Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ukraine’s revived Orange Coalition will press for early elections in a bid to halt Russia’s growing influence and control over the country’s vital energy assets, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said in an interview yesterday.

Mrs. Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and key figure in the pro-Western Orange Revolution street protests of December 2004, said Ukraine’s sovereignty and hopes for better relations with the West are in jeopardy if the government of pro-Moscow Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych serves out its full term to 2011.

“If this government is in power until then, there would be nothing left of a democratic Ukraine,” she said, speaking through an interpreter with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “The territory would still exist, but it would not be Ukraine any longer.”

Mrs. Tymoshenko’s party and the party of pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko signed a new deal over the weekend to cooperate in parliament, seeking to end a disastrous feud among the Orange Revolution allies that enabled Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow party to reclaim power in August 2006.

Mrs. Tymoshenko, considered a front-runner among reformists for the 2009 presidential vote, said the reunited pro-reform parties will push for early parliamentary elections, although the move faces both political and constitutional hurdles.

On a high-profile U.S. visit that includes meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Mrs. Tymoshenko said the United States must speak out for Ukraine despite a full foreign-policy plate that includes Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other pressing crises.

She noted there was “disillusionment” in Washington about backsliding in Ukraine since her coalition was propelled to power in 2005 by a wave of street protests that became known as the Orange Revolution because of the orange flags and banners carried by the protesters.

But, she said, “a country as large and influential as your own has to lead this kind of work. Your country does not have the right to be fatigued about Ukraine’s future.”

Mr. Yanukovych, whose tainted win in the 2004 presidential election sparked the Orange Revolution, has engineered an abrupt about-face in Ukrainian policy since his political comeback last summer.

With a power base in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, the prime minister has put a hold on Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO, dismissed Mr. Yushchenko’s pro-Western foreign minister, and signed an accord tightly linking Ukraine’s economy to those of Russia and Belarus.

The charismatic Mrs. Tymoshenko, sporting her trademark blonde braids, said Mr. Yanukovych’s allies dominate the courts and key security ministries in Kiev.

Rich eastern business clans from Mr. Yanukovych’s political base in Donetsk are buying influence and lawmakers to keep him in power, she said.

Mr. Yanukovych’s party “is trying to buy deputies like chickens in a bazaar,” she said, “and these politicians are allowing themselves to be bought.”

She was particularly scathing about the government’s energy concessions to Moscow. She said Russia, through a shadowy Swiss-based intermediary company, is in the process of locking up Ukraine’s oil, gas and electricity markets, giving Russia a near-monopoly of energy supplies to much of Europe.

“Our new government and the Russian Federation are eating up the country’s energy system like eating buns for breakfast,” she said.

But she stressed she did not consider herself an “enemy of Russia,” blaming instead Ukrainian officials for failing the country’s basic economic and political interests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “is doing his own thing,” she said.

“It isn’t that I don’t like Russia. Politics cannot be motivated by such feelings. It’s simply that I love Ukraine,” she said.

Mrs. Tymoshenko acknowledged that she had moved too quickly in her short, stormy first stint as prime minister. Mr. Yushchenko dismissed her after just nine months in office in September 2005, and her tenure was marked by numerous policy and personal clashes.

She said Mr. Yushchenko also had underestimated the power of entrenched interests opposed to the Orange Revolution reforms. A series of constitutional changes since 2004 have weakened the president’s power while building up the prime minister.

She compared Ukraine in 2005 to a scuba diver trying to surface too quickly after years in the stagnant political depths.

“If I have a chance to have the responsibility in the future, unfortunately the reforms will have to come at a slower tempo, to make sure we do not get another case of the bends,” she said.

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