nyshchuk and Yuriy Stets. I think it is hard not to notice the progress in the field of national media, national cinema and other types of national art that has occurred in the country after the Revolution of Dignity.
- The progress in the field of media is very interesting. Especially given their bias during the election period, and Medvedchuk's almost monopoly in information television. What did you see progress in?
- Of course, the situation is not perfect. And the capture by the Medvedchuk group of a number of information channels, although pointless in terms of their own goals, I think, requires a simple legislative restriction - one group of affiliates can control only one TV channel. However, one way or another, there is no censorship in Ukraine, there are different points of view, and their diversity in recent years has increased, but not decreased.
- According to a survey conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, Centre of Policy and Legal Reform and KIIS, the number of Ukrainians who believe that everything will be fine in the country in the near future has significantly increased. How much do you think the new government is able to meet these expectations, and who can put a spoke in the wheel?
- It is definitely capable of doing it. Will it do it or not – I do not know. Everyone will interfere with it: "potatriots", the entire political and business barons and corrupt officials of all stripes. All еру old elite will interfere with the new government. But will the incoming team have enough will to overthrow all enemies – we will see. While I see that it is trying hard, but sometimes it is scared of the problems that arise and wins back already made and not the worst decisions.
- Your Trident Black Sea company won the competition of the Ukrainian government to develop the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea shelf, known as the Dolphin site. What are the advantages of your company for Ukrainians?
- First of all, this is the largest investment volume for Ukraine since the Maidan – one billion dollars. This is comparable to the volume of government borrowing, but at the same time, this money is not given in debt, but to create a new production, accordingly, there will be no new burden on the state budget, but rather another source of taxes, i.e. money for all Ukrainians. As a result of implementation of this project, the Odessa region will get a fresh impetus. It is planned to create about two thousand workplaces; implement a number of social programs – clean water, transport communications of Odessa with other cities of the Black Sea; creation of a technology park in the city to develop innovation and stop the brain drain. But the main thing, of course, is the actual production of gas, that is, the question of the country's energy independence. If everything can be realized as we planned, then Dolphin will have about 10% of Ukraine's total natural gas production, respectively, gas dependence on Russia will decrease by 10%, hence, a reduction in gas prices for domestic consumers will be possible.
- Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman stated the need for a re-contest on facebook, saying that when the Cabinet announced the competition, he hoped for "participation in it of world leaders at the Shell or Exxon level". Why were these companies not in the competition and is it likely that they will come if it is held again?
- I think that these companies are not going to participate in this competition. For example, Exxon has already participated in a competition for this territory, held under the Yanukovych government. This company won, but refused to enter into a contract with Ukraine. Now Exxon intends to leave neighboring and peaceful Romania, and why should it come to a country where there is a war?! In addition, Exxon has quite strong interests in the Russian Federation – on Sakhalin, in the Arctic, and in general, they want to reduce their European presence.
Regarding Shell, they are a shareholder of Nord Stream 2. If they try to enter Ukraine, then Russia will raise the matter of choice. The same is with other companies. Chevron stopped its activity in Europe. BP is a shareholder of Rosneft. Marathon is a member of Sakhalin. And so on. If the government insists on a re-contest, then let us sit down and make calls to five world majors, their European leaders, saying that we are ready to hold a new competition if you participate. I know their answer in advance, but if anyone has doubts, they will disappear.
- Why did Groysman then announce re-contest?
- The "dark forces of the past", who wanted to actually take this site away, are pressing him. They are well aware that large companies will not come to the re-contest, but Trident will not be able to participate due to the limited time, so they will be able to take away the site – to do what we did not allow them to do now.
- When is the final decision expected from the Cabinet of Ministers?
- In accordance with the law, the government has a deadline until mid-September. I did not count upon the decision by the previous government. They had a chance to approve the results of the contest and enter the history of Ukraine as the Cabinet of Ministers which made an investment breakthrough and attracted one billion dollars of private funds to the country.
Ultimately, the reputation of Ukrainian officials was never considered a great asset. I hope that the new government will have a different way.
If the new Cabinet of Ministers approves the results of the contest, as it should be under the current legislation, we proceed to the next stage – discussion of the agreement itself on the basis of the proposals specified in the contest. If the results of the contest are not approved, then, with a high degree of probability, a trial will begin. At the last, I have a responsibility to the shareholders of the company for the money spent, and we cannot silently accept the unjustified cancellation of the contest.
- How much are investors ready to invest in Ukraine now?
- I do not see any lines of specific investors yet. Direct investment in Ukraine is still very risky – people do not understand the country. Moreover, there is a change of power now. The investors want to see who came at first and then watch for several years how the new team will act. The investment growth usually begins in the second term, when the citizens of the country confirm the immutability of economic policy by their vote. Only then heavy hitters decide whether to invest.
The most likely investors now are of two types. Firstly, these are the companies that are already represented here, and either have already invested or are actively trading. They already know the country a little and are less afraid of it. Secondly, these are professional investment funds that are attracted by low prices and high growth potential resulting from an unstable situation. In the 1990s, there were just such companies in Russia that created the entire market, and then they brought large foreign money. But it is also necessary to create appropriate legal investment mechanisms for them, and that is what I do with my partners. People invested in us, as in an American company on the American stock exchange, respectively, under protection of the government and U.S. law. That is, they did not take Ukrainian risks. We have become a guide for them in the murky waters of the local business, which risks understanding what it is doing. There should be more companies like ours.
- Zelensky announced holding of a business forum in Mariupol this fall. How much does this event have a serious basis and will it be effective?
- Zelensky's team is very serious. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine who of the normal investors can come to the war zone. But constant dropping wears away a stone. Now the task is to bring as many people as possible to the city to show that the devil is not so black as it is painted, that is, so that they can see the newly built Mariupol-Zaporizhia road through which you can come from a good airport, a working port, the potential of factories existing in the controlled territory, the possibility of natural resources, the availability of personnel.
- You have repeatedly said that you are not going to go into Ukrainian politics, do you still have this position?
- Yes, the position has remained unchanged. Ukrainian politics should be for Ukrainians living in the country for a long time. I am always ready to help with professional skills and experience in any capacity.
- What surprises or delights you in the Ukrainians?
- I like the Ukrainian attitude to the family. The value of family in Ukraine is much higher than in Russia. Sometimes even with an overlap, what is the reason for many corruption stories, when people "carry" everything to their families, not realizing that they need to think about their homeland. Nevertheless, this Ukrainian soulfulness creates a unique aura of Ukrainian cities and villages, and an indescribable feeling of comfort. I feel myself very good here, and I will do everything for peace to come and Ukraine to become successful and prosperous.
Interviewed by Iryna Holizdra, OstroV