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Ukraine: Interview With Yushchenko -- 'Ukraine's Past...Should Not Keep Us Trapped In The Past'

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine's former prime minister and a leading candidate in the country's presidential elections next year, was a keynote speaker at Radio Liberty's 50th anniversary commemorations at its Prague headquarters on 6 June. Opinion polls indicate Yushchenko, who is pro-Western and pro-market reform, is regarded as the country's most honest politician and would become president if elections were held today.

Prague, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Viktor Yushchenko is the leader of Ukraine's largest democratic bloc, Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukrayina), which last year gained the largest slice of votes for parliament.

He is regarded by most Ukrainians as the only politician with democratic credentials who has a realistic chance of becoming president. The current administration of President Leonid Kuchma has been criticized by domestic opponents and by the West for authoritarianism, corruption, economic mismanagement, and violations of human rights.

Yushchenko talked to RFE/RL about the presidential election and the transformations he would like to bring about in Ukraine. He says gathering together disparate opposition forces is essential for victory in next year's presidential race.

"In the present circumstances," Yushchenko says, "where Ukraine's political world is very splintered and where a whole array of social and political groups are aiming for a victory that would change the government but who are not consolidated, without doubt the first key is what force could produce a format for unification that would attract various political forces from the democratic portion of the political spectrum who propound the need for changes and a change of government?

"I'm convinced about the formula for a roundtable for Ukrainians, who are not used to seeing public discussion, who are not used to hearing from the government its official positions on the issues that are critical for the country. This concept of the roundtable allows people all over the country to understand the position of the political elite in Ukraine's various regions on the problems that beset Ukraine. Therefore, dialogue is very important.

"It would be a mistake to form some sort of artificial, administrative coalition for the sole purpose of victory in the elections. That would be wrong," he says.

Opposition forces, including the Communists, have joined together several times over the past two years to organize mass demonstrations. Yushchenko says he is prepared to work with all democratic parties but does not believe street demonstrations are an effective means for political change.

"To use street demonstrations as the sole mechanism, and only instrument, to achieve change is obviously not enough because there isn't enough will and spirit in Ukrainian society for such a mobilization to achieve the necessary level to exert pressure to remove the government," he says.

Yushchenko adds that the presidential contest must not be just a battle between political interest groups. He says the key to success is to involve as wide a cross-section of Ukrainian society as possible.

"Today, the government and the people are in opposition to one another in Ukraine, and political forces should resolve how to consolidate Ukrainian society in order to obtain a victory in the next presidential elections. Because this is a prerequisite for installing democracy in Ukraine," he says.

Yushchenko says that although Kuchma bears much of the responsibility for the country's present troubles, the problem is a wider one. He says a political system has evolved since independence in 1991 in which power has been snatched by interest groups, called clans, which have used that power to enrich themselves. That has led to an absence of the rule of law, a decay of moral, economic, and social standards, a lack of freedom of speech and the application of censorship. He says the entire system must be fundamentally changed.

"To personalize politics or identify Ukraine's problems with one or other name is not completely honest because although, on the one hand, some individuals do bear an immense personal responsibility for what's happened to democracy in Ukraine. On the other hand, to speak only in this context would be politically dishonest. Why? Because we must remember that a political system has been created in Ukraine that is based on clan interests, whatever they call themselves, and if there isn't change, such a clan system can lead to horrific consequences," he says.

He believes that if the presidential elections show that the majority of Ukrainians support him and his plans, the power of the clans and the shadowy figures which have dictated Ukrainian life since independence can be overcome.

Yushchenko says Ukraine has wasted time in implementing reforms that would bring it closer to Western European standards and the European Union.

"The road to Europe is not just a geographic direction. If you want to be in [Western] Europe, you have to abide by those standards. In other words, you have to behave according to traditional European values and characteristics. I have to say that the economic forms in Western Europe and in the states of the former Soviet Union are two asymmetric models. If we propose to go into Europe with this type of asymmetry, then Europe will not want such a Ukraine," Yushchenko says.

But he says a presidency and a government committed to democracy could change the situation relatively swiftly. One of the main goals is to change the economic system. Yushchenko says that, in theory, that is not such a difficult task under the right circumstances.

"Believe me, to make an economic model with the sort of key points that characterize the Polish, Estonian, or German experience is not a problem. This isn't some unique Ukrainian bicycle. It's a system of economic actions which can only be achieved by a democratic system and by a democratic government."

Yushchenko says that the ruling powers will try to use underhanded tactics to influence the presidential elections, but believes it is possible to ensure a fair vote.

"Firstly, the Ukrainian and international communities should understand that without the creation of a mechanism for monitoring the electoral process, elections might not take place at all or will not be conducted objectively. Therefore, everyone who is interested in Ukraine's development along democratic lines has to ensure that there is the largest number possible of election observers from different political forces and from bodies such as the OSCE or the Council of Europe," he says.

The sort of government Yushchenko says he would like to lead would try to unify Ukrainian society by giving a voice to the country's diverse political, religious, and regional groups. And, he says, it would be characterized by tolerance.

"Ukraine should be the foremost consideration, above all else. Ukraine's future should be above all else. Ukraine's past and history should not keep us trapped in the past at a time when Ukraine's neighbors are looking to the future. We should concentrate on how to strengthen the moves for closer ties with Europe, how to accelerate the development of human rights and so forth."

Yushchenko says opposition forces must act quickly to have a chance of winning the next presidential elections.

"The most important question for Ukraine is: Will the country's forces, healthy democratic forces, be able to find a means of securing by the autumn a method to form a common coalition, with an agreed common [political] program and one team that is able to put forward one common candidate for the elections?"