Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

West need not fear Ukraine's ties with Russia, says new leader

The Daily Telegraph, 15th February 2010 11:12

By Andrew Osbornin Kiev

UKRAINE'S new president has told the West it has nothing to fear from him despite his plan to strengthen the country's ties with Russia.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, his first given to a Western newspaper since his election victory this month, Viktor Yanukovych laughed off the idea that he was a Kremlin stooge.

He said the West would benefit from his new position and even promised to end the threats to Russian gas supplies that flow through his country to Europe.

Mr Yanukovych, 59, a former Communist party member and a twice-convicted felon, narrowly defeated the country's prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, at the ballot box earlier this month.

"I have drawn deep conclusions from the mistakes I have made in the past,'' he said. "The truth is that I am on Ukraine's side. I want balanced and pragmatic relations with our strategic partners.''

Mrs Tymoshenko yesterday repeated allegations that Mr Yanukovych had cheated his way to the presidency and said she would make a legal challenge. But the international community has widely recognised Mr Yanukovych's victory as legitimate and Ukraine's central election commission has said it will not consider Mrs Tymoshenko's challenge.

Mr Yanukovych is expected to force her resignation from the premiership as early as this week as he moves to consolidate his grip on what is a strategically vital gas-transit country sandwiched between Russia and the West.

His victory caps a remarkable and unlikely political comeback. Five years ago mass protests triggered what came to be known as the Orange Revolution, a series of events that saw Mr Yanukovych stripped of an election win tainted by fraud and cast into the political wilderness.

Backed by some of the country's extremely wealthy oligarchs and coached by a team of American spin doctors, Mr Yanukovych has gradually clawed his way back.

Dressed in a dark suit and with carefully coiffed, Soviet-style swept-back hair, he insisted he does not hold a grudge against America even though he said he was convinced that Washington helped engineer the 2004 Orange Revolution.

"Today (America's involvement) is not a secret. It was known and understood a long time ago. But we have already turned a new page and are looking to the future,'' he said. The policy of George W Bush, the former US president, of spreading US-style democracy was dead and buried. "Attempts to foist political views on any people cause people's lives to get worse. It is a policy that does not lead to trust or success,'' he said.

Europe could be reassured that Ukraine would not get embroiled in any repeat of the spats with Russia that have caused serious gas shortages in Europe in recent years, he added.

"When I was prime minister on two different occasions we never had such problems,'' he said. "People did not even know it was possible to have such problems in Europe.

"The conflicts were unjustified and relations with Russia over-politicised. Ukraine can play a stabilising role in many questions between Europe and Russia.''

While craving warmer relations with the West, Mr Yanukovych made no secret of the fact that his priority was to rebuild battered relations with Russia.

He wanted to help Russia get into the World Trade Organisation and has said he will consider allowing Russia's Black Sea Fleet to remain based in Ukraine after its lease runs out in 2017.

He also wanted the Russian language to be given equal or near equal status with Ukrainian, the country's current sole state language.

"We need to improve our ties with brotherly countries such as Russia,'' he said. He will have an early opportunity to show where his loyalties lie when he makes his first foreign trip as president. Like Ukraine itself, he will have to make a symbolic yet fateful choice: Russia or Europe.