Tobias Thyberg’s first two years in Ukraine were unlike any of his predecessors’.
Months after the Swedish ambassador started his four-year tenure in September 2019, the COVID‑19 pandemic broke out, throwing Ukraine into a series of lockdowns and putting severe limitations on the embassy’s work.
But as the world, including Ukraine, is largely returning to normal, Thyberg’s days are full of traditional ambassador duties.
This week alone, he traveled to Poltava to present a Swedish-language audio guide at the local museum together with First Lady Olena Zelenska, and to the embattled eastern Ukraine, where he accompanied Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairperson-in-office.
Sweden’s chairpersonship of the OSCE in 2021 has been “a big thing for us this year,” according to the ambassador. Through it, Sweden has had “a much more direct role” in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine mediated by the OSCE in the Trilateral Contact Group.
“In the context of the conflict it has been a frustrating year,” Thyberg told the Kyiv Post during an interview on June 17 at his residence on Ivana Franka Street in central Kyiv.
It’s been nearly one year since Ukraine and Russia-backed militants entered a shaky cease-fire in July 2020. The ceasefire has been frequently violated, and 48 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since it started, adding to some 14,000 people killed in Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014.
“(During the past year) efforts have been focusing more on maintaining the reduced level of violence that came after the cease-fire rather than achieving any substantive progress in the conflict as such,” said Thyberg. “That, of course, is frustrating.”
Thyberg said that it has become more apparent to him that peace will be difficult to reach unless Russia recognizes itself as a party to the conflict — something that it actively denies.
Thyberg speaks with regret of the fact that the European Union has allowed the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to go forward, dealing a blow both to Ukraine and to the energy security in Europe.
“Sweden’s position is that Nord Stream 2 can’t be considered as either a purely commercial project or a purely bilateral matter between Germany and Russia,” he said. “We regret that European institutions have not been able to have a greater influence on decision making regarding Nord Stream 2.”
According to the ambassador, Sweden is now “working in the direction where in the future, projects of the nature of Nord Stream 2 will be subject to European, not national decision making.”
“We believe that Germany now has a very serious responsibility to ensure that Nord Stream 2 doesn’t result in a dramatic deterioration of security in Europe,” he added.
COVID in Ukraine
While visitors from Western countries are sometimes shocked at how little mask-wearing there is in the streets of Ukraine, that’s not the case for those coming from Sweden. The two countries surprisingly share this tendency in common.
While the ambassador refused to comment on the efficacy of Ukraine’s government measures to battle the pandemic (although, he remarked, “every single person in the world seems to have become an expert on epidemiology”), he praised how remarkably well Ukraine’s economy survived the pandemic.
While there may be many reasons for that, including a surprisingly good year for agricultural produce and world prices on Ukrainian exports, there is one “deeper and more important reason,” in the ambassador’s view.
“The reforms of Ukraine’s monetary policy which were carried out after the Revolution of Dignity (that ended Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency in 2014), and the strengthening of monetary institutions, not least the National Bank of Ukraine and its autonomy — these are the reforms that ensured Ukraine was in a better position to deal with the pandemic than it had been with previous economic shocks,” he said. “This is a very important testament to the success of some crucial economic reforms in recent years.”
Rule of law
There are roughly 1,000 Swedes living in Ukraine and some 90 companies, a number that hasn’t changed in the past year.
From his conversations with Swedish business representatives, Thyberg says there is no clear picture as to whether the business climate in Ukraine improved in the past year. Rather, they keep repeating what they have always said: They want a working, corruption-free judiciary system and efficient government agencies to implement the courts’ decisions.
“Nothing is comparably important,” Thyberg said. “Not infrastructure investments, not various incentive schemes to attract more investors, not monetary policy, none of that comes close to the importance of the rule of law reform for Swedish businesses.”
In the past year, international confidence in rule of law reform in Ukraine was shaken because of a scandalous decision of the Constitutional Court at the end of October that essentially dismantled the architecture of anti-corruption agencies.
“It was a shock to everyone both in Ukraine and among Ukraine’s Western partners and supporters, including Sweden,” Thyberg said.
He believes that the extent to which the Ukrainian government fixes the damage done by the Constitutional Court will be one of the most important parts of its legacy.
Days before this conversation, President Volodymyr Zelensky vetoed a bill that sought to restore penalties for officials lying on asset declarations — something the Constitutional Court had eliminated in 2020. The bill was criticized for its loopholes and Zelensky’s veto was welcomed.
Meanwhile, Sweden is watching Zelensky’s efforts to curb the influence of Ukrainian oligarchs. On June 2, Zelensky filed a long-anticipated draft law that defines oligarchs and limits their influence on media and politics.
While Sweden is yet to assess the bill, Thyberg said that in general, Zelensky’s “decision to deal with this problem in a fundamental way is welcomed.”
However, he notes that Ukraine should first and foremost reform the existing agencies that could restrain oligarchs.
“There’s the Anti-Monopoly Committee, there’s the judicial system, there’s a very well-developed set of institutions for fighting corruption,” he said. “If those institutions were allowed to function without interference and with the full resources that they need I’m not sure that additional measures would be necessary.”
Sweden is just months away from approving the next seven-year strategy for distributing foreign aid through its Swedish International Development Corporation, or SIDA, an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the previous years, Sweden distributed some 30 million euros a year in Ukraine to support projects in the sphere of democracy, rule of law, civil society development, education, energy, and economic development.
In the new seven-year program, the volume of aid and its directions will largely remain the same.
Apart from its usual support, Sweden will do something entirely new for Ukraine this year.
The country will provide one of the key attractions of the upcoming celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence this August: The original Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk.
One of the first constitutional documents in Europe, it was written by the Ukrainian Cossack leader Orlyk in 1710. The constitution was never implemented in Ukraine. In fact, the document was never even seen in Ukraine.
Orlyk authored the Constitution when he, along with Ivan Mazepa and King Charles XII of Sweden, retreated from Ukraine after losing the Battle of Poltava in 1709. The Latin-language document has been stored in the National Archive of Sweden.
In August, for the first time, the Constitution will be brought to Ukraine and put on display.
“It’s an absolutely unique monument to the Ukrainian statehood,” Thyberg said of the Constitution.
It is also a symbol of the long-lasting relationship of Ukraine and Sweden, which goes back to Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, who married a Swedish princess. The Constitution appeared after the tragic Battle of Poltava, where Sweden and Ukraine joined forces against Russia.
“For me, it’s a bit like a story of a phoenix,” Thyberg said. “From the ashes and destruction of the Battle of Poltava rose this wonderful document, which became one of the founding elements of the idea of the Ukrainian state based on the rule of law. Going forward, I wish that Ukraine continues on the great tradition of Pylyp Orlyk which is, to build a European state based on the rule of law.”
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