'EU moet Oekraïne van Rusland redden' (en)
Auteur: Andrew Rettman
BRUSSELS - Viktor Yushchenko almost gave his life for a free Ukraine.
At a dinner in Vienna in September 2004 - a few months before the Orange Revolution swept him to power - somebody fed him a near-lethal dose of dioxin.
He no longer has visible scars.
But the 59-year-old politician told EUobserver in an interview in Brussels on Wednesday (5 June) that traces of the toxin still cause painful skin inflammations and that it has permanently damaged nerves in his legs.
He has no doubt who ordered his assassination.
"We all know who was serving the food at that dinner - they are in Russia right now," he said.
Speaking some 10 years after the dramatic events, he warned that President Vladimir Putin poses a grave threat to his country.
He said Moscow is trying to "isolate" Ukraine in Europe.
"Moscow gives you political isolation. It is turning Ukraine into Belarus II and it is turning Yanukovych into Lukashenko II," he noted, referring to Ukraine's current leader, Viktor Yanukovych, and Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko - Putin's autocratic ally on Ukraine's northern border.
He said Russia's "roadmap" for Ukraine has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few years.
It first signed a cripplingly expensive gas supply contract.
It then got Yanukovych to let its navy stay in Ukraine for another 25 years and to abandon plans to join Nato in return for a gas discount.
It is now lobbying Yanukovych to join the Russia-led "Eurasian Union," a new trade body, in a development that would destroy prospects of EU-Ukraine integration.
For its part, the EU has spent the time in technical talks on a political association and free trade pact.
It has also boycotted and damned Yanukovych for jailing opposition leaders, harassing media and rigging votes.
"Russia's plans are coming true 100 percent and to a large extent this is because we don't have a strong relationship with the European Union … If we don't have a dialogue with the EU, or if we have a weak dialogue - this is what makes Putin so successful," Yushchenko said.
Yushchenko retired from public life after losing badly in 2010 elections.
But he recently created a new NGO - the "Institute of the President - Viktor Yushchenko" - to promote EU-Ukraine integration.
Looking forward to an EU summit with former Soviet states in Vilnius in November, he said he will do "everything possible" to see EU leaders sign the political and trade treaty.
He described the pact in historic terms.
"During the 20th century, we declared independence six times and lost it five times … Our most important achievement in the past 21 years was to achieve independence once again. If we can get Ukraine into the family of European nations, this would be the second most important," he said.
"This course is a guarantee of our national sovereignty," he noted.
"The only thing needed to lose what we have gained is to have some 50-50 solution in Vilnius … Ukraine should never be left alone again," he added.
For their part, EU diplomats increasingly doubt if Ukraine will fulfil reform demands in time to sign at Vilnius.
They also doubt whether Yanukovych really wants to do it.
The status quo has enabled him and his allies to grow rich and build a strong power base that could last a generation. But if he is toppled in a democratic vote, he risks losing everything.
Yushchenko, who knows Ukraine's big men up close, said the EU should exploit the current ruling elite's mistrust of Moscow.
"I don't think the current Ukrainian leadership is interested in becoming Belarus II," he said.
"I don't know any Ukrainian oligarch who sends their children to study in Moscow … All their kids go to schools in Europe or in the US. They have their second residences in Europe, in London, Brussels, Spain, Italy, or in the US. They have business assets in Europe, in the US, all over the world, but not in Russia," he noted.
"Don't you think that the EU can motivate them to take the right political path?" he added.
He called Yanukovych's human rights abuses a "darkness in our lives."
When asked if the EU should put pen to paper in Vilnius even if Yanukovych's top political enemy, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is still in poor health in prison, he said: "This is time to think of 46 million Ukrainian people. Where will those people be two years from now?"
Meanwhile, Yushchenko's thesis - that geopolitics is more important than EU values - is eerily similar to Yanukovych's own public line.
Yushchenko lost power in 2010 in part due to corruption allegations.
His sudden re-emergence into public life to promote the EU-Ukraine treaty despite Kiev's poor record has prompted suspicion he is part of Yanukovych's PR machine.
"I wonder who is paying him to say these things," one EU diplomat remarked.
When asked by EUobserver if Ukrainian politics has made him rich, Yushchenko replied: "As of 1 January, I remember having less than $1 million in my bank account."
"I say these things because I am very deeply concerned and I am being extremely sincere with you," he added.
"No one paid me," he said.