LVIV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko survived a near-fatal poisoning and massive election fraud to become Ukraine's first truly pro-Western leader.
Five years later, however, he is trailing badly in the polls as his country prepares to vote in the first presidential elections since the 2004 revolution.
Yushchenko has been criticized for presiding over a half-decade of political chaos and drawing Ukraine into unwelcome conflict with Moscow. But in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, he was unrepentant.
"As the president, I will never bow my head and say that I failed in some way during these five years. I brought this nation what it needs,” Yushchenko said. “If it can understand this, that will be its salvation. If it can't, then we will have to spend another 15-20 years with Yanukovyches and Tymoshenkos, under a Kremlin project, like during Kuchma’s time. There's a price to this."
The two candidates expected to fare best in the January 17 contest are Yushchenko's worst rival and closest ally from the Orange Revolution -- Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko.
Both have seen their popularity soar on platforms that diverge from Yushchenko's openly pro-Western stance, which has caused Kyiv's ties to Moscow to grow increasingly hostile during the past five years.
In the RFE/RL interview, Yushchenko warned that a presidential victory by either of his two rivals would throw Ukraine back into Russian domination.
"There is a danger of authoritarianism because we have two leaders, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, who represent the best Moscow project, which takes away freedom, democracy, and 'Ukrainianhood,'" Yushchenko said. "Today the choice is very simple -- either this pro-Kremlin couple and pro-Kremlin policy wins, or the pro-European policy does."
Yanukovych, who is supported by many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the country's east, said in a January 7 interview that he will keep the country out of NATO if he wins.
But Yushchenko, who made NATO membership a priority of his presidency, said it would be a blow to Ukrainian interests for the country to turn its back on the military alliance.
"If Ukraine does not repeat the response of the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians [to join NATO] -- who else did I miss, the Romanians, Hungarians -- if we don't give [a positive] answer [to the question of NATO membership] as a nation, then we will not have independence. We will lose our democracy," Yushchenko said.
But the protracted infighting that has been miring Ukraine's political life, in addition to the country's dismal economic performance, has crippled Yushchenko's efforts to join NATO and the European Union.
In 2008, the military alliance rejected Ukraine's bid for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a decisive preparatory stage for NATO membership.
Yushchenko, in his interview with RFE/RL, pinned the blame squarely on Tymoshenko for Ukraine's sluggish progress toward Western integration.
"It is clear that Ukraine the way it is today is not very appealing to the European Union. This is not the EU's problem, it is our problem," he said. "Only the prime minister can conduct reform, but we live without reforms. We are currently experiencing our biggest crisis. And it's not due to the European or the global crisis. The crisis is located on Hrushevsky street, on the seventh floor, in the office of the prime minister of Ukraine."
Oil, Gas, And Politics
Both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have said they would use a victory to improve relations with Moscow, which grew increasingly hostile as Yushchenko pursued a pro-Western agenda.
Ties hit a low this time last year, when Moscow cut off gas supplies to Ukraine amid a pricing dispute that Yushchenko said was politically motivated. The cutoff caused severe energy shortages in EU countries dependent on gas shipments through Ukraine.
A similar dispute is currently playing out in Belarus, which is accusing Moscow of imposing an unfair pricing structure on shipments of crude oil that Belarus refines and profitably exports to the West.
Yushchenko told RFE/RL the Belarus dispute is no different than Ukraine's gas crisis last year.
"This is pressure. It's obvious. Oil and gas are not only hydrocarbons -- unfortunately, they're also the stuff of politics,” Yushchenko said. “We're talking not only about oil and gas, and not only about economic relations, but also about the big challenge of dependency, including political dependency."
Still, energy security and political stability are likely to override the concerns among many Ukrainian voters about the perils of dependency.
Yushchenko's presidency was marked by near-constant political infighting that brought parliamentary procedures to a frequent standstill. He is also seen as failing to reel in rampant corruption, and has faced allegations by his rivals of financial profiteering in shady gas deals.
Yushchenko today said he continues to oppose a proposal by Yanukovych to create a gas transport consortium between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union. In an interview published on January 7, Yanukovych said, "Ukraine should become a reliable partner in gas relations with Russia and the European Union."
Such a move, Yushchenko says, would grant Russia unwelcome leverage over Ukraine's valuable gas-transportation system -- and, by extension, its political independence.
"Why is Ukraine proposing a gas consortium? Why isn't Russia proposing a gas-exploration consortium with Ukrainian participation? Why aren't our European colleagues suggesting a consortium with Ukrainian participation?” Yushchenko asked. “We have a national company that can brilliantly manage, let's say, gas transit. Are we not capable of organizing our own monopoly? This is the surrender of our national interests."