LVIV, Ukraine – If you didn’t know Viktor Yushchenko suffered a humiliating defeat in the recent presidential election, you would hardly guess so by the way Ukraine’s former president talks.
For a man who "hates politics," Yushchenko forcefully threw himself back into the fray at a March 10 press conference, enduring harsh accusations from assembled journalists.
Yushchenko sounded a stern warning that Ukraine’s Constitution was under threat and that pro-democracy forces were now at a critical crossroads.
He said the law passed in parliament on March 9 that eased the Party of Region’s ability to form a new coalition and government was unconstitutional. At a separate meeting the same day, wire services quoted him as saying: “If the president moves along such [an unconstitutional] road, I will turn to the nation to start a rebellion.”
But after receiving 5 percent of the vote in the Jan. 17 first-round election, a call for rebellion from Yushchenko is one that will likely go unanswered. But Yushchenko insisted he was happy with his performance during his five years as president.
“I am proud of my politics. I’m absolutely happy with what I did as president. I achieved what I wanted,” Yushchenko said, citing the revival of his country’s historical memory as his greatest triumph.
Yushchenko indicated his future plans would largely depend on Yanukovych’s performance. Analysts widely expect Yushchenko to remain politically active and, at age 56, he is not too old for the game. Yushchenko reiterated he would work with anyone who upheld “the values of a national course…and worked for Ukraine.”He also did not did not rule out another presidential run, an idea that now strikes some as delusional. Ukraine’s Constitution, nonetheless, allows a person to serve for two five-year terms.
Private citizen Yushchenko came to what should have been a relatively friendly place, accompanied by representatives of his political party, Our Ukraine, and local intellectuals. Yushchenko finished in second place in the Jan. 17 first round of voting in Lviv Oblast, with 31 percent of the vote.
But the tone was not friendly. When Yushchenko’s press secretary, Iryna Vannikova, introduced him as president, someone several feet away audibly whispered: “You mean former.”
“No, president,” Vannikova retorted. “By protocol, the title is used for life.”
The conference proceeded with journalists hounding Yushchenko to explain a series of decrees that were passed in the last days of his presidency, including awards on his bodyguards.
Angered, Yushchenko said the guards had lived daily in a heightened state of alert because of constant threats. “There was a real threat on my life,” he said. “It is easy for you to talk.”
Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin during the presidential race in 2004, but the culprits remain at large and the criminal investigation made no known progress during his five years in office.
One of the principal reasons he has come under attack, Yushchenko said, is because, unlike past presidents, his decrees were a matter of public record.
“They were published. I didn’t have any secret decrees,” he said, despite numerous media reports with evidence to the contrary. “Of course, those who were before me are without sin. Do you know how many times Medvedchuk was awarded?” Yushchenko asked, referring to Viktor Medvedchuk, who was former President Leonid Kuchma’s controversial chief-of-staff. “Where were you then?”
Yushchenko called on democratic forces to unite at a time when a president was elected by less than half of the population. “Democracy didn’t lose, the Maidan (2004 Orange Revolution) didn’t lose, nor did the ideals I came to power with. But the question now is how to consolidate,” he said.
A day earlier, Yushchenko’s former ally turned rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, took up the mantle as leader of the democratic opposition. But Yushchenko warned that her leadership will end in disaster. “Every political force that united with Tymoshenko ended badly,” he said.