Amid what the West fears as a politically motivated witch hunt, Ukrainian prosecutors have charged former prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko with misusing about $500 million in state funds. If convicted, she faces prison time and disqualification from future elections. Tymoshenko spoke with NEWSWEEK’s William Schreiber about what she describes as a Soviet-style crackdown on opposition.
Does Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych want you in prison?
In the Soviet Union, jails and prison camps were weapons to fight against honest political competition. Unfortunately for Ukraine, President Yanukovych has brought those Soviet traditions back with him. Yet he deserves some appreciation. During his first year in office, he checked every document I signed, every money transfer, every decision by the government. After devoting an entire year to this enormous project, he discovered one crime—during the economic crisis I paid pensions, according to him, from funds marked for environmental use by the Kyoto Protocol. That’s not true. The Kyoto money stayed in the government account.
Whose pensions are we talking about?
Pensions were paid to everyday Ukrainians, those who have been giving their life to this country for decades. Those in power today are well versed in the shadow economy but unfortunately not so adept at public finance. They confused the budget accounts. Talking with them, I realized they simply don’t know basic public finance. These accusations have a clear political motive. They aim to stop my participation in elections.
What should the U.S. and EU do to support democracy in Ukraine?
There is a double standard in the West. Some countries with despotic leaders are excused because their countries have stability. There’s an unfortunate bit of conventional wisdom: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he is a predictable and stable son of a bitch.” I’d like to question the West’s definition of stability. I don’t want others to look at Ukraine through a prism of their cooperation with the Russian Federation. Ukraine shouldn’t become a pawn in relations between the West and Russia.
Is it possible to run government in Ukraine without corruption?
I’d like to stop these accusations. They say all politicians in Ukraine are corrupt. If I were the same kind of politician as they are, they wouldn’t have been fighting against me so passionately for so many years. Yanukovych’s investigation of me proved that even when the lower levels are immersed in corruption, the prime minister can avoid it.
How will you reach out to Ukrainians disillusioned by the Orange government?
For the last 20 years there was a tendency in Ukraine to unite around individuals. We want society united around strong ideas instead. Our party is modernizing, exploring new ways to bring people information and to help them organize—despite the information blockade in today’s Ukraine. Yanukovych is wrong to suppose he can stop this process with a prison sentence.
You’ve said your prison term during the ’90s profoundly shaped you. How would returning there affect you?
I’m not the least bit interested in where Yulia Tymoshenko is going. I’m more worried about the future direction of Ukraine. Now and then, Yanukovych representatives feign concern, proposing I leave the country. They say this will protect me from arrest. I gave them a public answer: I’m not going to leave my country, I’m not going to run away scared.
What is the legacy of the Orange Revolution?
My hope is the Orange Revolution—no matter how it was criticized—changed Ukraine and its people for good. I hope Ukraine won’t stand for this “controlled democracy” forever. Ukraine won’t be an easy place to enforce authoritarianism. There are no other post-Soviet countries where a thousand journalists could start a movement against censorship. There are no other post-Soviet countries where small-business owners would protest in the streets … We Ukrainians are a stubborn people.