When Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union a mere 20 years ago, it was hard to imagine what our future would hold. The mood was one of enthusiasm and unlimited potential. But would it be enough to overpower the hardships of the previous 72 years? Despite the euphoria of the day, the country faced an uphill struggle. After all, our nascent country was struggling with weak levels of gross domestic product, and massive unemployment seemed inevitable.
The Ukraine I see today is very different. I see a modern and dynamic country in which small-business ownership is on the rise, creativity is thriving, and the market is picking up after a difficult recession. In the last year alone, foreign direct investment increased by 35%.
Ukraine has come a long way from our Soviet legacy, and I plan to take the country even further. It is my goal to set Ukraine on the path to becoming a proud member of the European Union.
I believe Ukraine's future belongs in Europe. While our historical connection to Russia will continue to be very important, the key to prosperity for our people and the development of our natural and human resources lies in a deeper and more developed integration with Europe and the West.
I see vast potential for Ukraine to play a prosperous role in the European economy. Not only does my country boast an educated labor force and a rich foundation in science and technology, but we also serve as a bridge connecting European, Russian and Asian markets. With a territory larger than France, one that is home to a third of the world's most fertile soil, Ukraine has often been referred to as the "breadbasket of Europe."
We also value innovation. Our current exploration of shale and offshore reserves will diversify energy supplies and help avert future crises. Our strong economic ties with the EU will only increase after we finalize an Association Agreement later this year—a springboard to future EU membership.
Ukraine's partnership with the West extends beyond economic and strategic interests. It also includes a shared culture of values and a commitment to democracy, human rights and international peace. My decision last year to remove weapons-grade uranium from our nuclear reactors despite resulting economic hardships shows that Ukraine is serious about global security, and that we are a reliable pillar of stability in Europe's eastern neighborhood. I would be remiss if I did not mention our shared joy in friendly sporting competition, as demonstrated by Ukraine's co-hosting of next year's European Football Championships along with our Polish friends.
Looking closer to home, we must focus on improving relations with our Russian neighbors. For too long, Ukraine's energy security has been blighted by an unpredictable diplomatic relationship with Russia. It is time to move on and look to the future—putting regional peace ahead of past mistakes. Ukraine, Russia and the whole of Europe will benefit if this is achieved.
Yet our progress has been far from smooth. As our country seeks to escape from an economic crisis that has strangled a generation, I have had to implement tough economic measures to secure International Monetary Fund support that has safeguarded Ukraine's economic development. Ukraine's current pension reform plan (including raising the retirement age for women to 60 from 55) is similar to the controversial measures being undertaken by all governments across Europe to achieve economic and fiscal discipline. However difficult it may be, reforms like this are finally starting to structure Ukraine's economy on par with EU standards.
There is more work to be done in our transformation. Replacing the remnants of Soviet corruption with transparency across all areas—including government administration, business and the judiciary—remains a challenge. No person should be immune from the consequences of his actions regardless of political standing or social stature. Without accountability, Ukraine's transformation will be unattainable. Without the rule of law, Ukrainian citizens will have their daily lives complicated.
In this climate of global uncertainty and competing geostrategic interests, the connections between Europe and Ukraine are all the more important. Ukraine needs Europe. Just as important, Europe cannot afford to leave Ukraine behind.
In the next 10 years of independence, it is my hope to see Ukraine reunited with its European family. We cannot achieve this goal alone, and we are calling on our European friends to support our efforts. Our future depends on forging close ties with the EU and eventually becoming a full-fledged member. As we remember our humble beginnings, let us look forward to the next 20 years. In a period that will have many challenges, we hope to stand firmly by the EU's side, leaving the next generation of Ukrainians a legacy of stability as part of a united European community.
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