After months of bickering with his archrival, Ukraine's pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Western-backed President Viktor Yushchenko dissolved Parliament on April 2 and called snap elections in order to breathe life back into the deadlocked government. Now former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko—a charismatic leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution who remains a hugely popular opposition M.P. —has set aside past differences and is coming to Yushchenko's rescue. Tymoshenko says she will reunite with the president to help him bring Ukraine closer to NATO and the EU—while breaking free of the Kremlin's influence. NEWSWEEK's Anna Nemtsova spoke to the 47-year-old Tymoshenko in Kiev. Excerpts:
Is this all about Russia's influence over Ukraine?
The president's decision to call new elections was the only way to save Ukraine from Russia. For a long time now, the Kremlin has refused to allow us to set our own course and done everything it can to keep Ukraine under its control. Ukraine's dependence on Russian energy supplies has been used very effectively by Moscow to pressure us. And today we are seeing a gangster-like takeover of Ukraine's state energy company. This is all done in order to control Ukraine. It's a deliberate policy coordinated between Moscow and our own pro-Moscow politicians.
Do you mean Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych? Is he the Kremlin's proxy?
Russia has grabbed Yanukovych by the throat. They don't let him take a step to the left or right without their say-so. Every time he has tried to step away from the path Russia originally drew for him—for example, when he refused to fire the [pro-Western] foreign minister and Defense minister—he immediately feels the Russians' embrace go freezing cold. They remind him all the time whose son, whose child, he is.
Yet Kiev is full of Yanukovych supporters today.
Indeed. Thirty percent of voters in Ukraine want to return to their Soviet past. So they close their eyes to Yanukovych's criminal record, to the fact that he came to power with the support of shadowy business clans. In the last election he campaigned on an anti-Western ticket, promising Ukrainians to reconstruct the Soviet Union. But that is impossible.
Soon, Yanukovych's supporters will realize that he cannot deliver on his promises. He will be a naked king.
How do you propose to reduce Russia's influence?
Before every past election, Ukrainian politicians sought some kind of blessing from outside our country. Later they had to pay back the power they sold their souls to. I want to break that bad habit. I want our politicians to realize that this path has no future, as the so-called support we get from Russia is empty. Once we accept dependence we are unable to make decisions in our own country. I do not want the West to read my words as being unfriendly towards Russia. Rather, I believe that Russia and Ukraine can have a balanced relationship. But I will never support the scenario in which Russia constantly plays the role of a dominating power.
You've criticized President Viktor Yushchenko in the past for "betraying the democratic principles of the Orange Revolution." Are you really ready to put your quarrels aside?
Yushchenko is not a weak politician any longer. He demonstrated enormous political courage by dissolving the Parliament. Like any other politician, Yushchenko made many mistakes. But I am convinced that through his last decision he corrected most of them.
Many powerful businessmen wield political clout in Ukraine. How will you tackle them?
Pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians who quote Russian ideas and share Russian ambitions sold out to big businessmen. Old-guard politicians like them came to power just to grab as much property as they could. These politicians just promise everybody whatever they want in order to get into power. That's the opposite of what a politician should do—which is think strategically for the best interests of his country.
The United States has plans to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. How will this affect the region's politics?
Both Poland and the Czech Republic have their own sovereign right to either agree or disagree with the American idea to install missiles in their countries. As far as I know, there is no talk of American systems being installed in Ukraine.
Who is winning the battle for Ukraine's hearts and minds?
Ukraine should not be a battlefield between the West and Russia. We can find common language with both. Once we win and get power, we'll find the way to defend both Russian and Western interests in Ukraine. Both the West and Russia should accept that the moment for independent politicians in Ukraine has arrived. We will be devoted only to our own people.