The leading democratic contender in next year's presidential elections in Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, was a guest at Radio Liberty's 50th anniversary commemorations in Prague on 6 June. In the second of two parts, RFE/RL speaks with Yushchenko about his attitudes toward Ukraine's powerful neighbor, Russia, and about his hopes for reviving Kyiv's ambitions for membership in the European Union.
Prague, 10 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukrayina) bloc, with its program aimed at deepening democracy and implementing market economic reforms, won the largest share of votes to the country's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, last year.
Yushchenko himself intends to run for president in elections scheduled for October 2004. Opinion polls show he is regarded as the country's most honest politician and would win if elections were held today.
Current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma -- who is barred from seeking a third term -- has played a political balancing game between the West and Moscow. Yushchenko's pro-Western sympathies are well-known. But he is conscious that many Ukrainians, especially in the Russian-speaking east, are worried that a Yushchenko presidency would alienate Russia.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Yushchenko explained that he wants good relations with Russia, but said Russia must show good faith. "My position was and still remains the same. Ukraine's politics should be where Ukraine's interests lie. If Ukraine's strategic interests that are important for Ukrainian society, for its business, for its politics, lie with Russia, it should be adequately supported by an appropriate political partnership and cooperation on Russia's part. This should be an open and honest policy with a stable dialogue and policy and, above all, be based upon a stable well-formulated policy," he said.
Yushchenko regards current Ukrainian-Russian relations as superficial. He said the difficulties, past and present, between the two countries have to be fully and openly addressed and a relationship developed that is based on equality.
"Today, 50 to 70 percent of Ukrainians regard relations with Russia as unstable," Yushchenko said. "Despite all the pronouncements of brotherhood at [Russian and Ukrainian] parliamentary levels, despite all the contacts, meetings, and joint cultural festivals, every year economic links between the two countries become weaker. People have a feeling that something could be done better. Our relations, with increasing frequency, bring to mind the relations of lost opportunities. If we are partners, and we are friends, and we are with Russia, if that's the case, we should talk honestly about the problems that appear in this relationship in order to energize the relations, because [Western] Europe wants to see Ukraine and Russia in a relationship based on mutual respect and equal partnership."
Yushchenko said he wants to begin a serious dialogue long before next year's presidential elections. "My political party several months ago was the initiator of a proposal to hold hearings in parliament about Ukrainian-Russian relations and to analyze all the issues of interest, including painful ones," he said. "If we're friends, let's talk about all these things -- any of these complex issues that have been avoided. In order not to carry into our future relationship the problems that have marred our past. I'm sure that Russia's political elite, her healthy political elite, also views the mutual, bilateral relationship in that way."
Ivan Lozowy is the director of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent Ukrainian think tank. Lozowy said Russia currently dominates relations between the two countries and exerts an influence that recalls the master-servant relationship of the Soviet era.
Lozowy believes a Yushchenko presidency would usher in genuine democracy and allow Ukraine's stalled relations with the West to revive. "Without a strong move toward democracy, Ukraine simply is weak. And as a weak country, economically, politically, it invites I think the worse attentions, or the more base attentions, of Russians -- particularly Russian politicians," he said.
Yushchenko believes that, as president, deepening democracy would be his most important task and that the majority of Ukrainians would rally behind an administration committed to democracy.
Lozowy agrees that a Yushchenko victory "would unleash a tide of democracy." He added: "There's no question that Ukraine is heading toward a much more deeply developed and, I think, widely dispersed democratic society. A Yushchenko presidency would unleash the forces that are extant on the lowest level, namely, individuals themselves. Unfortunately, Ukraine hasn't reached the point where pro-democracy -- simply what in Ukraine is often called a normal life, as opposed to postcommunist or post-Soviet life -- that people who favor that and aren't entrenched in the current corrupt regime [dominate]. I think they're waiting for something to happen and for something to break, and that big hope is the Yushchenko presidency."
Yushchenko said a strong democracy installed in Ukraine would unite the country. He said it would provide a force for sweeping away the corrupt political and financial groups called "clans," which hold immense sway in the country, and would pave the way for rapid improvement in relations with the European Union.
"In my opinion, Ukraine today is undergoing two opposing tendencies. On the one hand, [the EU] is approaching Ukraine's borders. And on the other hand, Ukraine is distancing itself from Europe, not geographically, of course, but as a result of the sort of policies that have determined Ukraine's behavior in recent years," he said.
Yushchenko believes a Ukrainian government practicing democracy would rapidly establish close ties with the EU, and he said he wants to work to place Ukraine on the list of the EU's possible future members. Lozowy said a change in the Ukrainian government would dramatically alter the EU's attitude toward Ukraine.
"Europe's hesitancy is only a reflection of the lack of progress in Ukraine. The lack of progress is the fault -- or that lack of progress is to be laid directly at the feet of -- the people who have been in charge over the last 12 years, every one of them, except for one brief [interval] when Mr. Yushchenko was prime minister, every one of them a convinced and lifelong former communist," Lozowy said.
Yushchenko believes that as president, working with the country's democratic groups, he could transform Ukraine from what he called "a country of lost opportunities" into a democratic, economically thriving nation. "We have to accept one thing that the people of Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens, in the 12th or 13th year of their independence, finally deserve to be given the right to realize one of the fundamental human rights -- and that is the right to elections, the right to political elections," he said.
Yushchenko said for Ukrainians to get that right, the West must do everything in its power to ensure the presidential elections are conducted fairly and without the allegations of fraud and misconduct that have marred previous elections in Ukraine.