‘Significant’ Changes Beginning in Ukraine Politics, says former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Green Miller

‘Significant’ Changes Beginning in Ukraine Politics, says former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Green Miller

November 22, 2005 9:00 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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William Green Miller, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current senior policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center, says before the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian politics was "still Soviet in its background and thinking." Miller says that since President Viktor Yushchenko rose to power after last year’s elections the old way of thinking in Ukraine is "beginning to change in a significant way." He spoke with cfr.org’s Lionel Beehner in Kiev, November 21, 2005.

Please give me your assessment of Viktor Yushchenko’s first year in power.

I’d say the great success has been beginning the formation of a democratic government. He had a very slow start getting rid of the key people from the past government who were in opposition to the principles of the Orange Revolution and there was a long period of adjustment, particularly dealing with a parliament that was chosen by the old party in power, which is still Soviet in its background and thinking. Only now is this beginning to change in a significant way.

Why was Yushchenko’s coalition—formed during last year’s revolution—broken up in September?

The seventeen parties [in the coalition] represented a spectrum of views that went from left to right. It wasn’t a unified view. Yes, the whole idea of a free press, fair elections, and rule of law was accepted by all groupings, but the idea of to what degree there should be a free market as opposed to state support for infrastructure—that argument goes on.

Was this coalition inevitably going to split up?

There was a range of issues that would inevitably drive them apart: the difference in attitudes toward key economic views, toward support of social infrastructure, so-called populist measures. Then there were the personality conflicts, very strong competing personalities. Also, there were the difficulties of insulating the president and government from the people. This happens with all governments, including ours, but it was magnified here partially because the structures of the presidential staff, of permanent government, civil service, were not adjusted to meet the new situation. Charges of conflicts of interest and failure to separate business from politics and governance, personal gain from public good, hurt the Yushchenko government. The struggle on many or all of these issues led to the downfall of [former Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko’s government.

What about attacks that Yushchenko has been soft on corruption?

You have to look at the courts system first. Almost all the judges were appointed in the previous regime. If you go back to beginning of independence [from the former Soviet Union in 1991], you have a pattern of justice that is very different from the principles of Yushchenko and the orange coalition. So dealing with the court system and trying to establish an impartial rule of law are very difficult. So the prosecutor general was very controversial because he was inherited from the past. Getting a new attitude within the judicial branch is a major structural problem. An important sign was when the Supreme Court ruled [last December] that the [first round of presidential] elections were fraudulent.

How will the parliamentary elections go in March?

The struggle is between the orange coalition and the principles of Maydan [Independence Square] and the old way. The old way is represented by [chosen successor to Leonid Kuchma Viktor Yanukovych’s] Party of the Regions, which has the highest polling figures. These polling categories are misleading, though, if you just look at numbers of the day. But it’s very clear Yanukovych has benefited by the splits in the orange coalition and the disillusionment and failure of this government to fulfill its promises to clean up corruption, establish rule of law, and remedy the economic situation. Great promises and slogans should have been tempered with, "It’ll be very hard to fulfill these things and will take time." Instead the slogans were more laconic than that. They said, "We will do it."

Has Yushchenko’s government been a failure?

I think Viktor Yushchenko was heroic. He narrowly survived being killed several times, the last time of which he was not only almost killed but he was deeply disfigured. They have a leader who was wounded in battle. He’s a heroic figure for carrying on. But the battle is still going on.

What about his failure to fix the economy?

This was expected because of the policies made by Kuchma before. In the run-up to the election, he raised pensions and did a lot of what are called popular measures, as though this was somehow a disease. They were started by Yushchenko when he was prime minister. These are measures that were required by the European Union and entry into the World Trade Organization, such as raising pension levels to meet European standards.

Another part of the issue of raising revenue is the tax structure, which is wacky. They’ve established a tax policy of lowering taxes generally but collecting from the shadow economy. In fact, this year the increased revenue from tax collection has paid for the budget. There is a relatively balanced budget. The [$4.8 billion] sale of the Kryvorizhstal steel mill [to Mittal Steel] was a great windfall. It brought in a substantial amount of money [and] 50 percent [of the profits were] for budget, the other half for development. That sale went right to the heart of the re-privatization issue: Tymoshenko’s argument, which many people held, is that those objects and entities that were stolen or acquired under dubious circumstances [during the suspect privatization of businesses after the breakup of the Soviet Union] needed to be looked at again and some would be re-privatized.

Tymoshenko is very popular here, though she herself is a former oligarch who spent time in jail. Some people here say she’s had a conversion of sorts. What do you think her motivations are?

There are many ideas about what her motivations are. I can’t speak to that. I would say her approach is that of a very skillful politician, goal oriented, extremely intelligent, courageous, and like most others of her age group—she’s forty-four, I guess—they went through the Soviet system and the very uncertain economies of the first dozen years of Ukraine’s independence. I think it remains to be seen.

What about Yushchenko’s testy relationship with Russia?

The majority of Ukraine’s commerce is with Russia. It always has been—in Soviet times, in tsarist times, too. The analogy is Canada with the United States, but it’s much stronger than that. The ties between Russia and Ukraine are even stronger. The idea of Ukrainian independence from Russia is very strong here and the idea [is widely held] among Russians that Ukraine is an essential part of Russia. It is, after all, the birthplace of the Slavic world.

The energy dependence is an economic habit, a legacy of the past, when there was free energy for all Soviet states, and the nature of heavy industry that was geared toward what we would call inefficient or high energy use of gas oil and coal. Ukraine uses far more energy than almost any country in the world, and its inefficiency is right at the top. So developing its own reserves in the Black Sea could lead to independence from Russian or Uzbek supplies. The various alternate routes of energy sources that are being proposed, all of this would help Ukraine in the long run but, in the short term, the difficulty has been the very rapid rise in the cost of energy. Moreover, many of the industries that were profitable in the early years [of independence], like steel or metals, are now less profitable because of China’s entry into these markets.

Can the Orange Revolution be exported to countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus, or Azerbaijan?
No, it has to come out of the roots. The awareness of the possibilities elsewhere is something that people in other countries can have and do have. Certainly the Orange Revolution was an inspiration to many people, including Americans—that is, this desire for decent government and independence—but you can’t export it. Of course, our own independence was influenced by British thinking and actions but ours was sui generis. It came out of our roots and our conditions, and it has to come out of the roots of people to have viability.

How free is Ukraine’s press one year after the revolution?

The press is free. There is some of the best writing and editorial political commentary in the world found here. The Weekly Mirror is one of the best papers in the world; their writing is even better than the New York Times or Le Monde. With respect to television journalism, many stations are owned by oligarchs so the tradition of television being the media of record has yet to be found. But the economics of newspapers and television are very difficult. Inevitably they reflect the views of their owners. Still, it’s better though than just one point of view—that of the state’s—which was the case five years ago.

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