As a young girl Natalia Galibarenko dreamed of becoming a diplomat, travelling to exotic destinations and striking secret deals.
“I discovered the reality was quite different,” laughs Galibarenko, who is Ukraine’s first female Ambassador to the UK.
But as it turns out, she did help conclude a deal – the Association Agreement with the EU – that changed the course of her country’s history.
But it took a revolution to get the deal signed. Galibarenko recalls the shock at the Foreign Ministry when the then President, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out after five years of painstaking negotiations: “Backtracking was for us unthinkable because the population was so in favour of [the deal]… But we didn’t expect the students to rise up in the way they did to defend this agreement. There were EU flags on Maidan because in Ukraine it had become a symbol of reforms and a better life.”
Galibarenko was in Vienna at the time as deputy permanent representative to the OSCE when the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ swept aside the old guard and she was recalled to Kiev to become Deputy Foreign Minister. Finally the Association Agreement with the EU was singed in July 2014.
It was what the Ambassador had been working towards most of her professional life. But it was a bitter-sweet moment. “As we signed the agreement, we lost Crimea. I remember having powerful mixed feelings.”
Galibarenko describes Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in the conflict in the East as “a betrayal,” adding: “For years we believed nobody would challenge our territorial integrity because Russia was considered to be the best guarantor of our sovereignty… Now we understand there are no permanent friends only permanent interests.”
As Deputy Foreign Minister she recalls the intense diplomatic effort to reach out to allies. “We persuaded Western leaders that European security was at stake. It was a wake-up call for the West about the threat of Russia which could endanger any European country. This was not just about Ukraine – this could be anywhere, especially in the Baltic states and Poland.”
Keep up pressure
Now in London, influencing UK policy makers to keep up pressure on Russia remains a top priority for Galibarenko. Ahead of the renewal of sanctions in July, the Ambassador predicts that Russia will start to “play the good guy” – such as withdrawing from Syria or de-escalating the flare-up in Nagorno Karabakh.
“This is their tactic, to show to the Western world that they are cooperative so the EU may be persuaded to reward Russia and ease sanctions,” warns the Ambassador. “But the conflict in Syria and the conflict in Ukraine are separate issues.”
Sanctions introduced in response to the annexation of Crimea should remain in place, stresses Galibarenko, who adds that lifting or easing the second set of sanctions – imposed in response to the conflict in East Ukraine – depends on real progress in implementing the Minsk Agreement.
“If there is not clear progress on Minsk implementation, all conversation about lifting sanctions is premature.”
Russia blames Ukraine for dragging its feet on holding local elections and implementing constitutional reform but the Ambassador claims the security conditions in the East, as stipulated in the agreement in order for elections to take place, have not yet been met.
In the meantime, Ukraine continues to work on constitutional reform to offer a high level of devolution to the two breakaway regions.
Rebuilding the Ukraine economy devastated by the conflict is another priority and Galibarenko wants to persuade British investors to seek out opportunities in a number of sectors, from agriculture, to IT and energy. “We survived our first winter without Russian gas,” smiles the Ambassador proudly.
Reform after revolution
She accepts that investors are more likely to return to a Ukraine that respects the rule of law and tackles corruption. And there are signs of progress, says Galibarenko, who describes how talented professionals have quit their jobs in the private sector to join the civil service to reform the country in a wave of post-Revolution patriotism.
For some politicians, reforms are too slow and the Ambassador admits it will be “a long road” before Ukraine joins EU.
“Obviously we are big so reform is more complex, and we have to resolve our conflicts. Europe is also in a difficult phase now with the migration crisis,” admits the Ambassador. Measuring up to the requirements of the Association Agreement and visa-free travel, while not easy, have proved powerful incentives for reform. But it’s not just about the free travel, says Galibarenko: “It’s also a symbol that we are wanted in Europe.”
And when Ukraine eventually does join the EU, it hopes the UK will still be a member, says Galibarenko. “If the UK withdraws the EU will be weakened and we need a strong EU that will be a staunch supporter of Ukraine.”
In the meantime Ambassador Galibarenko is energetically making the case for Ukraine to the British public – from students, to politicians, the media and even opinionated London cabbies. The fresh perspective helps, she says, with “strategic” blue-skies thinking. Even if the skies here aren’t often blue.