Chief of Staff to the Ukrainian Opposition Candidate
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JIM LEHRER: And now Ray Suarez has our Ukraine story.
RAY SUAREZ: The barricades are down, the posters rolled up, and most of the thousands of demonstrators who had gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square have dispersed. But a few diehard supporters of Ukraine’s opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, lingered in the tent city.
MAN: We are not trying to block the administration building anymore. We are here only for peaceful rally. At a moment’s notice we could bring protesters back.
RAY SUAREZ: The two-week long blockade of major government buildings began as a protest against the November presidential election — almost universally seen as fraudulent — and grew into a political movement. This week two moves in the capital Kiev led to the blockade winding down.
First, the Ukrainian Supreme Court ruled the presidential election between Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich was a fraud and should be repeated. And this week, the parliament voted for major electoral changes aimed at averting election fraud, and also moved to shift some presidential powers to the parliament. That cleared the way for a repeat election on Dec. 26 between the two Viktors: Yushchenko and Yanukovich.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, on Monday, Russian President Putin, who backs Prime Minister Yanukovich, warned western nations not to get involved in the crisis.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Our position is that only the people of any country, and this includes Ukraine in the full sense, can decide their fate. One can play the role of a mediator but one must not meddle and apply pressure.
RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Bulgaria on Wednesday, dismissed Russian claims of western meddling.
COLIN POWELL: Ukrainian and Russian authorities are hearing a clear message from North America and Europe, in diplomatic stereo. And that stereo sound makes a difference. And what do we say? Let the people decide. More than ever before, the fate of Ukraine rests where it belongs, in the hands of the Ukrainian people.
RAY SUAREZ: Today, Putin seemed to take a new tack, saying Russia would have no objections if Ukraine joined the European Union. EU officials had been involved in brokering a solution to the political impasse in Ukraine. Yanukovich’s and Yushchenko’s campaigns are remapping their strategies, but the opposition candidate once again was in a hospital in Vienna, being treated for the affects of a mysterious illness that has disfigured his face. Yushchenko has said he was poisoned.
RAY SUAREZ: Now we get the perspective of one of the key strategists for the Ukraine opposition. Oleh Rybachuk is chief of staff for Viktor Yushchenko. He has been in Washington meeting pro-democracy groups and administration officials. And, welcome.
OLEH RYBACHUK: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about your boss, Viktor Yushchenko’s health. Today he was checked into a hospital in Austria with just a little over two weeks to go until the polls open once again in the Ukraine. How sick is he?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Well, you know, a doctor says you need to avoid stress and you can imagine then while new the middle of campaigning it’s very difficult to avoid stress. So he needs… we discussed this while discussing our tour, campaign, that he can take a couple of days now because actually for security reasons we are planning his campaign not so actively as it used to be when he was attending massive public rallies.
Now, when we have TV open for us, when we have all other means of communication open for us and Yushchenko has a very strong team, actually, he’s got message. His voters got message already. He doesn’t need to send something new. But I’m… as a chief of staff, I’m very much concerned about his further security risks and therefore we limited his public exposure.
RAY SUAREZ: But doctors have had so little to say about just what it is that’s making him ill. Do we know that his life isn’t in danger?
OLEH RYBACHUK: No, actually. I’ve been talking to doctors and it’s not about danger to his life. He has fully recovered. Actually, he was very lucky that we was brought to Vienna because doctors said if he would stay another 24 hours in Ukraine, it could be a final solution, so called.
And now after taking two treatments in Vienna, he has fully recovered, as doctor says, but he needs a certain rest and he needs to take care of this effects on his face which they call residual. But actually, internally there are no more damages so he has been cured internally but he needs rest later and he needs his face taken care of.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about your own visit to the United States. Were you meeting with officials of the Bush administration?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Yes. I just had a couple of meetings at the State Department and your National Security Council.
RAY SUAREZ: Was that a touchy thing for you, given that Mr. Yanukovich has charged your party and your candidate with being too close to the United States?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Actually, it’s not Yanukovich; it’s very popular game which is clearly orchestrated from Kremlin and it’s a long story. They tried to connect the fact that Yushchenko’s wife is of American background. But this is originally coming from Kremlin. Their consultants decided that this is something very bad for Ukrainians, the fact that Yushchenko has an American-born wife.
But all the rest is just one of post-Soviet type stereotypes. When they try to say that… well, West is running behind Yushchenko, therefore poor Russians have no choice but to support other candidate. The theory backfired strongly against Kremlin foreign policy, actually, and recently we heard that President Putin said that actually whoever Ukrainian people will vote for, Kremlin will be dealing with.
RAY SUAREZ: You’ve already talked about how you’re not going to put your candidate so aggressively out on the trail over the next two weeks. Are you sure that the conditions are now in place this time to run a fair vote in Ukraine?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Well, the conditions are clearly much better than they used to be. You know, practically all the demands of opposition to amend law on presidential election, which made it impossible to use these absentee ballots as a major fraud instrument plus the fact that Prime Minister Yanukovich actually in resignation and the most notorious officials like prosecutor general was fired, central election committee chairman, which was caught into massive fraud and specifically using computer system was fired.
So there are all prior conditions met. But more important, Ukrainians are not afraid. You know, when you have authoritarian regime, it has all its influence when people are afraid of them. But millions of Ukrainians demonstrated for 17 days despite cold and they’ve been very much determined and they have won. Never Ukraine saw such massive rallies, but very well organized and peaceful. Therefore, I can say that my nation changed completely.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what’s to say that the other side won’t do the same? Today Prime Minister Yanukovich said that he won’t accept and his supporters will not accept another vote if it goes the other way for Viktor Yushchenko. What will keep them from going on into the streets and saying “we don’t accept this vote” as your followers do?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Well, the problem is that Yanukovich knows very well the difference — that it was not us sending people in the street, it was something which we’ve been always telling, that if government would try massive fraud, Ukrainian legendary patience may be exhausted. And this happens.
We clearly predict Viktor Yushchenko’s victory maybe in 20 out of 25 regions. So if Yanukovich will get some support in a few regions, you can imagine that this is only part of Ukrainian population. And when I heard today that all these threats of separatism and on Yanukovich region having referendum are now called back because governors who initiated this clearly understand this is a criminal act and they may enjoy up to 15 years in prison and that separatism threats have received a very sharp reaction in parliament and in public opinion in Ukraine. So these guys are now clearly on defensive.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you’re talking and a candidate you just said could win 20 out of 25 regions in your country. Yet you’re not so sure about his safety as he travels that country where he’s so popular?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Yes, sir, I’m not so sure for a number of reasons. I have very good reasons not to be sure because we are dealing with the business groups which invested billions of dollars in Yanukovich and they’ve been pretty confident that Yanukovich will win. Nobody expected Ukrainian resistance movement. They’ve been very skeptical about this and they have support also from outside. We are talking about billions of dollars at stake and when the price is so high, you can never be sure of security.
Moreover, we had clear life attempts at… in Yushchenko’s case and if you not yet reported which I know of but I have to admit this that this security risk is something which worries me most of all. I’m positive about the campaign results, but I have to be very careful about making sure that Yushchenko’s life is not more threatened.
RAY SUAREZ: Will he have to govern that way? I mean, if he wins on Dec. 26, will his life continue to be in danger from these forces that you’ve named?
OLEH RYBACHUK: Well, it’s substantially reduced because Yushchenko is extremely popular and moreover, security forces are cooperating now. You know, it’s much easier to have preventive… let’s say preventive analysis or preventive tactics to discourage attempts on the president’s life than actually physical bodyguards because that’s something which can be easily taken care of.
But the fact that Yushchenko is extremely popular and he is getting wide support among the population diminishes some risks. But anyway, at this point when nothing can stop Yushchenko, they know that Yushchenko is the clear winner and whatever might come to their… crazy heads is something which worries me a lot. These guys are not gentlemen at all, sir.
RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about President Putin from Russia next door. He was a clear supporter of Yanukovich. There was said to be government support coming from Russia into the Ukraine for the Yanukovich campaign. You mentioned he softened his line, but if Viktor Yushchenko becomes president of Ukraine after Dec. 26, what kind of relationship is he going to have with the president of your much larger neighbor who opposed you?
OLEH RYBACHUK: I will say not when but if Mr. Yushchenko becomes president. I remember how Yushchenko was describing me his first meeting with Putin. Putin saw him and says “Finally there is a new generation coming to power in Ukraine.” So they’re almost the same age, they are clearly different personalities like Yeltsin or Kuchma used to be. They-re clearly… the clear type of Soviet product — clear Soviet product kind of managers.
Putin is different. Putin government is different. And, frankly, there is no other way for Putin but to deal with Ukraine. And Yushchenko has very good reputation among Russian business elite because his record as a prime minister shows that Russian investment was by far the largest during his prime ministership plus Yushchenko proved to be the guy who plays by the rules, who doesn’t have any business, unlike Yanukovich, any business plan standing behind him. And Yushchenko is clearly creating sort of European standards for investments. And many successful Russian businesses are dreaming of these kind of business opportunities, while they’ve been facing clearly discrimination from Yanukovich while Yanukovich was promoting his own business in a number of very loud privatization cases.
RAY SUAREZ: Oleh Rybachuk, thanks for being with us.
OLEH RYBACHUK: Thank you.