Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian opposition leader released from jail after former president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February, walks with a crutch. Now campaigning for president, she spoke with The Washington Post this week in Kiev. Excerpts:
Q. You must have had a hard time in 2 1/2 years in prison.
A. It is horrible to remember. I was in a special jail where psychological torture and pressure were the main goal. No normal person could survive such conditions.
Q. But you did.
A. I had no choice but to live through this. As a matter of fact, during the two years, I was never given the possibility of going out of this room. All the . . . windows were sealed with non-transparent tape. I was always supervised by women prison custodians, and they were instructed not to be away from me further than one meter. When I was going to sleep, they would be at my pillow; when I was going to eat, they were near me. And when I was preparing documents, they were looking at what I was writing. . . . I also had three video cameras in my room.
Q. So how did you end up in jail?
A. From the very first days of Yanukovych’s arrival in office, it became clear that he was going to destroy me as his main political opponent. He wasn’t ready to have a strong and active opposition in the country. From the very first days . . . they started opening up ridiculous criminal cases against me. The first two cases that they fabricated failed, and they didn’t even manage to bring them to court. Later on he found another reason to open up a case against me, which was “signing gas agreements with Russia” that I didn’t sign. And he used this as a reason to put me in jail for seven years. I am convinced (that) if Yanukovych (had) stayed in power and in office, I would never have been liberated.
Q. Did you have the opportunity to flee the country before going to prison?
A. Yes, I had such an opportunity.
Q. Why didn’t you take it?
A. I believed that if I did that and showed my weakness, that would make every Ukrainian weak – every Ukrainian who wanted to resist dictatorship – and I could not leave my country. They (The Yanukovych government) wanted me to escape. One week before my arrest, they warned me that they were going to arrest me on the 5th of August. I recorded an address to the Ukrainian people in which I called on everyone to be strong.
Q. How do you see your presidential race here in the country? You are behind in the polls.
A. That’s true. When I got into the election campaign, it was already in full swing and I had very little time to deliver my ideas to the people. During the last 15 years, an old oligarchic system of clans and their TV channels have been destroying my reputation.
Q. Do you mean Mr. (Petro) Poroshenko?
A. We have got clans that have been working for many years. The clan of Poroshenko is one of them. He has got his TV channel. Unfortunately, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine did not establish an open economy. Ukraine established a corrupt, authoritarian system. When I came to power for a short time, I tried to remove the oligarch system and to establish a market economy and democracy. During the short time when I stayed in power, the oligarchs lost their influence. But when they came back, they put me in jail. This was the second time they put me into jail. The first time was in 2001. At that time, I spent 42 days in prison.
Q. How do you see the situation on Ukraine’s border? Do you think (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin will stop?
A. I do not believe that Putin will stop.
I think that Putin sees himself as the leader of the world, who dictates the new world order. He wants to break the stability that has been established in the world. He attempted to impose his aggressive leadership to the world when he invaded Georgia. However, the world interpreted that as if it was a local story. Later on, he started unifying around himself dictators of the world by giving them an umbrella of protection. He resumed his influence in Syria. And then he continued his plan in Ukraine.
Q. With the annexation of Crimea?
A. Crimea and then the south and eastern borders. I think his goal is to absorb the whole of Ukraine.
Q. Do you think he will get it?
A. I think it all will depend on what the Western democratic world will be doing. I am convinced that Putin understands only the language of force. Whether he will continue terrorizing the civilized world will depend on how much force is used to stop him.
Q. So sanctions are not going to stop him?
A. I think the sanctions must be strong enough to threaten the economic and financial stability of Russia. I have got the impression that this is the level of sanctions for which the Western world is not ready. It seems to me that both the United States and the E.U. underestimate the real threat of this situation.
Q. What did you think about the Geneva meeting?
A. I think the Geneva agreement will not be executed by Putin. Putin must (believe he is) deceiving the entire civilized world when he says there are no Russian military troops over there in the east, just as before he said there were no Russian troops in Crimea. I am convinced that Putin will go as far as the Western world will allow him to go.
Q. You’ve talked about forming some kind of self-defense brigades.
A. During the last four years, the pro-Russian dictatorship that was ruling the country did everything (it could) to destroy our army. That is why I made the decision to call upon volunteers who have some military experience to get united into territorial self-defense units. I am doing everything possible to ensure that such an army consisting of volunteers is formed in Ukraine – an army that is patriotic and committed to Ukraine, consisting of people who have some relevant military experience. In addition to that, I have started negotiations with separatists who are supported by the Russian special troops. These Russian special troops are trying to take our territories (in the east). I am trying to separate the separatists from the Russian military units.
Q. You yourself went to the east?
A. I have spent the last few days in the epicenter of the events. I went to the administrative buildings that were taken over, and I asked people who had direct communications with those who were occupying the buildings to come out. And they came to negotiate. We were talking with them about how now is the time to give more independence to the regions of Ukraine, but we must keep the territorial integrity of Ukraine and must stop supporting the military troops of Russia, as has been done by some Ukrainian citizens. For the people that live in the east, it is very important to have a dialogue with the authorities, and I want to be the politician who conducts that dialogue with them. . . .
It’s a matter of trust. I was born in the east of Ukraine. My whole family is there, and I know how people who live in the east feel.
Q. They feel neglected?
A. Yes, they feel neglected.
Q. But aren’t the Russians there in the east and guiding events? What can you do about that?
A. There are no doubts that operations against Ukraine are conducted by Russian special forces.
Q. And they are in the buildings with the separatists, right?
A. The Kremlin has organized and arranged everything. However, they are trying to get support inside Ukraine from the small groups of people who share separatist views. I want to break this connection. I want to make sure that people in the east with such ideas of separatism get more independence but stay inside Ukrainian territory. I am also trying to make sure Russia loses the base of support on which this mission is based. It is going to be the first and partial victory over the aggressor.
Q. I asked Mr. Poroshenko about how much you two argued after the Orange Revolution, which people say is one reason the Orange Revolution failed. Have you learned anything from this? Are you going to argue again?
A. The reason why the Orange Revolution failed was not because the leaders were fighting with each other but because the president who was elected on the wave of the Orange Revolution took over all the corrupt schemes that existed during the previous presidency. Within a couple of months, the oligarchs had adopted a new president. Clearly, with this background, we(Poroshenko and I) had a clear conflict. A few months later (then-President Viktor) Yushchenko made his choice by staying in contact with oligarchs and by dismissing me from the position of prime minister. Today there is a big threat that the consequences of this revolution will not be what we want them to be if the de facto oligarchs stay in power and retain their control.
Q. Are you referring to Poroshenko?
A. I am not against big business. I am against politics and business being in corrupt connections with each other. Poroshenko now continues this story. The most powerful corrupt group that was near Yanukovych was (businessman Dmytro) Firtash, (former fuel and energy minister Yuri) Boyko and Serhiy Lyovochkin (former chief of staff to Yanukovych).
Q. And they are still around?
A. Now they have adopted Poroshenko. The FBI had initiated a criminal (bribery) case against Firtash (and) found him in Vienna. Poroshenko and (politician Vitali) Klitschko went recently to Vienna and met Firtash, Lyovochkin and Boikin there. They agreed on strategic cooperation. After that, Firtash came out and made a public statement that he supports Poroshenko. Firtash owns one of the biggest television channels here. This channel starts transmitting the election campaign of Poroshenko. Lyovochkin makes a public statement about supporting Poroshenko. Lyovochkin de facto becomes the campaign manager of Poroshenko. Now there is the question of, what has the revolution changed.
Q. So you want Ukraine to become a modern, democratic country without corruption?
A. With European integration.
Q. And you don’t know if you can win, but you will try?
A. I have a chance to win. I do not understand why some people in the West think Poroshenko is a democratic person. This is a big mistake. Now a new Kremlin group is being formed in Ukraine, and we need to oppose this as much as we can.