Yushchenko’s Advice for Zelenskyy
Ukraine’s third president on his struggle to prevent Russian influence in Ukrainian elections, “Macron Syndrome,” and advice for Zelenskyy.
Viktor Yushchenko led Ukraine as it embarked on its path towards Europe nearly twenty years ago, serving as the country's third president since the restoration of its independence in 1991. Wiktor Babinski sat down with the former Ukrainian president and leader of the Orange Revolution to talk about the past, present and future of Ukraine's European aspirations.
Wiktor Babinski: Your life, from the central bank, through premiership and revolution, to the presidency, was marked by a struggle for Europeanization of your newly independent homeland. What is the source of your ambition to make Ukraine European?
Viktor Yushchenko: On the practical side, the primary incentive was the system of rules and institutions that Europe had to offer in the sphere of economics and finance, including the practices of small, medium, and large enterprises, as well as a transparent and competitive market. Europe provided a well-thought-out and coordinated block of various relations. This stood in such contrast to the communist economy with its stupid regulations that bore little relation to reality.
On the more human dimension, the dream of millions of Ukrainians was to be free. Of fundamental importance for us for centuries was the emancipation from serfdom—the very achievement of free will. The freedom of will is what all old Cossack hymns are built on—it is the aspirational basis on which all human relationships are to be built. That is why Europe, with the freedom and democracy that it developed and offered, seems to me both then and now to be the best mechanism for the realization of human potential.
WB: In January 2005, after becoming president of Ukraine in the wake of the Orange Revolution, you spoke to the European Parliament. How did you see Ukraine's path to the European Union then, and what obstacles and challenges did you foresee?
VY: On one hand, there was a feeling of getting ever closer to realizing European integration. On the other hand, I understood clearly that Russia would be a great obstacle on this path. That is why, after the triumph of the Orange Revolution, we had to enshrine European integration as our basic goal. We had to radically change Ukraine’s foreign policy.
To get away from Moscow was an idea promoted by generations of Ukrainian leaders. The most difficult thing in our case, I would say, was building a modern nation-state and a national society. To explain this better I often give the example of the Poles. Over the last one hundred and fifty years, the Poles have built a cohesive, modern national identity that has taken hold across geographies and social classes. Therefore, a Pole can say that Poles are united in all basic aspirations, that there is a national body that consistently understands the internal and external tasks of the Polish nation. This was already true at the end of the 1980s. Thanks to that, after regaining sovereignty the Poles quickly built independence and adopted a system based on freedom and democracy. A few years later, the topic of Poland's western integration came on the agenda, and the nation wholeheartedly supported accession to NATO and the EU, giving its leaders a strong mandate to pursue those goals.
In our case, from the 1990s to 2005 Russia kept Ukrainian politics and the Ukrainian nation in its orbit. We did not have fifteen years of movement toward Europe. So, when in 2004 we put European integration on the agenda, we had to do what the Poles had been doing for 150 years. That is, form a society united around a modern national identity and united in its civilizational aspirations. It was necessary to explain to Ukrainians their identity, and hence their integrity, so that we, as a nation, could become united. We had to convince the people that democratization is a necessary precondition for our prosperity.
Then, it was necessary to create a concrete, measurable road map for Ukraine’s integration into the European family, and to enshrine transatlantic integration as a top foreign policy goal of Ukraine. I often thought that it might be too many tasks for one generation. On many of those issues though, perhaps on all issues, support in the Ukrainian nation grew over time. I am very proud of us, and I am convinced that we have coped with this task. The main goal of 2004 was therefore to turn Ukrainian politics by 180 degrees and to overcome Moscow's resistance to it.
These are roughly the feelings that I tried to convey to the European Parliament. We also watched some European passivity towards Ukraine—it was largely biased toward its relationship with Russia. Some individual European countries did have much stronger relationships with Russia bilaterally than the EU did as a whole. I mean specifically the German infatuation with Putin and Putinism. I also mean Berlusconi, even Sarkozy, and before that Chirac, who recommended to me several times that Ukraine submit to Putin and his wishes. Chirac wrongly considered Ukraine to be an artificial country without its own history, language or culture that could not govern itself and thus needed a “boss” like Putin. It was very insulting. This was the mood in Europe that Ukraine faced. But we managed to create a road map for a visa-free regime in three years, and then a road map for the implementation of four blocks of bilateral relations with the EU, which touched on state economics, public finances, and monetary policy.
WB: In April 2008, during the NATO Bucharest Summit, Ukraine and Georgia were effectively denied membership in the alliance. Four months later Russia invaded Georgia, with little resistance from Washington and Brussels. Do you hold your Western partners responsible for that disaster?
VY: To be more precise, I would say that these are the consequences of a very short-sighted German foreign policy and their first partner in the EU, France. They had a very gray position influenced by Schröderization, which took root not only among the German elite, but also in many institutions of national parliaments across Europe. Unfortunately, those forces that wanted to build their foreign policy based primarily on relations with Russia prevailed in Europe. Personally, I think that today Ukraine, and to some extent also the EU, are paying for this policy.
But new sprouts have now broken through the European asphalt. We see how Europe is beginning to speak with one voice, when in just twelve months the German chancellor became a leader who sees the horizon and declares a fairly consistent policy. This is good to see, although there is another part of Europe that still lives with what I call “Macron Syndrome,” and wishes to negotiate with Russia and find a Korea-type solution for Ukraine.
WB: What was your relationship with Volodymyr Zelenskyy before the war started? Did he turn to you for advice?
VY: We met many years ago at my inauguration. Before the war, we had one meeting where I wanted to pass on advice from my presidential experience. I wanted the new Ukrainian president to be able to form a vision and a strategy to achieve his goals as soon as possible.
Frankly speaking, at the beginning of his presidency, I had some worries about a possible new Ukrainian-Russian rapprochement. Volodymyr Oleksandrovych’s [Zelenskyy’s] desire to meet Putin was very stressful. I had already realized that Putin is a professional con man. He is a liar; you cannot believe a word he says. I was afraid that, with a young Ukrainian president, an incident might happen that would cost us. However, the situation and circumstances were such that [Zelenskyy] quickly understood not only that such a meeting with Putin was undesirable, but it was inadmissible. Now, if you turn on Russian radio or TV, you will hear how it is Russia that wants negotiations, how Russia wants a meeting with Zelenskyy. Think of Lavrov’s recent speech in India, where he said that Russia wants to end the war that Ukraine started, and the whole audience roared in laughter.
Since the war started, I have not met with [Zelenskyy] in person, but I often send messages of support.
WB: In a year, there ought to be parliamentary and presidential elections in Ukraine. It is difficult to conduct them during war, but postponing them indefinitely is also politically problematic. How would you solve this question if it was up to you?
VY: I would follow the path of the [Ukrainian] Constitution, and the Constitution says that when there is a war, no elections are held. Our main efforts should be directed at how to defeat the Russians, how to defeat the occupier. There should be no debates, no inter-party conflicts, no electoral contests—every gram of Ukrainian strength must be directed to Ukrainian victory. To hold elections in some part of the country outside of martial law, that is not occupied, is a very fast road to national misunderstandings and divisions, so no matter what—simply stick to the Constitution.
WB: During the Orange Revolution you maintained a coalition of political forces brought together by the struggle against the government but, after victory, your camp found it politically difficult to stay together and eventually fractured, making it much harder to deliver on the promise of reform. Many fear that after the current war is won, its unique national unity will disappear, and Ukraine will sink into political infighting that will derail reform and reconstruction. What would your advice to President Zelenskyy be?
VY: A little comment about 2004. There were twelve parties in my coalition. That didn’t mean that all of them were on board for European or NATO integration. It only meant that there was one goal that united this large, wobbly mass. We had to win the elections, we had to defeat the regime, which for fifteen years led us closer to Russia. I understood very well that until victory, the twelve political forces would work together. I strongly believe that if we had not won in 2004, we would be a second Belarus today. When it came to developing an economic or a foreign policy program, an obvious question was how one reconciles to one program a movement ranging from socialists to right-wingers. They could not be united on a single policy platform. There are goals that consolidate, and then there are issues than divide. I think that what happened was not uniquely out of the ordinary.
Today, I think that [Zelenskyy] has support that no other Ukrainian president has had. Remember that this is the first candidate who went to the polls without a program. But the circumstances, and especially the Russian aggression, consolidated the nation so much that we wanted the image of the president to be that focal point around which the nation should be united. This phenomenon is very strange for a society as diverse and complex as Ukraine. Hence, in the next election after the victory, I think that the current president will have a lot of assets that can be directed to win the election and to maintain stability in the country. For now, my outlook on those things is quite bright.
WB: Are you optimistic that Ukraine will join the European Union and NATO?
VY: I am optimistic. The tone of the conversation in the European family and in the NATO alliance on these issues is changing. There are echoes that are not entirely pleasant but overall, the tone toward Ukraine has seriously changed for the better.
WB: When do you think that will happen?
VY: I want it to happen now. I don't think it will be that fast though. Both in the European family and in the alliance there are still people under Putin's influence who will take a conservative position for a long time, and who will have great difficulty changing to a more promising position. This is also due to the bargaining process within the European family and the alliance. Hence, this is not entirely a question of Ukraine doing its homework, though in that respect I have no doubt we will be able to do whatever we need to do.
WB: How has Ukrainian society and politics changed since you were president?
VY: Starting in 2005, we introduced lasting changes into Ukrainian politics and the basic aspirations of our society. If you take any president that came after me, you will see that the goals we set for Ukraine since 2005 are still fundamental to their rhetoric. Even Yanukovych had to at least pay lip service to NATO and European integration, even though in the end he retreated on the latter. My point is that, setting Yanukovych aside, each president of Ukraine continued to implement this program very consistently.
Today we have achieved a consolidation that Ukrainian society has never had before. Our society is committed to democracy and freedom. We have confirmed dozens of times during these past fifteen years that this is now our way of thinking. We work well as one society, we feel like citizens, which means that we live in an open society, and we understand our duty to it.
WB: Some in Brussels now look at Ukraine today as nothing less than an opportunity to rejuvenate the European project. How would you say the European Union's view of Ukraine has changed since 2004?
VY: I think that Ukraine has shown itself to be a potentially unique member of the European community. We demonstrate an example of struggle in the defense of freedom and democracy. I can claim today that there was no demonstration in Europe where there were more European flags than at our Maidan. Such respect for the European flag—idealization of the EU—as Ukraine has done for the last fifteen years, you will find nowhere else in Europe. This is a demonstration of devotion to ideas and ideals and of how much we are ready to sacrifice to achieve this goal.
Take a look at the battlefield today. We demonstrate the courage and skills which could become an ideal model for military and political operations in Europe. This is how a European should act, and we say that we are fighting for Europe. Listen to any interview of Putin. Everywhere he says that his military operation is difficult because Russia is at war with Europe, Russia is at war with NATO. He is lying. He understands that he has met a military force with extremely high morale, and in a war this is a key thing. If you have spirit, you will win. It doesn't matter whether you have the S-300 or S-500 missile system. Hence, I definitely think that today, Ukraine is already a country and a nation of the European standard.
Wiktor Babinski is a graduate student studying History at Yale University. He would like to thank Kateryna Yushchenko and Maryna Antonova for their invaluable help in conducting this interview.
Viktor Yushchenko is a Ukrainian politician who was the third president of Ukraine from January 2005 to February 2010.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe