Lviv is a pearl in Ukraine’s crown

Issue 56, April 2013.

Lviv is a pearl in Ukraine’s crown

Biography

Ambassador: Mr. Pieter Jan Wolthers
Age: 64
Posted to Ukraine: 2009
Educated: Law at the University of Amsterdam
Previous postings: Moscow, Cameroon, Brussels (NATO delegation), Vienna (negotiator in forces reduction), Netherlands Foreign Ministry (head of arms control department), Poland (deputy head of mission)., Ambassador of Netherlands to Romania
Extra-curricular activities: History, heraldry, architecture and geneology


Recently, H.E. Pieter Jan Wolthers, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Netherlands to Ukraine, kindly took time out of his busy schedule to give interview to “Lviv Today” and shared some of his impressions about our country as well as gave perspective regarding future of economic relations between Ukraine and Netherlands.

1. Did you visit Ukraine before coming to this country as ambassador?

Yes, I did; it was already a long time ago, in 1979. At that time, beginning my diplomatic career, I worked at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Moscow. Together with my wife and our eldest daughter we spent a short holiday in Kyiv during which we, of course, visited Kyiv’s unique monuments, such as the Sophia Cathedral and the Lavra. But I also vividly remember our feeling how different Kyiv was, compared to Moscow. Although since those days, almost 35 years ago, lots of new buildings appeared in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital maintained its character of a pleasantly green city full of architectural gems.

2. An ambassador should know as much as possible about the country he is posted to. What helped you most to learn more about Ukraine?

For me, all travels begin with studying the history and the present-day situation of the places to be visited. After such preparation, the actual visit becomes a more rewarding experience. This applies even more when one is moving to another country to live there for a number of years. In addition to learning about Ukraine from books, I had the pleasure of travelling quite a lot within your country, gradually visiting all oblasts, both for business and pleasure. We have been often in Lviv, where we always feel welcome and at home. Our visits across the country enabled me and my wife to see with our own eyes a great variety of landscapes and cities, to visit many interesting places, and to meet Ukrainians of all walks of life: regional and local authorities, business people, the academic community, NGO representatives and many others. We find your country very beautiful, and its people kind and hospitable. In our view, Ukraine has many different attractions to offer to those who come to discover them.

3. What are the most important sectors of economic cooperation between Ukraine and Netherlands?

Currently, there are approximately 250 Dutch companies represented in Ukraine. They are mainly active in sectors such as agro-food, horticulture, transport & logistics, construction & infrastructure, water, (renewable) energy, IT, banking and other services.
The Netherlands is the 8th EU exporter to Ukraine, with an export of more than 450 mln Euro in the first half of 2012. The main export products are machinery, agricultural and chemical products, as well as consumer goods. Also on the import side, the Netherlands is an important partner for Ukraine, because within the EU the Netherlands equally takes the 8th place as destination for Ukrainian products. They amounted to more than 300 mln Euro in the first half of 2012, with the main import products being steel and iron, agricultural products, and machinery.
The Netherlands is often associated with flowers, and rightly so. But I have noted that the Ukrainians love flowers, too. In this context, it is perhaps interesting to know that almost 10% of our export to Ukraine consists of plants, trees, and cut flowers (40 mln Euro). Especially in March, we always notice a peek in trade, thanks to Women’s Day, which appears to become a day for celebrating the arrival of spring. More than half of the Ukrainian export to the Netherlands consists of agricultural products, mostly vegetable oils, oil seeds, and grains.
Very promising is investment in energy production, as evidenced by, amongst others, the activities of Royal Dutch Shell in the field of unconventional gas. The 50 year’s Production Sharing Agreement that recently has been concluded is believed to be the biggest contract in Europe for extracting natural gas trapped underground in shale rock. Also in the field of computer hardware and software manufacturing, Dutch-Ukrainian co-operation has been growing. Your country is very interesting for Dutch IT companies. Overall, Ukraine’s population is highly educated. In Lviv alone, there exist already 38 institutions for higher education. Many young Ukrainians have finished technical studies, and are eager to start their careers in these fields. Therefore, Dutch companies find it increasingly interesting to outsource to Ukraine. The general conclusion is, in short, that our two countries have a lot to offer each other.

4. Foreign investors show some interest in the development of the tourist infrastructure in Western Ukraine. Do you happen to know whether any investors from Netherlands show interest in this region?

One of the biggest Dutch investment projects starting in Lviv is that of Multi Development: a construction project called ‘Forum Lviv’, located in the northern part of the city centre, just a short distance away from the city’s main square and famous Opera House. The project envisages the creation of 36,000 m² of modern retail and leisure space and will consist of a two-story shopping centre topped by a level containing a cinema, leisure facilities and restaurants overlooking the city. ‘Forum Lviv’ will also have a parking garage for 620 vehicles to serve the project and the city centre. Multi Development accepted the challenge to create something unique by bringing a mix of new retail formats to the city, while carefully fitting the project into the historical 19th century fabric of the surrounding district. Its concept is based on a design style that focuses on using traditional materials like brick and natural stone, found in Lviv’s historical architecture, but applied in a modern way. Furthermore, the project will have an elevated platform structure in front, providing an iconic function.
In addition, Dutch investors and suppliers have already shown interest in co-operating with the organizers and host cities of the European Basketball Championship, EuroBasket 2015.

5. In your opinion, how could economic relations between the two countries – Ukraine and Netherlands – be strengthened?

Although the economic relations between Ukraine and the Netherlands are traditionally strong, there is, to my mind, certainly room for strengthening them even further. Much will depend on the determination and speed with which the Ukrainian authorities would implement the reforms that are necessary for moving Ukraine closer to Europe. Decisive steps in that direction would pave the way for new investments coming in from the Netherlands and other EU Member States. Here also lies the importance of the Association Agreement, including the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which the EU has offered to and negotiated with Ukraine. I am deeply convinced that this DCFTA will give a powerful impulse to the further development of our trade and investment relations, to mutual benefit.
Currently, companies operating in Ukraine are often still being prevented from deploying their full potential. For this unfortunate situation they usually refer to market conditions characterized by lack of transparency and unfair competition, legal insecurity, limited access to financing, unnecessary bureaucracy and related corruption. As is customary for Embassies and Consulates, also the Netherlands’ diplomatic and consular representations in Ukraine try to support the Dutch entrepreneurs who are active, or wishing to become active, in your country. When certain bottlenecks arise, it is our positive experience that the Ukrainian authorities are willing to try and resolve individual cases. But I am sure that both the international and the Ukrainian business communities are looking for – and, indeed, are expecting – more structural reforms that would improve the business climate in Ukraine and bring it in line with European and international standards, to the benefit of producers and consumers alike.

6. What would you recommend to take the Lviv city authorities to attract investors from the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, we have the saying “Unknown makes unloved”. Investors who consider to expand their activities into new markets and who are weighing various options, might not immediately be focussing on Ukraine, or Lviv for that matter. However, they should be made aware that both the city of Lviv and the region have many important advantages. To name but a few: a strategic location, close to the EU border, on a centuries old trade route connecting East and West; a relatively strong infrastructure with good connections; a young, well-educated and motivated workforce with different language skills; and, in general, a pleasant atmosphere that is open to foreigners. Dutch people coming for the first time to Ukraine are often positively surprised, as they find your country, and Lviv in particular, to be much more ‘European’ than they initially had thought. Nowadays, in the sphere of businesses, we see companies re-locating activities from the Far East to Ukraine, citing as arguments that the ‘cultural’ differences between the Netherlands and Ukraine are less, and that the time difference between the two countries is only one hour. I believe that such developments could be encouraged and accelerated by a focussed publicity campaign, emphasizing Lviv’s competitive advantages for trade and investments.
It is worth noting that, in September 2011, the Netherland Embassy organized a multi-sectoral trade mission to Lviv, during which visits were paid to companies and institutions in order to get acquainted with potential business partners in the region. The Dutch companies were impressed by the wide range of opportunities in the city and the region: from forming joint ventures, via outsourcing of production and services (including banking services), to trading in high-quality consumer goods. Therefore, the Embassy is looking into possibilities for repeating such a mission.

7. Are you interested in the cultural exchange between the Netherlands and Ukraine? And which subjects do you personally prefer – music, theatre, visual arts, etc.?

My personal interest lies at the crossroads between history and arts. Acquiring a deeper insight in our cultural heritage greatly contributes to a better understanding of not only our past but also of current events. Essentially, cultural exchanges strengthen the awareness that we are bound together by many aspects which find their origin in a shared past. At the same time, the reciprocal presentation of new approaches in the arts can stimulate people’s creativity in mapping out a joint future. Facilitating cultural exchanges between our two countries is, therefore, an important component in the tasks of my Embassy. I can proudly say that Dutch culture, in all its diversity, is already very much present in Ukraine, notably in bigger cities such as Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Activities undertaken with the Embassy’s involvement included such diverse projects as classical and jazz concerts, World Press Photo exhibitions, and film festivals (Dutch art house films and documentaries do particularly well in Ukraine, finding their way to international festivals). In addition, there is continued co-operation between Dutch and Ukrainian museums, which was initially established in the framework of the Matra Museum Project. Mr Zenoviy Mazuryk from the Association of Museums and Galleries of the Carpathian region took an active part in this project.
The Embassy is increasingly trying to add a social component to its cultural projects. For instance, in January this year, the Embassy, together with Dutch companies active in Ukraine, helped to bring the very special Jostiband Orchestra to Kyiv. This Orchestra is special, because its musicians are mentally handicapped people. The Jostiband’s performance, aimed at raising awareness with the Ukrainian authorities and the people at large about the challenges encountered by families with Down Syndrome children, also touched an emotional chord. In particular, the concert of the Jostiband in Kyiv’s Zhovtnevyi Palace, broadcasted nation-wide by First National TV, produced much positive feed-back from all over Ukraine.

8. Is our city attractive to the visitors from the Netherlands, as a tourist destination?

There is no doubt that the city Lviv is a pearl in Ukraine’s crown. Traditionally already a very attractive destination, but mostly for connoisseurs, the city has succeeded in gradually spreading its fame more widely, thus attracting now each year many thousands of tourists from everywhere, including from the Netherlands. Lviv’s abundance of beautiful façades testifies of a rich history, which can more profoundly be explored in the collections of the many interesting museums and palaces; moreover, Lviv is exceptionally rich in churches, their many different denominations underlining the city’s multi-cultural character; and for those who seek a rest after a discovery walk through medieval little bending streets or a leisurely stroll along Lviv’s tree-lined boulevard, a typically central European ‘Kaffeehaus’ is waiting with chocolate specialities in a cosy and relaxing atmosphere. And, of course, an evening in the Opera, that splendid landmark building, or in the Philharmonic should best be concluded by sampling the delights of the Ukrainian cuisine in one of the many restaurants. For tourists, the only challenge is how to choose from such an array of different options!

9. Would you like to write a book about work as ambassador to Ukraine?

At this moment, I have no concrete ideas in this direction, but for instance the subject of independent Ukraine’s endeavours in the field of transition and European integration, and the challenges the country is trying to cope with on this path, certainly merits profound analysis.

10. As it came to our knowledge, on April 20th Lvivites will be treated with a special cultural delight in connection with Koninginnedag ("Queen's Day"), a national holiday in Netherlands; could you please tell us more about it?

First of all, let me explain that Queen's Day – or Koninginnedag, as we call it – is a national holiday in the Netherlands that we celebrate since 1949 on April 30th. Increasingly, this day has become an occasion for the meanwhile famous ‘Orange Craze’: in many places you'll see orange banners, orange coloured foods and drinks, and people dressed in orange having a good time. The colour refers to the name of our royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau.
However, 2013 will not see a traditional Koninginnedag celebration, because this year on April 30th, the Netherlands will mark an important event: Queen Beatrix having announced her intention to abdicate, April 30th will be the day of the Investiture of her eldest son, Prince Willem-Alexander as King. The ceremony will take place in Amsterdam, in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on Dam Square, next to the Royal Palace. In the evening, His Majesty King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima will take a boat tour through the world-famous canals of Amsterdam, together with their children, the Princesses Catharina-Amalia, Alexia en Ariane. I am sure that the Dutch are all looking forward to an exciting day!
By the way, as a consequence of this constitutional development, Queen’s Day will henceforth be replaced by King’s Day. In principle, as of 2014, the new national holiday will be celebrated on the actual birthday of King Willem-Alexander, being April 27th.
In Lviv, the coming Investiture of King Willem-Alexander will be marked by a festive concert at the Lviv Philharmonic: a few days earlier, on April 20th, the INSO Orchestra will treat its audience with an interesting repertoire, consisting of Béla Bartok, Leoš Janáček and Georges Enescu, to be performed under the baton of the well-known Dutch guest conductor Raymond Janssen. The concert will be complemented by a photo exhibition in the Foyer of the Philharmonic, devoted to the Royal Family and its history, given the fact that it is now 200 years ago that King Willem I became our first Sovereign. The concert will be followed by a reception for invited guests. Furthermore, at the end of April or beginning of May, Lviv’s cinema lovers will have an opportunity to acquaint themselves with modern Dutch cinematography during a Film festival called “Flyin’ Dutch” (later also to be held in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa). My wife and I are looking forward to our April visit in Lviv, which will combine the enjoyment of a very special musical delight in Ukraine’s ‘cultural capital’ with that of meeting again many good friends and acquaintances from Lviv and beyond!

Pieter Jan Wolthers,
Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Ukraine