Interview: Kostyantyn Gryshchenko

Ukraine's foreign minister on what Egypt could learn from the Orange Revolution and the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko sat down with editors from Foreign Policy this week during a visit to Washington where he will hold a bilateral meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Gryshchenko was appointed by President Viktor Yanukovych in March, 2010. He has previously served as ambassador to the United States and Russia.

Foreign Policy: I guess I'm not going to be the first person to ask you about Egypt and what you make of the events in the Middle East in the last week.  

Kostyantyn Gryshchenko: Well, clearly, these events, they change the whole equation not only in the Middle East, but globally.  I'm not able to provide much special insight because I think that much will depend on the interaction of actors inside Egypt itself. External factors -- the opinions of world leaders, the European Union, United States, Russia, and other Arab countries -- will also have some effect, but to my mind it will only be limited in the initial stages.

So, we all need to carefully watch it and engage the new Egyptian leadership as it will appear. Obviously, we support democratic changes, but also responsible government. We in Ukraine know that leaders giving promises and speaking beautifully or politically correctly is not necessarily a recipe for responsible or efficient government.

FP: Yes, and many people have cited the experience of Ukraine in recent days as a cautionary tale, that street protests aren't necessarily a recipe for real reform. Is that how you look at it? What are the lessons of the Orange Revolution for thinking about Egypt?

KG: In Ukraine, I think the lesson is very clear that the quality of political leadership needs to be appraised by the people themselves, and also by mass media and the major stakeholders in democratic process, so that democracy is not hijacked by the demagogues and by those who are simply unable to effectively pursue reforms.

FP: So is that what you think happened, that democracy was hijacked by the demagogues in Ukraine?

KG: I'm convinced of that. Over the years of so-called Orange rule, the chiefs of various factions of the Orange leadership promised everything: to return people's money which was left in Soviet banks, to stop the draft, to raise pensions -- which they did for a certain period of time but then inflation ate it up -- to get into the European Union.

What they consistently did was essentially promise everything to everyone and then forget about it all. And then, they lost power through fair, free elections at the beginning of 2010. Not because there were anything specific done from outside. And not because we had a very flashy campaign -- the flashy campaign was done on their side. But simply because people started to understand that they were being taken advantage of.

FP: So are you concerned at all about this wave of prosecution or the investigation of Yulia Tymoshenko? [Prosecutors appointed by President Viktor Yanukovych have interrogated former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in recent weeks as part of an investigation into official corruption during her tenure. Critics, including the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, have expressed concern that the government's anti-corruption initiatives are selectively targeting members of the political opposition.]  

KG: Let's also look into what kind of challenges Ukrainian society faces today and the needs of that society. Ukraine continues to be, in many respects, governed by a legal system and a system of interaction between bureaucracy and people and businesses which is essentially Soviet.

Corruption undermines the ability of the country to reshape itself and to move forward on what we see as our major priority in foreign and internal policy: joining the EU. To accomplish this we must bring European standards into all sectors of our social and economic life.

This is the first time in 20 years that we have a president who has taken the lead on formulating an overarching strategy of how to change not simply one sector or two, but bringing reforms which will be consistent with each other, and should lead to very clear results.

That means making life much easier for business so that it would create better conditions for the people who work for the business. It means making sure that everyone in society will pay taxes. But it's also the fight against corruption.

We need to send a signal to society that no one is immune from being asked to report what he had done when there are questions about your activities when you are in government. We currently have 300 or 360 cases of investigations and current and former government officials of various ranks.

It is not selective justice, but we do not accept an idea that if you are head of government and you commit -- let's put it -- "alleged" offenses where there is substantial ground to conduct an investigation, that you should be immune.  

In Korea, the former president was investigated for corruption. In Europe, there are investigations of former heads of government in at least three countries. So, to simply state to our society that if you are a prime minister or a minister then you are above the law -- that will be the wrong message.

We understand that perceptions can make this difficult, but for us, it is important, not only to make a good impression but, though our actions, to change society for the better.

FP: But you agree that a whole new independent judiciary has not developed in Ukraine.

KG: Not yet. But again, you need to start somewhere...

FP: Sure, but starting with Tymoshenko?

KG: Should we start with a taxi driver or with someone who was essentially responsible for billions of dollars? Shouldn't we start with those who have done the most damage to society at large?

FP: Going back to the issue of perception, don't you feel that the perception that this prosecution is politically motivated could set back your goal of eventual European Union membership?

KG: Yes. But I think again that the whole effort was done in a manner so that there will be transparency in this particular investigation. There are many allegations vis-à-vis the previous government. There are many allegations vis-à-vis the current government. But there are certain things that are more-or-less clear. To make sure that this was not seen as selective, the government has hired three internationally renowned companies to provide an audit of what has been done.

What can I say? I was told by some of my colleagues that we are opening a Pandora's box: They say, next time you're out of government that you will be called to account. Thankfully, the only thing I could steal from my ministry is a stapler.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images


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