Kiev’s Time Has Come, Says Yushchenko

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Ukraine’s Orange Revolution is Victor Yushchenko’s proudest accomplishment. But the turbulent weeks that saw him emerge as president exacted a physical toll – a near fatal poisoning that left him scarred.

Viktor A. Yushchenko, President of Ukraine, gestures during a panel meeting on human rights the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland.

Three years later Mr Yushchenko is back. He says that Ukraine is back too, and ready to become a democratic member of a democratic Europe.

That was Mr Yushchenko’s ambition when he first came into office and, as the world briefly marvelled at the protesters in snowy Kiev, it seemed astonishing but just about credible.

These expectations were thwarted in the subsequent three years as Ukraine descended into bitter political squabbling, culminating in a pre-term parliamentary vote last year.

After weeks of jockeying, the election finally delivered a government led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the president’s sometime ally and sometime rival, as prime minister. Now, Mr Yushchenko says, Ukraine is again on course.

“The Ukrainian authorities for the first time are in a situation where the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament are all openly proposing a pro-west path and Euro-Atlantic co-ordination,” Mr Yushchenko says in an interview with the Financial Times. “I believe that today the government is united.”

The president is using this consensus to push on several fronts. He has called on western countries to support Kiev’s bid to join Nato’s membership action plan, a step towards accession, and hopes Ukraine will be admitted to the World Trade Organisation next month.

After that, Mr Yushchenko wants to speed discussions with the EU about entering its associated free trade zone.

He does not disguise his ambition of eventual EU membership. In time, he believes, “Europe will find itself asking: why isn’t Ukraine a member?”

Kiev’s trump card is its democracy, which Mr Yushchenko believes has been bolstered rather than undermined by the recent domestic conflicts. “Over the past 2½ years we have demonstrated to the whole world that we are able to resolve any internal disputes, even those with polar political views, in a democratic way.”

Other communist, or post-communist, countries such as China and Russia have been promoting the view that, in states with weak social and market infrastructure, authoritarianism can be a surer – and more prosperous – path to development than democracy. But Mr Yushchenko is unconvinced. “Democracy works, it is worth it,” he says, citing Ukraine’s 7.3 per cent growth last year.

“You couldn’t put Ukrainian society back into bondage ... this is a society which has enlightened itself.”

For a US administration that has made democracy-building a centrepiece of its foreign policy – without much success – these are welcome declarations. Indeed, after Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, met Mr Yushchenko earlier this week in Davos, US officials took care to say she had supported Kiev’s Nato ambitions.

But other countries may not be so delighted by Ukraine’s renewed claims.

Russia’s petro-fuelled economic rise, and the political aggression that has come with it, may have made backing Ukraine seem riskier. And while the EU’s eastern enlargement has brought an economic boost, it has also provoked populist concerns about a flood of migrants.

Russia is the most ambivalent of all. The political muddle that followed Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was a gift for Moscow’s leaders, worried about a copy-cat revolt at home.

As Moscow flexes its geopolitical muscle, it has also spoken out against Ukrainian moves towards Nato, accusing Kiev of seeing links “as an alternative to good-neighbourly ties with Russia”.

Mr Yushchenko says that is not so and believes he can persuade the Russians to see things his way.

“A good-neighbourly dialogue will, step by step, establish the understanding which is necessary for Russia, in particular the Russian foreign ministry, to accept this step.”

He is a believer in the power of time. Time, he says, has helped Ukraine to jettison the Soviet past and become more democratic and united.

Time, he thinks, will also help Russia to accept Kiev’s new geopolitical stance, just as it has come to accept Nato membership of the eastern European states that were once part of the Warsaw pact.

But changes over time do not always run in a single direction – and at the moment Russia seems keener on turning back the clock.

Source: The Financial Times