When Arseniy Yatsenyuk became prime minister of Ukraine, the country was in a major crisis. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich had fled after massive protests in Kiev, and the country soon faced a military confrontation with pro-Russian rebels in the east.
“The biggest challenge in my times as prime minister was to survive, the biggest challenge for today is to grow,” Yatsenyuk said at a meeting in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
Yatsenyuk served as Ukraine’s wartime prime minister from 2014 to 2016. During that time he was unable to come to Israel.
In his recent visit he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various factions in the Knesset, as well as with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin.
The agenda is “definitely to have strong relations with the State of Israel,” he says. “We have an impressive economic agenda and we expect [to sign a] free-trade agreement with Israel and then I expect that your prime minister will come to Kiev.”
A high level visit like that would “show Ukrainian people and Jewish people [that we] are close allies and friends.”
Israel and Ukraine have much in common, Yatsenyuk says.
“We must fight for the future, like you are fighting. Israel is an example for us; you have a belligerent neighbor, we have an aggressive neighbor, you are fighting for independence and we are, and security is a top priority also for us.”
He also says that in contrast to some perceptions of his country having a problem with antisemitism, “Ukraine is one of the safest places in Europe for Jewish people.” This connection goes back historically to the time of the Holocaust when Ukrainians saved Jews, he argues. “We live shoulder to shoulder with Jews and have a huge respect for Jewish people.”
Yatsenyuk was born in Chernivtsi in far-western Ukraine in 1974. This area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then between the wars Romania, until the Soviets annexed it to the rest of Ukraine in 1940. This history impacts Yatsenyuk’s worldview.
“When Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine, Ukrainians suffered severely. From Holodomor [the man-made Great Famine of 1932-33], from political repression, killing Ukrainian priests and people, and antisemitism brought by Bolsheviks to my country.”
As a politician he was often opposed to Russian influence in Ukraine, including the 2010 renewal of the lease by Russia of naval facilities in Crimea. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, which Yatsenyuk condemns as an “illegal” act. Under his government in 2015 Ukraine passed a law to remove symbols of communism, such as old monuments and street names from the Soviet period.
The conflict that began in 2014 sharpened the Ukrainian desire for independence from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Yatsenyuk sees this as part of the country’s wish to join the West and Western alliances such as NATO. It also means encouraging the US to stand by Ukraine.
“We rely on bipartisan support in the US and I believe in that system of checks and balances in the US and values of the free world as embodied in the US Constitution.”
He notes that the US sanctioned in June Russia and pro-Russian separatists who control part of eastern Ukraine.
“This is in the interests of the US, Russia is not a friend, it is a foe of the US.”
But he is also concerned that the numerous crises in the world will overshadow Ukraine’s desire to remind the international community of the conflict in Lugansk and Donetsk in the east. “Frankly speaking that is why I travel all around the world to have Ukraine issues on the radar of global leaders and media.” It is a crisis that should be on the top of the agenda of the free world, he says.
For Yatsenyuk there is much unfinished business in Ukraine.
He is proud of his legacy, leaving office with a 3% deficit, down from 10%, and with billions in financial reserves and greater energy independence.
But there is more to be done and observers of Ukraine will likely see his name again in the political arena.