Yushchenko defends sacking his government

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The Independent Online

His face still has the scars of the poison that nearly killed him as well as the cares of office after a bloodletting in which he sacked an architect of the "orange revolution" that brought him to power.

President Viktor Yush-chenko of Ukraine was in London yesterday where he explained that he had to sack his entire government after a few months in office because the economy was heading for disaster. "It was not an easy choice, he told an audience at the Chatham House think-tank. "I had to put on the scales the team and the future of Ukraine. I chose the future of Ukraine."

The former prime minister Julia Tymoshenko, known as the revolution's orange princess, has defected to the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections next June after being sacked last month.

Mr Yushchenko said he acted because in seven months the economic growth rate had fallen from 6.5 per cent to minus 1.3 per cent, the trade balance had shrunk from $2.5bn (£1.4bn) to $100m and investment had slumped fourfold. He said the economy had since shown signs of improvement.

Mr Yushchenko, who also met Tony Blair in his capacity as EU president yesterday, said: "We are convinced that the key area in foreign policy should be the European aspirations of the Ukraine. That is integration to the EU and integration to Nato."

He wants to see the creation of a free-trade area between the Ukraine and the European Union within 12 to 15 months and is calling for Ukraine to become an EU member in three years' time. He hopes for an "action plan" in April or May next year to join Nato, and is pushing for membership of the World Trade Organisation by December.

It is unlikely, however, that Ukraine's European objectives will be achieved within that timescale as the EU is grappling with enlargement fatigue, and the US has said it is unlikely to discuss Ukrainian membership of Nato before 2007-08. Mr Yushchenko's face and ears are badly pockmarked from the dioxin poisoning aimed at scotching his bid for the presidency last year. He told the BBC before flying to London that those behind the attack were probably Ukrainians, and not Russians as aides had earlier suggested.

Mr Yushchenko came to power after Ukrainians took to the streets amid a prolonged court battle over disputed election results, and ensured the defeat of the Russian-backed Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich. The President promised that the parliamentary elections would be "transparent and honest" and under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

He was in London to receive from the Queen the first Chatham House prize for the statesman deemed to have made the most significant contribution to improving international relations. Asked about the timing of the prize, which was announced as the Ukrainian government was unravelling, the director of Chatham House, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, said the prize was awarded for events from mid-2004 to mid-2005, "so it was before the recent events. And it's not being given for domestic events."