Exclusive: Interview with Viktor Yushchenko, Former President of Ukraine

An exclusive conversation with Viktor Yushchenko, former President of Ukraine during his visit to NYUAD.

Dec 03, 2017

ukraine Photo by Veronika Radinovska

Viktor Yushchenko, the third President of Ukraine, and his wife, Kateryna Yushchenko, visited NYU Abu Dhabi on Nov. 13. In a talk he gave on campus, organized by the Ukrainian Student Interest Group and moderated by Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Leonid Peisakhin, Former President Yushchenko spoke about the challenges of modern Ukraine as a fledgling nation as well as some general reflections on contemporary European politics. Following his speech, Yushchenko answered questions from The Gazelle in an exclusive interview, elaborating on international institutions and Ukraine’s future.

TG: What do you think about educational institutions that bring students from countries that are in conflict into a cooperative academic environment like NYUAD? Do you think these institutions may have a beneficial impact on long-term solutions to long-lasting state hostilities like those shared between India and Pakistan or Russia and Ukraine?*

VY: I sincerely hope that internationally-oriented educational institutions like NYUAD, as well as increased global mobility, communication and exchange, will help promote greater understanding. Throughout the world you can find regional conflicts that have existed for centuries and cannot be resolved quickly or easily. It takes the will of leaders and citizens who are willing to sit down together [to] look at their past in a clear-headed and public manner and come to some mutually beneficial understanding as to what their countries need to do to move forward constructively and peacefully.

Let me give you an example. For centuries, Ukraine and Poland have lived in conflict — much blood has been spilled, [and] there were crimes and prejudices on both sides. Many people living today can remember a relative who suffered or died in this conflict. But for two decades, starting with Presidents Kwasniewski of Poland and Kuchma of Ukraine, then continuing under my presidency when I worked closely with Presidents Kwasniewski and Kachinski, our countries came together to find mutual understanding. Our scholars worked together on books on the same eras of history, they supported each other’s efforts, they held discussions and conferences. Occasionally, we faced protests and misunderstandings, accusations from our own citizens that we should not be honoring each other’s victims, but we strongly felt that in order to put the past behind us, to “close the book” on our conflicts, we needed to understand and respect each other, that our scholars should play a role, and that our citizens needed to communicate and work together. Poland became Ukraine's strongest ally and friend. This is a process we need to continue to pursue with Poland and with other neighbors. But to do so, both sides must have strong leaders, not populists, willing to come to the table — leaders who wish to build, not destroy.

TG: In your speech, you mentioned that as an economist, you see that Ukraine has a [lot of] potential for growth. In your opinion, how has the geopolitical situation in the country influenced Ukrainian economic growth for the past 15 years? Where do you see it changing in the future?*

VY: When I became President in 2005, one of my top priorities was foreign investment that would bring jobs, training and economic growth; we saw about $1 billion entering our economy every month. We pursued a path of European integration, increased exports and worked to improve education, health and social services. We held democratic elections and ensured free speech and press.

Unfortunately, Ukraine's economic growth was stymied by a number of factors: Our Soviet legacy of state ownership and lack of private initiative, our great reliance on Russian energy and the political and economic blackmail and corruption that accompanied it, the general economic downturn in 2008 and the war waged against Ukraine by Moscow. This was first a hybrid war, ongoing since 2000, to undermine our political and economic system that then turned into a hot war. Now we are dealing not only with the loss of thousands of lives and a significant portion of our territory, but also close to two million displaced people in our country. All of this has caused many of our best and brightest to emigrate to find new opportunities.

I hope that Ukraine will soon become a place where they will want to return, invest and build. The good news is that some really bright young people, both Ukrainian and foreign, are coming to Ukraine now and seeing its opportunities, creating innovative and promising start-ups and NGOs. Our younger generation is building small and medium-sized businesses and selling really innovative products and services abroad, [and] it is creating a civil society to support much-needed reforms.

TG: Does it make a difference, especially with your experience in Ukraine, if aspiring public servants study outside of their home country? What is the importance of English in international interactions?*

VY: We now have tens of thousands of students studying abroad and if they come back — and I pray they will — they will be an amazing resource for Ukraine. They will build a new prosperous economy, a new and uncorrupted political system, a society that will be creative, just, socially-conscious and innovative. They will not only lead Ukraine, but also help to find solutions to many global concerns.

English has become a world language and it is essential for today's students to know it well, alongside their own language and other languages. In some ways, English is like a common currency that everyone has agreed to use because it is efficient. But they should not forget their own languages and cultures, which hold the history and the genetic code of their nations and cultures and make the world a very interesting and stimulating place. Globalization does not mean one culture and language, but rather a beautiful mosaic of many languages and cultures communicating and cooperating through effective instruments, such as common languages, currency, communications and technology. English has become that common language.

TG: You mentioned that people in Ukraine could be born, live, study and work in Ukraine without using the Ukrainian language. What do you think is the future of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine, specifically in the Eastern part of the country where the Russian Orthodox church had a big influence?*

VY: Language has two missions. First, it creates the fundamental identity of a nation, it consolidates and unites a people with a common history and culture. Second, it is a method of communication within a country and between countries. Ukraine's policy on language has always been to allow both missions to flourish — we support and promote our state language, a language that has been banned and denigrated for centuries, [and] we remember and promote our literature, while at the same time we not only allow but also support the use of all other languages within our borders. Every human being grows intellectually and socially with every language he or she learns. We have never forbidden the use of other languages within our country — just the opposite, we have welcomed their growth. But we want our language to become the common one used for state communication and education. This is a gradual but important process, and it is one to be decided by our democratically-elected government, not by foreign intervention, whether it be by armed intervention, the church or media.

TG: You also mentioned that the E.U. does not have the right means and geopolitical instruments to solve the Ukrainian/Russian conflict. What do you mean by geopolitical instruments? How could they be used to mediate peace, and why?*

VY: Until now, the world has largely viewed the war in Ukraine as an internal conflict. This view is mistaken and [it] ignores the fact that Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by Russia, both in Crimea and Donbas[, two regions in Eastern Ukraine]. It is important that the world recognizes this war as a geopolitical issue that threatens European security and, by the illegal change of borders and territorial integrity, upends the world order created after World War II. Similarly, the world often turns a blind eye to the other conflicts on the eastern borders of Europe — in Transdniester, Nogorno-Karabakh, Ossetia and Abkhazia, all caused and financed by the Kremlin.

When I speak of geopolitical instruments, I mean establishing the most appropriate international format for conflict resolution, which places all involved parties at the same table. It is absurd that the Russian Federation is not a participant in the current Minsk negotiations, that it is not recognized as an aggressor, that it can even participate in other operations as a so-called peace keeper in Ukraine.

In 1994, in the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine gave up the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world — larger than that of England, France and China combined — in return for a promise signed by the U.S., Britain and Russia, later joined by China and France, that they would honor and guarantee our independence and territorial integrity. We feel that the world has not held up its side of the bargain and that the signers need now to participate more forcefully in mediating the de-occupation of Ukraine. They also need to understand the threats posed by the ever-increasing numbers of border conflicts created by Russia and its interference in the Middle East, Europe and even the U.S.

Herbert Crowther is Deputy News Editor and Hind Ait Mout is staff writer. Email them at [email protected]

Gazelle Logo