Four years ago, when the people of Ukraine took to the streets and ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, it looked like a new start for the country. For former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, it meant release from jail. Today, she is leading the polls for the presidential elections in March. Yulia, as she is known, has a strong following, but she also has many detractors. Some fear she is too close to Moscow and might compromise the country’s newly won independence. Tymoshenko spoke with The Post’s Lally Weymouth in Kiev last week. Excerpts of the interview follow:
Q: People ask, what is your relationship with Vladimir Putin and whether you will really steer Ukraine on an independent course if you are elected president?
A: My vision of Ukraine in the future is as a member of the European Union and a fully fledged member of NATO. You know very well that pro-Russian President Yanukovych put me in prison. If I were pro-Russian and Putin told Yanukovych not to put me in prison, Yanukovych would never have done it.
Q: Ukrainians are concerned that you might make a deal to settle the conflict in the eastern Ukraine, where separatist forces, with Russian help, are fighting the Ukrainian military.
A: No, categorically no. The theory of me having some special relationship with Putin was launched for the first time by Paul Manafort back in 2006-2007. Prosecutor [Robert] Mueller published the documents showing Manafort received millions of dollars for my discreditation. That was part of his service to Yanukovych. The current Ukrainian President [Petro Poroshenko] is basically recycling the arguments invented by Manafort and his team.
Q: What is the major difference between you and Poroshenko?
A: I don’t have business in Russia or Ukraine, while Poroshenko does. The aim of these untrue speculations is clearly to discredit me before the elections. But people don’t believe them.
Q: Do you see a solution for getting back the eastern part of your country?
A: The situation is difficult. We don’t want so-called peace if it is achieved at the expense of Ukraine’s capitulation. We cannot accept peace on Putin’s terms. We believe that peace can be achieved with the full restoration of Ukraine’s territory.
Q: What can be done by the West?
A: Sanctions and pressure on Putin.
Q: More sanctions?
A: More sanctions. Moreover, we must have a very strong defense sector in our army, including obtaining more precise defensive lethal weapons. And, of course, Ukraine must become stronger economically. Economic growth is the soft power that can convince people to stay in Ukraine.
Q: How would you grow the economy?
A: That’s the Achilles’ heel of Ukraine — a poor and corrupt system of governance. We have to dismantle it. We have to separate politics from business because the real businesses which provide growth are currently victims of corrupt political leaders.
Q: Do you mean Poroshenko?
Poroshenko is the face of this corrupt system of governance. We have to have a new monetary and fiscal policy to provide access to banking credits, which are the major stumbling block for foreign investors — the reason they are not coming here. We have to have a really independent judiciary in Ukraine, which is not the case today. Only then will we be able to attract real foreign direct investments.
Q: Are some oligarchs backing you?
A: Oligarchs never supported me. All my political life, I was fighting with the system of which oligarchs are the main beneficiaries. In every election, they united against me because they understood that if I would win, they would stop profiteering from their proximity to the state budget and their access to Ukraine’s natural resources and economy.
Q: You’re very critical of the International Monetary Fund. Are you against raising the gas price to near market levels as the IMF has demanded?
A: My difference [with the IMF] is that the price of gas should not be established arbitrarily by government decrees but through the market.
Q: What do you think of President Trump? His administration has sold your country lethal weapons.
A: This has to be recognized because his predecessor didn’t provide them despite all our requests and my personal requests. We strongly support the provision of lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine.
Q: Everyone here complains about corruption. Do you share their concern, and what would you do about it?
A: What differentiates me from the incumbent is almost everything. The major difference is that I never have, as he is doing now, mixed business and politics.
Q: He is making money by doing what?
A: By creating preferential state orders [in the defense sector] for the enterprises he owns through corrupt schemes. He puts his proxies in to extract profits, and that’s an open secret in the country. What is disgusting is his recent inclination to cover all these corrupt deeds with super patriotic rhetoric. This is the reason his approval rating is so low. People are not able to understand how this person could be so patriotic when his business in Russia is paying more than $100 million per year in taxes [to Russia]. That’s why today the incumbent has a maximum of 10 percent of support.
Q: And you have a 20 percent following in the polls?
A: The most recent is 23 percent, but the campaign has not yet started. People support me because they know how tough I am on oligarchs, and they believe I could rebuild the economy and minimize corruption.
Q: Will you win?
A: I will win, and Ukraine will be in the E.U. and in NATO, and will be strong and prosperous.