Page last updated at 16:17 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Ukraine's leader urges political unity

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Kiev

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has said his country must solve its political crisis if it is to survive the effects of the global economic downturn.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during the BBC interview
Mr Yushchenko's popularity ratings have sunk

Last week, MPs again formed a fragile pro-Western coalition in parliament - along the same party lines as that which collapsed in September.

The move brings hope of an end to a prolonged political deadlock amid a bitter rift between the president and his ally-turned-rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

"I agree that the political crisis doesn't help solve the economic crisis," Mr Yushchenko told the BBC. "We need to find a way out of the political crisis."

These are testing times for Ukraine. The country has been badly hit by the global financial downturn.

The national currency, the hryvnia, is plummeting against the US dollar, and the country's chief source of foreign currency reserves - steel exports - is melting away as demand dries up around the world.

'Lack of political will'

The president said he would support any coalition that would help break the deadlock, but added that he would continue to pursue his own policies.

A convertor at the Ilych steel factory, eastern Ukraine
Ukraine's steel exports have been badly hit by the economic crisis

The collapse of the governing coalition was triggered in part by deep divisions over how to respond to the summer's war between Georgia and Russia.

Mr Yushchenko said he believed the conflict had contributed to Nato's reluctance to offer Kiev a fast-track to membership at a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers in Brussels earlier this month.

"There is a lack of political will - both within Nato and outside it - to carry out the fundamental principles that the organisation is based on."

Asked if he believed that was because of the Russian show of strength in August, he responded: "To me, that seems obvious."

But he said he would continue to push his country towards joining the bloc, despite strong opposition from Moscow, and from voters at home.

"During the 20th Century, Ukraine declared its independence six times. Five times, we lost it," he said. "There was one reason for this. We had no international guarantees to back us, our territorial integrity and sovereignty."

'We are democrats'

Much of the optimism generated by mass street protests - the so-called Orange Revolution - four years ago has evaporated.

Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko in 2005
Tymoshenko and Yushchenko were allies during the Orange Revolution

Many Ukrainians feel disappointed by the slow pace of change, both in increasing the standard of living, and combating corruption.

But the president defended what he called the fundamental achievements of the Orange Revolution.

"Four years ago, we could not hold free elections. We were told whom we had to vote for. And if we wanted to gather and talk about public issues - we didn't have the right to public assembly."

"Whatever problems we've had over the past four years," he added, "we have demonstrated one thing: we are democrats. To any challenge, we have a democratic answer."

The democratic answer to the current crisis, though, is a very fragile alliance between the president's party and that of the prime minister.

But the intense rivalry, and ill-feeling, between the two former allies has not abated, and could yet lead to the coalition's collapse.

President Yushchenko's personal popularity ratings have sunk even lower than the value of the national currency: most polls suggest only around 4% of voters approve of his performance as president.

Viktor Yushchenko said this was due to the fact that he tackles issues - like Nato membership - that are unpopular with the voters.

"If you care about your popularity rating, it is better not to speak about this," he said.

"But if you care about the next generation of children, and if you're a decent politician, there is no other way, other than to wake up every morning and tell your country that we should be self-sufficient."

Presidential elections are due to be held in a year's time. Mr Yushchenko has not confirmed whether or not he intends to stand.

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