Telephonic Press Conference on Ukraine

With Ambassador Daniel B. Baer in Vienna, Austria

Hosted by the U.S.-European Media Hub in Brussels, May 22, 2014

Moderator: Today we are joined by Ambassador Daniel Baer who is the U.S. representative to the OSCE. He is speaking to us today from Vienna. We will begin today’s conference call with brief remarks from Ambassador Baer and then we will open the line up for your questions. Today’s call is on the record.

Ambassador Baer: Thank you, Mireille, and thanks everyone for taking the time to jump on the phone today. A special shout out to Embassy Madrid where I understand there are a number of journalists that are jumping on the phone collectively. So thanks for taking the time. I’ll be brief at the top because I want to get to your questions.

Just to say that there’s a real positive attitude of expectation about this Sunday’s election in Ukraine. It is a real opportunity for the Ukrainian people to come together and to take a really important step in not only turning the page on the Yanukovych era, but also moving forward together to a better time.  We’ve seen in recent days the first three meetings of the national dialogue process that the Ukrainian government has undertaken with support from the OSCE that has met in Kyiv and Kharkiv and [Mykolaiv]. And all three of those meetings have been each one better than the last from the readouts from people attending.

One of the things I’ve noted is that they’ve had heated exchanges, and that’s a good thing. That’s the right place to have heated exchanges when you’re around the table when you can voice your concerns and go back and forth and try to hammer out a way forward together.

In addition, the Rada this week passed a Memorandum of Peace and Understanding, basically a resolution confirming broad support for a unified Ukraine going forward. It got votes from a number of parties including the opposition and passed with overwhelming support. So we’ve seen some good signs leading up to this election.

The OSCE, the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, has had long-term observers on the ground since the beginning of March to observe the lead up to these elections. They’ve put out two interim reports that have shown that technical preparations for the elections have gone very well and performed according to law and schedule and deadlines. There are 900 short term observers from ODIHR who are arriving yesterday and today and will be fanning out across the country as well for this weekend’s election, and obviously there will also be representatives from the OSCE parliamentary assembly, that is parliamentarians from across the OSCE area. Over 100 of them will be touching down, also to observe. This is in addition to the national and international NGO monitors. I’m told that the number reaches well into the many thousands of observers who will be observing this election.

The one last thing I would say is that for me the technical preparations being in place obviously is crucially important, but one of the things, there was a poll that came out last week of a thousand Ukrainians from across the country and it was a poll that got a lot of headlines because it asked them about loyalties to Russia or to Europe and it asked about their attitudes towards Chancellor Merkel and President Obama and President Putin. But one of the stats in the poll that didn’t get a lot of attention that I think should have was the fact that it asked people whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their future and the future of their families. Eight-two percent of Ukrainians said they were optimistic about their future. To me that shows that the emotional preparation is also in place for these elections and it really does represent an opportunity for all Ukrainians to exercise their right to vote and to begin to build a better Ukraine together.

I’ll stop there and take your questions.

Moderator: Our first question will go to Maarten Rabaey from De Morgen in Belgium.

Media: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. I have a question regarding an attack this morning on a checkpoint in the Eastern Ukraine. It has left at least 14 soldiers dead. It has been [inaudible] a lot of life for government forces to date. Is it clear who the perpetrators are? Apparently the local defense people said that these were not ordinary attackers. Has the OSCE any reports on this attack.

Ambassador Baer: I’ve seen the same reports that you have. This morning in the OSCE Permanent Council we condemned the attack. I think there haven’t been, the OSCE Monitoring mission, which is on the ground separate from the election observers, has not issued its report for today yet. I don’t know whether it will have any additional information. The information that I’ve seen corresponds with what you’re seeing in reports, that there was an attack on a checkpoint and that there was significant loss of life.  There was also reportedly an illegal attempt to cross the border, allegedly, the border from Russia into Ukraine by several vehicles allegedly loaded with weapons.   think both of these reports underscore the ongoing concerns about security in particular areas of the east.

I think that said, one of the things that’s important to remember is that Lugansk and Donetsk where these attacks and others preceding them have happened, are two out of 24 Oblasts, and it is parts of these two Oblasts that are suffering from the violence by these pro-Russian separatists. But in the vast majority of the country the situation is calm, preparations for the election are in place, et cetera. And the places where violence threatens to block people exercising their right to vote, so the government is endeavoring to make arrangements to accommodate them in places like Slavyansk which is a locus of significant violence. Obviously also for Crimea where there are a huge number of Ukrainian voters who are being deprived of their right to vote by the Russian occupation.

Moderator: We have a question coming in from Embassy Madrid, so over to you.

Media: Good afternoon, this is Emilio Sanz from Antena 3 Television in Madrid.

Ambassador, I would like to ask you what is the OSCE going to do about the supervising mission or what kind of a mission, if it’s any, if it’s possible to make any mission by the OSCE at Donetsk and Lugansk and the regions where the pro-Russian people are holding up?

Ambassador Baer: Thanks Emilio. Two things. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission which has been on the ground since the end of March and building up slowly towards a total of 500 monitors, that mission has been deployed across the country including in Donetsk and Lugansk from the end of March and they’re continuing to make daily patrols and monitor the situation on the ground and they are reporting daily, both publicly and privately, to the OSCE participating states. They’re continuing to do their work.

In addition, the ODIHR election observers have also been, the long-term observers have also been in all parts of the country including, with the exception of Crimea where they were denied access, they’ve been in all parts of the country including Donetsk and Lugansk and the short term observers, the 900 additional ones, will also be fanning out.

Obviously in areas where there is localized violence the security will be a significant concern not only for voters but for the observers and so that will make their work challenging. But there are parts of Lugansk and Donetsk where the violence is not expected to interfere with the elections. I think about two-thirds of the Election Commission, even in Donetsk and Lugansk, are operating according to plan.

These observers will be across the country including in the East.

The expectation is that the parliamentary assembly and ODIHR will have an initial assessment to share publicly on Monday after the election.

Media: Hello, my name is [inaudible], I’m from Spain’s public radio. I would like to ask the Ambassador if I heard this week or in the next few days there are going to be new talks in Kyiv like the roundtable that was held a few days ago.  Are these talks going to include any representatives of the pro-Russian separatists? Because they were widely criticized because during the last talks there were no representatives at all from the pro-Russian separatists.

Ambassador Baer: There’s actually been in addition to the roundtable that was held in Kyiv five or six days ago, a couple of days after that there was the meeting in Kharkiv and then the one yesterday as well in the south.  And at all of those there have been representatives from the East, both local elected officials, members of parliament, people from the East. There has been a general rule with these roundtables that people with machine guns are not invited to sit down for a dialogue, which seems quite a sensible one to me. But the intention of the authorities has been to provide a forum where people from across Ukrainian society can express both their concerns, their ideas, et cetera, about the future.

So these have been broad based and frankly, part of the evidence of how broad based they’ve been is that they haven’t been without their argument or their heated moments. There has been a genuine contrast as well as comedy, and so that is all to the good, as I said. I think the idea behind these is to reach out to people across the country to be able to get input about the constitutional reform process that is underway, to be able to communicate about the reform process that the government has started and that will need to continue after the election to put Ukraine back on firm economic footing after the Yanukovych regime has robbed people in the West, East, South and North [lines] for years.  So the national dialogue is about Ukraine’s future. It is not a negotiation.  It’s a conversation.

Moderator: If there are no other questions, Ambassador Baer, if you’d like to make any closing remarks I can turn it back over to you.

Ambassador Baer: Sure. I think one of the pieces to keep in mind as we go through the next few days is that there will be ups and downs in the news of the day, but one of the things that I’m trying to keep in mind is that the preparations for this event have been long in the making. Sunday is a real opportunity. Obviously there may be a second round election happening in June if one candidate does not come away with 50 percent here. But this is a real opportunity to make a step forward and we continue to call here and elsewhere internationally for all international actors to lend their support to the Ukrainian people and to support their right to exercise their freedom to vote, and also to call on those who would interfere with their right to vote, to stand down and to cease their destructive actions. We will see what the results are.

I understand that initial results will come out within 24 hours, I think. So we’ll see what the results are on Monday, we’ll have a discussion of how the election went on. But by any measure this is already, because of the lead in to the election, if you look at previous assessments of elections in Ukraine, this is already arguably the most free and fair election in independent Ukraine’s history because there has not been the manipulation of media resources, there has not been the manipulation of public resources that has been part of the electoral [inaudible] there in the past. So this is a real opportunity for the people of Ukraine, and we look forward to seeing them come together on Sunday.

Moderator: Thank you. And if you don’t mind, Embassy Madrid came in with one more question.

Media: Ambassador, I would like to ask you about the U.S. assessment of the last movement, statements and would-be troop movement from Russia in all these crises. According to the U.S. government and since I suppose that you are a capital piece of information to your government, what is the assessment that the U.S. gives of these late positions from Russia?  Especially about the referendums held recently in Donetsk and Lugansk, et cetera?

Ambassador Baer: There are kind of two questions in there.  In terms of the troop movement, obviously we’ve been saying for many weeks now that one step that Russia should take and could take to deescalate is to move the tens of thousands of troops that they have massed on Ukraine’s border back to their peacetime locations. We have now heard a number of times a commitment to do that. The previous times that has not been fulfilled. We noted that President Putin reportedly ordered the withdrawal of the troops again this week, and certainly that would be a welcome step.

At this point we’ve seen some evidence of activity on the border, but not enough to confirm the movement toward a complete withdrawal of these tens of thousands of forces on the border.

The Russians have also announced quite recently that there will be an air exercise that will take place very close to the border, somewhat strangely timed for May 21st through the 26th with an exercise or a contest on the 25th, that is on Election Day. That entails airplanes shooting at ground targets.

So all of this is — This is not the actions of a helpful deescalating government.  It’s part of a broader picture, obviously, and that gets to the second part of your question in terms of the recent actions of the Russian government.

President Putin made comments about a week ago, ten days ago, saying that the so-called referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk should not go forward and that the elections were a good thing. Certainly he was right to say that. Russia needs to follow up those words with actions. There is no question that Russia has been behind the destabilizing activities of many of these pro-Russian separatists in the East, and they can use both their words and their actions to deescalate those activities and to support a free and fair election in Ukraine.

Media: Ambassador, it’s [inaudible] again. Two things. What turnout do you expect at the elections, next Sunday’s elections in Ukraine? And secondly, do you have any reports of any attempts whatsoever to disrupt these elections or somehow draw away the attention from what’s happening on Sunday in Ukraine? Thank you.

Ambassador Baer: The first question, there have been polls conducted recently that have shown that the majority of Ukrainians intend to go out and vote on Sunday. Obviously polls are not always a great predictor so I think we’ll wait and see, but certainly the number that I referred to earlier, that 82 percent of Ukrainians are optimistic about the future speaks to an atmosphere of hope about what is to come, and that often aligns with strong voter turnout and a strong desire to exercise the right to vote. So we’ll have to see what the turnout is on Sunday, but certainly it’s a significant opportunity and we hope that everybody who wants to vote can vote, and I think that’s what the government is endeavoring to ensure to the best of their ability.

In terms of disruption, obviously the activities of these highly armed pro-Russian separatist groups that have taken over buildings, et cetera, are disruptive. The government of Ukraine is trying to make accommodations for places where those disruptive activities are most intense, and I think it is worth remembering that there are somewhere, I don’t know what the latest count is, but a couple of weeks ago it was reported there were 50 or so buildings that had been taken over in Lugansk and Donetsk by these armed, highly trained separatist folks.  And there are over 30,000 polling places in Ukraine. It’s a big country with 46 million people and I think while certainly the efforts to disrupt the election are reprehensible and a serious concern, the fact remains that in the vast majority of the country things are proceeding according to plan. Again, this is an area where the Russian Federation should use both its public voice and its private actions to ratchet down the activities that are fomenting instability and to ensure that everybody who can vote, everybody who wants to vote, can vote.

Moderator: Thank you. I don’t see that we have any other questions in the queue at this point, so I will go ahead and thank Ambassador Baer for joining us and thank all of you on the line for participating. Of course, if you have any questions following today’s call, you can always contact us here at the Hub by emailing TheBrusselsHub@state.gov. We will provide a transcript of today’s call to all of you on the line shortly and a digital recording will be available for 24 hours following the call at a number that you were provided earlier. If you need that number again you can always email us. And if you would like to continue this conversation on social media you can follow Ambassador Baer @DanBBaer, or @USOSCE on Twitter. And with that, we will conclude the call. Thank you all for joining.

Ambassador Baer: Thanks everyone.