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Interview with John.E.Herbst, Ambassador of the United States
His Excellency John E. Herbst, Ambassador of the United States of America to Ukraine, has kindly granted an interview to Welcome to Ukraine (WU) Magazine.
Mr Ambassador, which tendencies, in your opinion, will prevail in relations between the USA and Ukraine now, when a new political course has been proclaimed by the new Ukrainian government?
We welcomed the third round of the presidential elections in Ukraine last year because we thought the second round had not been an honest one. Mr.Yushchenko became President in that round of voting, and declared his policy of promoting democracy and introducing market economy reforms. We welcomed that too. Mr. Yushchenko had an excellent visit to the United States in early April, and I believe that the United States will be extremely supportive of the Ukrainian efforts to build up democracy and to establish a true market economy. If the government of Ukraine pursues these objectives and achieves them, US-Ukraine relation will become very, very close.
Has the attitude of the American business and political elites towards Ukraine changed after the visit? Are the Cold War stereotypes still alive?
I don’t think there any more Cold War stereotypes existing in the United States regarding Ukraine. I am sorry to say that last year Cold War stereotypes were promoted by people in authority as a means to try to delegitimise both American policy and for that matter the candidacy of Mr.Yushchenko. Obviously, those stereotypes were ineffective, but they nonetheless persist at least among some people in Ukraine. I believe as the media here becomes truly free, these stereotypes will diminish.
Which differences between American and Ukrainian cultures do you find most striking? And conversely — are there any common features that you see?
I think that the United States is one of the luckiest countries in the history of the world. There were, of course, some tragedies in American history, but the steady development of freedom in the United States goes back to our colonial days. By contrast, I think Ukraine has had a uniquely tragic history. Ukraine had only short periods of independence in over more than a thousand years. In the 20th century, which was one of the bloodiest centuries in world history, Ukraine suffered — I wouldn’t say suffered more than any other country and any other people, but it suffered a great deal. Millions died in the Soviet totalitarian Holodomor (Famine of 1933) and during the Nazi occupation. So in this there is a difference, the most striking difference, between US history and Ukraine’s history. As for similarity, I think that there is among the Ukrainian people an interest in freedom. I think that the Ukrainian people showed extraordinary courage and persistence in throwing off the corrupt government last fall, and I believe that the Ukrainian people, like the American people, like many other people in the world, want to establish an honest government and enjoy freedom so as to be able to not just undertake political activities without pressure, but also to live a better life without corrupt officials.
But there is a very serious problem here when it comes to attracting millions of tourists to your country, and this problem is your hotels. In fact, it’s a disgrace. Kiev is a gorgeous European city of two and a half million people, a booming economy and an obvious lack of 4-5 star hotels. This city should support a minimum of ten 4-star or 5-star hotels. And the situation in the Crimea is even worse. You should have hundreds of 4-star hotels there but because of corruption you have so few decent hotels. Powerful people in the government pursued their own business interests and they didn’t want competition. It costs more to visit Yalta in the high season than it costs to visit any area in the United States! You could easily have 50 or 100 thousand people coming from Europe and the United States paying a lot of money every day in the Crimea during the summer if you had a well-developed tourist infrastructure.
Can Ukraine hope that the USA will help this country to curb crime and corruption which are real threats to the democratic development of Ukraine and to the safety in this region of the world? What can be done about illegal sales of arms in general and from Ukraine, in particular?
We certainly are ready to help Ukraine in dealing with problems of crime and corruption. President Bush proposed to our congress additional assistance of 60 million dollars following the third round of the presidential elections in Ukraine last year. In talks with the Ukrainian government we suggested how we might use some of that assistance, and certainly the measures, designed to curb corruption, will be very high on our list of priorities. We have had programs for years which should help with these problems as well.
Can Ukraine expect that US energy companies will develop an interest in the Ukrainian market? What are the chances of diversification of energy supplies to Ukraine and to Europe?
Certainly, we would like to see Ukraine become independent in the energy area. We think diversification is very important for Ukraine — and not just for Ukraine. I think that American firms may become more interested in seeing how things will develop. But it is the first and foremost responsibility of Ukraine to develop ideas that will make this possible.
How is your study of Ukrainian progressing?
I studied it a little bit and I have already given some speeches in Ukrainian, but I am able to understand a bit more than I can speak. But I would not say I am fluent in Ukrainian.
What were your first impressions of Ukraine when you just arrived in this country?
In terms of my responsibilities, in terms of the working environment there was nothing at all that surprised me when I arrived. The information I had received before coming here was very accurate. I had been told before I came that Kiev is a very pleasant city. And I found that was true. Kiev is a very nice place to live in.
What do you think about Ukrainian cuisine? Any particular favorite dishes that you have already discovered?
Before I arrived I loved solyanka soup and I still love it. What about Ukrainian cuisine as a whole? I would simply say that the food here is very, very good, and I was pleased to find that both local and foreign food was available. And one thing that you could say surprised me is the Ukrainian cheese — I think it is the best in the world.
Which places in Ukraine other than Kyiv have you been to?
I find Ukraine to be a uniquely attractive tourist destination. The Crimea is stunning. The combination of the Black Sea and the mountains is stunning. The Carpathians are beautiful mountains too. And of course, you have all kinds of different landscapes in other regions. You have extraordinary historical sites going back to the ancient Greek colonists over 25 hundred years ago. You have an extraordinary history of the rise of the Slavic nation here in Ukraine. It is a remarkable place to visit, and I’ve visited most of the country. In my first year in Ukraine I went somewhere every 3 weeks, but starting from last November I stopped travelling, because of the political events, and later the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship has become so busy that it prevents me from travelling in Ukraine.
Do you have any favorite places in Kyiv?
Anyone who comes to Kyiv certainly needs to visit some of the gorgeous churches here, the Lavra Monastery, in particular. You have stunning architectural landmarks all around town. I love the Dnipro. There are many places along the river which I think are worth exploring.
Which places do enjoy going to in the United States or elsewhere?
The place that my family has been going to for the last twenty years — and my kids really like it —is on the Atlantic Ocean, in the State of North Carolina. It is called the Outer Banks. These are a series of very long and sandy beaches and islands off the coast of North Carolina. I also enjoy going to the mountains in the wintertime, and I like going cross-country skiing. Incidentally, I enjoy cross-country skiing here in Kiev.
You have world-class culture. There is a great vitality in this country. It can be observed in any activity you choose to mention, whether it the intellectual area the arts, ballet, opera, popular music, sports. Speaking about sports, I can tell you that Mr. Klichko, the Ukrainian heavy-weight boxer, is extremely popular in the United States. He was travelling with President Yushchenko on his visit to the US, and he got a reception almost as warm as President Yushchenko did.
Photos have been provided by US Embassy Press Service