Interview with Leonid Kuchma

The idea of joining NATO is no longer popular in Ukraine because people cannot understand how NATO’s main opponent – Russia – could possibly be a strategic partner and a potential enemy for Ukraine at the same time, says the former

RT: When we met the last time about a year ago Ukraine was experiencing political turmoil. Now, the same situation is happening. Why do you think Ukraine sees such political turmoil every year?

Leonid Kuchma: It could be predicted judging by the actions of the new authorities, the “orange” authorities, starting from 2005 when they first turned away from Russia and from the CIS towards the West. Those were the years of lost opportunities, because we have absolutely different perspectives on such issues as NATO, problems connected with the Russian language and relations with our main strategic partner – Russia. So such a result was quite predictable. When there is no consent and no mutual trust, as is the case with the Russian Federation now, hard-hitting statements regarding Ukraine appear. Twice there were promises to be “together forever”, and the very next day after signing memorandums and coming to power, great differences started to appear. And if there is no agreement in the family, this family is fragile and breakup is inevitable. So, two marriages were followed by two divorces in our countries’ relations. How can anything positive be done in such conditions? And when the world looks at an unstable country, there is no serious capital investment.

RT: Right now the world is experiencing a market crisis. How do you think it affects Ukraine?

L.K.: We’ve led our economy into a situation from which nobody knows a way out. The measures which have been taken are more of a “kindergarten” level. Our external debt at present exceeds one hundred billion dollars. Today Ukraine imports more than it exports, while at the end of 2004 the surplus was $4 billion, and now the deficit is equal to that. This is the result of our government’s policies. We all see how the world and some certain countries attempt to overcome this crisis. First of all they lessen the tax burden on the real economy, they invest state funds into the real economy. Even if we look at Russia – it refinances the banking system, which is the backbone of the economy, the banks then put the money back into the economy. As for our banking system, we reinvested in it but what did they do? They bought dollars, and who benefited from that?

RT: As we know in 2008 Ukraine joined the WTO. How important was it for the country?

L.K.: The main work on joining the WTO was done earlier. Actually those who are credited with it today hampered this process at that time. Neither the “Our Ukraine” party, nor the “Bloc of Yulia Timoshenko” voted for any laws that were required as conditions of entering the WTO. And only when they came to power and changed those laws themselves, and not for the better, we found ourselves in the WTO. Under what conditions did they admit us? As far as I know we were in such a hurry to enter the WTO that we took upon ourselves some really enslaving conditions, in agriculture for example. In aviation we agreed to some zero rates.

RT: During your two terms as a president the question of Ukraine joining NATO was raised just once, now it has become the top priority in the country’s foreign policy. However many experts believe that during your presidency the public support of the idea to join NATO was higher than now. Why do you think the public support has diminished ever since president Yushchenko has been at power?

L.K.: The main reason is that the government played on our contrasting relationship with Russia. When we first raised the question of co-operation with NATO, we were honest with our Russian counterparts. Russia’s level of co-operation with NATO was much higher than Ukraine’s. It is not a secret, and Russia admits it. So when someone in Russia was saying that Ukraine could not deal with NATO, I always replied that this could not be based on the assumption that “Russia can, and Ukraine must co-operate with NATO through Russia”. This is absurd, especially if we are strategic partners. We reached an agreement on that. It’s stipulated in the documents that our partnership with NATO should always take into consideration the interests of the Russian Federation as our strategic partner. When Viktor Yushchenko came to power, he launched a very straightforward policy that can be narrowed down to this – “we don’t know the East, we don’t know about relations with Russia, there is only one way for us, which is to join NATO, since it’s in the interest of our national security.” We’ve always said that we should never consider the Russian Federation as a potential enemy – and we never really had reason to. It’s totally absurd. This is still my opinion. People see that there are two levels of relations – one of the ruling power and of the previous one. One power said that Russia’s a strategic partner; the other says that Russia is a potential enemy. People can’t comprehend this. That’s why there was a sharp decline in the number of supporters to join NATO.

RT: Given the recent meeting in Brussels, when Ukraine was not given the membership action plan, how realistic do you think the chances of the country joining the organization?

L.K.: Even before Bush came here, and before he went to Romania, I said that the decision would definitely not be positive. The world is different now, it’s changed. There is no unipolar world any more, with its center in Washington. Washington used to dictate its policies to the Europeans. The Europeans want to have very close political and economic ties with the Russian Federation. They don’t want a cold war. I don’t see the NATO conversation going back to a serious platform anytime in the near future. There are no grounds for that. Moreover, we see what state Ukraine is in at the moment. It’ll take more than one or two years to get out of this crisis. To count on it in December, when we are in such a crisis… Crisis – that’s to put it mildly. The crisis is political, economical, and financial, and it is in the banking system. We only have to pronounce “default”, to top the list. So, to think that NATO will give a membership action plan to Ukraine in such a state of things… of course it won’t.

RT: There is an opinion in Ukraine that the August events in Georgia spoiled relations between Russia and Ukraine. Do you think this is true?

L.K.: Well, I think it was like that during the first days, because the information presented by our mass-media showed Russia as an aggressor. When the truth started to come out, what came first and what came second, when Europe changed its position in regards to Georgia as well – although it doesn’t welcome and will not accept those new nations. Europe and the USA created a precedent by recognizing Kosovo’s independence. So, how can they do it and why can’t Russia do the same by acknowledging South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Now the situation has changed. I don’t think there are many supporters of the ideology, which is being advocated by our authorities. Surely, Ukraine should have taken part but only as a mediator. We could have offered to play that role. But to categorically take one side on the 2nd day of the conflict, not knowing what really happened there – this doesn’t do much credit to our government.

RT: In your opinion, how should Ukraine build its relations with Russia? And how strongly does Russia need Ukraine and Ukraine need Russia?

L.K.: Ukraine without Russia is a zero. I can prove it. First of all, from the point of view of partnership in the area of high technologies. At the beginning of this conversation I mentioned aviation. Ukraine cannot produce a plane without Russia. Intellectual property is in the 50/50 ratio. The same goes for missile technology, etc. The Russian market is huge. Why is the West trying to get in it, pushing everyone around, but Ukraine says – “no, we don’t need it”? That’s probably why the West loves us – we voluntarily give things away, we tell them: “please, go ahead, we let you have our place”. I understand perfectly well how important Ukraine is for Russia as a whole. It is a transit country – its gas and oil pipelines, its Ukrainian sea ports. All this is important for Russia.

As for the recent political events, the leadership in Kiev doesn’t give us an opportunity to talk about a long-term perspective of partnership with the Russian Federation.