Shortly before the start of Euro 2012, which is jointly hosted by Ukraine and Poland, TIME’s Simon Shuster sat down to interview Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev about the controversies surrounding his ongoing feud with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is now sitting in prison on abuse-of-office charges. Many heads of European government have said they will boycott the finals of the European soccer championship rather than be seen sitting with Yanukovych. Here are excerpts from the interview:
TIME: I covered your presidential campaign in 2009, and I remember the hopes that were associated with it. There was the hope of ending the political gridlock that followed the Orange Revolution of 2004. When you won the presidency in 2010, your team was strong. A lot was accomplished. I saw the preparations for Euro 2012, and they look great. But there is one question that is threatening to spoil the whole picture: the Tymoshenko scandal. The fact that your rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, went to prison during your administration looks like a political vendetta. Why were you unable to avoid the Tymoshenko scandal? Why did you let this happen?
Yanukovych: O.K., I will be concise. Let me follow the events as they happened. First, when I came to power, my team, my Cabinet of ministers, we all saw that we have a catastrophic situation with gas prices. When we paid our first monthly bills with Gazprom [Russia’s natural-gas-export monopoly], we realized that our income from the sale of gas in Ukraine covers only half of those bills. We paid $1 billion per month for gas, and $500 million of that was pure losses. That is $6 billion per year. During the financial crisis, and even without the crisis, nobody wants to pay extra money, especially not so much money. And there was no explanation for this … How could the [former] government have agreed to sign such a contract? This is where the crux of the matter was buried. It turns out that the Tymoshenko government was reviewing this issue … Investigators found a transcript of this government meeting, in which many ministers spoke out against signing this contract, saying that this contract is, to put it mildly, not a good deal for Ukraine. Some said it was actually a form of treason against the state of Ukraine, that it is impossible for us to bear the weight of this contract. So the government did not approve this directive. And what does Tymoshenko do? Tymoshenko goes to Moscow for these negotiations, takes part in the negotiations and begins forcing the head of [state gas firm] Naftogaz of Ukraine to sign the contract … She exceeded her authority, she broke the law in a way that led to severe consequences for Ukraine … We have a problem to this day with gas.
But now the Tymoshenko case is also a problem for Ukraine. European leaders have demanded her release, and they have moved to freeze ties with Ukraine until she goes free. That is a serious problem. Why are you unable to resolve it?
People have come asking me for various resolutions. The simplest resolution is just to let Tymoshenko go. My reaction to that is this: I can’t act outside the framework of the law … The President does not have such instruments. I have to do everything by the letter of the law. So when could these questions [of her release] arise? They can arise when the legal process is finished. When it is finished, when the courts have made their decisions, including the European Court of Human Rights, then it is in the President’s authority to grant a pardon. And if this time comes, there is a procedure for this. But until the courts have made their decision, in a transparent, legal and procedurally sound way, I do not have the power to do this.
But do you want to?
Of course. Of course I do. Listen, I was in the opposition twice. I was in power twice before this, and this is my third time. Before this I was Prime Minister twice, and now I am President. The political process is constant, and our goal is for it to move forward under civilized rules, under the laws and for there to be no chance for politicians to abuse their power. To this end, we have done a lot with the criminal code. European experts gave very high marks to [the proposed amendments to] this document. We of course want Ukraine to have this [new] criminal code, and we sought to do everything for Ukraine to have it and for us to work under this document.
So your new legal code is meant to prevent any future government from filing political charges against its predecessors? Is that the goal of your reform?
I don’t stop to think about this much. But in our situation, we do not have the goal of locking up our political opponents. I can prove this, with facts. Let the opposition say the opposite. But watch the television, and you will see that the ruling government does not appear there at all. The opposition takes up 99% [of airtime]. They behave in a radical way, and nobody locks them up.
But they have said that you should be locked up. They accuse you of various crimes. How do you take to that?
If they have arguments, if they have proof, I will not run away from the law. I am not afraid for myself. I’ve been through everything in my life, and I’m not afraid of these trials.
As you mentioned, you know what it’s like to be in the opposition. In 2006, for instance, Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko tried to open criminal cases against you. Back then, after the Orange Revolution, did you feel that those cases were a kind of political revenge against you, against the government that the revolution defeated?
You know, I wasn’t even thinking of myself so much at the time. I was thinking of the fact that massive political layoffs had begun in Ukraine. At the time, in 2005, more than 20,000 people had been laid off. I appealed to the new administration, to President [Viktor] Yushchenko [leader of the Orange Revolution], I appealed to him to stop firing people for their political affiliation. It even came to the point where lists of parents who had voted for President Yanukovych were posted inside schools. Their children were being belittled because of this.
What about the criminal cases against your close allies? Where they political?
Yes, they also took us to court. This practice did exist. And we should have changed the criminal code to stop this cycle. We needed to do that back then. But at that time, the new administration could not do it. But eventually we made it to 2010, when I started this process. It was my personal initiative. I think that regardless of who has come to power and who is in the opposition, everyone should have the ability to live freely on this soil. And we have to get used to this … But an official who commits a crime under the existing laws does not want to admit to that crime. He says, “I am good, but the law is bad.”
These existing laws were used to imprison Tymoshenko as well as her Ministers of Interior and Defense. Are those the cases you’re referring to?
The Minister of Defense, [Valery] Ivashchenko, his case is not finished. Maybe they will acquit him. It’s possible. And if they acquit him, thank God for that. Let him go free and not get busted anymore for these things. But just look at the charges. He signed off on the sale of a firm that was valued at more than $100 million, and it was sold for some laughable sum, 9 or 10 million hryvnia [the Ukrainian currency]. You understand? So that’s all clear. The procedures for that sale were violated … and that is what he has suffered for. But me, personally, I don’t wish him any harm. I know him, I know how he made this deal. But he violated the law. The same thing happened with [former Interior Minister] Lutsenko. What was his problem? It turns out he really loved his chauffeur. And hey, far be it from me to forbid love. Love him as much as you want, pay him extra money out of your own pocket. Give him all the gifts you want. Give him an apartment, two apartments, a house. But he did this at the government’s expense … That’s also illegal. In any case, I don’t want to judge. The courts do the judging. But from what I read in the press, from what I have heard, that is a violation.
But as you saw yourself while in opposition, political cases do happen in Ukraine. Courts come under pressure from the political leadership. As you also saw, political leadership changes. Ukraine is, after all, a democracy. And there is a chance that Tymoshenko or her allies will return to power. Do you worry that they would use even your new criminal code against you and your allies? Is this possible?
Of course this is possible. This possibility exists. We are now trying to stop this cycle … I want for their to be a humanitarian element here — that’s one thing. And the second is for us to stop this practice. It should never happen again. We need to build a modern system that enjoys the trust of our citizens and the trust of our partners in Europe, in the world. We are thinking about this question very seriously right now.
If we could turn to another kind of political trial, the one involving the Euro 2012 championship. Various politicians in Europe have said they will boycott the tournament and have already boycotted a summit in Ukraine that you were then forced to cancel. How does this influence your foreign policy? What impact does it have on your decisionmaking?
Of course I am disappointed by the premature conclusions of some European politicians who do not understand the depth of these issues and rush to make political pronouncements. This practice pushes me away from Europe. It pushes me away. For instance, they see the photograph of Tymoshenko with bruises, and they start making political pronouncements. First of all, Tymoshenko refused to undergo an official medical inspection [after her alleged beating]. Why did she refuse? This [inspection] is common practice, international practice. Also, there was an investigation done by the general prosecutor [into whether or not Tymoshenko was beaten in prison]. There were investigations by independent journalists. She did not disappear for a second from the surveillance cameras, and nobody put a finger on her. Nothing was found. None of the personnel, none of the witnesses confirmed that any force was used against her.
Are you saying this is all part of her p.r. campaign? That she did this to herself to attract attention?
You have to understand, Europe exploded at this news. They started making judgments. First off, for anyone to figure this question out, or to figure any question out, you need a bit of time. As soon as I heard about this, I gave the order to immediately investigate this. I didn’t believe that, considering Ukraine’s situation, corrections officers or anyone around her would lay a finger on Tymoshenko. Psychologically it’s not possible. But afterward, the European politicians said all kinds of things, and none of them have expressed the possibility that they jumped the gun. Politics, above all, is the ability to control your emotions. You can talk and blabber about whatever you want. But if you don’t value your words, if you don’t give them weight and instead just say whatever, then your words have no weight.
You said that such hasty judgments push you away from Europe. But the Tymoshenko case has also been criticized in Moscow. Tymoshenko negotiated that gas deal with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and when Tymoshenko was imprisoned for that deal, Putin came out looking like her accomplice. Where does that leave Ukraine geopolitically? Where will you turn?
From the very beginning, when this stew was coming to a boil, I had my first meeting with Putin, and I told him: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the Russian people cannot blame you for anything. You defended the interests of the state, and you did this brilliantly. Ukraine also cannot blame you for breaking any rules. It was Tymoshenko who broke the rules. I don’t know how you convinced her [to sign that contract], what arguments you presented. This is your business. It is your artistry. And personally, I don’t think anyone’s tongue would turn to accuse you of any violation.
Amid all this noise about political boycotts, what are your expectations for the Euro 2012?
We try to be philosophical about it. We have a lot of friends. This trial that’s going on, it is a very sensitive trial for us, but I don’t think it will reduce the number of friends we have in the world.
Not even in Europe?
I’m sure that the number of friends we have is only growing. We are open. We are not fooling anyone. We are pursuing a stable policy … We passed the tax code, the pension reform, the budget code, the customs code, now the criminal code. No one could do that in 20 years. People close their eyes and pretend not to see these things. Well, so be it. We’ll do it just for ourselves … If Europe has decided to take a pause, then so be it. It’ll probably work out for the best both for us and for Europe. If Europe does not see us as part of Europe, we will build Europe here in Ukraine.
But Euro 2012 was supposed to be a chance for you to integrate with Europe. Has this chance been missed?
Of course Euro 2012 is a project for our image. It would have been easiest of all for me to refuse it. My predecessors were missing deadlines and did everything possible for [the tournament] to collapse. I could have refused to carry on with it and blamed it all on them. I could have said I have no time. Why should I spend 40 billion hryvnia? But I understood that I won’t forgive myself for this in the future, and the new generation that’s coming of age would not forgive me.
So how do you feel about this moment of glory getting drowned out in all these scandals?
You know what? Time will pass, and everything will fall back into place. Let’s see in one year … The main thing that we have to keep in mind and not forget is that we cannot leave the framework of the law. We will never work outside that framework. I have told everyone, I have warned them, that we must examine every step we take under a microscope. We cannot under any circumstances cross these legal lines, because judgment will come … If someone violated something, then in some way they will be punished … Those who violated [the law] will get what’s coming to them. Both sides will have to face the consequences. If we put rule of law above all, then we must be very tough in keeping to this. That’s what I support.
Sure, but look at what happened yesterday in the hall of parliament. That did not look like rule of law. There was another brawl, a physical fight, between the parliamentarians over the status of the Russian language in Ukraine. One lawmaker had to leave in an ambulance after his head was cracked open. What does this say about the political climate in Ukraine?
It’s not just in Ukraine. This happens in other countries, although perhaps in Ukraine it’s harsher. In any case, the voters will judge us. They are watching all of this. And if you ask me, Do I like it when this goes on in parliament? Of course I don’t like it. It’s a low level of culture. This is the language of ultimatums and force. But it goes on from both sides. First one side beats the other, then the other beats the first. At some point this too will end. We have to keep believing that it will.