Meeting with the Honorable Viktor Andreevich Yushchenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine and head of the Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) electoral bloc. Carnegie Senior Associate Anders Åslund introduced Yushchenko as the man who single-handedly ended hyperinflation during his tenure as head of the Central Bank of Ukraine and whose government deserved the credit for economic growth of 6% last year and an expected 10% growth this year.

Yushchenko began his remarks by thanking the United States for its assistance in promoting democracy throughout the world--the kind of democracy Mr. Yushchenko is working to build in Ukraine. Ukraine recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its independence from the USSR, and for the past decade, Ukrainians have coasted on the euphoria of that one event, he noted. Today that is no longer enough; Ukraine needs economic growth, social development and democratization.

Yushchenko spoke proudly of his many achievements as prime minister: ending stagnation, igniting growth, paying wage and pension arrears to citizens, passing Ukraine's first balanced budget in a decade, boosting industrial and agricultural production, passing land reform that made 6.4 million Ukrainians owners of 28 million hectares of land, and reducing the country's external debt by 17% to achieve a positive trade balance. All of this, he said, demonstrates that there are groups in Ukraine capable of enacting reforms.

Politically, Ukraine's main problem since independence has been the lack of a stable political system. For much of Ukraine's history, divisions within the country on the basis of geography, language, faith, and class have kept Ukrainians from reaching their full potential. While ten years ago, the Communist Party monopolized political power in the country, 130 different political parties exist. Yushchenko put forth the question as to whether this excessive fragmentation is in fact democratic progress.

Yushchenko shared a memory of an inscription on a monument in the village where he grew up which read: "At this location, the border between Poland and Russia passed through." "What about Ukraine?" Yushchenko remembers wondering. Yushchenko's party, Nasha Ukraina, wants to ensure that "no one ever has to search for Ukraine again."

Nasha Ukraina is a coalition of 17 democratically-oriented political blocs, including liberal right-wing parties and Christian democrats, which have formalized relations with Nasha Ukraina. Yushchenko expected that the spectrum of parties in the coalition would widen still before parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 31, 2002. "The door is left open for new partners," he said. Currently, Nasha Ukraina leads in public opinion polls, with the support of 35%-30% of the electorate, where 40% of Ukrainian voters remain undecided.

Yushchenko's coalition has made great effort to demonstrate that it is neither an arm of the current government under President Leonid Kuchma, nor is it in opposition. Its goal is to unite Ukrainians and consolidate democracy, a goal which fosters strong public support from diverse groups in society, from youth organizations to the influential Congress of Ukrainian Intelligentsia, from veterans' organizations to women?s groups.

Yushchenko was convinced that Nasha Ukraina's democratic forces have enough support to win; all that remains is to ensure fair and open elections. He listed three obstacles to honest elections that Western influence and involvement could counteract: the state-controlled media which will provide insufficient or inaccurate information to the electorate about pro-democracy candidates, the power of the incumbent presidential administration, and the chance that final voting results could be falsified. Full transparency is needed, as are public support for the electoral process and knowledge of recent electoral laws. "All of us here are partners in seeing that this is achieved," he said.

Asked to clarify an earlier statement that he would exclude certain oligarchic parties from his coalition, Yushchenko explained that these were the parties that had voted for his removal from government in April 2001. The coalition does, however, have many business partners and receives support from a "significant proportion of big businesses", those which have acquired capital honestly and operate transparently.

Åslund asked Yushchenko to describe the relationship he has with President Kuchma. "I'm being open," Yushchenko said. "We're trying to build constructive relations," though he remains "critical on issues where we have a difference of opinion." The best way of raising the effectiveness of the entire government, he believed, is not through the presidency, but through "the formation of effective forces in Parliament."

One attendee remarked that it is often easy to build coalitions before elections; it's maintaining unity among the members after the election that proves difficult. Yushchenko agreed that the question of what form consolidation should take both before and after the election is a key issue as well as the subject of "intensive negotiations with both tactical and strategic considerations." Yushchenko has reached two agreements with his coalition partners: first, to form one single faction in Parliament, and second, to reject and resist any division of the coalition or "parting of ways."

A correspondent for Ukrainska Pravda inquired whether Yushchenko were negotiating with Prime Minister Kinakh to include his supporters in the coalition. No?for the time being, Yushchenko responded, although he would not exclude the possibility. "We're keeping doors open. It will depend on our interests."

As to Nasha Ukraina's foreign policy goals, with regard to the EU, NATO and Russia, Yushchenko stressed that Ukraine's commitment to its European integration is unwavering. "This is not just a declaration. It is something we will work on at home," he said. In order to accede to the WTO, Ukraine two years ago needed to change 18 laws. So far only half have been changed. This, he thought, illustrates Ukraine's lack of political will, which is responsible for lackluster political and economic reforms. "There are powerful forces in Parliament on the left that do not share our commitment; they block all changes to economic, social, and political policies." For this reason, it is vital that democratic forces achieve a majority in Parliament in order for the reforms required for integration to be approved. "This is the reason I returned to politics," he said.

In response to a question about what the United States could do to help ensure free, fair, and open elections in Ukraine, Yushchenko outlined the need for a public presence during the campaign of international media and observers who can keep a spotlight on Ukraine beginning January 1st, three months before the March 31st elections. Additionally, Ukrainians need technical help to prepare teams who can promote strict adherence to electoral legislation. "The average voter lacks a solid understanding of the existing laws," he explained. Finally, representatives of different political parties must gain access to state-controlled media in order for voters to be well-informed about all candidates. If all this is achieved, Yushchenko concluded, "we can make a real contribution to the development of Ukrainian democracy."

Summary drafted by Caroline McGregor, Junior Fellow with the Russia &Eurasia Program.