The man who served as Ukraine’s first independent president, between 1991 and 1994, tells David Blair he fears that his country could simply dissolve, with the largely Russian-speaking Crimea breaking away
Just over two decades ago, Leonid Kravchuk travelled to a state dacha in one of Europe’s largest forests to sign an agreement that buried the Soviet Union and allowed the birth of Ukraine.
But the man who served as its first independent president, between 1991 and 1994, is deeply worried about his creation. In the aftermath of the revolution, he fears that his country could simply dissolve, with the largely Russian-speaking Crimea breaking away.
“The danger is enormous,” he told The Sunday Telegraph, speaking before Russian forces proved him right by occupying key installations across Crimea on Friday.
“There is direct Russian interference in the political life of Crimea,” added Mr Kravchuk. “Russia is already considering a simplified procedure to offer Russian citizenship to Ukrainians, not only in Crimea but in other regions too. There are ideas to turn Ukraine into a federation. This is very dangerous.”
Mr Kravchuk pointed out that Britain and America have a special obligation to safeguard Ukraine. A few months after he left office, both countries joined Russia to sign the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, binding them to uphold the “independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”.
“America, the United Kingdom and Russia should make a statement on this matter, as they are guarantors of our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the 80-year-old senior statesman.
As for the new government in Kiev, he urged it to make clear that Ukraine is destined to join the EU, regardless of Russia’s objections.
“Today we are in a situation of uncertainty because the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement has not been signed. The new authorities should shape both their domestic and foreign policy,” he said. They should also take a tough line on the new crisis of separatism in Crimea, he added.
Advocating the break-up of Ukraine is banned by law — and Mr Kravchuk called for this to be enforced.
“Separatism is a criminal offence,” he said. “The general prosecutor’s office and Ukrainian security service should give their strong opinion. You cannot stop this only with your words. They should act consistently and in accordance with the law.”
When the mass protests began in December, Mr Kravchuk — who has a reputation as a consummate deal-maker — tried to mediate. Having begun his career as a Communist apparatchik in the old Soviet Union and retired as president of an aspiring European democracy, he is nothing if not versatile.
He chaired tense, late-night negotiations.
“I constantly asked both government and opposition not to use force and weapons, because it could lead Ukraine into great trouble. I called them to sit down at the negotiating table. But it was too difficult for them. As it turned out, it was all in vain.”
On Dec 7, before any blood had been shed, he privately advised Viktor Yanukovych, the fallen president, to make a gesture by dismissing the government. At the time, this concession might have been enough to satisfy the crowds and prevent the revolution.
But Mr Yanukovych would not hear of the idea. He was eventually forced into it more than a month later — too late to make any difference.
Asked who was responsible for the failure of his efforts, Mr Kravchuk blamed the deposed president. “I think that a person who has the most authority should always carry the biggest blame,” he said.
As for what should happen to Mr Yanukovych now, Mr Kravchuk called for him to stand trial in Ukraine. “If he is proven guilty, he must be punished according to both Ukrainian and international laws. But it shouldn’t come to a lynching,” he said.
With the looming danger of Ukraine simply breaking up, Mr Kravchuk confessed to a sense of despair. For all the idealism of the demonstrators, he doubts whether the revolution will lead to genuine democracy.
“As the man who signed the acts which led to emergence of our state, I was terribly upset by [the revolution]. But I’m just as upset right now,” he said.
“I don’t see any order or democratic system. You can’t build a democracy using anti-democratic means.”