Christian Wehrschütz has been ORF’s Balkan correspondent since 1999. He now covers the entire former Yugoslavia and Albania as well as Ukraine. There is hardly a journalist who has dealt more and longer with the background of the Ukraine war than him. The trained lawyer and militia officer knows the actors from numerous interviews and reports and is thus always close to the action. Sometimes it is impossible to stop him and his camera team from getting into danger.
Wehrschütz speaks eight languages and is a military interpreter for Russian and Ukrainian. In 2022 he was honoured with the Special Prize of the Romy Jury for his reporting from Ukraine. His book “Mein Journalistenleben – zwischen Darth Vader und Jungfrau Maria” (“My Journalist’s Life – Between Darth Vader and Virgin Mary”), which he currently presents at lectures in Austria, gives an insight into his life as a war correspondent and analyst of political events in Ukraine and the Balkans. At a lecture in Graz, we met Christian Wehrschütz for an exclusive interview for the readers of the Erste Asset Management Blog.
Mr Wehrschütz, a personal question at the beginning: what is your life like at the moment, between lectures on your new book and reporting from the middle of the war in Ukraine? Where are you at the moment?
I am currently staying at a hotel in Graz because I have book presentations in Graz and Köflach tomorrow and the day after. I flew out of Kosice at 5 a.m. today and landed in Vienna-Schwechat at 6 a.m., then took the train to the Styrian capital. I am now in Austria for a week, and then I will head back to Ukraine. The book presentations are secondary to the work. We always try to organise it in blocks, like 4-5 days, and then I return to Ukraine or the Balkans. The presentations have been very well attended so far. I can only hope that it stays that way. We already have dates until the end of May. It is clear that reporting on Ukraine takes precedence. The country is very big and there are enormous distances to cover, regardless of the risk.
You have also been working in the Balkans as a correspondent for many years. Is the conflict in Ukraine comparable to the Balkan war – are there differences or is war always equally bad/cruel?
Yes, I am ORF’s correspondent for the Balkans and Ukraine and I have two offices. The wars in the former Yugoslavia were wars of disintegration. In a state where many republics no longer wanted to be tied to the centre because the multi-ethnic “denominator” Tito, the myth of the partisan war, and the bloc confrontation had fallen away. We had different nationalities there. Here in Ukraine we have two nationalities waging war against each other. The conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, which were largely concluded – with the exception of the Kosovo conflict – were regional wars. A confrontation with a superpower did not play a role there.
The war in Ukraine, on the other hand, is also a geopolitical clash between the Russians and the Americans. This makes the resolution of this war so much more difficult: an agreement between Moscow and Washington is needed to find a peaceful solution for Ukraine. The position of Ukraine in the European system of states is also at stake. As the war continues, the conflict in Ukraine becomes more spiteful. But this mutual hatred, as it prevailed in the Balkans – still as a consequence of World War II and the Albanian-Serbian antagonism with a certain religious dressing-up of Bosniak Muslims against Orthodox Serbs – we do not (yet) see this in this form in Ukraine.
How does the war affect every-day economic life in Ukraine? Are shops open as usually in Kyiv? How about the industrial sector – are there a lot of production stoppages, or do factories even have enough staff? What is your impression?
Of course, finding labour force is now a problem for several reasons. One reason is the massive movement of refugees. A second problem are the internally displaced people; also, many men have been drafted into the military.
What is the situation in the East? Is “normal” economic activity for companies or industry even possible there? Surely there must be a way to provide for the millions of people still living in Ukraine?
That depends on what you understand by “normal economic activity”. Of course, the grocer in Uzhgorod is also affected by the war. And many businesses ask themselves: will I have electricity tomorrow? What about supplies? Is there enough food and energy? And what can I plan for anyway? Fuel and raw materials have become massively more expensive. Many supply markets have broken down. These are all big problems at the moment. Apart from that, the bombardment of the railway lines and truck transport is causing problems for the farms. But Ukrainians have very strong improvisation skills. That comes in handy in this difficult situation.
Does Ukraine’s free trade agreement with Russia help overcome barriers in this difficult time?
The EU and Ukraine have been provisionally applying an Association Agreement since November 2014. As part of this Association Agreement, a more detailed and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement has been provisionally applied since January 2016. And this has worked quite well so far. I asked the Ukrainian EU Minister Stefanishyna about this during a recent interview. According to her, the EU has suspended all tariffs and duties so that Ukrainian companies are no longer facing barriers when exporting their products. Moreover, because of the blockade of the ports, so-called green corridors of solidarity were created and the agreement on transport liberalisation was concluded. Before the war, this was impossible.
Are these liberalisations reflected in the export volumes?
The suspension of trade barriers for companies from Ukraine had a consequence that is surprising at first glance: according to Stefanishyna, exports to the EU actually increased by 15% compared to the previous year, from 39% to 54%. Thus, jobs were secured, and tax revenue was raised for the budget. And don’t forget, there has been no run on the banks. The banking system is stable.
The financial needs of Ukraine caused by the destruction are enormous. Can you estimate the volume?
Ukraine’s financial needs for the coming year are estimated at EUR 38bn. However, this does not yet include aid for rebuilding. Ukraine needs this capital to survive, to pay social benefits and pensions, and to maintain the health system.
Kyiv Mayor Klitschko said he expected the worst winter since World War II, with widespread power cuts amid low temperatures. Do you share this opinion? Has it improved or is the power supply still fragile?
It has improved but is still fragile. The whole situation is like a cat-and-mouse game: the Ukrainians are trying to compensate for power cuts with repairs. There have been repeated attacks in recent weeks, but not with the enormous intensity we saw at the beginning of October, with more than 100 missiles fired in one day. It’s a different dimension today. But a large part of the power supply is not secured. Many companies are not able to launch operations. According to the Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, six million Ukrainians are permanently without electricity. With 40 million inhabitants, you can imagine what that means.
What is the mood among the population? Is there great uncertainty, especially about the supply situation in the coming months, or are people still determined to persevere?
The start of the war was a big shock to all. The Russians were expected to be more capable. Now the uncertainty is great, but so is the will to persevere. The opinion: “Never again with or subject to the Russians” is widespread. There is a complete mistrust of everything that comes from Russia.
After the outbreak of war, there was a massive movement of refugees to European countries – also to Austria. Some came to stay, but many also returned home. Do you have an insight into statistics on how many people are currently still abroad as refugees?
I don’t have exact statistics, but it fluctuates. It depends on whether things are quiet or whether fighting has just broken out. In addition, we also have internal migration in Ukraine. That is extremely difficult to estimate. In any case, there is talk of millions who have fled. Mayor Klitschko once estimated this from the number of mobile phone calls from abroad. But there are people who have two or three mobile phones.
What is the military situation like after the recapture of Kherson by Ukrainian troops? Where is the frontline, is the fighting on the ground still continuing or has the intensity decreased?
The intensity has certainly decreased, but there is still shooting and fierce fighting in the Zaporizhzhya and Bakhmut area. The Russians want to conquer these cities and claim these areas around Donetsk for themselves.
But nothing substantial has changed recently?
Fronts are largely stable at the time of this interview. Ukraine has regained 50 per cent of the territory it had to give up initially. But the Russians are digging in massively.
Is an agreement or negotiated settlement at all realistic in your view? Or do we have to brace ourselves for a long-lasting conflict? Could the onset of winter perhaps favour a process of rapprochement?
Of course, there are contacts, but I don’t think there is a serious chance of a negotiated solution at the moment. Therefore, there is much to suggest that things will start up again in spring. I would love to be proven wrong. The positions are very far apart. But as I mentioned before: the Americans and the Russians should basically know what they want so that they can impose their positions on the parties to the dispute.
Thank you very much for this in-depth interview, Mr. Wehrschütz.
The interview was conducted by Dieter Kerschbaum and Philipp Marchhart.
For more information on the conflict and its background, read our dossier on the Ukraine war.