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Interviews : Viktor Yushchenko

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Viktor Andriyovych Yushchenko is a Ukrainian economist and politician. He served as President of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010. Yushchenko was born in 1954 in Khoruzhivka, Ukraine. Both his parents were teachers.

Educated as an economist, Yushchenko worked in banking and finance for much of his career. After Ukrainian independence was restored in 1991, he became chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine from 1993 to 1999. President Leonid Kuchma appointed Yushchenko prime minister. Yushchenko served in that post from 1999 to 2001. Freedom House and other watchdog groups noted a marked deterioration in civil liberties and human rights under President Kuchma, including restrictions on the media, government efforts to undermine the political opposition, political violence and even murder.

Yushchenko became active in electoral politics, winning a seat in Ukraine’s parliament in 2002. That same year, he became leader of the Our Ukraine political coalition, the leading bloc of the democratic opposition to Kuchma.

In 2004, Yushchenko launched his campaign for president, quickly becoming the leading opposition candidate. Yushchenko faced formidable odds, with little access to the media. In September 2004, Yushchenko became seriously ill with what was later diagnosed as dioxin poisoning. Though gravely wounded, Yushchenko continued his political campaign. In the October 31, 2004 first round of elections, he narrowly edged Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Since neither Yanukovych nor Yushchenko won 50 percent of the vote, they met in a runoff election on November 21. Irregularities and fraud were widespread and the government proclaimed Yanukovych the winner. Public outrage led to the nonviolent demonstrations and protests of the Orange Revolution. After several weeks of protests, the government acceded to demands for a new round of elections. On December 26, 2004, Viktor Yushchenko defeated Viktor Yanukovych to become president of Ukraine.

As president, Yushchenko sought to improve Ukraine’s economy and democratic institutions. He worked to strengthen ties with the European Union and NATO. Throughout his presidency, Yushchenko was challenged by political infighting and fractious coalition governments. He unsuccessfully sought reelection in 2010, but lost to his 2004 rival, Viktor Yanukovych.

Since completing his term, Viktor Yushchenko has remained active in public affairs and politics. He currently serves as the founder and head of the Viktor Yushchenko Institute in Kyiv. 

I would say that was the point where we came to the brink of civil disobedience and – what I would not ever want – of civil war.

Ukraine was easily divided, even geographically, but most importantly politically. Everybody understood that, by way of great manipulation, the authorities are ready to shed some blood in order to hold on their margin. At that time, in the city of Severodonetsk, Eastern Ukraine, a convention of [Viktor] Yanukovych political supporters was held, where an Eastern Ukrainian Republic was proclaimed. They were visited by their confederates, including the Mayor of Moscow [Yury] Luzhkov, and members of the State Duma of Russia. I met with President [Leonid] Kuchma that day and said: We are losing our statehood. He literally waved his hand; he already could not control the situation.

Interior Ministry troops are being assembled around Kyiv. Questions of the possible involvement of the military, as well as various law enforcement and national security agencies, became the front-and-center issue. In other words, the incumbent side has begun preparations for the coercive scenario. And they were on watch for any incident on the Maidan [The main square in Kyiv and focal point for the Orange Revolution] – as an opportunity to call out the Ministry of Interior troops. Or national security and law enforcement agencies, or even the army.

As I remember, late at night, at about 12:00 a.m., in the suburbs of Kyiv I had a meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Interior Ministry. He was a sufficiently responsible person.

And I was worried, being aware of the situation that later, following ‘advice’ from above, the Minister of the Interior may give an order to deploy troops to break up protesters.

I had a meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Interior troops. The meeting took place late at night, and we had a discussion on how ready he is to carry out such an order, I was sure that the minister will not give the order in writing, by the official channel, because he is afraid to. He can give it verbally, over the phone. And we agreed that he will not, under any circumstances, carry out a verbal order. If the order is in writing, he will. But if there is no written order, he will not carry out the verbal order. I think that did save us in the situation, when the authorities had very extreme ideas.

The authorities were holding closed sessions of the National Security and Defense Council, where the use of force to break up protests was addressed. And the balance between hawks and doves was too sensitive. Sensitive. Eventually, messages from different leaders and political forces on the Maidan reached the authorities, and the authorities did not dare to involve the army and interior forces.

Therefore, there was a stalemate. The elections were over. The Constitution had exhausted its powers – it could not advise politicians or society what to do anymore. Society did not recognize the elections. The Central Election Committee announced the winner. That was a real standoff, indeed.

At the same time, the Supreme Court examines the case of election results and rules to not recognize them. Well, and, so to speak, in the country is in the situation when neither majority of people nor the court recognizes the election results; the Central Election Committee announced the winner; the President is not seen at his workplace, because protesters do not let him through; and there is absolutely no one talking or communicating. And, you know, such a situation is emerging, which happens only before social confrontation, when reason is not speaking, but rather emotions. How could such a situation have developed that those who represent the authorities do not have the political will to change the situation?

My desire was to gather at the negotiating table and talk. And yet, Moscow stands behind the authorities, cheering them on and directing them that the elections are over – here are the results, period. In fact, a few more days of such uncertainty and that could lead us to bloodshed, to troops on Khreshchatyk – on the Maidan, and to civil war. [Kreshchatyk Street and the Maidan Square in central Kyiv were the focus of the Orange Revolution protests.]

I had several alternative versions of dealing with that, but under serious consideration was the one I started to implement at the very first day: In the current situation, we must use all the democratic tools, all the political tools, and start with the point that both sides have to sit down at the negotiating table and start the process of negotiations. I did not dismiss President [Leonid] Kuchma and these were not my thoughts.

I called my foreign colleagues and friends and ask them to not abandon Ukraine, but to face the situation and provide help, provide support in putting together the national roundtable. Either in Ukraine, or outside Ukraine – where was not important when the two sides must talk.

I called [Polish] President [Aleksander] Kwaƛniewski; I called Mr. [Valdas] Adamkus, President of Lithuania; I called the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union [Javier] Solana; I called the US side – I called Vice President [Dick Cheney]. All that took place at different times and even on different days. My effort was focused on the role of the international community in prompting a transition of Ukrainian situation from civil confrontation to a political matter.

So, several days have passed and, because of those efforts, we gather at the first round table. Besides (representatives from the) Western side, President Kuchma wanted to invite (representatives from) Moscow, too. I agreed to that. We held three rounds of negotiations and, to be brief, their starting point addressed the clear issue which was defined, on one hand, by the fact that Constitution of Ukraine does not provide answers how to proceed in the case when the second round election results are not recognized; in other words, there is no answer to that in the Constitution. And that pushed the other side towards chaos, towards coercion, towards any interpretation except the legal one. Second: There is the Maidan where 200,000 – 300,000 people are standing – they do not recognize the election, and they are saying: We will not leave the Maidan unless we secure a new election. That is another fact.

The authorities are extremely afraid that the opposition will come to power, that I will come to power, and they initiate a constitutional reform; its main point is that presidential powers are transferred to prime minister by the parliament [if the presidency is vacant]. This means President Kuchma, after the presidential election, would still have one and a half years. And because presidential powers are going to be transferred to the prime minister, he will have no difficulty to go through the parliamentary procedures and become Prime Minister of Ukraine with presidential powers.

We began lengthy talks, which lasted until 5:00 a.m. every day. To save time, the result of those negotiations was as follows: In the course of the talks I have convinced the authorities to recognize the Supreme Court ruling that elections were not over with the second round. That is the first point. Second: We have to hold another election. That is not in the Constitution, but can be seen as a democratic compromise. We must hold either another election or – some speak of a third voting round. The authorities’ answer was that the opposition should give its support to the constitutional reform aimed at transferring presidential powers – a significant part, I would say, the lion’s share – to the prime minister. And I agree to make that step with understanding that, well, first and foremost, that is a compromise, which takes us farther from civil war. Secondly, I was absolutely sure that I will win. And if I become President, a significant part of the presidential powers go to my partner, the prime minister of Ukraine. 

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has an estimated population of nearly 45 million people, of which 78 percent are ethnic Ukrainians, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, and the rest from other ethnic groups.

Ukrainian independence was reestablished in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 9th century, Kievan Rus was established as the first eastern Slavic state on what is now Ukrainian territory. For much of its history, Ukraine was subjugated to neighboring powers such as Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Austria-Hungary. Briefly independent after World War I, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. After World War II, Soviet Ukraine’s territory was enlarged to include former Polish, Romanian and Czechoslovak territory in the west and the mostly ethnic-Russian Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea.

Ukraine’s rich soil made it the breadbasket of the USSR. Today, it is the world’s third largest exporter of grain. Industrialization took place during the Soviet era, along with collectivization of agriculture. During the 1930s, the collectivization of agriculture and displacement of farmers to the cities to work in heavy industry led to a catastrophic famine, known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor. As many as 10 million people perished. Under the rule of dictator Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union aimed to eliminate Ukraine’s national identity. Artists and intellectuals and those believed to be Ukrainian nationalists were eliminated by the security agencies. Nearly 700,000 people are believed to have perished during these purges.

During World War II, Ukraine was the scene of heavy fighting between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Five to eight million Ukrainians died during the war, including the majority of Ukraine’s Jewish population. After the war, the economy grew rapidly, with agriculture and heavy industry driving growth. Ukraine was second only to Russia in power and influence within the Soviet Union. In 1986, Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was the scene of the worst nuclear accident in history.

In 1990, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Ukraine adopted a declaration of sovereignty, a prelude to the 1991 declaration of full independence. The first decade of independence saw Ukraine’s economy collapse, with massive unemployment and hyperinflation. The country’s road to democracy was troubled, with President Leonid Kuchma’s new constitution centralizing power in the presidency. Corruption, electoral fraud, and domination of the economy by Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs led to political stagnation. Freedom House and other watchdog groups noted a marked deterioration in civil liberties and human rights under President Kuchma, including restrictions on the media, government efforts to undermine the political opposition, political violence and even murder.

Ukrainian politics has been highly contentious and essentially divided into two large political blocs. The first group, led by Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, was seen as advocating closer ties with Russia. The second group, led by Viktor Yushchenko and the Our Ukraine coalition, was seen as favoring democratic reforms and preferring a closer relationship with the European Union and NATO. 

More from Viktor Yushchenko

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