SPIEGEL Interview with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko "There Is No Return to Yesterday"

One year after Ukraine's Orange Revolution the shine has worn off. DER SPIEGEL spoke with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko about the difficulties of establishing democracy in Ukraine, the infighting in his government, and his health following the poison attack.

SPIEGEL:

Mr. President, one year after the change of government in Kiev many Ukrainians are disappointed. The leaders of the "Orange Revolution" are fighting amongst themselves, economic growth has slowed down dramatically and the party led by your opponent in the presidential elections, the former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is leading in the opinion polls. What went wrong?

Yushchenko: What do you mean disappointed? You have to be fair: In 10 months real incomes have increased by 25 percent and salaries by 35 percent. What other country in Europe can make that claim? That is thanks to the Orange Revolution, which eliminated the shadow economy. Or take our social policy: Families with many children, single mothers or the disabled receive a lot more money. Why did this revolution take place? Because people realised that it's possible to live another way.

SPIEGEL: According to some experts who are demanding structural reforms, the increase in social benefits is really just populism with an eye on the parliamentary elections in March.

Yushchenko: Then look at the economy: We have a balanced budget and are expecting 4 percent growth for 2005. In Germany there is disagreement on whether 1 percent might be reached.

SPIEGEL: Last year you had 12 percent.

Yushchenko: When a country spends a year dealing solely with new presidential elections and scandals -- which is what happened to us in 2004 -- there are going to be some repercussions. Since then there has only been hesitant investment, and it is only now increasing in momentum again. In fact I've just had a meeting with the management of Deutsche Bank, who have agreed to extend us a loan of $1.8 billion this year. That is something of a novelty for Ukraine. The revolution has created a completely new set of ground rules, and now the situation is becoming more normalized.

SPIEGEL: The Ukrainian reality seems somewhat more complicated to us. Why are the creators of the Orange Revolution now at such odds with each other?

Yushchenko: Remember the complicated relationship between the Polish prime minister (Tadeusz) Mazowiecki and Lech Walesa a few months after Solidarity's victory in 1989? For Poles that didn’t end up so badly; it still became a democratic country, a member of Nato and of the EU. Everything else was just background noise. Our team was good, but we had all only learned how to fight together against but not for something. I kept my promises and brought the most important figures of the revolution into the government. But it proved difficult for some to make the journey from Kiev's revolution square, the Maidan, to ministerial office. We replaced them with braver, sounder, more balanced people. It was a chapter, not a tragedy.

SPIEGEL: How great is the danger that your own reputation will be damaged if corruption charges are brought against the co-financier of the revolution, the chocolate king and, for a short time, head of the security council, Petro Poroshenko, who is godfather to your children? And when a leading stock broker in Kiev says that there is still no rule of law in the country, only a lot of corruption?

Yushchenko: I must correct you there: There was no rule of law here for 14 years, that's why we had a revolution. Corruption does not stem from us, and it is no greater here than it is in Belarus or Russia, although of course it is a serious state of affairs. And it was not the opposition that claimed that it was in my circle, but rather the prime minister …

SPIEGEL: … Yulia Tymoshenko, who you also subsequently dismissed …

Yushchenko: ... and that is why there is a parliamentary enquiry, a prosecution enquiry and an interior ministry enquiry –- none of which have been able to prove that there were any corrupt dealings by any of the accused. But those who fabricate accusations, in order to settle scores of their own, have to resign. It was people who stood next to me on the Maidan: Tymoshenko, Poroshenko, Zinchenko …

SPIEGEL: … your chief of staff.

Yushchenko: Their behavior clashed with the interests of the state.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel that you are becoming isolated?

Yushchenko: There is no vacuum: The new government is crisis-free, the election campaign for parliament has begun. I am convinced that our block Nasha Ukraina will top the poll and democratic parties will gain significantly more than 50 percent of the votes.

SPIEGEL: No chance then for former premier Yanukovych's party, which has secured new backers, the latest being the most important oligarch, the Donetsk billionaire Rinat Achmetov.

Yushchenko: The forces for revenge, as we call them, won't even get a third of the votes.

SPIEGEL: Many Ukrainians are also disappointed by having to witness continued conflict. Now your dismissed prosecutor general is talking about possible impeachment proceedings against you, because the Russian billionaire Boris Bersovsky is alleged to have given you $31 million last year. 

Yushchenko: I took no money whatsoever. I had an official election fund, that has been examined microscopically and that was sufficient for my campaign. Furthermore, I couldn't advertise in Ukraine, the TV stations wouldn’t broadcast my speeches, two thirds of the country took absolutely no notice of me. Where would I have been able to spend millions? What ever else was financed has no connection to my electoral campaign.

SPIEGEL: Ex-prosecutor general Piskun has explicitly threatened you with further incriminating evidence and says that you are severely ill following your poisoning, that your capacity to act is limited and that you are therefore easy prey to manipulators.

Yushchenko: We are in the midst of an election campaign. Mr. Piskun and the security services have not produced findings in any of the big political criminal cases –- I'm thinking of the case of the murdered journalist Gongadze, the electoral fraud or my poisoning. The prosecutor's office has only been occupied recently with giving certain people amnesty who want to be politically active again against me.

SPIEGEL: May we nevertheless ask how your health is?

Part II: "Look at my face! What could I owe Kuchma?" 

Yushchenko: Judge for yourself: When someone has been fighting a poisoning for 14 months, that nobody ever survived before and that nobody apart from me can know what it's like, how painful it is and how much the treatment takes out of you, when despite this you endure an election campaign and only spend a few weeks in the hospital –- then all speculation about your health is superfluous.

SPIEGEL: There are rumors that Russian forces were behind this poisoning and that the investigation is not progressing, because any announcement would further damage the already complicated relationship with Russia.

Yushchenko: (Silent for a long time) I believe that first and foremost it is the fault of the ineffective prosecutor general, who has not advanced the investigation, but only used it for political ends. The other problems are easy to explain: There is very little knowledge about the effects of this poison, the tests in private labs in Germany, Belgium and Great Britain were only completed two weeks ago. The doctors, however, over the past few months have done a great job –- honest and resolute.

SPIEGEL: You promised a quick investigation a year ago into the case of your poisoning and into that of the decapitated journalist, Georgy Gongadze. As long as that does not occur nobody will believe in the promised new transparency.

Yushchenko: That is the task of the prosecutor general. When I became the head of state, the Gongadze file was practically empty. Then there was some movement in the case, because we promised the witnesses that they would be safe; that was how the first statements came, and some time later we arrested the presumed murderer. The trial of the three former police officers begins on Jan. 9.

SPIEGEL: But that doesn't answer who was responsible for sending those men.

Yushchenko: No, and that is most certainly more complicated. But if, after there was no progress at all in the matter for four and a half years, we manage to find the suspected murderers, well then pardon me, but that's quite a lot. How many ponds did we have to drain, how many ditches did we have to shovel out in order to at least get this far?

SPIEGEL: Is there any truth in the widespread allegation that your silence over the Gongadze case is the result of an agreement with your predecessor, Leonid Kuchma -- so as not to endanger the peaceful revolution?

Yushchenko: That is nonsense. Look at my face: How high is the price I have paid personally, for democracy to win the upper hand in this country? What could I owe Kuchma?

SPIEGEL: Yulia Tymoshenko was the real icon of the revolution. What was your main reason for firing the nationally popular prime minister last September? Abuse of power? Her pressing ahead with re-privatization? Or the pressure from the Tymoshenko critics around you?

Yushchenko: No one put any pressure on me -- neither then nor now. It was a political decision: The problems within the government were the result of decisions made without thinking them through fully. Her administration intervened in the economy.

SPIEGEL: You mean the limits on gasoline prices, that have upset the Russian oil companies?

Yushchenko: It started when all the tax-privileged economic zones were dismantled. That affected more than 500 economic projects -- projects that weren't just run by criminals, and which brought value to the country. This resulted in a split between the leadership and the business world. Then the debate over the 3,000 companies that were supposed to be reprivatized began -- contrary to my clear position on this question. This pushed our relationship with business further down a dead-end. Then came the gasoline crisis, which caused prices to skyrocket. Then the meat crisis, because customs manipulations allowed more than 100,000 tons of chicken to be smuggled into Ukraine -- in order to put pressure on local meat prices, and finally the sugar affair. Ukraine suffered a new crisis every month.

SPIEGEL: Are we talking about a creeping putsch against the president?

Yushchenko: It was simply a bumbling of economic policy. The prime minister's policy brought tens of thousands of people out onto the streets, they organized a sort of anti-Maidan. As a result, economic growth fell during the first eight months of the year, from 6.5 percent to minus 1.6 percent, the balance of foreign trade fell from $2.5 billion to minus $340 million.

SPIEGEL: You mean, Yulia Tymoschenko was pursuing a different goal to you.

Yushchenko: Every day I felt the lack of mutual understanding within the team more and more. The people who had stood together on the Maidan, suddenly weren't even speaking to each other. They didn't listen to each other any more and just collected compromising material to use against each other -- I had to make a very difficult political decision.

SPIEGEL: In order to push Yechanurov, your new premier, through parliament, you had to promise your opponent Yanukovych that "the political persecution of the opposition would stop." Many see that as a betrayal of the revolution. Do we understand this correctly: The past crimes from the Kuchma Era will not be dealt with?

Yushchenko: In the memorandum with the opposition, there is no backing off from the spirit of the Maidan because the opposition, to paraphrase de Gaulle -- that is also Ukraine. I was the leader of the opposition under Kuchma. I know what that means. There will be no more political repression here. We will not prosecute anyone, who last year was forced to stuff fake ballots in the ballot box. But whoever organized fake ballots on a large scale will be taken to court.

SPIEGEL: Yulia Tymoshenko wants to return to the office of prime minister after the March election. And suddenly Moscow, which only recently had a warrant out for your arrest, wants to talk to you -- at a time in which a new war over the price of Russian gas deliveries to Ukraine has broken out. Does President Putin also want to drive a wedge between the revolutionaries of the Maidan in order to put the pressure on his unbeloved colleague Yushchenko?

Yushchenko: That's still unclear. If we are shown clear principles in pricing, comparable to those for Poland, the Czech Republic, Moldavia, Azerbaijan or Georgia, then it would be an economic question. If Ukraine remains an incomprehensible exception  and has to pay more than all the others, then this it is a first sign of political pressure.

SPIEGEL: In such a situation, you could really use some support from the West. But you still haven't been offered the prospect of eventual EU membership. Not only that, but only a handful of important European politicians have made the trek to Kiev. Are you disappointed?

Yushchenko: Ukraine has achieved more in 10 months than in the 10 previous years when it comes to Europe. Only the blind can ignore that. We have an Action Plan with the EU and recently even achieved the status of a functioning market economy. We have also begun negotiations aimed at liberalizing our visa policies. And the US is in the process of lifting trade limitations. Is that not enough?

SPIEGEL: It's not as much as was expected -- the West is still clearly concerned about Moscow's feelings. But your foreign minister has said that Ukraine is a beacon for the countries of the former Soviet Union. Is the Orange Revolution becoming an export good?

Yushchenko: It is the business of these countries to make their own decision on democratization. As in Germany, democratic values did not come cheaply here. I don't see any other mechanism for progress than the fight for basic democratic rights. But one cannot export the desire for democracy.

SPIEGEL: If, for whatever reason, you were forced to resign in the near future, would you have the feeling that you have started something irreversible?

Yushchenko: I think so, yes. Through the events that we call the Orange Revolution, Ukraine became a different country. Today, nobody has hopes of coming to power on the basis of election fraud and nobody can oppress journalists any longer. There is no return to yesterday.

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, thank you very much for this interview.

Interview conducted by Walter Mayr and Christian Neef

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