Interview with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko 'The Problems Began After the Orange Revolution'

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, 55, speaks with SPIEGEL about the escalating conflict with Moscow, power struggles with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and who is responsible for the poison attack against him.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Foto: AP

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, the worst tensions in Europe today exist between the two great countries in the east. Why are relations between Moscow and Kiev so strained?

Viktor Yushchenko: There are two reasons for this: First, a great empire crumbled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many Russian politicians have a hard time getting used to that fact that there are new, independent states, with their own view of the past and their own future. And, second, there are problems that we have inherited, such as the Russian Black Sea fleet. Our constitution prohibits foreign military bases on our territory. And from the Soviet days as well stems our dependence as consumers and our role as a transit country for Russian gas, with all the familiar ensuing conflicts.

SPIEGEL: Russia has recently recalled its ambassador from Ukraine, but not yet sent a new one. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote a letter to you in which he indicated that the next ambassador will not be sent until you are no longer the head of state -- a virtually unprecedented event.

Yushchenko: Yes, and these inappropriate interventions in our domestic affairs concern not only us, but also all of Europe. The Russians are a great people -- we respect them and strive to have good relations with them. But how can these relations improve if our sovereignty is continually called into question? The Russian president's letter was not directed solely at me -- I'm afraid this is something that people in Europe still haven't understood at all.

SPIEGEL: The Russians are obviously focusing on you as an individual. Medvedev accuses you of adopting an "anti-Russian" course, and 47 percent of his fellow countrymen see Ukraine as an "unfriendly state." They also allege that Ukrainian soldiers and nationalist troops fought last year on the Georgian side in the war against Russia. Is this true?

Yushchenko: No, it's a big lie. I'm prepared to support any international investigation. Similar lies were also spread during the gas dispute at the beginning of the year to swing public opinion in Europe against us.

SPIEGEL: But you actually did support your friend, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, during the war -- also by sending weapons.

Yushchenko: Even before my term as president, there were large deliveries of weapons to Georgia. Our military and technical cooperation remains within the framework of international law. As for the Russian-Georgian war, we supported Georgia because anything else would have been out of the question for us. This has nothing to do with Georgia per se. It concerns fundamental principles such as territorial integrity. This is surely a question for all of us in Europe: Is it or is it not acceptable to violate the international security architecture? It is sad to see how little the democracies of Europe stand up for their own basic values.

SPIEGEL: Medvedev also accuses you of suppressing the Russian language -- with a Russian minority of 8 million and even more Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

Yushchenko: We have a language problem, but this concerns the Ukrainian language. When you speak with our citizens, two-thirds of them will respond in Russian. More than half of our education budget goes toward school instruction in Russian.

SPIEGEL: Then why don't you make Russian the second official language?

Yushchenko: As the guarantor of the constitution, I must maintain Ukrainian as the official state language. We preserve our culture thanks to our mother tongue. This significantly contributes to maintaining our independence. If a nation loses its language, it loses its memory, its history, and its identity.

SPIEGEL: The inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula speak almost exclusively Russian. There have even been clashes there recently between Ukrainian police and military personnel of the Russian Black Sea fleet because you have had lighthouses dismantled and missile transports halted. Why all these provocations when the lease agreement expires in 2017 anyway?

Yushchenko: There is a basic agreement and four amendments on the provisional stationing of this fleet with us. However a large part of this agreement is not being respected. For instance, many of the areas utilized by the military are being improperly used -- to build private villas. This all has to do with lawlessness and sloppiness. Or take the problem with the 134 lighthouses, intended for navigational purposes, which stand on our territory: Russia has simply taken control of these facilities. If they are truly all used for the fleet, then an agreement must be made with us concerning them. And we must also have the right to monitor the crew sizes and the number of ships, so that they cannot both simply be increased. No country with foreign military bases on its territory can forgo doing this in the interest of its own security.

SPIEGEL: Could the same thing happen in the Crimea that occurred in the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- a secession encouraged by Moscow?

Yushchenko: There are no domestic reasons for this. The problem only arises when someone somehow plays the Crimea card. That is where a serious potential threat can arise. As president, I am doing everything I can to prevent this.

SPIEGEL: There are already calls from Russians on the Crimean Peninsula for Moscow to support a secession -- if necessary with a war against the "stupid people" currently in power in Kiev.

Yushchenko: The situation's future development essentially depends on Russia. Back in 1993 the Russian parliament declared the port city of Sevastopol a Russian city. That was an official decision, which is still in effect. This resolution shows that there are powers that are out to destabilize the Crimea.

SPIEGEL: The pressure exerted by Moscow also has another motivation. Russia apparently wants to prevent Ukraine at all costs from being accepted into NATO.

Yushchenko: You have to realize why Russia is so jealously observing the development of a young democracy on its border. In 1654, Ukraine lost its sovereignty and became a border province in the Russian Empire. During the 20th century, Ukraine declared its independence six times and lost it again five times. For us the loss of our sovereignty is no theoretical threat, but rather the real life experience of many generations. We have always lost our sovereignty for one single reason: because we were the victims of power games. This explains why we are now seeking our security in NATO, an alliance of democracies that already includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

SPIEGEL: Now the West has become more reticent -- not out of consideration for Russia, but rather due to disappointment that the victors of the Orange Revolution of 2004, you and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, have plunged Ukraine into a constitutional crisis. Each is now branding the other as a traitor, as corrupt, or as a Russian agent. You yourself are losing influence at a dramatic rate. Why is it so difficult to reach a consensus among the political elite of your country?

Yushchenko: I don't share your interpretation at all. I have paved the way forward for this country. Over the past four years, there has been a constant real growth rate in our gross domestic product of 7 percent. The national budget has doubled, the minimum pension has risen and foreign investments have quintupled. Show me other European countries with such results. Shouldn't I be proud of that?

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, there is great disappointment everywhere with your leadership.

Yushchenko: The problems began after the Orange Revolution, when we formed a government and our first differences surfaced. We argued over what policies we actually wanted to pursue. Prime Minister Tymoshenko put a halt to market economy reforms and resorted to excessive state control. She limited exports of grain and vegetable oil under the pretense of combating inflation. Last year she destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of small farmers with massive meat imports, after which livestock herds dwindled dramatically. Populism and corruption took the place of market economy competition.

SPIEGEL: In European democracies, it would be up to the parliament to take action.

Yushchenko: But in our country there is no functioning majority in parliament. The prime minister cannot pass a budget or a law; there is no concept for foreign policy problems or economic issues. The prime minister does not even mention the word NATO -- she has forgotten the democratic values that we strove to uphold in the Orange Revolution. The policies of the populists are depriving our country of its rights and responsibilities, despite the fact that many people are currently applauding the populists. Maintaining power has become an end in itself -- and this at any price: through betrayal, secret deals, putsches.

SPIEGEL: Those are tough allegations against a former fellow activist who stood at your side on Kiev's Independence Square.

Yushchenko: Unfortunately, she later even sought allies among the former opponents of the revolution in order to topple the president. MPs from my party's parliamentary group were bought off so the prime minister could secure her post.

SPIEGEL: That sounds more like a banana republic than Europe.

Yushchenko: This is due to the constitutional reform that parliament passed in 2004 to prevent a violent end to the revolution. Over time, this has paralyzed the entire power structure. My rights to appoint members of the government were drastically curtailed.

SPIEGEL: There are also rumors of mafia-style groups in parliament.

Yushchenko: We have a number of convicted criminals there; they could form their own parliamentary group. The failed constitutional reform has meant that we have representatives in parliament who are only interested in acquiring certain companies and controlling private financial interests.

SPIEGEL: Moscow is only an observer here?

Yushchenko: Just look at the activities of the prime minister and her trips to Moscow: When I warn of a fifth column, I know what I'm talking about.

SPIEGEL: The only problem is that in opinion polls 30 percent of respondents support Yulia Tymoshenko, whereas you enjoy at best between 6 and 8 percent. You are the big loser of the Kiev power struggles.

Yushchenko: Please don't come at me with such numbers.

SPIEGEL: Apparently, you have asked too much of many Ukrainians with your rapid embrace of the West.

Yushchenko: After 18 years of independence, drawing closer to NATO holds a particularly high priority for me. We have already achieved incredible things in our relations with the EU: easing trade barriers, forging visa agreements. I am convinced that for this country there is no alternative to the course that I stand for.

SPIEGEL: You have become a lonely president. Will you nevertheless run for re-election in January?

Yushchenko: Of course. My popularity ratings are rising again. The Medvedev letter should further enhance this trend.

SPIEGEL: Before the election is held, can you -- as promised -- clear up the two high-profile controversial cases in Ukraine: the murder in September 2000 of journalist Georgy Gongadze, who had written about high-level corruption, and the poison attack on yourself in September 2004? The truth apparently only comes out bit by bit, only when someone expects to gain something politically.

Yushchenko: You are under a false impression; the president does not have the right to supervise judicial inquiries. Clearing up Gongadze's murder is a question of honor for me. Three of those directly involved in the murder have already been convicted, and I'm proud of that. Now we have to find the person who ordered the murder. What nobody in the West will understand is that the key witness who we have arrested -- a police general -- has to be protected 24 hours a day so no one will take revenge on him. There are people in the entourage of the prime minister who are not interested in seeing the inquiry make progress because they worked under former President Leonid Kuchma, who was in power when the murder took place.

SPIEGEL: And your poisoning at that official dinner party in 2004?

Yushchenko: The investigations have been completed; state prosecutors have interviewed over a thousand witnesses. A number of members of parliament -- including opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, who headed the government at the time -- have not made statements. People who directly organized my poisoning have been in Moscow for the past four years. I have appealed to the Russian president three times, and asked him to have them questioned by Ukrainian investigators at our embassy in Moscow. The suspects include the former deputy director of the intelligence agency, the cook and one of the waiters. All of these people are in Moscow.

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

Interview conducted by Uwe Klussmann and Christian Neef
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