Another year has almost passed. We have taken a look at the year with the Norwegian Ambassador to Ukraine, Erik Svedahl.
So, tell me, please, what has been the most important issues for Norway this year?
It is hard to avoid the issue of COVID-19, of course, because it has affected all relations, all contracts, travelling between Norway and Ukraine and so on. It is tragic with the numbers of cases and deaths, so that has, of course, colored the whole year.
But I think that the most important single event this year was, of course the celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence in August, which was combined with the high-level meeting of the International Crimea platform. We had political representation, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, but because we were having an election campaign at the same time, it was difficult for us to participate on the ministerial level, but nevertheless, we participated and had very good bilateral meetings in that context.
In many ways Ukraine is making progress, while in other areas it seems things are getting worse. So how do you see the path the trajectory that the Ukraine is on right now?
I think, the reform process is going in the right direction, but the speed is and pace changes a little bit from time to time. It is very important for us to see Ukraine having the right intentions and succeeding with the important reforms, especially in the justice sector because that is fundamental for economic progress and reforms in other sectors.
I would say that we are most involved in the energy sector reform, where we have also seen some backlash, as you might say, with the story about Naftogaz. It goes a little backwards and a little forward. The important is, that we can still see the political will and the overall direction
You mention the energy sector where Norway is very engaged. The state guaranteed buyer of green energy still owes the producers an enormous sum of money. Do you see this moving in the right direction?
In that area as well, there are some positive and some negative developments. This is a very important topic for Norway, since Norwegian companies have made big investments in the renewable energy sector. I think it is on the positive side. It is important, that UkrEnergo has been allowed to issue bonds to raise the money to cover their debt to the renewable energy producers.
I think with that capital, they will be able to cover the debt from last year and maybe also parts of the growing debt that has been established this year. So, it shows, that there is political will to resolve the issue.
The fundamental issue with the energy sector in Ukraine, is that the energy is not priced according to its value. A lot of energy is wasted because it doesn’t have a price tag on it. We know that Ukraine is one of the most energy intensive countries in the world.
There is a lot of potential here to save energy. In order to do that, you need to put a real price on energy and not subsidize it in the way it is being done here. In that sense, there are not a lot of positive developments. The subsidies should go to renewable energy producers, because they have to change their energy mix and become less dependent on importing energy from other countries.
Another issue when talking about Ukrainian energy is matters of import and export because the previous way that Ukraine would import or export energy would be either through Belarus or directly from Russia. Do you see that changing in the near future, with Ukraine connecting to the European electricity net?
Well, I certainly hope so, and that is the ambition of the Ukrainian government. Progress is being made to achieve this. Being connected to the European electricity grid is important. That would also make the energy prices correct and remove the need to regulate prices.
I term of Norwegian business in Ukraine, how is that developing?
Bilateral trade is gradually increasing and has been over the past year which is positive. It is still on a quite modest level, but increasing. One of the biggest growth areas remains the import of Norwegian fish and seafood to Ukraine. The current situation has made it more difficult to have normal business activities and meetings.
I have noticed the last few months that there has been more activity. We have had some business delegations coming to Ukraine to explore possibilities. So in general, there is an interest in Ukraine among Norwegian business people, but unfortunately the conditions are not ideal right now to develop this.
Now that we speak about COVID-19 again. The Ukrainian population has in a way made the choice not to vaccinate. We see Europe slowly getting back to normal, but Ukraine is in the same situation, we were in one year ago…
The fact is that vaccine skepticism is very high in Ukraine. Not just for COVID 19 vaccines but other vaccines as well. Of course, you cannot force people to get vaccinated, but you can inform them. It is a pity because we know that vaccination is the only thig that at the moment ca prevent people from dying and prevent the hospitals from filling up. It is a pity that a lot of the population does not have faith in vaccination, but that is how it is.
Is there anything you think we have failed to mention?
I am happy that, in spite of all the restrictions, we’ve had some Norwegian culture events. I think it is very important. Looking forward, we will organize more cultural activities. That is a very important part of bilateral relations which has also been suffering from the pandemic.
In the beginning of next year, we are planning to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Norway and independent Ukraine. We hope to make a big event to highlight some of the historical links between Norway and Kievan Rus.
What are your main concerns for the coming year?
My main concern is that it is hard to predict the pandemic situation. Whether or not it will be normalized. Whether or not other mutant variants will develop. It makes it hard to really make good plans for the future. The situation is unpredictable, so I hope that as many Ukrainians as possible will get vaccinated and that we can get back to normal.
I would just encourage anyone who reads this to get vaccinated and to convince their families to do the same. That is the only way to normalize the situation and actually improve the economy and prosperity.