Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, who arrived in India on Sunday evening for a four-day state visit, is prepared to challenge Russia’s dominance of the Indian weapons market and sees “enormous potential” for bilateral trade with India. Before leaving for New Delhi he spoke to Vladimir Radyuhin at his official residence in Kyiv. Excerpts:
India and Ukraine marked 20 years of diplomatic relations this year. What place does India take in Ukraine’s foreign policy and what are your hopes for the coming visit?
Over the past 20 years, our two countries have built a relationship of partnership, friendship and constructive cooperation in many spheres. My current visit to India, the first by a Ukrainian head of state in 10 years, is designed to give a new impetus to our relations after a period of drift under the previous Ukrainian administration. I hope for significant intensification of our economic ties and political contacts at the highest level.
Was the drift you mentioned due to former President Viktor Yushchenko prioritising the western vector of Ukraine’s foreign policy?
It was not a question of priorities. In 2005-2010, Ukraine went through difficult political processes. President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko were at loggerheads with each other and with Parliament which made it hard to conduct an effective foreign policy. Today, all branches of power in Ukraine work in concert and this has enabled us to launch the first comprehensive programme of economic, social and political reforms in 20 years since independence.
Ukraine is India’s second largest trade partner after Russia in the former Soviet Union. What are the most promising areas for bilateral cooperation?
Our trade, which currently stands at a fairly high level of $3 billion, has enormous potential for growth because our economies are mutually complementary. We are offering India cooperation in fields where Ukraine is very strong — aviation, space, energy, metallurgy, shipbuilding, engineering, chemistry and infrastructure building. Agriculture and tourism are also attractive areas for cooperation. There are many opportunities for Indian business in Ukraine. We have enacted legislation to promote public-private partnership and created favourable conditions for foreign investment.
Ukraine is eager to expand defence cooperation with India. However, many in India are concerned that Ukraine also supplies arms to Pakistan, which engages in terror against India. How do you see the situation?
This is a very sensitive issue and we try not to politicise it. We strictly comply with United Nations’ bans and restrictions and honour all our international obligations. We take account of all factors and act with restraint to avoid provoking enmity or — God forbid — war between nations, but on the contrary, to promote peace and security.
As two biggest defence manufacturers in the former Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine inevitably compete for Indian contracts. Do you think Ukraine can grab a bigger piece of the pie?
It’s a buyer’s market. We have a very potent defence industry which turns out a wide range of quality systems that are competitive in international markets. We are ready to let our Indian partners closely study our products and decide what is the best for them.
You have said that while integration into Europe is a “strategic priority” for Ukraine, you also aspire to have closer ties with Russia. However, European leaders say Ukraine must choose between the European Union and the Russia-led integration projects. How can you resolve the dilemma?
It’s wrong to force an either/or choice on us. It is in the national interest of Ukraine to look both East and West. Our trade with the EU amounts to $45 billion.
We’re looking to Europe in reforming our legislative and judicial system and in trying to attain high standards of democracy and human rights. But then, our trade with Russia and other former Soviet states exceeds $60 billion, and we can’t ignore the interests of our manufacturers. Geopolitically, we’re destined to be a bridge between Europe and Russia.
Will Ukraine join the Customs Union set up by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?
We’re currently harmonising our laws, rules and regulations with those of the Customs Union. It’s a long road but if we don’t do it, our producers will face discrimination and lose the market. Time will show how far we will go in integrating with the Customs Union.
Ukraine seeks to slash imports of expensive natural gas from Russia, but Russia’s Gazprom says this would be a breach of your long-term contract which has a take-or-pay provision. Do you think the two countries are heading for another gas war?
We will certainly reach an amicable settlement. We just don’t have the money to pay for Russian gas almost $200 more [for 1,000 cubic metres] than Europeans pay. We’re looking for alternative supplies, replacing gas with coal and planning to produce synthetic gas from coal. By keeping gas prices for Ukraine high, Russia is losing Europe’s biggest gas market of 70 billion cubic metres a year.
The Opposition threatened mass protests against alleged violations in the recent parliamentary elections, which brought victory to your party. Do you think another “orange revolution” may be possible in Ukraine?
Public mood has changed. Some protest sentiments are there, but radicals do not have much support. People understand that belt-tightening in crisis is a necessary and temporary measure. The government continues to honour its social obligations despite the crisis — salaries and pensions are rising, even if slower than one would like to. The reforms we have launched will soon begin to bear fruit.
Have you been to India before?
I have only transited India on the way to other destinations. I’m very keen to get first-hand experience of India and hope we’ll be able to open a new chapter in our relations.