Against the backdrop of escalating violence, the candidates for Ukraine's next president have taken to the airwaves to appeal to a fractured, rattled people.
Friday marks the seventh and final debate before Sunday's watershed election, featuring Yulia Tymoshenko of the leading Batkivshchyna party (and hairbraid fame) and independent politicians Serhiy Tigipko and Valeriy Konovalyuk.
Earlier this month, Konovalyuk, traveled to Washington, where he met with 11 members of Congress, to rally support in the U.S. — and his electorate — for Ukraine's fight against Russia. The politician led the Konovalyuk Commission of the Ukrainian parliament in 2008, which was created to investigate arms exports during the South Ossetia War.
Konovalyuk's campaign promises echo the platforms of the rest of candidates: Keep the country together, fix the economy, bash the interim government, and resist Russia. The candidate (and a translator) sat down with National Journal during his recent trip, offering a glimpse into the turbulent political climate of Ukraine — and its uncertain future.
"I heard that they don't even know where Ukraine is located on the map," Konovalyuk, who is from the eastern city of Donetsk, said of American readers.
In this lightly condensed conversation, Konovalyuk spoke in Russian. Russian's status as a regional and not national language of Ukraine has been the subject of controversy since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
What do you think about what's happening in your country?
Russia is interested now in continuous destabilization of the situation because it feels that is losing control over Ukraine. And the new government over the past two months have committed a number of strategic mistakes that only increase the social opposition, and that has led to violence and bloodshed, especially in eastern parts of the country. The government ignored their opinions and demands. There has been no compromise, no attempts to seek solutions, and we're talking about millions of people living in that part of the country. And of course Russia, no doubt, is using these mistakes to their advantage.
You served as an adviser to ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010, but resigned two years later. Why did you leave his office?
Because I was against his policies and actions. Because I was against the rampant corruptions that drove our country to the brink of bankruptcy. And I certainly did not applaud the fact that he did not fulfill even 10 percent of the promises that he made when he was running for president. [Konovalyuk said his platform is, however, the same as the one Yanukovych ran on.]
Russia wants to keep Western influence out of its backyard. What kind of relationship should Ukraine have with the European Union and NATO?
I believe that one of the main reasons for the current conflict is that Russia is afraid that NATO is encroaching closer and closer to its borders. In a new constitution, Ukraine must very clearly state its status as a non-aligned state. This will allow us to diffuse the tension with Russia.
Is staying "non-aligned" realistic in the long run, though?
Otherwise I am afraid that the world will roll back to the day of the Cold War, that the conflict will only escalate, and that we will negate the results of the cooperation that the U.S. and Russia have enjoyed for the past 15 to 20 years in important areas like terrorism reduction and nuclear disarmament of Iran and weapons in Syria. We, together with the Russians, have a proverb that "bad peace is better than a good war."
What do you think of U.S. involvement in the ongoing crisis?
Ukraine now needs a kind of a Marshall Plan. Cooperation with the International Monetary Fund is no longer enough. Over the past two months, both State Secretary [John] Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden visited Ukraine. And after their visits, the confrontation has only escalated. Maybe the time has come for both Russia and the United States to take equal steps back away from Ukraine to give it space to solve its own internal problems. If Presidents Obama and Putin were to sit down to an informal meeting and open between them a bottle of fine French wine and talked like real men — I think the world would sigh with relief if that were to happen.
What about U.S. sanctions against Russia?
They would only automatically make things worse, not only for Russia, but for the European Union as well. For many countries, it could really have dire consequences. It's very important that Ukraine does not become the reason for the spread of a new financial crisis in the world.
What fixes would you prescribe for Ukraine's economy? And its dependence on Russian energy?
We need an overhaul of the tax code, tax reforms that would allow us to attract foreign investments, and a new system for financial control over budget expenditures that would allow us to control corruption much better.
Over the years, we actually could have addressed this problem by improving energy efficiency and lowering energy expenditures of our industries. Ukraine uses as much natural gas as Germany, and Ukraine has half the population of Germany. The production using this energy is very outdated. People are not motivated to reduce energy consumption.
Can you explain what many are calling the "psychology" of Putin, from your perspective?
His motivations are quite obvious. He is trying to bring back to some degree the old Soviet days. He's trying to increase the geopolitical weight of Russia and to continue this conflict. Russia's economy without modernization, without reforms, will no longer be competitive, and any escalation of conflict helps Russia buy time.
People are worried that pro-Russian separatists will disrupt the election, or that Moscow will not recognize its outcome. What happens if things go wrong?
Then Ukraine will no longer exist as an independent state. And the responsibility will fall not only on Russia's shoulders, but also on the United States.