What It’s Like to Run for President in Ukraine

One of the candidates talks U.S. sanctions, Vladimir Putin, and what the shaky future of his country looks like.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
May 23, 2014, 6:50 a.m.

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.

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