Ukraine Presidential Candidate Sees Hope In Putin's Vow

WASHINGTON, DC -- A Ukrainian candidate for president from the country's restive Donetsk region says Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to pull his forces back from the Ukrainian border is "good news" and a sign that diplomacy may have a chance.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Valeriy Konovalyuk speaks at the National Press Club in Washington on May 7, 2014.

Putin's statement is "a signal that Russia's president is ready to engage in a normal political dialog," said Valeriy Konovalyuk, an economist, a presidential candidate for elections scheduled for May 25 and a former deputy governor the Donetsk region. 

Putin on Wednesday called for a delay in Sunday's referendum on autonomy in southeastern Ukraine and said Russia has withdrawn troops from its border with Ukraine.

"We have been told that our troops on the Ukrainian border are a concern — we have withdrawn them," Putin said after meeting in Moscow with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter.

NATO estimates that Russia had stationed about 40,000 troops in the area.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Russian troop presence on the Ukrainian border has fomented unrest in eastern Ukraine and that their withdrawal would be welcome.

"To date, there's been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place," Earnest told reporters Wednesday.

Konovalyuk said Putin's message is aimed at President Obama, who is considering more drastic sanctions on Russia's oil and gas exports.

The development raises the likelihood that Ukraine will hold successful presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, and that another international conference on Ukraine will be held soon, Konovalyuk told USA TODAY.

It shows Russia "will show restraint and understanding in the process," he said. 

Konovalyuk, 47, is an economist and member of the Regions Party of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

The candidate was in Washington on Wednesday to seek support for a unified Ukraine in meetings with members of House and Senate foreign relations committees, and with officials at the State Department and Department of Defense. 

Speaking to USA TODAY through a Russian speaking interpreter, he blamed the crisis in his country on the policies and corruption of Yanukovych.

Elections are the only means to establish a legitimate new government, not just a new president, and a first step in reaching a political resolution to the crisis, he said. 

Moscow has blamed this year's political tumult on pro-Western demonstrations in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, that eventually drove the pro-Russian Yanukovych from office in February, and brought to power an interim government that Russia calls an illegitimate right-wing junta that threatens ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has demanded that Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists participate in any international conference, a demand that Ukraine's interim leaders have rejected.

Konovalyuk said that it's not clear whom the separatists represent but that he does not oppose adding more around the negotiating table.

"They had their own presidential candidate, but it appears Moscow sent a command and he withdrew his candidacy," he said.

Still, "the success of any peaceful process will be directly proportional to the inclusiveness of the process and how widely different parties are represented at the negotiating table," he said.

That political process "must include a maximum number of interested parties." 

Konovalyuk also called for decentralization of government, one of the demands of Russia and separatists.

He said it should have happened in 2004, when promised but not followed through on by previous governments.

Konovalyuk said he has great hopes for his country as a member of the European Union that is not aligned with either Russia or NATO and that has a vibrant military-industrial complex participating in the world arms market.

But for that to happen, the United States must commit to providing greater assistance, he said.

Although Ukrainians are "very grateful" for U.S. assistance so far, "it is not enough," he said.

"Ukraine now needs a new Marshall Plan. If the reform process is successful, Ukraine can become the bridge that connects Russia with the West."

Source: USA Today