By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 27 -- The Orange Revolution, strangely, has been kindest to the man who played the villain to the waves of protesters who rolled onto the streets of this capital two years ago. Viktor Yanukovych, once cast as the bluff hack who tried to steal Ukraine's presidential election, is back in power as prime minister thanks to free and fair parliamentary elections in March that were made possible only by the street protests of late 2004.
As he prepares for his first official trip to Washington, a four-day visit beginning Sunday, Yanukovych is suddenly projecting himself as the voice of democratic reform. He also appears eager to assure his White House hosts that his popular image as a pro-Russian straw man is a gross distortion.
Now, he suggests that he, too, was a catalyst in the transformation of this once stagnating country into the most politically competitive of all the post-Soviet states, a nation where debate is dynamic and where power, ultimately, resides with the people.
"There were many mistakes made by the previous authorities and many injustices," he said in an interview in his office here Monday. "The authorities lost trust. One should recognize that there is more democracy, that there is freedom of speech -- and that is an achievement of these historic events, although I don't call it a revolution."
Yanukovych bears little resemblance to the figure who provoked tens of thousands of Ukrainians to demonstrate against electoral fraud in 2004, eventually sweeping his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, into the presidency. And some question the sincerity of what they see as his self-serving rhetoric.
"He talks like he was part of it," said David Zhvania, a member of parliament and financier of Yushchenko's campaign and the protests in Kiev's Independence Square. "It's a game. We showed Ukrainians why he was scary, but we also explained to Yanukovych why he was scary, and from his first day in power we saw that he was listening."
For others, however, the fundamental legacy of the Orange Revolution, named for the color adopted by those advocating democratic change, is that Yanukovych must now bow to the electorate and that Ukraine, a nation of 47 million, cannot return to autocratic rule.
"He is forced to play within the rules of a new political culture," said Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev. "He understands that a dictatorial style is no longer permissible in Ukraine. The Orange Revolution made him a politician."
The change in attitude is immediately apparent to visitors to his office. The first visible image is a portrait of Yushchenko, which was placed in a prominent position on Yanukovych's orders, according to his media aides. The prime minister also regularly speaks Ukrainian, not Russian, in public now; his vastly improved fluency clearly reflects an attempt to project himself as something more than the representative of pro-Russian business clans from eastern Ukraine.
The bulk of Yushchenko's support came from the Ukrainian-speaking west, while Yanukovych's base is in the Russian-speaking east.
"There is more and more desire among the people to unite under the state flag," Yanukovych said. "They want to build a strong unified state, a united Ukraine."
The coalition that had backed Yushchenko collapsed following bitter infighting, but Yanukovych strikes an accommodating tone in discussing the president's goals -- integration with the West, including membership in NATO and the European Union, while maintaining respectful but independent relations with Russia, Ukraine's giant neighbor.
"My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective," he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych's new incarnation.
On NATO membership, a prospect that a majority of Ukrainians oppose, according to opinion polls, Yanukovych said his compatriots first need to be educated about the goals of the alliance and its benefits for Ukraine.
"You cannot put a boat to sail without first building it," he said. "For Ukraine, and the Ukrainian people, the priority is first to improve the standard of living, build up the legal system and create a just state with democratic values and freedom, and only then a security system. The population will support integration with NATO when they see positive changes in the country itself."
Asked about his personal view of NATO membership, Yanukovych said, "I think we will do everything that serves the national interest." And that, he added, includes "a normal and stable working relationship with Russia which is of mutual benefit. It is extremely important for us. Russia is a very important strategic, trade and economic partner."
But he also said he wanted to pursue policies that reduce Ukraine's dependence on its neighbor, particularly its almost total reliance on Russia for energy. "We want to develop a diversification of energy supplies," he said. "And Russia is not obstructing us in this process."