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Ukraine Finance Minister On Rebuilding The Economy In The Midst Of War

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Natalie Jaresko is trying to forge a new economic path for Ukraine in the middle of a war. She's the country's minister of finance, a position she took just a few months ago. Jaresko was born outside of Chicago to Ukrainian immigrants. She was a U.S. diplomat in Kiev in the early '90s. Later, she turned to finance, opening a private equity firm in Ukraine in 2006. Now she's in the U.S., asking for more help for the country her parents emigrated from. And Natalie Jaresko joins us between meetings at the International Monetary Fund offices here in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

NATALIE JARESKO: Thank you very much, Don.

GONYEA: Let's just start with the simple question. Why did you take this job?

JARESKO: I took this job because I felt that I could add value to the country at a time when the country was clearly in crisis. I felt that I shared the values of the Ukrainian people, and I shared their desires to see Ukraine prosper, to be a successful market economy, a part of Europe and a part of the democratic free world.

GONYEA: You grew up in Chicago. You were educated in Chicago at DePaul. You've lived in Ukraine for some time now.

JARESKO: Yes, I've been living in Ukraine for 23 years. I've been doing business there, so I understand the pressures of the business community. I understand the needs of the business community and the reforms that we really need to move forward. I've been one of those people who's been patient for 23 years while the reforms have been incomplete. And today, you know, I take responsibility with my colleagues to try and fulfill the promise of Ukraine.

GONYEA: Last week, the International Monetary Fund approved a $17.5 billion package for Ukraine, but you say it's not enough. What are you asking for?

JARESKO: No, it is enough from the perspective of providing a support package to stabilize the banking and financial sector. It's not enough from the perspective that what we'd like to see is Ukraine not just stabilized but grow and prosper. And in order to grow and prosper, we also need to attract U.S. investment, U.S. trade. We need to bring the real part of the economy back onto its feet after nine long quarters of recession.

GONYEA: Can you talk about the impact the ongoing war is having on the economy?

JARESKO: The war is tragic, and the first and foremost tragedy is humanitarian. We have over 5,000 deaths, over 15,000 wounded. We have 1.1 million internally displaced people from the war in the east and the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia. At the same time, it is an economic crisis as well. It's 20 percent of our economy. It is something that has affected our infrastructure. We've had airports ruined. We've had different parts of our gas pipeline destroyed. We've had thousands of apartment buildings destroyed. And it is something that drags down confidence in the banking system and in the investor community, so it's important for us to see peace. We want to see peace as soon as possible - full implementation of the Minsk Agreements. But we also want to remind the world that this war is only on some 7 percent of our territory. Ninety-three percent of the country is safe, open for business and welcoming.

GONYEA: We've talked about Russia's involvement in the war in the east there, but at the same time, Russia remains Ukraine's single largest trading partner. So war or no war, you have to have a relationship with Russia, right? The economy depends on it.

JARESKO: Well, no. I wouldn't say the economy depends on it. Russia is an important trade partner, and I believe Russia should continue to be a trade partner. But first and foremost, we need to put an end to the war. As you can well imagine, the ability of Ukraine to diversify its exports is also important, and we have done so. We've doubled our trade with the European Union since signing the European Free Trade Agreement, and I think that's critical. We all would like to have, you know, healthy neighborly relationships with all of our neighbors, including Russia, but right now, that's unfortunately not possible given the state of the war.

GONYEA: And you're here again seeking monetary assistance. But there is discussion here in this country about whether the U.S. should be lending some sort of military assistance in Ukraine. Do you have thoughts on that?

JARESKO: Well, I think that's up to the United States to choose. Yes, we would love to be supported with defensive military assistance. It's something that I think the Ukrainian people deserve. We're defending against one of the largest powers in the world. We're doing it on our own. It would be, I think, appropriate for the United States to support those in the world, as they have in the past, that fight for democracy, that fight for the set of values and for peace in the world framework that we so difficultly achieved after World War II. The institutions that we had built after World War II to maintain the peace are under attack.

I do believe, though, that if there are countries that choose not to, for whatever reason, support us militarily, then they should be supporting us financially. Let the Ukrainian people show by example that our model, our model of a market economy based on European - on Western values, can succeed.

GONYEA: Natalie Jaresko is the minister of finance of Ukraine. Thank you for joining us.

JARESKO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.