Leonid Kuchma: For me that is a difficult -- and to an extent, dangerous -- question, since I was president of Ukraine for more than 10 years. In my current position as ex-president, I have to be careful about political assessments and forecasts. I think that some forecasts can become reality simply because they were made public. I don't think I'll name the main threat to political stability in Ukraine for the simple reason that the new government is still being formed. But we can talk about the main threat to Ukraine's economy -- and that is another increase in the price of natural gas. It would hit Ukraine like a typhoon. Russia -- through its ambassador, [Viktor] Chernomyrdin-- has announced that the price of gas is going to be determined by market forces alone and will not depend in any way on a parliamentary coalition in Ukraine or its composition. Misfortunes, you know, do not come alone and economic problems can bring on political troubles.
A photo gallery of political developments in Ukraine since the March 26 elections (Flash required)
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RFE/RL: Do you think that another increase in the price of Russian gas will lead to the collapse of Ukraine's economy? Is it possible to avoid that scenario? Will the new government be able to change anything regarding the gas situation?
Kuchma: Of course, there won't be a collapse. But there could be some major problems, particularly for the chemical sector where somewhere around 70 percent of costs are for natural gas. The metals sector will survive, but it is going to be very hard for the chemicals industry. And I have no idea how the population is going to cope with increases for communal services. This is just the first twist of the screw and we will see what kind of tension develops in society. Although everyone must understand that $230 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas is the price that Ukraine is paying for its new foreign policy.
Considering the views of Yanukovych, I would hope that relations with Russia will calm down some. But I would repeat that the price of gas will not depend on who is prime minister. We have only lost time. You understand perfectly well that $230 for 1,000 cubic meters is the political price of changing Ukraine's political course.
RFE/RL: What do you think are the main mistakes that Viktor Yushchenko has made since he became president? And what are his main accomplishments?
Kuchma: I think that the first mistake -- and I'm not alone in thinking this -- that the new authorities made was not doing anything to reconcile the east and west of the country. The differences between the two Ukraines became unacceptably worse after the 2004 election. And the new authorities should have immediately done everything possible to minimize these conflicts. But they did practically the opposite.
The second mistake was that they spoiled relations with Russia by being too aggressive in its pro-Western policies -- most of all, regarding NATO. I was criticized a lot for my multi-vector policies, but I'm proud of my foreign policy and consider it an important achievement. A multi-vector policy helped me maintain domestic tranquility at home. It helped me preserve Ukraine's sovereignty. I think that for any country in the modern world the correct policy is a multi-vector policy. And the majority of countries have adopted such policies.
The third mistake, I'd say, was the purging of personnel. Many observers called this political maneuvering and I agree with that. They drove away tens of thousands of experienced and intelligent managers. I'm sure you understand that in a market situation, such people are worth their weight in gold. This is especially true in the east and the south of the country, where some two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product is produced.
I think the main achievement is the noticeable vitalization of political and social life. There is more freedom of speech, I think, although it is true there is no accountability. That's what "freedom of speech" costs under our head of police [Interior Minister Yuriy] Lutsenko.
RFE/RL: You said that Yushchenko's main mistake was not being able to overcome the ideological split between the east and the west. What should have been done to overcome it? Can we overcome it at all?
Kuchma: You know, in recent years this problem wasn't evident at all. The country was stable and the economy was really developing. In general, I thought and still think that the economy must be the unifying force in the country. People were beginning to live better and to look with confidence toward the future. And the historical differences between the east and the west were gradually being smoothed over. And the problems that did exist didn't need to be exposed. For instance, the problem of the Russian language. That is, there was an evolutionary process that would have worked itself out, except that politicians would seriously stir it up every time an election came around.
And another thing is that it was necessary to achieve some sort of consensus of political forces about a development strategy for the country. Our Polish neighbors -- we love to cite the experiences of Poland -- have no divisions regarding the country's course in relation to the European Union, entry into NATO -- this is supported by all political forces and by society. But we have divisions and they can't be hidden. Life itself will put everything in its place.
RFE/RL: Do you agree with Viktor Yushchenko that his compromise with Viktor Yanukovych is capable of bringing the two banks of the Dnieper closer together? That is, that it can to some extent bridge the gap between west and east?
Kuchma: At least we can say that this decision is not going to make the banks of the Dnieper any farther apart. That alone is enough to make one rejoice. For that alone, it is necessary to praise the people who sat at the table and reached an agreement, although to the very last moment agreement was in doubt. But will the two shores become closer after the formation of a broad parliamentary coalition? Let's live a bit and see. I hope so and there are signs that this will be the case. Since the end of 2004, the divisions have not become worse, but they haven't gotten any better either and a high level of tension has been maintained. It is completely possible that those tensions will begin to be reduced.
And it is very important that this problem is not being hushed up. The problem of achieving national unity is now on the political agenda. And Yushchenko, in my opinion, did absolutely the right thing when he said that with his decision to submit Yanukovych as prime minister, he hopes to bring east and west closer together. In this, he was absolutely correct. And I think that with this statement, he sent a signal to both sides of the Dnieper that he understands the essence of the main problems facing Ukraine today.
By the way, the idea of a broad parliamentary coalition, the idea of a historical compromise, was my idea, although other politicians also endorsed it. I presented this idea to the press when I was at a conference called Europe-Ukraine in Crimea. At that time I said that the president, as the guarantor of the constitution, must take upon himself the political responsibility of settling this crisis. As a man and as a politician, Viktor Yushchenko can support his party or bloc. But as the head of state, he must make a decision not in favor of one party or another, but in favor of the people and the state. That is why at that time I proposed that Yushchenko initiate a broad formula for a parliamentary coalition, a formula of national compromise. In that way, it would be possible to unite the blue-and-white [Yanukovych's Party of Regions] and the orange [Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc] in parliament and create a coalition of national compromise.
I said and I will always repeat that it is impermissible to destroy a potential union. Today everything must be done to strengthen it, to strengthen it primarily through the statements and positions of the president. I see the head of state as someone who is capable of initiating a broad pact of national reconciliation, one that would not only include parliamentary factions but also parties that are not in parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and the citizens of Ukraine. And so I am honestly and sincerely glad that this has happened. As a result it has become obvious who is for a united Ukraine and who is simply for power.
RFE/RL: But this coalition has a limited format. The activists of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Pora party have labeled the compromise a betrayal of the Orange Revolution.
Kuchma: There are definitely problems and it is impossible to ignore them. But it is impermissible not to find a compromise between these two political forces and it is impermissible to live in a constant state of mistrust. The east is the east, which gave most of its votes to the Party of Regions and to Yanukovych personally. And there is the west. So what now? We have to try to unite, to work, to move on. You understand that there has been a struggle for power. I don't see what else we can do today and I think that most politicians agree with me. I know what kinds of ideas were bandied about at the roundtable. And I thank God that we've gotten this far.
RFE/RL: In 2004, you said, "You'll find out what Ukraine is like without Kuchma." What turn of events were you talking about then?
Kuchma: That is a difficult question. Probably I expressed myself a little more modestly. I think that I said to a journalist that I would like to find out what Ukraine will be like without Kuchma. I think that is what I actually said. And God has given me that chance. As far as scenarios go, well, it probably couldn't have been otherwise. I know the history of Ukraine and I know the character of its people -- both the strong and the weak sides. Ukrainians in general know themselves very well. We praise ourselves less than we curse ourselves. And what do we curse ourselves for most? For the fact that there are three bosses for every two Ukrainians. You know the old saying -- in a struggle for power, people are ready to destroy one another and everything around them.
Three hundred and fifty years ago we went through a terrible period in which a struggle for power among domestic elites turned Ukraine into an absolute ruin. In fact, this period is called the Ruin, with a capital R. People who know Ukraine's history don't need to be geniuses to know that the greatest misfortune, the worst crisis, that we have seen was a cruel and destructive struggle for power, an inability to compromise. Only me, my wife, and God know what it cost me to hold all our "bosses" in check and to keep them from pulling each other's hair out.
RFE/RL: At the beginning of our conversation, you said that you don't want to make predictions or that you would be cautious in your predictions. All the same, I want to ask you to predict how Ukraine's political landscape will look in two or three years.
Kuchma: I don't think there will be any substantial changes. No new personalities will appear in politics. There will be new parties, and the unification processes among parties will continue to develop. There will be new public organizations. But we will live more or less like we live now. Today, no one can say with confidence that he is optimistic about tomorrow. I feel that way myself.
RFE/RL: Why is it that you -- unlike Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk -- have completely left politics and have not run for the Verkhovna Rada? Do you intend to reconsider that decision?
Kuchma: I have always been absolutely honest with Ukrainians, with the people. I have said many times that I am leaving politics. Ten years as president is more than enough. I think that simply participating in the public life of the country is more than enough for me. I do not need politics. I have been there enough, have worked enough. I do not intend to return to politics.
Campaign stands on a Kyiv street in ahead of the March 26 elections (RFE/RL)
RELOADED DEMOCRACY: On March 16, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States OLEH SHAMSHUR held a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office. Shamshur discussed the political and economic achievements of the last year and the political environment in the run-up to the legislative elections. "Many people would say it was a year lost," he said. "And I would categorically, even definitely, object to that. I think that it was a year not lost; it was a difficult year; it was the learning period when we were learning, or in some instances, relearning to act under the democratic rules and procedures. Some mistakes which were made were avoidable, some were hardly avoidable, but in any case it was very important period for Ukraine as a country, Ukraine as a new, or if you wish, rediscovered, reloaded democracy."
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Click on the image for background and archived articles about Ukraine's March 26 elections.
Click on the image to see RFE/RL's coverage of the Ukrainian elections in Ukrainian.