Mon, May 02, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Poland's Walesa says he kept crisis in check in Ukraine

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Former Polish president and Nobel peace prize winner Lech Walesa has claimed personal credit for averting a bloodbath during Ukraine's "orange revolution" last year.

In a remarkable account of the behind-the-scenes tensions, Walesa says that he convinced Viktor Yanukovych, who had declared victory in rigged presidential elections, to revoke an order to the armed forces to crack down on tens of thousands of protesters in Kiev's main square.

Civil war fear

At the time there were fears that violence could spark a civil war in Ukraine, where the mostly Russian-speaking east backed Yanukovych, while Kiev and the west of the country hosted huge demonstrations in support of his eventual usurper, Viktor Yushchenko.

"[Yanukovych] said an order had already been given to the security forces," Walesa told the Observer newspaper on Saturday.

"I told him: `You will lose. You have no chance to win. The only choice you have is between defeat with bloodshed and defeat without,'" he said.

Throughout the crisis, Yanukovych publicly insisted on a peaceful resolution, but events were on a knife-edge.

At the time, no one was certain of the loyalty of the security forces.

As Moscow and the West backed different candidates, Ukraine was paralyzed and thousands ensconced themselves in central Kiev, waving the orange flags of Yushchenko's party.

On Nov. 23, Yushchenko invited the former shipyard electrician -- Poland's president from 1990 to 1995 -- to mediate with Yanukovych.

Walesa arrived as the Yushchenko camp was emboldened by the Ukrainian supreme court's decision to postpone recognition of the disputed election results.

Yushchenko's allies claimed that Russian special forces troops were already in Ukraine, waiting for the order to crush the protests.

A Ukrainian Interior Ministry officer said 10,000 of his troops were on standby.

"If you don't withdraw your orders, you will lose after bloodshed, and perhaps eventually be hanged from a lamppost," Walesa said he told Yanukovych.

"I said: `Here, with these witnesses in this office, will you tell me that you will order those people on the streets to be beaten, or not?'"

"After this talk of bloodshed, he said he would withdraw the command," he said.

For the nation

Walesa won Yanukovych's promise to open negotiations with Yushchenko, "for the sake of Ukraine."

"So I went to the people in the square and told them: `In this situation, the real threat is provocation, so don't let yourselves be provoked,'" he said.

A member of the presidential press service could not confirm the details of Walesa's meeting with Yanukovych, but acknowledged the contribution that he had made to initiating the round-table talks that broke the deadlock.

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