Reporting from Kiev, Ukraine — Five years after he was discounted as Moscow's stooge and shunted to the margins of Ukrainian politics, Viktor Yanukovich has regained his lost prestige -- and then some. To the surprise of many, the towering, plain-spoken politician has emerged as the clear front-runner in the presidential vote to be held Sunday.
His popularity represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes: In 2004, Ukraine's presidential election dissolved into massive street protests and widespread outrage when the Supreme Court ruled that Yanukovich, then the prime minister, had won the election fraudulently. During that campaign, his opponents noted that in his youth, Yanukovich had been arrested and imprisoned twice on robbery and assault charges, although a court expunged the convictions from his record decades ago.
The so-called Orange Revolution swept pro-Western leaders to power and dealt a harsh blow to Moscow's attempts to exert influence on the former Soviet republic.
Yanukovich sat down at his Party of Regions headquarters for an interview with The Times, conducted in Russian.
You were pushed aside angrily after the 2004 elections. Now you're polling ahead of all the candidates. What has changed in Ukraine over the last five years? Why are people supporting you now?
In 2004 there was a campaign against me. I was discriminated against both as a politician and as a person. And this campaign negatively influenced people's opinion of me both outside and inside the country. That campaign was deliberate and very professional, and I didn't manage to defend myself.
But people in the world and in Ukraine have received a lot of information over the last five years that convinced them that everything they were told about me was untrue. And my popularity rating has been constant and growing because my policies were supported by the majority of the Ukrainian nation. You have said that you would keep Ukraine out of NATO, and also that you believe integration into the EU is in Ukraine's strategic interests. Why one and not the other?
Integration into the EU is connected with making the lives of people better: economics, the defense of human rights, the development of the country in the direction of democratic values. This is in the interest of the majority of people, that Ukrainians should enjoy European standards of living. People are also looking for the harmonization of the Ukrainian legal system, to have the same rights and freedoms as in Europe.
Joining NATO, from the point of view of Ukrainians, will politically destabilize us, especially taking into account the closeness of another [Russian-led] defense system on our borders. Ukrainian folk believe that Ukraine must preserve its neutral status, and must not join any military organization. This is proved by polls.
Meanwhile we believe that Ukraine has to build a partnership with NATO using the principles of those EU countries that are not members of NATO. We believe that Ukraine can and must take an active part in the creation of a European collective defense system. And also must support the initiatives of both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. There is a long-standing perception that your ties to Moscow are strong, and you've been a supporter of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. How is your relationship with Russia now?
I've always had a pragmatic, stable relationship with Russia, and it has stayed the same now. I really do think the relations between Ukraine and Russia must be friendly. This is what both the Russian and Ukrainian nations want. Your main competition in this campaign has been [Ukrainian Prime Minister] Yulia Tymoshenko. What is your opinion of Tymoshenko, and what kind of president would she be?
I think that for the last five years, the politics of Tymoshenko have been false. The politics of Tymoshenko and [current President Viktor] Yushchenko brought us economic and political instability in Ukraine, and made the international image of Ukraine suffer around the world. These politics made Ukraine blow up its obligations to the EU and also destabilized relations with Russia. And how would she be as president?
Impossible to forecast. (Laughs) Your critics say that, given the controversy over the 2004 election and your past criminal convictions, you would not be a suitable leader for Ukraine. What is your response? They behave like this to distract the nation's attention from their own false politics. My past is transparent. Everybody knows about it. And the people know about it. Everybody knows. What are your concerns about the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians? What role do language and identity play in Ukraine today?
Russian-speaking Ukrainians are the same Ukrainians as those who speak Ukrainian. They play the same role. We do not distinguish citizens by the language they speak, by faith, by nationality or by which part of Ukraine they live in. They are all citizens of Ukraine who have equal rights.