Anatoliy Poloskov, Governor of the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, gave an interview to Report's Eastern European Bureau.
- How do you assess the current state of regional, economic and social relations between Azerbaijan and Ukraine? What are the unresolved issues in the regional ties of your region with Azerbaijan? What can you suggest?
- I would describe the level of our relations as unacceptably low since, at present, there is not a single Azerbaijani business in Zakarpattia. However, we know that Azerbaijan has strong companies. Therefore, I assess the situation, including my activities in this direction, as nothing positive. At the same time, the current situation says that there can be excellent prospects in our relations. I know many Azerbaijani citizens, Azerbaijanis, who are responsible and honest people. I believe that we can and should do business with them. In this regard, I would like to thank you for your interest and meeting with the regional administration heads. Joint efforts can boost relationships.
The figures in the statistics of imports and exports of goods and services with Azerbaijan show everything. In the first half of 2021, they amounted to USD 140,000, while this figure was only USD 300,000 in 2020. I understand that we faced a pandemic, the year 2020 seemed to pass away from our lives, there was no business, but I do not doubt that we need to strengthen our ties. Take SOCAR, for example. Why shouldn't SOCAR have gas stations in the Zakarpattia region?! That is, we can consider it as a perspective connection. Zakarpattia has great potential for recreation. We have natural conditions that you will not find in other regions of Ukraine. Thus there are both mountainous and lowland areas in such a small area, and the climate is so unique that it is possible to relax at any time of the year.
For example, in early-mid-November, people gather grapes in one part of the province. Moreover, the temperature is 16-18 C in one part of the region, but people can ski 100-120 km away. This rare situation allows you to relax in different forms. We have excellent mineral waters. All conditions are created for rest. Therefore, cooperation in the field of tourism, tourist-guest exchange is also an exciting direction. But it would help if you started with PR campaigns.
People in Zakarpattia should be aware of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijani people need to know about Azkarpattia. As the distance between our countries is long, it is necessary to understand the logistics issues. We have reopened the airport in Uzhhorod. Regular flights from Kyiv are one of the options to reach our lands. Ukraine is currently investing heavily in road infrastructure, so it is convenient to travel by car. The roads in the region are also stunning. Along the way, you move through the greenery. The view of the Carpathian Mountains and the rivers are also included in this beauty. We share borders with four countries of the European Union. People from those countries can easily travel to our province. That is why it is important to establish contacts; I am convinced of that.
Perhaps the fact that the Azerbaijani community in Zakarpattia is so small also affected this situation. The last census in our country was in 2001. According to this calculation, 321 Azerbaijanis lived in the oblast. Although I do not know the exact number now, I know that Azerbaijanis live in our region. Because last year we registered the United Congress of Azerbaijanis of Ukraine in the Zakarpattia Oblast. Here we come to an important place. I need to meet with their leader Zahid Huseynov and discuss the situation. In fact, I want to meet and talk to all the few Azerbaijanis here in person. It would also contribute to the development of our relations. Because I think that all national minorities in the Zakarpattia Oblast should feel safe and comfortable, they should live here as at home. The number does not matter.
- Zakarpattia is a region of particular importance both in terms of natural resources and from a strategic point of view. Based on these factors, what issues can be considered in the interaction with Azerbaijan? Do you have any specific suggestions?
We have an operating industrial park and powerful car plant which produces Skoda cars on the border with Hungary. During our meeting with the US Chargé d'Affaires in Ukraine Kristina Kvien, we offered to start production of Ford cars in this industrial park. We are currently working on the creation of two more such industrial parks. All infrastructure is being prepared by the state and local communities, and industrial parks are created in very convenient logistics points. Factors such as its proximity to the border, not too far from the checkpoint, and the closeness of highways and railways are considered. You can and should do business with an industrial park. These parks we plan to open may also have an industrial area of interest to Azerbaijan. Their locations are easy and convenient for the investor to work. Therefore, we do not limit the scope of activities. We create favorable conditions for building a business. We provide complete protection of investments and security of investor interests. Therefore, we will be pleased to inform the Azerbaijani side after the commissioning of new industrial parks.
- Ukraine is currently on the threshold of serious reforms. How does your region participate in these reforms? Would you please list specific facts?
In fact, we are not on the entrance of reforms, but inside. In other words, reforms are underway, and they are more or less felt. Take, for example, the field of medical care. There have been significant changes in funding for medicine, the structure of medicine in the country, the attitude to the patient. Today, the patient is not connected to the hospital where he is registered, they can receive treatment anywhere. Funding is central. That is, hospitals and medical institutions have contracts with the State Service for Medical Care in Kyiv. The patient gets treatment regardless of the place of registration, and at the same time, direct payment from Kyiv to the appropriate hospital or medical institution was transferred. This is very convenient, accurate, and today the mechanism works well.
We are making significant reforms and changes in the field of construction. President Zelensky's "Great Construction" program is an extensive global project for Ukraine. During the independence period, in the Zakarpattia Oblast, roads were repaired that were never touched. More medical infrastructure was built and restored than ever before in the history of independent Ukraine. Schools, kindergartens, sports facilities are being built or overhauled. So we have big plans for 2022. The change since Zelensky's arrival is so apparent that it cannot be disputed. But instead, people have other questions. For example, "Why didn't they do it before?", "How are they doing it now, despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, even though we are now at war and it requires a lot of money?" But such changes become possible when an honest person and team come to authority. Again, let's take an example from ourselves. We have built or overhauled eight reception offices in Zakarpattia in less than a year. In fact, we have constructed a hospital. Because the admission department does not only mean that the patient comes and gets the initial direction, these are also operating rooms, modern, mighty computed tomography machines, angiographs, new X-ray machines. I am proud to be at the center of events in this team.
- Zakarpattia's area is often declared a red zone during the pandemic. What are the statistics now, and how do you see the prospects? How did this factor affect the tourism sector, which is the leading resource of the region?
Regarding the pandemic and vaccination, I can say that we currently have one of the best situations in Ukraine in terms of the number of new infections and the number of patients who need to be hospitalized. We have created a very close network of vaccination centers in Zakarpattia. For comparison, in this respect, only Kyiv and Dnepropetrovsk regions are better than us. It's just that they have more territory and more population. At present, there are 217 vaccination points and 14 vaccination centers in our region. The centers do not have days off; they work every day. Four types of WHO-approved vaccines are used. It is up to the individual to choose which one to inoculate. In this regard, our only problem is that very few people want to be vaccinated.
In figures, the actual number of people living in the region is 800-900 thousand people. 155,000 people got the first dose and 105,000-second dose. We know that this is not enough for collective immunity. Now we are trying to instill in people the need for vaccination. Vaccination is not just for vaccination, so that the region does not fall into the red zone again and can receive tourists. The area was included in the red zone in the spring of this year. It was a challenging period. But we were one of the first to leave the red zone in Ukraine. The oblast was able to receive tourists in May and is still in the green zone. This season, the flow of tourists is at a reasonable level. Although there is no exact figure, we think Zakarpattia has received 500-700 thousand tourists this season. In other words, we welcomed almost as many guests living in the province.
- Ukraine is an ethnically rich country with a large number of ethnic minorities. Today, a new generation takes center stage. We are interested in how do you perceive the Azerbaijani youth in the Zakarpattia Oblast for the future of Ukraine? Let's say, do you see the potential of Azerbaijani youth to hold any position in the regional administration, to be elected MP?
Zakarpattia is home to more than 100 nationalities. It has historically been a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious land. For centuries there has been no conflict or hostility between ethnic groups and communities with different religious views. People have always lived kindly in this land. Look, I am Russian by nationality. During my military service, I saw a picture in my soldier friend from Zakarpattia. I liked the girl in the picture; she was his cousin. I took her address, we corresponded, and after military service, I came to these lands with my friend. That was 31 years ago.
A year after my arrival, I married her and stayed here. During this time, I have never heard anyone say something bad about me because I am Russian. Now I am exactly Zakarpattian, but at that time, I was a young Russian boy, and I earned what I got. It's straightforward, you have to be human, it doesn't matter what your nationality is. Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Romanians work in our administration. We have no restrictions for people of any ethnicity. If any Azerbaijani is a good person, honest, a good specialist, let them work. I mean, the same conditions are created for Azerbaijanis as for other nations. We are the same people regardless of nationality.