- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014


A candidate for president of Ukraine said Thursday the future of his country hinges on May 25 elections free from intimidation of pro-Russian militants, even as separatists in eastern Ukraine vowed to move forward with a divisive referendum this weekend.

Valery Konovalyuk, a former deputy governor, said Moscow is likely to interfere with the elections aimed at forming a new national government in the country torn between its traditional ties with Russia and proposed alliances with the West.

“There will be provocations, there’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Konovalyuk told The Washington Times in an interview. “It’s going to be very difficult to find peaceful solutions when blood has been spilled. But if these elections don’t happen now, I’m afraid they won’t happen ever. And then Ukraine will face the possibility that it would cease to exist as a state.”

His comments came as pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine ignored Thursday a public call by Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone a referendum on self-rule, declaring they would go ahead on Sunday with a vote that could lead to war.

Mr. Putin also fueled tensions Thursday by overseeing military exercises that Russian news agencies said simulated a massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack. The Russian leader said the exercise had been planned since November, but it came only a day after he raised hopes that he would defuse the crisis by announcing that he would withdraw troops from the border with Ukraine.

Mr. Konovalyuk, who consults regularly with Russian politicians, warned that Ukraine is only the beginning of Mr. Putin’s ambitions for empire building.

“In three weeks’ time, not just the fate of our country is going to be decided; whether the world is going to go back to the Cold War is going to be decided,” he said in Russian through a translator.

Mr. Konovalyuk is visiting Washington this week, lobbying Congress for aid to boost Ukraine’s military, its energy industry and its agricultural sector. He said Ukraine needs a new “Marshall Plan” to reform a society wracked by corruption and inefficiency.

It’s doubtful that Mr. Konovalyuk will end up running the new government in Kiev. There are 21 candidates for president and recent polling shows him in the lower tier, far behind frontrunner Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolatier.

Polling last week had Mr. Poroshenko with 48 percent support. His closest competitor, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, received 14 percent.

The Obama administration also is worried about the potential for pro-Russian forces to disrupt Ukraine’s elections, with President Obama warning it would lead to tougher economic sanctions against Russia. Mr. Obama has imposed limited sanctions against Russian leaders and certain companies in response to Russia’s takeover of the Crimea region from Ukraine in March.

Mr. Konovalyuk said he believes the targeted sanctions are having an effect, and he opposes broader economic sanctions by the Obama administration and the European Union against Russia. He said Europe’s economy is still vulnerable after emerging from recession.

“I know that many people, including some in Congress, are speaking for even more sanctions,” he said. “But the consequences, especially in the view of the financial crisis that we just came out of, can also hit other countries. And I think we must seek some compromise here.”

Mr. Konovalyuk, 47, said it’s important for Washington to understand that most Ukrainians favor major political and economic reforms, and closer ties to the European Union.

“The position of the West, and especially the European Union, should be more specific, more clear,” he said. “From promises, they need to move towards more specific actions. An agreement on association, for example. Maybe you could help us carry out the structural reforms in our economy. Maybe we could receive some technologies to revive our agricultural sector.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development announced last week it will beef up spending in Ukraine to help the nation’s independent media outlets prepare for covering the presidential election.

USAID officials said they will add $1.25 million onto the more than $10 million U.S. government agencies already committed to help bring about a transparent election in Ukraine, where a pro-Western interim government has been in place since the nation’s Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, resigned amid massive protests in February.

Mr. Konovalyuk has been urging U.S. officials to press for a criminal prosecution of Mr. Yanukovich, who has been accused of massive corruption and is believed to have found sanctuary in Russia. He said bringing Mr. Yanukovich is critical for Ukraine’s national unity.

“Yankovich must be held accountable and be brought to justice,” he said. “If not Ukrainain justice, then an international tribunal. The tragedy that happened in Ukraine, he’s directly responsible for it.”

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