The Last Word: Viktor Yushchenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- With new elections only four months away, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's political problems are beginning to mount. The Ukrainian economy is tanking, the Orange coalition has fallen apart and a bitter dispute with Russia over natural-gas supplies has Europe worried. While touring a Ukrainian armored tank brigade's base in Bila Tserkva last week, just before a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Yushchenko spoke with NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland.

Viktor Yushchenko

Will Iraq and the allegations of secret U.S. prisons in Europe be topics in your talks with Condi Rice?

Our agenda is mainly economic. Iraq is a zone of Ukrainian interest, and the presence of the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent the last year signified our adherence to our commitments. We're now removing our contingent, and we are offering a... second phase of our cooperation, gendarmes, specialist military training, security training... And we are ready to participate in our reconstruction projects in solidarity with business interests from other countries.

Is there any possibility you'd agree to keep troops beyond the Dec. 31 date for their final withdrawal?

No, we're not going to keep them longer.

The Russians are fearful of Ukraine's drive to join the accession process to the European Union and NATO. What do you say to them about this?

These fears upset me. Where else can we go? Russia itself is economically entwined with Europe much more than Ukraine is. I don't recall the exact figure, but more than 50 percent of its exports are to Western Europe. The Russian business elite and its practices are even more Europeanized than we are. Our fates are there. We will be in Europe one way or another—it's inevitable.

Moscow is asking Ukraine to pay more for its imported natural gas. Ukraine has retaliated by threatening to cut Russian gas exports to Western Europe, 80 percent of which transits through Ukrainian pipelines. Are you at an impasse?

No, not at all. I believe we will have a resolution to this issue by the end of December.

Your polls are slipping, and some even suggest that your opponent, Viktor Yanukovic, whom you defeated less than a year ago, is now more popular than you are. Is the Orange Revolution over?

I think you have a bit of distorted data there, but nonetheless, 12 months ago, 34 percent voted for Yanukovic. Today his rating is 20 to 25 percent. The Orange camp [has] 50 percent, easy, which is what the Orange team enjoyed a year ago. But what has disillusioned and disappointed our people has been the differences within the Orange camp, which were received fairly traumatically by our citizens.

In retrospect, do you regret firing your prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and her cabinet in September? Particularly now that you will depend on Tymoshenko as a political ally against Yanukovic in elections this March?

When we look back at that period, some people are saying we did it too late. We should have done it earlier, when the first economic crises appeared—back in June. I'm an economist and I know how to manage this economy, but I had hoped that the [ministerial] team would work and talk as a team. Unfortunately, even in that unpleasant economic crisis, personal conflicts and personal egos got in the way. And on top of these egos there was economic adventurism. There is nothing to feel sorry about in my decision.

How has your disfigurement from dioxin poisoning on the eve of the Orange Revolution affected you as a person and as a leader?

On the one hand, I witnessed—when I was in the intensive-care unit and didn't even know what world I was in—that there were people who were ready to give up everything for me, starting with my wife and finishing with my friends. Physically, I suffered through things I don't even want to imagine anyone else suffering through. This is a very painful illness, bodily pain and otherwise. But I was doing a campaign when most people in my situation would just lay in bed a year and a half and maybe end up dead. By the fifth week I was running the electoral campaign, presenting myself at rallies. Sometime in the future I'll tell you what I had in my briefcase and in my pocket at those public appearances. I was convinced this country should free itself of the previous regime and do it in a beautiful way, not go from one extreme to the other. Most importantly, I survived. I won. I turned back these forces. And I have regained most of the vitality that I lost.

Source: Newsweek International