To mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Ukrainian embassy in Israel, Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko grants an exclusive interview to "The Jerusalem Post" and offers his country’s views on controversial issues.
Q: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Ukrainian embassy in Tel Aviv. How are bilateral relations between Israel and Ukraine today?
A: I think right now they are at the highest level ever. For the past 20 years we’ve developed our relations in every possible sphere - tourism, medicine, trade, economy, security and so on. This year, for example, trade between the two countries grew up by 40 percent to about $1 billion. Two years ago we signed an agreement between our countries on waiving visa requirements, which really gave a boost for economic and tourist relations, including medical tourism. In fact tourism has increased almost two and a half times, and there are now about 200,000 Ukrainians visiting Israel each year and a similar number of Israelis who visit Ukraine.
During the past couple of years we had some very important high-level political visits. We had two visits of President Shimon Peres to Ukraine and our President Viktor Yanukovych visited Israel last year on a very important state visit. We have had meetings of our prime ministers. After our Prime minister visited here last year, we began negotiations towards a free-trade agreement. There are already more than 36 agreements that have been signed between two countries, particularly the Agreement between the Government of Ukraine and the Government of the State of Israel for the reciprocal promotion and protection of investments.
Besides that, we have very close human relations too. Ukraine supported Israel within different international organizations number of times. So, as I said at the beginning, our bilateral relations are at a very high level and I hope in the future they will develop even better.
Q: How are the free-trade negotiations progressing?
A: Very well. We have already had a few rounds of negotiations between our expert teams. This December we will have another round of negotiations between the two teams and I expect that by the end of next year we will be able to achieve some kind of agreement. It is one of the most important agreements that we still have to sign.
Recently, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Israel Avigdor Lieberman, and our Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko signed an agreement regarding social security payments so that our country will provide pensions to Ukrainians who have moved to Israel, and your government will pay to Israelis who have moved to Ukraine. This agreement was made possible due to a promise given by our president during his state visit to Israel. Now we are waiting for the Knesset and the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) to ratify it.
Q: Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews have moved to Israel since the 1990s. How has this affected relations between the two countries?
A: We are quite satisfied that we have such a big community here. It is a very important human bridge between our countries. This is one of the largest communities of people from the countries of the former Soviet Union. There are more than half a million former Ukrainian citizens repatriated to Israel since 1990.
That is why it was so important for us to make a visa-free regime between our countries so that our people can go in both directions with no barriers or hassles. People are constantly going back and forth to visit family or for other reasons, such as to celebrate religious festivals.
For example, in the last two years the number of people visiting the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav in Uman has tripled. Two years ago, there were 12,000 people who came to the site, this year it was 36,000 for the celebration of Rosh Hashana. We really value those relations because human relations are really the most important. I am glad that these relations are so good.
Q: To what do you attribute thus?
A: First of all, on the governmental level two countries are trying to do their best to strengthen those relations. Our two foreign ministers meet a number of times each year at every possible international gathering to discuss (the) development of relations between the two countries. And, of course, it brings the results.
The Ukrainian government is supporting the Jewish community as much as it can. We still have about 120,000 Jews living in Ukraine. Recently, in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, we opened the largest Jewish community center in the world. It is called Menorah and it has a large synagogue in the complex. It just shows how close we are and how close our relations are. We also opened the Ukrainian cultural center in Bat Yam in November.
Q: Anti-Semitism has long been a problem in Ukraine. What is your government doing to combat it?
A: There is a very good understanding of the problem on the governmental level in Ukraine and we are doing everything possible to bring it down as much as we can. Any anti-Semitic act that occurs in Ukraine, we prosecute it and we fight it. In the last two years we had only one or two cases of anti-Semitic acts and every time we opened the prosecution against it. Our police work very hard on it and we are doing what we can to take down the problem of anti-Semitism. Basically, the relations between the two countries show that we are doing great. I have to assure you that the Ukrainian government is doing everything possible to combat anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
Q: Perhaps, but earlier this year it was reported that there is a restaurant in Lvov which is based on openly anti-Semitic themes. There are no prices on the menu and patrons are expected to haggle over what they pay while wearing distinctly Jewish headgear. How can such a thing be allowed?
A: To be honest I didn’t see that report. I haven’t been to Lvov for quite a while and haven’t seen or heard of that restaurant. May be someone is trying to overplay it or people are trying to make money in a very foolish way. I will check on it. It is also interesting to know the position of Jewish community in Lvov regarding this issu.
Q: The role played by the Ukrainians in the Holocaust has been a subject of much discussion, with many Jews viewing Ukrainians as having willingly collaborated with the Nazis. Do you think the Ukraine was a victim or a perpetrator in World War II?
A: First of all, it is not true that Ukrainians willingly collaborated with the Nazis. We are one of the nations that suffered the most in World War II. By some calculations Ukraine lost 6.4 million people in that war. Germany came through Ukraine and went back through Ukraine. From the very beginning of the war until the very end Ukrainians were fighting the Nazis everywhere as regular soldiers and as partisans. A lot of Ukrainians saved the lives of Jews – we have more than 2,402 who were declared by Yad Vashem to be “Righteous among the Nations” who saved Jews.
And this research work just began only 20 years ago. If it had begun 40 years ago, as it did in other countries, we could have the biggest number of righteous people. We are definitely one of those nations who tried to fight the Nazis and who went through that hell and suffered from it as much as anyone else. In World War II we lost more people than any nation of the former Soviet Union.
Q: But according to Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Ukraine has not investigated a single Nazi war criminal since independence, let alone prosecuted one, despite the fact that over a million Jews were murdered there during the Holocaust. Why is that the case?
A: Most of those people were prosecuted during the Soviet period. At that time everyone who even thought about cooperation with Nazis was taken to jail. So, already before the independence of Ukraine anyone who had anything to do with Nazi had already been prosecuted and spent time in jail for that crime.
Q: Many Holocaust victims had their property confiscated during and after the war by the Nazis and the Communists, including communal assets. Is the Government of Ukraine going to make any effort at restitution?
A: First of all, for a long time already we are working with different Jewish organizations in Ukraine on the issue of restitution of Jewish properties in Ukraine. We have already returned a number of synagogues and some different communal properties where it was possible. There are many other places and some of them we are ready to return. But we have to understand that it is a very complicated issue and we have to carefully examine each case separately.
Q: That may be true regarding communal assets, but what about private individuals? Is there a mechanism for them to reclaim their property?
A: For private individuals we unfortunately do not have any mechanism to reclaim their property. Many years have passed and it is very hard to find the original owner. The territory and many cities of Ukraine were seriously destroyed during World War II. For now we concentrate on communal property. It is much more important for today.
Q: On your embassy’s website, it states that “A bright page of our history is Cossacks who appeared in the 15th century”, and it highlights the actions of Bogdan Chmelnitsky in the 17th century, who led an uprising which created a Cossack state. There is a monument dedicated to him in the center of Kiev and a park named after him in Dnepropetrovsk. But to Jews, he is best known as the mastermind of widespread massacres which according to some estimates claimed the lives of well over 300,000 Jews. Do you think it is appropriate to idolize someone who committed acts of genocide against Jews?
A: First of all, Chmelnitsky was idolized by the Soviet government. You know, world history is a very delicate issue. The Ukrainian history also has some shadowy sides. This is the subject of historical conference or discussion.
Q: But there is also the famous statue of him in the main square in Kiev.
A: The statute is there, but you know that there are also many statues of Lenin in different places too. I don’t think we can forget history by breaking the statue - it is better to work together to build our future.
Q: So I assume you would say the same about Simon Petliura, who as a leader of Ukraine from 1918 to 1920 perpetrated widespread massacres against Jews, murdering 60,000 of them. He is celebrated also today as a hero in your country. And Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian leader who collaborated with the Nazis in the early part of World War II and whose followers murdered thousands of Jews. He is glorified by many in Ukraine too. What kind of message do you think this sends to the younger generation in your country?
A: I have to say that Petliura and Bandera are not idolized at all in Ukraine, not even close to it. Some crimes they committed not only against Jews, but against Ukrainians, Russians, against ordinary citizens.
Q: Iran’s President has spoken openly about wiping Israel off the map, and the ayatollahs continue to progress toward developing nuclear weapons. If Israel decides that there is no alternative but to use military force against Iranian nuclear installations, what would your government’s position be?
A: I think there are many ways to decide it by political means, by negotiations. I hope that it will be decided in a peaceful way, and no military actions will be used for deciding the conflict. We can see that the sanctions have started to work.
Q: What is Ukraine’s position regarding the Palestinians?
A: Palestinian people have the right to have their own state, but everything has to be decided through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while guaranteeing all the security measures for Israel.
Q: Your own country lived under Communist dictatorship for many decades. What is your view on the regime change that has swept away various Arab dictators?
A: Ukraine is watching very closely the changes that have taken place in some Arab countries. It is important for us that those changes are done in a democratic way and with best possible results for the future of the people of those countries.
Q: Some Western countries have criticized the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko by your government in what many say was a politically-motivated move. Germany has even declared that it will block the EU from reaching an Association Agreement with the Ukraine as long as Tymoshenko is behind bars. Is Ukraine turning the clock back on democracy?
A: Everything has been done with the rule to the law. She was imprisoned by the court’s decision and not by the government. I don’t see anything here that could show Ukraine turning its back on democracy. The history of many democratic countries shows that some top officials and politicians has been faced the court and been jailed.
Q: Is Russia an ally of Ukraine or a rival?
A: Definitely not a rival. We are trying to keep good relations with every country and of course with neighboring countries. Russia is very close and it is our biggest neighbor. We have about $35 billion in trade with them and we consider them our friend. Russia is definitely an ally and one of the closest friends that we have.
Q: We are sitting here in your embassy, which is located in Tel Aviv. But Israel’s capital is Jerusalem. If Israel were to place its embassy in Kharkov rather than Kiev, it would be an insult to the Ukrainian people. So why doesn’t Ukraine recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
A: I should say it is slightly different. Tell me, what other embassies there are in Jerusalem?
We will consider moving there some time. First of all the issue of security is very important for us. The second issue is the cost of land and property in Jerusalem. It is very expensive there. So, for now we’ll stay here.