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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Viktor Yushchenko

Interviewed December 10, 2023

I would say that was the point where we came to the brink of civil disobedience and – what I would not ever want – of civil war.

Ukraine was easily divided, even geographically, but most importantly politically. Everybody understood that, by way of great manipulation, the authorities are ready to shed some blood in order to hold on their margin. At that time, in the city of Severodonetsk, Eastern Ukraine, a convention of [Viktor] Yanukovych political supporters was held, where an Eastern Ukrainian Republic was proclaimed. They were visited by their confederates, including the Mayor of Moscow [Yury] Luzhkov, and members of the State Duma of Russia. I met with President [Leonid] Kuchma that day and said: We are losing our statehood. He literally waved his hand; he already could not control the situation.

Interior Ministry troops are being assembled around Kyiv. Questions of the possible involvement of the military, as well as various law enforcement and national security agencies, became the front-and-center issue. In other words, the incumbent side has begun preparations for the coercive scenario. And they were on watch for any incident on the Maidan [The main square in Kyiv and focal point for the Orange Revolution] – as an opportunity to call out the Ministry of Interior troops. Or national security and law enforcement agencies, or even the army.

As I remember, late at night, at about 12:00 a.m., in the suburbs of Kyiv I had a meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Interior Ministry. He was a sufficiently responsible person.

And I was worried, being aware of the situation that later, following ‘advice’ from above, the Minister of the Interior may give an order to deploy troops to break up protesters.

I had a meeting with the Chief of Staff of the Interior troops. The meeting took place late at night, and we had a discussion on how ready he is to carry out such an order, I was sure that the minister will not give the order in writing, by the official channel, because he is afraid to. He can give it verbally, over the phone. And we agreed that he will not, under any circumstances, carry out a verbal order. If the order is in writing, he will. But if there is no written order, he will not carry out the verbal order. I think that did save us in the situation, when the authorities had very extreme ideas.

The authorities were holding closed sessions of the National Security and Defense Council, where the use of force to break up protests was addressed. And the balance between hawks and doves was too sensitive. Sensitive. Eventually, messages from different leaders and political forces on the Maidan reached the authorities, and the authorities did not dare to involve the army and interior forces.

Therefore, there was a stalemate. The elections were over. The Constitution had exhausted its powers – it could not advise politicians or society what to do anymore. Society did not recognize the elections. The Central Election Committee announced the winner. That was a real standoff, indeed.

At the same time, the Supreme Court examines the case of election results and rules to not recognize them. Well, and, so to speak, in the country is in the situation when neither majority of people nor the court recognizes the election results; the Central Election Committee announced the winner; the President is not seen at his workplace, because protesters do not let him through; and there is absolutely no one talking or communicating. And, you know, such a situation is emerging, which happens only before social confrontation, when reason is not speaking, but rather emotions. How could such a situation have developed that those who represent the authorities do not have the political will to change the situation?

My desire was to gather at the negotiating table and talk. And yet, Moscow stands behind the authorities, cheering them on and directing them that the elections are over – here are the results, period. In fact, a few more days of such uncertainty and that could lead us to bloodshed, to troops on Khreshchatyk – on the Maidan, and to civil war. [Kreshchatyk Street and the Maidan Square in central Kyiv were the focus of the Orange Revolution protests.]

I had several alternative versions of dealing with that, but under serious consideration was the one I started to implement at the very first day: In the current situation, we must use all the democratic tools, all the political tools, and start with the point that both sides have to sit down at the negotiating table and start the process of negotiations. I did not dismiss President [Leonid] Kuchma and these were not my thoughts.

I called my foreign colleagues and friends and ask them to not abandon Ukraine, but to face the situation and provide help, provide support in putting together the national roundtable. Either in Ukraine, or outside Ukraine – where was not important when the two sides must talk.

I called [Polish] President [Aleksander] Kwaśniewski; I called Mr. [Valdas] Adamkus, President of Lithuania; I called the Secretary-General of the Council of the European Union [Javier] Solana; I called the US side – I called Vice President [Dick Cheney]. All that took place at different times and even on different days. My effort was focused on the role of the international community in prompting a transition of Ukrainian situation from civil confrontation to a political matter.

So, several days have passed and, because of those efforts, we gather at the first round table. Besides (representatives from the) Western side, President Kuchma wanted to invite (representatives from) Moscow, too. I agreed to that. We held three rounds of negotiations and, to be brief, their starting point addressed the clear issue which was defined, on one hand, by the fact that Constitution of Ukraine does not provide answers how to proceed in the case when the second round election results are not recognized; in other words, there is no answer to that in the Constitution. And that pushed the other side towards chaos, towards coercion, towards any interpretation except the legal one. Second: There is the Maidan where 200,000 – 300,000 people are standing – they do not recognize the election, and they are saying: We will not leave the Maidan unless we secure a new election. That is another fact.

The authorities are extremely afraid that the opposition will come to power, that I will come to power, and they initiate a constitutional reform; its main point is that presidential powers are transferred to prime minister by the parliament [if the presidency is vacant]. This means President Kuchma, after the presidential election, would still have one and a half years. And because presidential powers are going to be transferred to the prime minister, he will have no difficulty to go through the parliamentary procedures and become Prime Minister of Ukraine with presidential powers.

We began lengthy talks, which lasted until 5:00 a.m. every day. To save time, the result of those negotiations was as follows: In the course of the talks I have convinced the authorities to recognize the Supreme Court ruling that elections were not over with the second round. That is the first point. Second: We have to hold another election. That is not in the Constitution, but can be seen as a democratic compromise. We must hold either another election or – some speak of a third voting round. The authorities’ answer was that the opposition should give its support to the constitutional reform aimed at transferring presidential powers – a significant part, I would say, the lion’s share – to the prime minister. And I agree to make that step with understanding that, well, first and foremost, that is a compromise, which takes us farther from civil war. Secondly, I was absolutely sure that I will win. And if I become President, a significant part of the presidential powers go to my partner, the prime minister of Ukraine.