Yushenko Balances Reforms With the Need for Stability
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GWEN IFILL: Fresh on the heels of his inauguration, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko made his first foreign visit today to Moscow.
VIKTOR YUSHCHENKO: We want our relations with Russia to be rational, successful, mutually beneficial and of course open and respectful toward our common history.
GWEN IFILL: He traveled there first to mend damaged fences, meeting with Russian President Putin who had supported Yushchenko’s losing opponent two months ago in elections plagued by fraud.
Yushchenko was met with cheers when he appeared before the Ukrainian parliament yesterday, but members of the opposition stood stone faced, apparently still bitter from their loss in last month’s election rematch. After placing his hand on a 500-year-old bible and taking the oath of office, Yushchenko said the day was a victory for freedom and he reaffirmed his aim to strengthen relations with the West.
Kiev’s Independence Square attracted crowds carrying the trademark orange flags and banners that supported Yushchenko’s election. Among the dignitaries on hand was outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, also there, Yulia Tymoshenko, a controversial ally whom the new president nominated today to be prime minister. Next stop for Yushchenko, Strasburg, France where he will visit the European parliament.
GWEN IFILL: For more now on where Ukraine goes from here, I’m joined by Taras Kuzio, a visiting fellow at George Washington University, he has written extensively about Ukraine and was an election observer. Welcome.
TARAS KUZIO: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Watching the inauguration or the oath taking this weekend in Ukraine what was your sense of what the new president was attempting to accomplish?
TARAS KUZIO: Well, the elections in Ukraine weren’t simply just elections; they were really a choice available to Ukrainians which would lead the country in the decade ahead. So it was a very momentous break with the past, and the choice open to Ukrainians was a kind of regime that we see now developing in Russia, an authoritarian-Eurasian regime, or a regime which would be more akin to what we see in Europe, and the United States and Canada, and, therefore, Ukrainians chose the latter over the former; they chose to rejoin as it were Europe, and so this in many ways would return to what they see as European civilization.
GWEN IFILL: When President Yushchenko spoke of the victory of freedom over tyranny, it sounded like an echo of President Bush’s inauguration speech last week.
TARAS KUZIO: Well, precisely because the choices in the elections were so stark, which made so many people go out on the streets in November, December in the revolution; the choice was really between an autocracy, a la what we see in Russia today developing, or a democracy, the kind of root that has been taken successfully by countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, which has led them to the European Union and NATO. The stark choice has led Mr. Yushchenko, now President Yushchenko, to describe the elections in such terms.
GWEN IFILL: Where does that leave the West, does the West have a special responsibility; is he throwing down a gauntlet that the United States in particular should be rising to pick up?
TARAS KUZIO: Well, the problem is that for both the United States and for the European Union, the United States because Ukraine is on track, we would see down the road, maybe later in this decade for NATO membership, Mr. Putin certainly does not want to see Ukraine inside NATO. Therefore if the U.S. was to back Ukraine with NATO membership, that could severely harm, strain relations between the U.S. and Russia, which have been very important post 9/11.
In the case of the European Union, prior to Yushchenko’s presidency under his predecessor, they completely ruled out the idea that Ukraine would ever join the European Union. Now with a president who is seriously committed to taking Ukraine into Europe, seriously committed to reforming democratization, the European Union has a fourth headache, as it were, on its hands, though EU has enlarged last year by 10 countries, it’s including now Turkey in the future, and it has a new constitution to deal with. Now we have Ukraine coming along as a fourth headache.
GWEN IFILL: And when the president says, we are in the center of Europe, he is basically saying that we plan to join the table. What is their reaction, to that headache; is that something they embrace?
TARAS KUZIO: They are scurrying around at the moment at the European Union, wondering what to do about Ukraine; they really don’t know how to fit this potentially huge country into the European Union. Think about it, in December, the European Union finally after many decades agreed to allow Turkey to join. If Turkey can join, why can’t Ukraine? A European Union going to the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian border and to the Russian border, if Ukraine comes is, will be a very big European Union. And so they really are having problems how to deal with this new reality on the ground with Mr. Yushchenko.
GWEN IFILL: Internally, the new president also has to deal with breaches which have to be mended after that very dramatic election and then a re-election election. Is there some mending that he’s got to do at home internally first, and was that part of the reason for the visit to Moscow?
TARAS KUZIO: Well, the visit to Moscow was undoubtedly an attempt to appease pro Russian sentiment in the Eastern Ukraine where many people are Russian speakers and where many voted for his opponent, Viktor Yanukovich. But it’s, therefore, more symbolic than real. I don’t think very much will come out of the visit to Moscow. The real thrust of Mr. Yushchenko’s foreign policy will be westwards, not northeastwards. And therefore, he’s I’m sure looking forward more to going to Strasburg, Brussels and then to Davos than he has been today in Moscow.
GWEN IFILL: Before he gets — it was very interesting for us in the West to watch the drama which unfolded when Vladimir Putin obviously did not support him. He supported his opponent. So does it matter that the two of them kiss and make up, or is it just something that he has to do that’s perfunctory before he moves on, as you say, to Brussels, Davos and beyond?
TARAS KUZIO: Many countries in the world including the U.S. have to often deal with very unpleasant realities on the ground; they have to deal with unpleasant regimes. And the – Vladimir Putin in Moscow did severely intervene in the Ukrainian elections in support of his candidate. There’s even strong evidence to maybe show that Russia was behind the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko in September. So the kissing and making up with Vladimir Putin and Russia will be very difficult. But there’s no question that any Ukrainian president realizes that he has to have good relations with Russia, but it really depends where his emphasis is in foreign policy, and his emphasis will be westwards, towards the West and not towards Russia.
GWEN IFILL: The president nominated his new prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had already been quoted as saying that expectations are too great for this new president and that, suggesting that it would take a while for him to achieve some of them. What is the significance of her nomination and is she right?
TARAS KUZIO: Expectations are undoubtedly too high. That’s always the case after every revolution, especially amongst young people who are very impatient for the need for change in Ukraine. After all we’ve had a decade in power of very corrupt authoritarian leader, Mr. Leonid Kuchma. So, undoubtedly, not all of the expectations will be fulfilled, especially so quickly. But there’s also great good will in the West, in Europe and in North America, to, as it were, reward Ukraine for going through this tremendous democratic revolution. After all, without this revolution on the ground as it were, Viktor Yushchenko today would not be president. And so the expectations are high that at the same time Yulia Tymoshenko is the right person, as it were, to fulfill those expectations. She’s very radical in a good sense of that term; she’s very well organized and she certainly knows what to do; she has a strong economics and business background and in terms of rooting out corruption, which is one of Ukraine’s major problems, she’s the person to do it.
GWEN IFILL: What does it mean Yanukovich was not at the election was not at the inauguration and Leonid Kuchma was not at the big rally in Independence Square right after the inauguration; does that portend problems which will be building for the future divisions?
TARAS KUZIO: Mr. Yanukovich is now really a lame duck. He didn’t attend the inauguration, you’re right; there are strong grounds to suspect he was actually in Moscow on Sunday. So Mr. Putin actually snubbed Mr. Yushchenko and met Mr. Yanukovich before Mr. Yushchenko today.
GWEN IFILL: And sent a fairly low ranking member of the Russian government to attend the inauguration.
TARAS KUZIO: Absolutely, which is partly because Mr. Putin sees the events in Ukraine, the election of Mr. Yushchenko as his personal biggest defeat since he came to power in Russia in 2000, and therefore Mr. Yanukovich’ presence is not… at the inauguration is not that unexpected. He has said that he will go into a position to Mr. Yushchenko, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to lead a strong opposition force. As for Mr. Kuchma, if he was to actually go down as you suggest to the square to the crowds, he probably would be booed.
GWEN IFILL: So it’s just the better part of valor not to do that.
TARAS KUZIO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: Taras Kuzio, thank you so much.
TARAS KUZIO: Thank you.