Few people without higher education would dare speaking in front of an audience of top university students. Even fewer high-school dropouts would be able to go from a street radical to foreign minister.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s former vice chancellor, did all that and more. Visiting Kyiv on April 16, he first met with students to discuss Ukraine’s challenges in Europe. And then he shook hands with President Viktor Yanukovych to see who and how will be spearheading change in the next five years.
Foreign minister and deputy chancellor from 1998 to 2005, the 62-year-old Fischer is sought for advice, mentoring or just inspiration by many world leaders until this day. One of the world’s most charismatic politicians, Fischer has quite a story to tell.
In his early 20s, he started off as a member of leftist militant groups which demanded justice through street protests and fights. Images of young Fischer clubbing a police officer would haunt him for many years after renouncing violence and joining the Green Party. Never a wallflower, Fischer would wear trainers to Bundestag and speak up his mind regardless of the post he occupied. In 1984, he famously expressed his disapproval to Richard Stucklen in parliament with the words: “With respect, Mr. President, you are an asshole.”
Joschka Fischer during his Kyiv visit on April 16 (Photo by Serhiy Illin)
Visiting Kyiv, he didn’t cause a scandal with either his shoes or his words to Yanukovych. Invited by billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, son-in-law to ex-president Leonid Kuchma, Fischer may have had other things on the agenda but it was left undisclosed.
He described his visit as meeting “the audience of the future.” A couple hundred students squeezed into the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine to drill him on Ukraine’s prospects of joining the European Union. He released a deep sigh when asked about the possible timeframe for entry: “It won’t be tomorrow.” He then hinted that big things can happen fast.
“If someone had said that people of the U.S. and China will develop relations in the common interest 20 years ago, he would be considered crazy.”
“And yet huge transformations happened since then: the fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the Soviet Union. It all depends on the decisions of your political leaders.”
The leaders he referred to, including t Yanukovych, call him “a good friend.” As a foreign minister, Fischer often took a beating for his overly open and trustworthy policies towards the former Soviet Union bloc, Ukraine in particular.
In what became known as “the visa scandal,” Fischer pushed for a policy in 2000 that allowed for more flexibility to people applying for entry to Germany. The Ukrainians, for instance, were no longer required to have a German citizen to back their trip, instead presenting a locally-purchased insurance when applying for a visa. The less-than-perfect applications started to be considered from that time on.
According to press reports at the time, the German embassy in Kyiv approved 300,000 visas in 2001 alone – a staggering number, considering that 190 German embassies around the world annually issue three million visas on average.
Christian Democrats, then in opposition, claimed that Fischer’s policy helped “hundreds of thousands” of illegal immigrants and prostitutes filter through on tourist visas. Although no hard evidence was presented to back the charge, Fischer took blame and apologized for the oversight in foreign policy.
But Fischer being Fischer, he counterattacked the conservatives for labeling all Eastern Europeans as lawbreakers. “As far as I am concerned, they can demand my resignation, but they must stop stigmatizing an entire people as criminals just for an election campaign,” he said in comments to Deutsche Welle in 2005.
Taking the stance and refusing to step down, Fischer made headlines both in Germany and Ukraine alike. As a result, his popularity slipped at home, but increased in Ukraine.
“The audience of the future,” as Fischer called the university students, was more interested in the issues of the future, though, particularly, his involvement with the Nabucco project, the proposed Caspian-Turkey-Austria gas pipeline bypassing Russia and Ukraine.
He said he would “be happy if irritation with Nabucco could be reduced or put aside because it is not against Russia.”
He also spoke of the benefits of the renewable sources of energy.
His prime thought, however, was that “Ukraine’s future determines relations between Russia and Europe.” It sounded like homework to students gathered in the hall.
Kyiv Post staff writer Yuliya Popova can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org