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India’s Growing Engagement with the South Caucasus

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Throughout decades the South Caucasus has played a relatively minor role in India’s foreign policy. However, over the past several years there have been economic and political trends indicating India’s growing interests in the South Caucasus’ economic and infrastructural potential as well as a gradual emergence of New Delhi’s strategy towards the region.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union the newly independent Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which constitute the South Caucasus region, began to attract large Eurasian and non-Eurasian states’ attention. Influential players so far have been the US, Russia, European Union (EU), Turkey, to a lesser degree Iran and a latecomer – China. India, however, which is one of the biggest and fast-growing economic markets in the world (seventh country in the world by nominal GDP; third country by GDP PPP; second-largest country by population) and has growing geopolitical ambitions spreading all along its vast land and maritime borders, has been notably absent from the South Caucasus’ geopolitical chessboard.

New Delhi has differing approaches to each of the region’s country, driven both by pure economic and political realism as well as economic preferences. What is common though is that despite the absence of common strategy towards the region, trends of cooperation between India and each of South Caucasus states are on the rise.

Georgia

There is a big potential for economic cooperation. So far, Georgia-India trade is of limited range, where Indian exports to Georgia are mainly meat and frozen meat, cereals (rice), electrical machinery as well as pharmaceuticals. Georgia, on the other hand, exports to India chemical (nitrogenous) fertilizers and metal (aluminum and zinc). As seen, the bilateral trade is limited and belongs to the secondary class of export. Both states have much larger potential to tap into. Georgia could increase its export of ores, metallurgical products, medical products, wine and other alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and processed agricultural products to the Indian market.

India, on the other hand could initiate its exports of cement, mineral fuels and plastic products to Georgia. There is also an untapped potential of India providing some advanced software engineering and IT solutions to the Georgian market.

Much can be done in yet another untapped sphere – tourism. Though the number of Indian tourists visiting Georgia has been on the rise, in recent years there were multiple of cases of barring Indian citizens from entering the country. Thus throughout 2019 more than 4200 Indian citizens were denied entry into the country.

Moreover, the improvement of economic and tourist cooperation between the two states is also complicated by the fact that even today India does not have its own embassy in Georgia. It is the Indian embassy in Yerevan, which still oversees all Indian diplomatic affairs in Georgia.

Nevertheless, lately there have been important trends in the bilateral relations indicating upcoming improvements in the state of affairs. Recently Tbilisi and New Delhi launched free trade talks based on completed a joint feasibility study of a free trade agreement. The latter confirmed that a freed trade agreement will have a positive impact on bilateral trade.

Moreover, recently Georgia and India signed an Air Services Agreement (ASA) with the purpose of running non-stop flights with the low-cost airline IndiGo (InterGlobe Aviation Limited). The initiation of flights was planned for March 2020.

There also is work being done to remove a major obstacle in bilateral relations: opening of Indian Embassy in Georgia. The Georgian side has already notified India’s Ministry of External Affairs. This follows, albeit lately, the relations both states enjoyed from 1990s when India had recognized Georgia’s independence on December 26, 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and had established formal diplomatic relations on September 28, 1992. Other efforts included the Georgian government’s decision to set up an honorary consulate in Delhi in 2005, which was then upgraded to a full-fledged embassy in 2009.

Armenia

Armenia’s relations with India are also experiencing interesting twists. For the past many years, beyond Russia’s geopolitical importance, China’s rise has been a subject of debates within the Armenian analytical community. Here too India has been largely absent. This is more surprising as India traditionally has good relations with Armenia’s key strategic ally Russia. Moreover, Moscow and New Delhi are members of both Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS. This could mean that Moscow would not be too worried by New Delhi establishing itself deeper in the Armenian economy.

Besides, there is also geopolitical thinking which could unite both states. Strategically Armenia is interested in deeper cooperation with India as Azerbaijan and Pakistan form an increasingly close partnership. Yerevan is in conflict with Baku over Nagorno-Karabakh, while Islamabad is the only state in the world which does not recognize Armenia’s independence and therefore fosters close contacts with Azerbaijan.

This broader geopolitical setting explains Armenia’s efforts to foster closer military, technological and generally diplomatic relations with India. For example, in 2017 an Indian delegation headed by Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari visited Yerevan where for the first time in 25 years Indians actively discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

These overlapping interests of New Delhi and Yerevan could be behind recent decision by the Armenian government to grant India a $40 million deal to supply four India-produced weapon locating radars (‘SWATHI’, which can handle multiple projectiles fired from different weapons at different locations) to Armenia. In this tender Indians has reportedly outbid Russia and Poland. According to the ANI news agency which based its reporting on Indian government sources, “the deal is for supplying four SWATHI weapon locating radars developed by the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and manufactured by the Bharat Electronics Limited.”

Beyond geopolitics, there is a growing people-to-people contacts between India and Armenia. The latter has become Indians’ one of the favorite destinations for education and employment. Considering Armenia’s small size, the number of Indian citizens that were allowed to reside in the country is substantial. In 2016, 1119 Indian nationals received residency in Armenia, in 2017, 1086 received residency and in 2018, residency status was given to 938 Indian nationals. Throughout most of 2019 the number went downwards with more Indians leaving Armenia than arriving, but as many expect the country will remain an attractive destination for the Indians.

Azerbaijan

India’s relations with Azerbaijan are mainly driven by political realism. Though Azerbaijan is close to Pakistan, India’s geopolitical rival, in the recent years New Delhi worked hard to tap into Azerbaijan’s advantageous geographic and economic position.

This is well reflected in the bilateral trade which grew from around US$ 50 million in 2005 to approximately US$ 922 million in 2018. In 2019 the trade turnover constituted some $1.1 billion. Moreover, by 2020, there are over 200 Indian companies operating in Azerbaijan with over US $ 1.2 billion investments, which is much larger than in Georgia or Armenia.

India exports rice, mobile phones, heat exchange units, air and gas compressors/ ventilation units, drugs/human vaccine, cables, plaited cords from ferrous metals without electric isolation, small machines, black tea, insecticide etc to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s export to India, on the other hand, mainly consists of crude oil. Overall, as in the case with Georgia, the bilateral trade is mainly based on products of secondary importance. A much bigger untapped potential exists where India could become Azerbaijan’s major importer of high technologies.

Another potential sphere is military cooperation. Though Azerbaijan purchases most of its weapons from Russia, Baku is nevertheless interested in diversifying its options. India, with its nascent growing capabilities to create military technologies for export across the globe, could become Azerbaijan’s close partner.

There is also an issue of the geopolitics which drives India’s approach to Azerbaijan. The latter strategic location as a starting point in the South Caucasus energy corridor makes the country attractive to India. It is no wonder that a quick growth in bilateral trade between the two states took place when the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway materialized. As a result, Indian oil companies have been buying substantive quantities of crude oil from this corridor.

India is also interested in Azerbaijan’s location as the latter lies in the center of the International North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) which stretched from the Indian territory (through Azerbaijan) to Russia’s Baltic ports. Though the route has yet to show its full potential, ships and railroads to be used along the NSTC would allow India to connect to the European market.

Thus, all South Caucasus states are set to gain exponentially in the economic and in some cases military realms from establishing deeper cooperation with India. There is a clear trend showing that after the end of the Soviet Union, the South Caucasus has never really been a part of India’s active foreign policy, this began to change in the recent past. New Delhi still lacks an overall geopolitical approach (i.e. strategy) towards the South Caucasus and builds its bilateral relations on an ad hoc basis, but the country grows increasingly perceptive of the region’s growing infrastructure which connects the Caspian and Black seas and would allow India to connect to the European market.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement

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Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.

Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”

On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”

So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.

Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.

Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.

As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.

Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.

Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.

Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch

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Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

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Ukraine’s independence: Shaping new political narratives through art

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Ukraine’s 30th Independence Anniversary brings forth a discussion on forming a modern cultural identity in the wake of political instability.  

Despite gaining independence 30 years ago, Ukraine is still facing consistent attacks on its sovereignty, both political and cultural. From the ongoing war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine, where 10,000 people have lost their lives since 2014, down to the root of oversimplification of Ukrainian issues in the media, Ukraine’s story is often being told by opponents attempting to distort the modern Ukrainian cultural identity.

My first-hand experience working with kids at the Ukrainian warzone has taught me a deep appreciation for cultural independence. For five years together with youngsters I wrote, directed and staged a performance piece titled ‘Contact Line’ about life at the warzone and personally witnessed the huge impact of arts and culture on the kids’ lives. This experience demonstrated that for too long Ukraine has let someone else present its identity to its youth, citizens and the world.

Shaking away the Soviet legacy

There’s no denying that the Soviet Union left a lasting legacy on Ukraine. The culture of Ukraine is to this day tainted by lingering ghosts of the Soviet past. Soviet authorities vigorously supressed the development of independent cultural identities in all the member states. In Ukraine’s case, simplistic rural folklore was imposed on society as a primary culture and was a means of suppressing creative or progressive thought. National collectives and one-dimensional traditional themes were presented as the essence of Ukrainian culture throughout the 20th century. Anyone who didn’t fit the Soviet mould was eliminated. A specific term, Executed Renaissance, is used to define a generation of Ukrainian artists who were repressed by the Soviet regime for their artistic non-conformism.

It has taken decades for Ukraine to regain its cultural voice and iron out its Soviet imprint. A key concept of postcolonial theory examines the creative resistance to the colonizers’ culture and the fraught slow development of a postcolonial identity. Ukraine has been struggling through this process for 30 years. However, since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity the country has been reimagining its culture, exploring its history and reconnecting with its identity. Ukraine is now striving to be on par with Western culture by ridding itself of remaining Soviet influences. Cultural institutions previously under government control or censorship are finding an independent voice and the population is discovering that authentic artistic expression is providing hope in difficult times. 

Looking at the future

Over the past 10 years, Ukraine has witnessed a robust change in the arts sector. The cultural scene has made a significant move away from a conservative ethos to a more contemporary one. Visual arts are the most progressive form of expression in Ukraine, with cinema rapidly catching up. Ukrainian filmmakers are winning awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Ukrainian artists are receiving praise at La Biennale di Venezia. The expectation is that this trend will not only magnify in the coming years, but also position Ukrainian artists as global creative trailblazers. 

Despite ballet being an extremely politicised art form during the Soviet period, it is now going through a revival and modernisation. The Ukrainain school of ballet is gaining recognition as one of the world’s best and Ukrainian ballet dancers are headlining the top ballet companies across the globe, showcasing their immense talent and training. British audiences will have an opportunity to watch the best Ukrainian ballet dancers from the world’s top theatres come together for a one-off unique performance at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on September 7th.

Georgian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine famously said, “Ballet will speak for itself,” and the artform remains a true demonstration of the universal language of dance. The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will be a showcase of the innovation and traditions of the contemporary Ukrainian ballet school.

Global cultural promotion

In a globalised world it’s the wish of every country to promote and engage in cultural exchanges, and Ukraine is very much part of this movement. Ukraine wants to be an active player on the world stage, both politically and culturally, and to be a dynamic culture creator, particularly in Europe. Trust in soft diplomacy is growing and Ukraine’s international relations and diplomacy are benefiting from this trend. 

As a Ukrainian-born and British-educated theatre producer and director I appreciate the importance of bringing the best of Ukrainian culture to the world not just for Ukraine’s benefit, but to enrich global culture and share experiences through creative means. It is the job of people like me and my colleagues to tell Ukraine’s story through art and, thus, shape new political narratives about Ukraine internationally. We want to share our rich culture with the world and events, such as the Ukrainian Ballet Gala, are key to achieving this.

Ukrainians are now left with no choice but to stride forward – no outside force should ever again control the vibrant culture of Ukraine.

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