Oleh Rybachuk on Viktor Yushchenko, Interview with Former Ukrainian President's Chief of Staff

Oleh Rybachuk was the Chief of Staff to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine for European Integration from February to September 2005. Rybachuk agreed to sit down for an interview with me on July 13, 2015. In that interview, Rybachuk shared his experiences and insights on the 2004 Ukrainian election campaign, Yushchenko's poisoning, Yushchenko's tenure as president, his defeat to Yanukovych, and his relatively quiet post-presidential life. The transcript of this portion of my interview with Rybachuk is below:

The poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko during the 2004 election campaign gained an immense amount of coverage in the Western media, and many speculated that the Kremlin worked alongside Kuchma in plotting the assassination of Yushchenko. Do you believe there was a long-range master plan to murder Yushchenko or was the poisoning an isolated act of violence?

Oleh Rybachuk: I was at a meeting 3 months before the poisoning, as I was the closest person to Yushchenko and was running his political cabinet. In late summer 2004, a few months before the poisoning, someone, who presented himself as an ex-KGB officer from Moscow, approached me. At that time, Yushchenko was leading in the opinion polls by over 10% and the consensus was that he could not be stopped. He told me that there was a plot against Yushchenko and when I asked who was behind it, he said it was the KGB or ex-KGB officers. He did not clearly state whether or not Putin was behind the plot, but the source who warned me came from Moscow.

He told me that the KGB officers had proposed three ways to assassinate Yushchenko. The first option was poisoning. The plan was not to kill him by poisoning but to incapacitate him to the point that his health became the main priority of his life. The second option was for someone who did not know that he was carrying a bomb to murder Yushchenko, in a manner similar to Rajiv Gandhi's death in India. The third option was sniper fire. I told this to Yushchenko and we changed all the security surrounding him. I advised him not to taste any food without it being tested first, and we gave him an extra-secure minivan. Yushchenko did not believe the threat of poisoning was serious, so I was a witness to the success of the first scenario.

Yushchenko's links to Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky were widely reported on in the West. To what extent was Berezovsky involved in financing Yushchenko's campaign?

Oleh Rybachuk: During the campaign, I was told that Berezvosky was willing to provide $100 million in funds for the Yushchenko campaign, and that he was waiting for me in London. I suspected that it was a trap and did not want to go to London, so I wrote to Viktor Yushchenko about the offer (I could not speak to him as my conversation would have been eavesdropped on). When I arrived home, I saw 10 phone calls urging me to come to London and accept the offer. Obviously, I didn't go but the Berezovsky connection got reported to the press later on, because some people from our campaign headquarters travelled to Berezovsky's office. Some people close to Yushchenko were strongly in favor of getting financial support from Berezovksy, including Yushchenko's brother. The names of who did get support from Berezovsky were known, and the people who we discovered were colluding with Berezovsky were fired. Berezovsky tried other options after I rejected his financial offer, but the people who supported his involvement were mistaken.

Yushchenko appointed Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister in 2005, a decision that was widely criticized. Why do think Tymoshenko's appointment generated so much acrimony?

Oleh Rybachuk: Yushchenko's appointment of Tymoshenko was logical as she was one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution, but she is a very controversial figure. She is a very populist, leftwing leader even though she positioned herself on the right. When Yushchenko got poisoned, she took a leadership role in his campaign and I was there to witness how she supported Yushchenko but still acted in her own interests. Before she started working for Yuschenko, she had the highest negative rating in the country, and after the revolution, she became a hero. So public opinion in 2005 was strongly in favor of Tymoshenko becoming Prime Minister. Yushchenko now calls his appointment of Tymoshenko his biggest mistake, but I think his biggest mistake was not reforming the balance of power between the President and Prime Minister, which was a main goal of the Orange Revolution leaders. Public opinion showed that if the Orange Revolution leaders were in one coalition, they would be politically dominant. Tymoshenko was very adventurous, but frankly speaking, Yushchenko could have been smarter in his approach.

Why do you think Yushchenko's attempts to achieve greater European integration failed? Was it primarily the fault of EU policymakers or unrealistic expectations amongst Ukrainian political leaders?

Oleh Rybachuk: I would like to start with my first trip to the EU after Yushchenko became president in January 2005. At that time, I was not yet Deputy Prime Minister, I encouraged Yushchenko to create the position of Deputy Prime Minister for European integration, as a new Cabinet post. I met with the ex-Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs who asked me to sign a three-year EU economic action plan for Ukraine. I remember at that time how cold the EU's reception of Ukraine was. The EU did not know what to do with Ukraine, and Ukraine did not know how to negotiate with the EU. There was a lot of popular enthusiasm, but neither Yushchenko nor Tymoshenko was particularly focused on European integration. There was not a single meeting involving them that focused entirely on progress towards European integration.

I remember talking to Yushchenko at the start of his term and he said that within one month of his takeover, he would be getting top officials and Ukrainian authorities together to regularly discuss the progress. Prime Minister Tymoshenko, however, was focused on the next elections scheduled for March 2006 and she refused to meet or acknowledge the visits of some high-level EU officials to Ukraine. I was leading the Ukrainian delegation to Luxembourg in Ukraine-EU summits at this time- the president would now lead these kinds of delegations. The failures of EU constitutional referendums in France and the Netherlands, and increased political instability in Ukraine in 2005 ultimately ended hopes for further EU integration. The problem was that- neither the EU or Ukraine was ready.

Why do think Yushchenko's popularity declined so much during his tenure his president, to the point that Yanukovych triumphed in 2010?

Oleh Rybachuk: Yushchenko's defeat in 2010 was the product of infighting between the president and Prime Minister. They were both allies in the Orange Revolution, and if they had stayed together, opinion polls showed they would have gotten minimum 55% of the vote. Opinion surveys were typically conducted for 2,000 respondents; these surveys had 50,000 people replying. I showed these polls to Yushchenko, but Tymoshenko was much stronger than Yushchenko as a politician. She realized that if she crusaded against Yushchenko, she would be able to co-opt his supporters into her camp. Yanukovych, as the third option was able to profit from the infighting.

Did Yanukovych's election in 2010 signify a popular shift towards closer relations with Russia and disillusionment with the EU after the failure of Yushchenko to achieve closer European integration? What role did regionalism play?

Oleh Rybachuk: I think the 2010 election was in some ways good for Ukraine, as Yanukovych was associated with Eastern Ukraine. Western and Central Ukraine provided the support base for the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych won the support of the Russian-speaking populations in Eastern Ukraine. But it is important to realize that Yanukovych's primary message was that Ukraine should be in Europe, he was very pro-European. He did not believe closer relations with Russia would necessarily undermine the European choice. It was important for Eastern Ukrainians to see how one of them, an organizer in their community would fare as president and as a leader who attempted to be more conciliatory with Russia. It was important for people from both regions to pick their leaders as candidates, and the failure of both led to the revolution of dignity, Maidan. This alienation was demonstrated by the fact that the chanting of leaders' names, which was a common feature of the Orange Revolution, did not occur during Maidan. There was no-one cheering for Poroshenko.

The Maidan protests signified the culmination of a huge step forward in the understanding of society. Without popular control over public decision-making, checks on executive authority and an independent press, effective government cannot exist. Popular activism was a consequence of the failures of both presidents. When Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were living like cat and dog, there was not a single protest against that. Even the press was silent not because they feared repression but because there was a deep-rooted fear of criticism of leaders leading to the bad guys coming to power.

Finally, why do you think that Viktor Yushchenko, in contrast to his predecessor Kuchma, has not been more involved in Ukrainian politics since the Maidan Revolution?

Oleh Rybachuk: Yushchenko has had the most tragic fall from grace, as he was the at one time the most popular politician Ukraine has ever had. Yushchenko's miraculous recovery from poisoning and election victory in 2004 made him the most popular Ukrainian president domestically and internationally. He wasted that popularity and became disappointed. He does not blame himself for his failure. He instead blames Tymoshenko, the EU, people around him and journalists. He was the president who was more heavily defeated than any other when he ran for a second term. He won just 5% of the vote. In the ranking of Ukrainian presidents, he is regarded as the weakest one. He would not have credibility with Putin or the Russian-backed separatists.

Now Yushchenko is blaming the West for Ukraine's problems. I saw an interview with him where he said that the crisis in Ukraine has been worsened greatly by the West not providing military assistance. Yushchenko has become an icon amongst some hardline Ukrainian nationalists mostly living abroad who believe he was the only true Ukrainian president. These people have a very special understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian. Does it mean speaking the Ukrainian language? Or is it supporting the Ukrainian language press? Yushchenko is therefore the weakest president. Yanukovych is in a different category- he is not even counted.