French ambassador sees ‘serious issues’ to resolve

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Like the blossoming of the trees, the changing of the clocks, the coming of Easter, French Spring in Ukraine signals that a new season is upon us, one reason why the month-long cultural festival is greeted with such enthusiasm in the nation.

This year was no exception. In its 15th year, crowds flocked to Sofiyivska Square in Kyiv for the traditional opening ceremony. Taking part on the stage in one of the performances, playing the cello, was French Ambassador to Ukraine Isabelle Dumont.

She said this year’s festival of culture, art, music, cuisine and movies puts more emphasis on blending French and Ukrainian creations and performers, rather than just showcasing her country alone.

It also has a more ambitious regional schedule. By the time the festival winds down on April 28, Dumont will have traveled to the Ukrainian cities of Lviv, Rivne, Odesa, Ivano- Frankivsk, Kharkiv, Zaporzhyzhia, Dnipro and Berdychiv.

“I decided to go to every city myself,” Dumont told the Kyiv Post in an interview at the French Embassy in Kyiv.

Promoting her country’s culture is not the only activity on her agenda when she travels around the nation. She also meets with French businesses — and there are as many as 160 of them spread across the nation.

In her meetings, Dumont gets a mixed picture about Ukraine’s investment climate, from which she has drawn conclusions in her third year as France’s representative.

’This is the truth’

“We, the international community, have to acknowledge what has been done in the past four years. It wouldn’t be fair to the Ukrainian authorities to take for granted all the reforms that have been done. They are very serious reforms. They are very fundamental reforms for the country. They have been doing more reforms in the last four years than in the 23 years prior. This is the truth,” Dumont said. “It’s important that the population understands that reforms have been done in diverse areas.”

But Dumont said that “there are very serious reforms that have not been made or not been made to the end. It has to be done to the end.

The creation of an anti-corruption court is so fundamental to the country. Without it, it means the famous point of no return is not reached. We have to reach the point of no return. We are not there yet.”

After a promising start by setting up new anti-corruption institutions — including the National Anti- Corruption Bureau of Ukraine, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the National Association for Preventing Corruption — Ukraine’s courts have shown they are unable to deliver justice, she said.

“You have to have a specific anti-corruption court selected specifically for their integrity, for those big cases,” Dumont said. “Otherwise the population and the international donors will have the feeling that all this is in vain.”

Last October, Dumont saw no reason why the anti-corruption court could not be created by President Petro Poroshenko and parliament by the end of 2017.

“This has been on the table for months if not years now. We still don’t have it,” she said. “There are always good reasons and bad reasons. What I’m looking for is results and facts. The fact is that the anti-corruption court has not been created.”

And until it is, Dumont said France will side with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union in withholding financial assistance to Ukraine.

Investments on hold

Despite France’s significant imprint on Ukraine’s economy, investment could be much higher than it is today, Dumont said. The common complaints: raider attacks, fraud, abuse of governmental regulatory and law enforcement authority.

While she sees that judges are improving, even issuing what she considers to be just verdicts in some legal disputes, enforcement is often missing in court orders. She sees it all as part of a battle playing out between true reformers in government and obstructionists.

“There really are a lot of people who I respect a lot within the government institutions and who are doing their best to solve problems. They understand the issues. They see the problems. We work with them, but unfortunately, it’s not always possible to deliver.”

She doesn’t agree with the description of Ukraine as a kleptocracy, but rather as a nation with “very serious issues” to resolve in order to anchor itself firmly in Western values of rule of law and democracy.

In her travels and talks with Ukrainians, she senses trouble for incumbent politicians in the 2019 elections for president and parliament.

“Ukrainian people tell me they don’t see the results of the reform. People are not feeling the benefits,” she said. “Some of the reforms that have been made mean that the population has to pay more, to give more money to institutions, but they have to continue to pay the same bribes as before. If this is the case, you don’t have to be a genius to understand that even for a part of the population, it’s worse.”

Until Ukraine makes more decisive improvements, Dumont sees a status quo holding among French companies — not many new ones coming in and existing ones staying put, but unwilling to risk more investment. She says many French firms, like other foreign firms, face unjustified pressure and bureaucratic obstacles.

“In my travels, I raise these issues with local authorities,” Dumont said. “There are cases when instead of investing in Ukraine, French companies decided, at the end, after months of struggling, to invest in other countries.”

High-level visit

During French Foreign Minister Jean- Yves Le Drian’s visit with President Petro Poroshenko on his March 22–23 trip to Kyiv, he stressed these issues with Ukraine’s leader. Besides underlying the need for an anti-corruption court and improved business climate, the two leaders discussed Russia’s war in the eastern Donbas — now entering its fifth year.

There’s no breakthroughs yet, although France and Germany — the two European nations taking the lead in peace talks — aren’t giving up.

“We will continue. For France, and I know it’s the same for Germany, in close coordination with the Americans, the whole team is looking to find solutions,” Dumont said.

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