Estonian ambassador to Ukraine: “It is clear that many people here are struggling on a daily basis to cope.”
Those, who had already difficulties before, have took the hardest hit by the Coronavirus pandemic- the demand for humanitarian aid is growing faster than ever. Estonian Refugee Council (ERC) has helped the people of Ukraine, who have suffered because of the war for more than seven years according to how the conflict and people’s needs have changed. They have supplied people with food, medicine, sanitary packages and school supplies. Also, the most vulnerable households get financial help to survive the winter.
Kaimo Kuusk, Estonian ambassador in Ukraine, is here to speak about topics such as the current state of the country at war, Coronavirus crisis, inequality and how we as countries can learn from each other.
The armed conflict in Ukraine have lasted a bit over seven years. How often does Ukrainian media bring it up?
The Ukrainian media is talking about the Russian-Ukrainian war every day. Since truce, which came into force on the first of August previous year, the intensity of the news related to war has declined, but nonetheless - war is war. Ukraine thanks and respects people, who are fighting for the country. Their face and name will be shown on the media. That is very different from Russia, who is denying participation and losses- casualties will be buried secretly.
How much attention is paid to how the situation is reflected on the Russian side?
Ukraine is fighting for their independence- they did not start the war. The Ukrainian media is monitoring the negotiation process very closely, as much as it happens at all. When the president [Volodymyr] Zelensky came to power, there was some fear that concessions will be made to the Russian side at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty. That has not happened, and the fears have diminished- partly because of the actions of Zelensky and his team. Ukrainian media is paying very close attention to this- different discussions, talk shows. About a month ago, Ukraine shut down three TV channels, which belonged to Kremlin-minded oligarch [Viktor] Medvedchuk. The information and assessments by those channels tended to represent Russia’s outlook. At times, the information was false. The number of viewers of these channels was not that big, but still: The country will take all the necessary measures to stay independent.
How has Ukraine handled the Coronavirus crisis? What is going on there right now?
I believe that Ukraine has handled it quite reasonably. In spring last year, Ukraine imposed quite strict restrictions right away. The parks were closed. Looking back, some of the restrictions were not very reasonable. Closing the parks for example- people should be able to go for a walk. There was also an obligation to wear a mask and the subways were shut down. I feel that with that quick reaction, they were able to save thousands of lives. The peak of the first wave was in November, then the condition went slightly better and in January it worsened again so they had to do another lockdown for three weeks. Thanks to the lockdown the infection rate went down, but now it is gradually increasing again.
About 10 000 people are infected daily in Ukraine. Considering the difference in size, Ukraine is better off than Estonia. In fact, Ukraine could even provide Estonia with doctors and nurses. But the problem is the shortage of vaccines. Estonia is in Europe Union and the first doses got already handed out in December. Ukraine on the other hand got their first doses only about a month ago. It is very beneficial to be part of the Europe Union and Ukraine is certainly one of the first countries that will be supplied with vaccines by EU, but right now, everyone has a shortage.
What do Ukrainians think about vaccines?
It depends. Overall, they are quite skeptical about vaccine. A lot of encouraging must be done. The president already got vaccinated in front of cameras and so did the health minister. Right now, there is not enough vaccines to make a huge campaign. These vaccines that Ukraine has now, will go to health workers, military and police. The quantity is very small after all. Then again, some Ukrainians are trying to buy vaccines from the black market for crazy high prices. After all, there are a lot of people who have suffered from Covid and they know, how severe and rough this virus can be.
Let us talk from an economic point of view. Along with other organizations, Estonian refugee council offers humanitarian aid to villages and towns near the Ukrainian front. Inevitably, the coronavirus crisis affects those the most, who already had it rough before the pandemic. How noticeable is the gap between social classes?
The recession was not as bad as people thought. Considering all the numbers from last year, the economy fell 4,4 percent. The government is trying to help. Somewhere has been said that during January and February, about 800 000 people got financial support. Nonetheless, Ukraine is a country, where humanitarian aid is very much needed. The country is at war. More than 3% of GDP is needed to cover the cost of defense. This is a lot of money from the state budget. Also, there are a lot of internally displaced people in Ukraine- about 1.5 million. There are more people in Ukraine who have had to abandon their home and start from the scratch than there are people living in Estonia. It is clear that many people here are struggling on a daily basis to cope.
If we look at the bigger picture, then how would the condition of Ukraine be if other countries in collaboration with local partners did not help. How important is the humanitarian aid and development cooperation, that other countries are providing?
It is extremely important, and Ukrainians understand it very well. The humanitarian help that Estonia and Canada were providing in winter of 2014-2015, during the first year of war, helped people who live near the front line survive the winter. It helped to save thousands of lives of people who might have frozen to death or suffered from hunger otherwise. It was a situation, where even the Ukrainian military did not have enough equipment, so the country did not have the resources to support civilians. It is still crucial for them to get the humanitarian aid and we are gradually doing more and more development cooperation. The goal is to help people in a rough situation to get by more independently and even help their communities.
Let us look at internet and digital scene. Estonia has a good reputation in this field. When the Coronavirus crisis first started, Estonian refugee council organized a campaign, where people had the change to donate their old smart devices to refugee families so that their children could continue with their education. Is the digital gap big in Ukraine?
In this regard, Ukraine is interesting. When I came here year and a half ago and walked around in the city, it was full of technical gadgets. I saw people paying with their smartwatches in stores and restaurants in Kiev before I saw it in Estonia. You watch and marvel and then think that “oh wow”- but it is because of the huge market size. Big corporations open new opportunities in bigger markets before they open them in small ones like in Estonia. They are developing this e-country and digital field in Ukraine actively during the last two years and Estonia has clearly set an example for them. Current deputy prime minister, who is responsible for the development of the digital sector, visited Estonia to gather information before taking office. To this day he still loves to tell, how he came back from Estonia, notebook full of notes, and started to build up the e-country. Way back when we in Estonia developed it for PC, then he develops it for smartphones, which is cool, because smartphones are way more popular now.
When we talk about digital gap then the biggest concern is elderly people. Computer classrooms were set up as a part of humanitarian aid, where they taught the elderly, but now the government has also set the priority to teach the elderly. There are separate programs just for this. The problem is the internet connection in the outermost regions. When the children, who are living in small villages near the front, started classes at home, they did not have enough computers and other smart devices and they did not have internet. Estonian Embassy is launching a couple of projects in Luhanski Oblast, where we are trying to bring internet connection to a tiny village. We considered to bring in some computers and other smart devices, but what is the point, when there is no internet. The digital gap is even more severe in occupied areas because there is Russia in charge instead of Ukraine. In those areas there is no progress.
How different is the situation of women compared to the situation of men? When we look opportunities in job market, access to internet and education?
Women are in more vulnerable situation for sure, especially in East Ukraine, because lot of people lost their job there. The Estonian Embassy attempts to support those humanitarian and development aid projects that encourage particularly women to become entrepreneurs. About a week ago I went to Zaporizhzhia, where we met with an organization [Local refugee aid partner “Unity for the Future”], who demonstrated us how they taught women entrepreneurship. I really liked, how there were mentors involved and how significant percent of participants set up an enterprise, which helped them to earn extra income for their families and get by easier as a single parent. We try to do more things like this- not just bring in extra money but encourage talented and smart people to get back on track so that they could help not only themselves, but also their whole community.
Recently Estonian government approved the distribution of external assistance in years 2021-2027. Estonia will receive about 5 billion euros of assistance. Major investments will go out fight climate change and deal with the problem of aging population. Digital services, science and education will also get a share. Which sectors will be given most attention in Ukraine?
Digital world is certainly one of the more important sectors and the project “country in a smartphone” is a huge priority. During Covid, “country in a smartphone” has improved massively which is awesome. We are talking about millions of users. Another priority is infrastructure. Ukraine has not renovated their airports and highways for decades. It might sound strange that their priority is to cast concrete but let me remind the size of the country. It takes nine hours to drive from Kiev to Severodonetski, a city which is ten kilometers away from the front. And it takes eleven hours to drive from Kiev to Zakarpattia Oblast, which is a province near the Hungarian border. Highways are not very comfortable and safe. Ukraine is directed huge resources to infrastructure so that people from outermost regions would feel that government cares about them as well. I was in Zaporizhzhia a year and half ago and the local airport there was shabby and reminded the bus station in Tartu 30 years ago. A month ago, the construction of the new airport terminal was completed. You could say that it is the most modern looking airport terminal in the whole Europe. It is necessary if you want to get people invested and you also want that people dared to board the plane through this airport. It is certainly an important priority, where a lot of means will go.
Let us talk about another hot topic- climate. Estonia is working hard to get rid of the dependence on oil shale. People are more and more aware of the climate problem. Are discussions regarding environment popular in Ukraine regardless that part of the population does not even have enough firewood and food to survive the winter?
I must say that the Maslow pyramid holds true here. If you do not have enough food, you do not think about other things. You only think about how to get your belly full. In some aspects Estonia is in the same position as Ukraine. When Estonia wants to get rid of oil shale and switch to renewable energy then in Ukraine the problem is coal. The prime ministers of Estonia and Ukraine had a digital meeting where the main point of discussion was how can they exchanged views on how to switch from oil shale and coal to renewable energy and how to find jobs or train people who have worked on the oil shale and coal sector. Also, one of the topics was renouncing from Russia’s electricity network. Estonia wants to renounce by 2025 and then connect to a western network. Ukraine’s plans were even more ambitious. They want to connect to western network and renounce from Russia’s and Belarus’s network by 2023. But that means Ukraine’s electricity must be clean. If they want to sell it to Europe, then they cannot sell the electricity produced from coal. Ukraine has some nuclear powerplants, but they are thinking about renewable energy such as solar panels. I think one of most awesome projects is building solar parks to Chernobyl (if you can say awesome and Chernobyl in a same sentence). What else can you build there. Chernobyl remains unhabitable who knows how much longer. The power lines already exist there so it is exactly the right place for solar panels. They start to produce clean energy in a radioactive area- sounds strange, but it is an awesome example of how to develop this region.
One thing that is kind of a big problem and where the consequences of the problem begin to catch up with them is waste management. They do not recycle here almost at all. Only during the last two years they have bought recycling containers to Kiev. They store most of the waste in landfills, but the thing is that the population of Kiev produces five times more waste on one year than the whole population of Estonia. In Estonia we burn the waste to produce more electricity, which is not that great either according to modern standards. Even if the smoke is cleaned with air filters. But in Ukraine they dump all the waste on fields. Now the understanding that “damn there is so much waste, and we don’t even recycle it nor make electricity from it” has finally got through. Landfill owners still want to earn money and not invest it in recycling nor energy production, which is very problematic. Does not matter, in which oblast I go to, they always ask: “How to you manage the waste in Estonia?” To this day they have not gotten further from just asking that question.
In addition to digital world and oil shale-coal dilemma, in which sectors can Ukraine and Estonia learn from each other?
I believe in a cooperation. One of the more noteworthy things, a little funny actually but there is some truth behind it, is to make something for space. Estonians are building cameras for NASA and Ukrainians are building launchers for NASA. We should join forces here. Ukrainians are eager to learn things form us. Our starting positions were quite similar in 1991. Estonia has made an insanely great progress, that is why Ukraine takes Estonia’s advice way more seriously than Western Europe’s. What Ukraine needs to do is plan things in more advance. Of course, it is understandable because the country is at war. Ukraine plans maybe a few days or a month ahead at most, but they should look at a longer timeframe. They should set a goal- what they want to achieve, then divide the journey into smaller goals and examine which country’s or expert group’s help is most suitable for any of these goals. It is certain that Estonia and Ukraine will cooperate on defense. Demining for example. Estonian pioneers are training in Ukraine. The area near the front has the most land mines in all Europe. Experts say that even if the war ends tomorrow, the demining of the area near the front will take around 50 years. It is horrifying but good for learning purposes. The same goes for cyber field. In addition to physical war, Russia is also organizing cyberattacks against Ukraine’s critically important infrastructure. We can learn from Ukraine how to deal with Russia’s attacking strategy and how to solve those situations together.
During the Coronavirus crisis in Estonia, it has become clear that e-country is not equally smooth in every aspect. We need the excitement that the Ukrainians have when they are developing the “country in a smartphone”. How could we be as exited as Ukraine to make our e-country even better? We need to help them develop their e-country. It will make our eyes shine brighter when we figure out what services we could put on smartphone. Ukrainians have their passport and driving license in a smartphone. I was waiting in a queue in grocery store the other day and there was a group of young people in front of me who were buying alcohol. They proved their age with a passport in their smartphone. No plastic ID card or paper passport required.
Another interesting aspect is voluntary activities. I feel that this field is pretty thriving in Estonia. Understanding that in addition to your main job you can give something else back to society and your community. Right now, many people are focusing on making their ends meet, but once they have more free time, they could make some improvements in this field. When the war broke out, the aggression was initially sustained thanks to volunteer fighters. But the volunteering has not gone far beyond the field of defense. We should encourage the first non-profit organizations. We tell them, how in Estonia there are voluntary rescue crews, and the members of the crews are heavily interested that there would be no fires in their villages or that the lifeguards would always be ready in local beaches. That they do not feel the need to get paid and the only thing government must do is to give them the necessary equipment. The Ukrainians are very surprised when they hear this. “Is this a possibility?”, they ask. And that is a possibility, because the ones, who are most motivated to keep their region safe, are the locals. And only thing that country must do is to invest in a necessary equipment.
In Kiev people can identify themselves with a smartphone, but in villages near the front do not even have internet. Feels like a big contrast. There are so many different layers of people- to keep it all together and pay attention to everyone must be a real challenge to the government?
There needs to be a lot of work done to solve this issue- decentralize and give more decision-making power to local governments. There are a lot of centers of gravities in this big country. Coming from Estonia- it is strange that there is more than one city with at least million residents. During the last seven years, internally displaced people have raised the population of Kiev from 3.5 to around 4 million. They must live and work somewhere. Odessa, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Kharkiv… there are many centers of gravities to choose from, but the distances between them are extremely long. You might end up in an industrial city, which is not gotten a lot of attention. How to develop and help these cities? Ukraine and its allies must help to find an answer to that question. Also, many Ukrainians go abroad and work in other European countries. I look at it as a normal process and development of society. A lot of Estonians went to work in Finland in the 90s. It was completely normal to us as well, to go and earn some extra income to improve your living standard. Example I have bought to people is that young Finns go to work in Sweden and young Swedes go to Oslo to work as a waitress in cafes and restaurants, because the pay is much higher there. But where to Norwegians go? Damn it, I do not get it. [Laughs] Anyways I think, it is completely normal. You go to gather experience, as a young doctor for example. This is why we wanted to be independent and to belong to the Europe Union- that borders could be crossed freely. Let the youth go and gain experience. And the other way around- my mother’s old doctor retired and got replaced by a young Ukrainian doctor, who had learned how to speak Estonian. These are the same Ukrainians that go back to homeland and make society better. As they have seen abroad. I believe that this is the driving force.
Can you give us any positive news, which would make Ukrainian people happy to finish off this interview?
Spring is here. I feel that the Covid will also eventually be defeated as we get enough vaccines. Soon we will be able to meet all of our friends again.