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The Interview

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk: ‘I urge Western business to be on the right side of history’  

12 October 2023 • by Niccolò Pisani in The InterviewPodcast availablePodcast available

For too long, citizens of countries blessed with stable institutions have taken democracy and freedom for granted, the Head of the Center for Civil Liberties tells Professor Niccolò Pisani. ...

Western business leaders shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Russia, said Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk, who together with a network of volunteers across Ukraine has documented more than 52,000 cases of war crimes since Russian tanks rolled across the border in February 2022. 

While basing decisions on economic or geopolitical interests might bring short-term benefits, it invites catastrophe in the long term. This is because authoritarian leaders like Putin now believe that they can “dictate the rules of the game and forcibly change international borders” without facing consequences, she explained. 

“I want to emphasize a very important point, which is still not visible for people. This is not just a war between two states. This is a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy,” Matviichuk stressed. “Putin tried to convince the whole world that democracy, rule of law, and human rights are fake values, because they couldn’t protect you during the war. If Putin succeeds, it will encourage other leaders in the world to do the same.” 

This means that rather than spending money on education, healthcare, and supporting urgent global problems like tackling climate change and social inequality, governments will be forced to funnel yet more public funds into weapons, she said. 

The United States has provided $44 billion to supply Kyiv with dozens of tanks, thousands of rockets, and millions of rounds of ammunition since Russia’s invasion. Yet, while Washington has promised another aid package, support by the Americans is being increasingly questioned, with many people growing weary of the war. 

This could be catastrophic, not only for Ukraine, but also for the future of democracy and freedom throughout the world, Matviichuk said. “We suddenly could find ourselves in a future which will be dangerous for everyone, without any exception, because our world is not just uncertain; our world is very interconnected.” 

Rather than slowing the delivery of weapons, Ukraine’s allies need to escalate their support, switching their mindset from “let’s help Ukraine not to fail” to “let’s help Ukraine to win fast”, she said, by speeding the delivery of tanks to help Ukraine’s counteroffensive, sending different types of weapons, and ramping up the severity of sanctions against Russia. 

Western firms make slow progress in winding up Russian operations 

Together with Simon Evenett from the University of St. Gallen, I recently published a research article in the Journal of International Business Policy, focused on Western corporate divestment from Russia since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Our empirical research shows that between 8-13% of firms from the European Union and G7 nations were able to complete the equity divestment of one or more of their Russian affiliates by December 2022, hence in the first nine months of the invasion. Our findings have proven to be an important reality check on corporate divestment from Russia. 

Almost a year since our research was first conducted, recent media reports from Der Spiegel and the Financial Times indicate that Western businesses have made little progress in winding up their Russian operations. Looking directly at the results of the Kyiv School of Economics’ (KSE) tracking initiative that is cited by both Der Spiegel and the Financial Times, their latest 2 October 2023 report shows in fact that, of the 3,492 international companies operating in Russia, only 284 of them have completed the exit to date, that is a meagre 8.1% of the total. Even when restricting their focus to foreign-owned subsidiaries for which it is possible to gather financials, the percentage of completed exits from Russia is still only at 19%. This means that most Western businesses with operations in Russia have still not exited the country. 

“I want to emphasize a very important point, which is still not visible for people. This is not just a war between two states. This is a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy. ”
- Oleksandra Matviichuk

Matviichuk said all Western companies still doing business in Russia are contributing to Putin’s war chest, as well as undermining a rule of law system upon which they rely to protect their property and assets, and build and grow companies. 

“All Western companies who still sell in Russia have to be aware that they finance this bloody war, and this is their responsibility,” she said, calling for a mindset shift.  

“The problem is that people in well-developed democracies start to forget the importance of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Because they inherited their system from their parents, they have never had to fight for it; they take it for granted,” she said. “It’s beyond common sense, being a beneficiary of this system, to help an enemy of the system to ruin it.” 

This was not just a problem of international business. Many Ukrainian companies first ignored the issue when Russia occupied Crimea and parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine in 2014.  

“People started to notice that war was going on, only when bombs were falling on their heads. But war has an economical dimension, informational dimension, and value dimension. So, I urge Western business to be on the right side of history,” she said. 

In the research article that Simon Evenett and I just published, we identify push and pull factors facing Western business with operations in Russia, some of which are related to the unfolding Western sanctions regimes; the stringent Russian countersanctions regime; the pre-invasion state guarantees provided by Western governments to their firms investing abroad; and the norms on business conduct established by the OECD and UN. Our analysis helps to understand why exiting from Russia has not been straightforward. For instance, the Kremlin has set up legal impediments that make it hard and costly for businesses to exit Russia, and in some cases has threatened employees of firms looking to leave.  

Matviichuk acknowledged it will be impossible to stop trading and doing business with all non-democratic countries in the world, but emphasized that working to support the spread of freedom will ultimately make it simpler and easier for businesses to operate. 

Without a rule of law, business cannot operate successfully 

For Matviichuk, who previously had a successful corporate career, her own decision to focus on fighting for freedom and human rights came after former President Viktor Yanukovych slapped a huge fabricated fine on the Association of Ukrainian Banks, where she worked, after its president criticized Yanukovych’s financial policy. 

“This was a turning point for me. I understood that I have to choose, and I have to concentrate on fighting for freedom and for human rights because without this system of rule of law, you can’t do business successfully,” she said. 

Since then, she has recorded interviews with hundreds of people who have survived captivity and shared stories of how they were beaten, raped, and tortured in the most horrific circumstances. This remains a major motivation in her quest to restore international order and provide justice to all those affected by the war. 

“Working with people who survived hell, I am confident they need to restore not just their broken life, broken families, broken vision of the future, but their broken belief that justice is possible,” she said. 

For Ukraine, victory won’t just happen when Russian troops withdraw, international order is restored, and all regions of the country are released from occupation, she said. “The victory of Ukraine also means to succeed in the democratic transition of our country, to build a country where the rights of everybody are protected, government is accountable, judiciaries independent, business can develop, and police do not beat students who are peacefully demonstrating.” 

Matviichuk criticized the leaders of international organizations who, in the early days of Russia’s invasion, evacuated their staff and abandoned the Ukrainian people. In times of crisis, courageous leaders need to learn to push the override button on normal procedures and regulations, to save people’s lives, she said.  

The war has nonetheless made it clear to her that when you can’t rely on the international system of peace and security, you can rely on ordinary people to do extraordinary things.  

A “post-knowledge” era  

While many commentators have acknowledged that we are living in a “post-truth” era, where objective facts hold less sway over public opinion than appeals to emotions and personal beliefs, Matviichuk also said we are entering a “post-knowledge” era. This means expertise is being devalued in favor of simple soundbites and there is a failure to recognize that complex situations need complex answers. 

In such times, it becomes more important than ever to amplify the voices of civil society, actors, and intellectuals who are fighting for more democracy and to advance human rights for a more peaceful future. 

Matviichuk, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, expressed her solidarity with this year’s laureate, Narges Mohammadi from Iran, who has worked for years to advance the rights of Iranian women and remains imprisoned.  

“Our world is very interconnected,” she said. “I live in Kyiv and my native city is constantly being shelled, not just by Russian rockets, but also Iranian drones. And if authoritarian regimes cooperate, we as a people who believe in democracy, rule of law, and freedom, have to support each other even stronger.” 


Oleksandra Matviitchouk

Oleksandra Matviichuk

Head of the Center for Civil Liberties

Oleksandra Matviichuk is a human rights lawyer and civil leader based in Kyiv. She heads the non-profit organization Center for Civil Liberties and is a campaigner for democratic reforms in Ukraine and the OSCE region. She was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2023. 


Niccolo Pisani

Niccolò Pisani

IMD Professor of Strategy and International Business

Niccolò Pisani is Professor of Strategy and International Business at IMD. His areas of expertise include strategy design and execution as well as international business, with an emphasis on globalization and sustainability. His award-winning research has appeared in the world’s leading academic journals and extensively covered in the media. His work has been featured in both Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review. He has also written several popular case studies that are distributed on a global scale. 

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