Exiled Ukraine Premier Seeks to Regain Power, Though Not Crimea

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who’s formed a government-in-exile to try to regain power, said his country is ripe for more regime change.

Amid economic crisis and conflict in the country’s east, Ukrainians are disillusioned with the pro-European policies of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Azarov said. He’d restore economic ties and open borders with Russia once in power, though he isn’t ready to demand the return of Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March last year.

“Brainwashing propaganda convinced Ukrainians that Putin stole Crimea from Ukraine,” Azarov said in an Aug. 13 interview in Moscow, where he fled when former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid street protests last year. “The idea wouldn’t even have entered his head if there hadn’t been a coup d’etat.”

Azarov, who’s wanted on corruption charges by the authorities in Kiev and is under U.S. and European Union sanctions, was premier when Ukraine rejected an EU association agreement in 2013 in favor of closer links with Russia, prompting months of anti-government protests. Yanukovych sought refuge in Russia after clashes between police and protesters killed more than 100 people in Kiev in February last year. Azarov, 67, had resigned a month earlier as a gesture of “social and political compromise.”

‘No Future’

Just as nobody predicted Yanukovych’s fate six months before he was toppled, the driving force for removing Poroshenko will be ordinary people, said Azarov, who’s rejected the corruption allegations against him. His alternative government has no ties to the Kremlin and will seek support openly through the media from Ukrainians, while he’ll return to the country “when they need me,” he said.

Azarov’s committee “has no prospects” of success, Igor Bunin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said by phone.

“It’s like if Yanukovych would say that he wants to be president again,” Bunin said. “Azarov lost his popularity and his idea of returning to the old days has no future.”

Azarov, born and raised in Soviet Russia, kept a low profile in exile until he emerged at a Moscow news conference on Aug. 3 to announce the formation of a Committee for the Salvation of Ukraine, saying it would agitate for early elections to replace the existing authorities.

Kremlin ‘Consent’

The committee set out a program to restore Russian as an official language alongside Ukrainian and to make Ukraine a federal state, in line with demands of Kremlin-backed separatists in the country’s east, that would be neutral militarily.

An exile Ukrainian government in Russia “couldn’t possibly emerge without the consent of the Kremlin,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a former adviser in Putin’s first term who now heads Moscow’s Institute for National Strategy, said by phone.

“Putin still believes Ukraine will collapse economically and fall at his feet like an overripe pear,” Belkovsky said. “In this case it would be useful to have some politicians loyal to him.”

Putin concluded a three-day visit to Crimea on Wednesday. “Poroshenko pushed Crimea to Russia” and it would’ve been plunged into the same conflict raging in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions if it hadn’t “left” the country, Azarov said. It “would never have left” with Yanukovych in power, he said.

Crimea, Putin

“Whether it’s right or wrong, I’m not ready to judge Putin’s actions,” in Crimea, Azarov said. “Let the Russian people do that.”

He’d make the borders between the countries “absolutely open and then there won’t be any difference whether Crimea is called Russian or Ukrainian,” Azarov said.

Separatist areas in Donetsk and Luhansk should remain in Ukraine as Russia “isn’t interested” in them, Azarov said. The U.S. and the EU accuse Russia of sending troops and weapons to back rebels fighting government forces during 16 months of fighting that has killed more than 6,700 people, a charge Putin denies.

Russia proposed a common economic space with Ukraine before the revolution, while huge financial resources were needed to adapt to the EU’s requirements, Azarov said.

“Where will those come from?” he said. “Where the market is, that’s where our national interests are. If it’s in Russia, that means our national interest is here.”

His committee’s backed by “the best minds in Ukraine, which the current regime pushed out of the country,” including former ministers and members of parliament, Azarov said.

Appointed premier when Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, Azarov says he has no contact in Russia with his former chief. He acknowledges a sense of “guilt” over the conflict that erupted in Ukraine after he resigned.

Yanukovych “failed to carry out his main duty -- to defend constitutional order,” Azarov said. “My mistake was that I trusted Yanukovych to find a way out.”