In his first interview following the decision by Ukraine's Supreme Court to invalidate the Nov. 21 run-off vote, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko spoke exclusively to NBC's Jim Maceda Saturday.
Jim Maceda: Mr. Yushchenko, obviously there was a personal victory for you last night, but explain to us how it is a win for Ukraine, given that the country is now deeply scarred and deeply divided.
Viktor Yushchenko: First of all it's a myth that Ukraine is split in two. It's a myth that the authorities propagate. It's not the only myth they propagate. They say Ukraine is split between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers; that the people are split between those who want to see integration with the East and those who want to see it with the West, toward European values; between people of one religious denomination or another. That's all part of the issue of human rights. People have the right to choose their language, their faith, to live where they want. These are not issues that should lead to conflict. For the past 14 years, government authorities have worked in the shadows, and the basic principle has been to divide and conquer. If you do divide society, then you are going to keep power. So for the last 4 or 5 years, we've seen the rise of billionaires who are among the top 100 richest people in Europe. And those typically are government employees, not businessmen. They are people who are stealing. But this shadowy economic policy is possible when you have apolitical process that operates in the shadows, when the country is divided, when you don't have a civil society, when the people are simply a means to an end.
These last 10 to 12 days have demonstrated one thing: we do have a civil society in the Ukraine. We're talking about the citizens. They want to be able to choose freely, and they've learned to defend their choices. And as to this question of victory, I would say this: until yesterday we had a good political component of victory. We had the parliament's decision on our side about the sacking of the government, about failing to recognize the election results, as well as the show of no-confidence in the Central Elections Commission. Those are good political gains. But we didn't have a legal decision. And yesterday's decision by the court really gave us some muscle; it brought our whole position together. So today we are very optimistic about resolving the political crisis in the Ukraine.
JM: You say you are very optimistic, do you believe your political victory in the December 26th election is guaranteed or are you going to be facing an uphill battle, a difficult challenge just to win now?
VY: Of course we'll have to fight. December 26th won't be a gift from the authorities. From here until election day there is much to be done, including passing the changes that the parliament has put forward about presidential elections. Specifically, on the 26th, against the use of illegal absentee ballots, because that was one of the main means of fraud during the election. Also, we need to eliminate the voting from home: that was another means of enormous fraud. Thirdly, we need to change the makeup of the local election commissions. We need to get all of that passed before the 26th.
JM: Beyond those technical issues, how do you win the trust of almost half of the country who still consider you to have usurped their man's position, Yanukovich's position. How do you deal with that? How do you win those people over?
VY: Any country faces this very same dilemma: in the US, where someone gets 50% and someone gets 49%, France, Great Britain, Germany. All these countries find an answer to this issue. Of course we're talking about a conditional divide here that is easy to remove over time through various initiatives. My position is that we have to propose to Ukraine's political elite that we hold a round-table where we find common ground.
We are not enemies. We're all citizens of the Ukraine. If the Ukraine is the most important thing to all of us, then everything else is insignificant. I think we'll find a compromise in regards to various party factions and our general view of history, including financial history. So we won't have aggressive confrontation. And we will employ the energy of thousands of people to improve our life here. We will live by compromise.
JM: It is true that many Western democracies split their votes, my country included, 51 to 49 percent, that is not very uncommon. There are very few countries where the 49 is being backed by Russia and the 46.5 is being backed by the U.S. and Europe. Do you see Ukraine as a battleground for a new kind of Cold War? Do you buy that kind of characterization? Is there an iron curtain running down the center of Ukraine?
VY: That is a real exaggeration. I really know my country and my people. I, by the way, was born in Eastern Ukraine, just a few dozen miles from the Russian border. My mentality, my rearing, my culture, is tied to a great degree to Eastern Ukraine. But Western and Central Ukraine support me. I won in 17 regions of the country and no president has ever won that many regions in the history of our country. Kuchma won 14 regions, and there was no split then. I won in 17, and I'm convinced it would have been easily 20 or 21 regions without widespread fraud. I really believe there is no basis to speak of 2 Ukraines. This weakness is just being exploited by the authorities. Yes, we've had separate histories. Eastern Ukraine was under the control of the Russian empire for 350 years, and the western Ukraine was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian and Polish and so on. But that's in the past. I didn't live back then and 47 million other Ukranians didn't live back then either. I'm convinced that that less than anything influences our present and future. The most important thing is that we don't have contradictions. Every country has its history and it's not always pleasant. It's history that you don't always want to talk about. But it's just history.
JM: Mr. Putin seems to have put his prestige on the line to back your rival. It seems he's isolated himself in eyes of the world, defending the election even though so many international observers came out calling it fraudulent. He can't be a very happy man this week. If you win the presidency, how do you see your personal relations with Mr. Putin and how do you see your country's relations with Russia developing?
VY: First, I want to talk about the interests of state, of my country. And they consist of this: Russia is a large country which is an important market for Ukraine; a country with which Ukraine has long-running and complex relations; a country that is a neighbor to Ukraine. And the first commandment is - always live in accord with your neighbors. And that will be my policy and the policy of my government. I am convinced that Russia is our partner, our strategic partner. We must take each other's interests into account. We must understand the interests of other countries, not damaging each other, but enhancing each other. But that does not mean that Ukraine does not have the right to achieve European integration and realize its interests in the world.
JM: You've received some implicit and explicit support from the U.S. administration. President Bush has said very positive things about your movement and about the future of this country. What message would you have for the American people and specifically George Bush at this time?
VY: These last two or three weeks we have felt intense attention of the world, watching the events that are developing in Ukraine. We understand that the Ukrainian presidential elections are exclusively an internal issue for Ukraine. It's a question that 47 million Ukrainians will decide, not Moscow, not Washington, not Warsaw and not Brussels. I believe there is little they can say to assist us. Especially as a politician and citizen of this country, I want to say clearly that I am fortunate to have lived to the point where the president of Ukraine is being chosen here in Ukraine.
On the other hand, we are witnesses of how the Ukrainian authorities over the last 10 years has put together a regime that has suppressed freedom of speech. And I believe that one of the fundamental rights is the right to choose. Human rights never took precedence here so when you're talking about our elections in terms following the principle of equality, transparency and freedom that is when international support becomes very important. It's important that our colleagues, almost all of them with a few individual exceptions, understand this: you shouldn't support individual candidates but the democratic process. That's what Ukraine needs more than anything else. So I applaud the position of the U.S. administration, the wonderful decision of the EU, the evaluations that leaders of various states and governments have given us on a bilateral level. That's what Ukraine wanted to hear and that is what gives strength to the people out in the streets, and on Independence Square.
JM: It's impossible not to have noticed the change in your appearance over the past number of months. What do you think happened to you?
VY: This is not rhetoric. This is a case of poisoning, the goal of which is to take me out of the political race. Thanks to medical research today, we are now getting to the source of what poisons were used.
JM: Was it dioxin poison?
VY: Very soon official results will be released by the hospital where I'm being treated, so I would prefer to allow the doctors to release that. But that is all in the past. I'm undergoing very intensive therapy right now, and I hope that the outcome will be positive. It is not life-threatening.