WASHINGTON, December 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Praising the United States' founding fathers and quoting Martin Luther King, Yanukovych sounded nothing like a man who until a few months ago was associated with rigged elections and an anti-Western bias.
In front of a throng of television cameras and a standing-room only crowd that included State Department officials, pro-democracy leaders, and foreign diplomats, Yanukovych declared that Ukraine is fully committed to political and economic reform.
It was a statement aimed squarely at convincing U.S. government officials and business investors that he supports civil rights, democracy, and transparency – his first chance to do so in person since rising to the premiership in August following the political rebirth of his Party of Regions in Ukraine's parliamentary elections in March.
"We will not abandon the path we have chosen, the path of democratic market transformations,” he said. “There can never be too much democracy in Ukraine, just as there cannot be too much freedom."
One by one, Yanukovych -- the former villain of the Orange Revolution -- addressed Western fears.
He struck an anti-corruption chord by saying that the Ukrainian government is guided by one truth: transparency. He invited Washington, Brussels, and Moscow to approach Kyiv confident in the knowledge that all deals happen in the open.
He insisted that the period of instability is now behind Ukraine, and promised that the next five years would be “predictable and stable.”
Those years, he said, will include many reforms that should have been implemented in the country’s first few years of independence. They include modernizing the economy, imposing fiscal discipline, and increasing Ukraine’s competitiveness.
Soon, Yanukovych vowed, the country will experience high economic growth, and Ukrainians “will finally get decent standards of life and work.”
Without directly mentioning it, he invoked the energy crisis of last winter, when Ukraine’s gas pipelines were shut off by Russia's Gazprom monopoly, prompting a short-lived but alarming energy crisis further downstream in Europe.
Today he promised that Ukraine would be a responsible partner in transporting energy resources and that this winter European consumers will have adequate supplies of natural gas.
Sharing Power, And A Point Of View?
At home, Yanukovych is locked in a contentious power-sharing arrangement with the man who defeated him in 2004, President Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western leader of the Orange Revolution.
Today, Yanukovych sought to play down differences between himself and Yushchenko, insisting that he has “no disagreements with the president of Ukraine” when it comes to the country’s strategic direction and future. However, he did allow that the two men have different “tactical approaches.”
Yanukovych's U.S. trip -- during which he will meet with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- follows a week of political squabbling in Ukraine over the visit.
Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, one of only two cabinet ministers chosen by Yushchenko, led an apparent attempt to block Yanukovych's trip, saying the prime minister had failed to seek presidential approval on guidelines for the U.S. talks.
It was later announced that Yushchenko had approved the trip. On December 1, the Verkhovna Rada voted to dismiss Tarasyuk.
In Washington, however, Yanukovych was eager to stress the concept of cooperation.
He said when it comes to Ukraine’s foreign policy, preserving the country’s unity is the most essential consideration. As an example, he cited public skepticism of NATO membership, calling it a “significant and controversial problem.”
“It’s hardly surprising that the stereotypes of the cold war live too long -- a great number of our people still fear that our accession to NATO will be directed toward Russia, would harm our friendly relations,” he noted. “As a result, only one in five Ukrainians supports filing a membership application to the alliance. And one cannot fail to take this situation into account.”
But he insisted that Ukraine is committed to full membership in the alliance, and cited U.S. President George W. Bush’s comment at the recent NATO summit in Riga that Ukraine should move toward NATO membership on its own timetable, when it is ready.
“I want to leave no doubt,” he said. “Ukraine remains a reliable and essential partner for the alliance.”
Yanukovych said he had recommended several steps after the September meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Committee in Brussels, including an expansion of Ukraine’s cooperation in peacekeeping missions and the launch of a massive public information campaign.
He also addressed the widespread perception that he is pro-Moscow in his outlook.
“I believe that the other foreign policy issues are much less controversial, perhaps with the exception of my attitude toward our relations with Russia, which for some reason attracts increased attention,” he began.
“Let me say that I view Russia in a much broader way than just a market for our products and a supplier of energy resources. And I feel this way for a number of factors – historic factors, cultural, family-related, and geopolitical ones. We have to develop our [own] relations in all areas, but we have to behave as equal partners and base our policies upon our own national interests and priorities, primarily economic ones. This is very important for Ukraine.”
As to future membership in the European Union, Yanukovych said he favors a slow approach, but appeared to leave no doubt that he aspires to accession.
“My government has a realistic assessment of today’s situation. We believe that pushing the membership issue and heating up the debate cannot resolve the stalemate and will only lead to mutual disappointment and reinforced Euroskepticism,” he said. “That’s why we believe that in the short term it’s important to focus on some specific actions: the most important step is to start negotiations on the establishment of the free trade area with the European Union.”
His discussions with U.S. officials will focus on Ukraine’s possible entry into the World Trade Organization. Yanukovych today said that membership in that trade body, and the flourishing of deep trade ties with Europe, would be the first step toward Ukraine’s integration with Europe.
And that, in turn, will form the basis for the country’s eventual membership with the EU, which Yanukovych said he hopes will happen while he is still in office.
“Martin Luther King famously said, ‘I have a dream.’ Ukrainian politicians have their dreams, too. My government not only dreams, it acts,” he said. “That’s why I hope that Ukraine will come close to start negotiating its accession to the European Union with me as its prime minister. Maybe we will start the negotiations. It will not happen today, or tomorrow, but I believe it will happen.”
The once-divisive politician seemed decidedly eager to embrace an all-encompassing foreign policy -- one that looks both East and West.
"In foreign policy there is a common vision, a compromise," Yanukovych said. "Everyone recognizes our European choice as the key foreign policy priority. Everyone also understands the importance of developing of strategic partnership with the United States and special partnership with NATO. And I have not yet met politicians who would be opposed to developing friendly relations with Russia.”
A worker inspects a gas facility outside of Kyiv (epa file photo)
MURKY CONNECTIONS. A year after the so-called gas war between Moscow and Kyiv, energy transhipments from Russia to Europe via Ukraine remain a concern. On December 1, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a briefing featuring Tom Mayne, an energy researcher for the London-based Global Witness. Mayne discussed the lack of transparency in the energy sectors of Ukraine, Russia, and gas supplier Turkmenistan.
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 60 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media