At the Davos summit, a conversation with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Is Ukraine's president undermining democracy?
That has been a concern for human rights advocates and U.S. officials since Viktor Yanukovych took office nearly a year ago. "We don't want Ukraine to become Russia," said a senior U.S. diplomat. The president's chief opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is under investigation, and there are questions about whether corruption or revenge lurks behind her case. Following are excerpts of Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth's interview with Yanukovych in Davos, Switzerland, this past week.
An ambition of the previous regime was to join the European Union. Is that still your ambition? How do you think it is going?
Something you need to know is that the Party of Regions, which is the leading party of the Ukraine today, which I still chair, in its very first political statement adopted in 1997, said that the priority of the party is integration of Ukraine with the European Union. The other important thing - for the first time, in May of last year, the parliament of Ukraine adopted a law which clearly stated that the goal of Ukraine is to join the European Union. The law was the president's initiative.
Some say that your government is moving this country closer to Russia than to the E.U., and they cite the deal you made last April, when you extended the lease on the port in Sevastopol in exchange for getting lower gas prices from Russia. In retrospect, do you feel this was a good deal?
Ukraine and Russia have had traditional strategic relations. There was just one period in the history of our countries - during my predecessor's rule - when those good relations deteriorated. Trade between our countries fell from 40 billion U.S. dollars to 13 billion dollars in 2009. The confrontation between Ukraine and Russia led - at least two times - to the inefficient delivery of energy through Ukraine to the European Union. At least twice Ukraine violated its obligations to the European Union when gas deliveries from Russia which cross Ukraine were cut down significantly, and Europe suffered.
I thought Russia cut the gas off?
It was the consequence of the fact that relations between Russia and Ukraine had deteriorated. We are speaking about the results, rather than the fact. Ukraine's policy in 2010 was to improve relations with Russia. And Europe is happy today because it doesn't feel [it has] any problems with the natural gas. Those developments have led to more stability and an improved security situation in the European continent.
You won an election that was regarded as one of the most free and fair. Since that time, there is concern in the West that there has been backsliding on democracy in your country. Experts and officials talk about whether the local elections held i n October were free and fair. How do you see this situation? Do you plan to do something about it?
I have publicly recognized that the Ukrainian election law has some problems.
I also tried to improve the election law on the eve of the elections as much as I could . . . at the request of the opposition. After the elections, I launched a special working group with international experts. Today this working group is trying hard to develop a new election law in Ukraine.