Thank you Paul Kirk for that gracious introduction. Paul has been a great friend of the Kennedy family and the Kennedy Library for many years. We’re honored by his friendship, and grateful for all he’s done to support the Profile in Courage Award over the years.
In “Profiles in Courage,” President Kennedy wrote: “A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.” Our honoree this evening vividly embodies my brother’s words, and is renowned throughout the world for his extraordinary courage.
As we all know, at a critical moment in his nation’s history, he took a strong and courageous stand for what he knew was right. He risked his life – and nearly lost it – in the ongoing struggle for democracy in Ukraine. His story is the story of honor, decency, and the will of the people triumphing over fraud, deceit and intimidation. And because of his great courage, the rule of law prevailed against the oppressive rule of the powerful over the powerless.
A few months ago, the world held its breath as the “Orange Revolution” took place in Ukraine. We were transfixed by the scenes of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filling Independence Square in Kiev as Ukrainian citizens, young and old alike, defended the principle of free and fair elections against the mendacity and corruption of the old regime. Night after night, they stood tall in the bitter winter cold and warmed the hearts and minds of the world with their human chains that blocked access to government buildings.
Throughout those dramatic and nerve-racking days of last fall, Viktor Yushchenko was their unquestioned leader and moral authority. He was clear about the ultimate goal – upholding the right of the Ukrainian people to choose their president freely and fairly. He was clear that non-violence was the only acceptable means to achieve that great goal. As he insisted to his supporters: “A path to a compromise through the people demonstrating their will is the only path that will help us find a way out of this conflict.”
The Orange Revolution succeeded because of his courage and the courage of the Ukrainian people. He won the new election, and became the third president of a free and independent Ukraine. He stood up for what he believed in, even in the face of direct threats to his personal safety. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic example to the world of a true “profile in courage.”
Viktor Yushchenko was born in northeastern Ukraine into a family of teachers. He chose to pursue a career in finance, beginning as a village accountant and rising to ever-higher positions in the banking system of the former Soviet Union. He continued in that career when the Cold War ended and Ukraine gained its independence, and, in 1993, he became head of its national bank.
His skillful management of Ukraine’s monetary system led President Leonid Kuchma to name him Prime Minister in 1999, and he boldly pursued sometimes unpopular but needed reforms that laid the foundation for the impressive economic growth of Ukraine over the past five years.
But others feared his rising popularity and in 2001 he was dismissed from the government. Refusing to be silenced, he became the head of a political party and helped create a bloc of reform parties called “Our Ukraine,” which won a plurality of seats in the parliamentary elections of 2002 and became a significant force in the legislature.
As the presidential election approached in 2004, it was obvious that he appealed to Ukrainian citizens in ways no other politician could. His popularity was higher than any others because he had the ability to relate to people’s lives, and was so clearly seeking public office for the public good, not private gain.
These qualities endeared him to the people, but made him a special threat to the corrupt leaders of the regime in power. Nothing – not even a vicious attempt to poison him – could break his spirit and prevent him from speaking out against corruption and for a democracy grounded firmly in the rule of law.
During the presidential campaign last year, the playing field was anything but level. The government’s candidate was supported by most of Ukraine’s powerful politicians and business leaders, who were threatened by his strong anti-corruption stand.
State-owned media shamelessly opposed him, and independent media were subjected to violence and intimidation in a largely successful effort to silence their support.
Opposition rallies faced constant harassment. Government employees, factory workers and students were threatened with dismissal unless they opposed him. President Putin of Russia openly intervened by declaring his support for the government candidate and sending a team of his top political advisers to assist him.
But perhaps the most alarming incident during the campaign occurred when Mr. Yushchenko became mysteriously ill, from what doctors later determined was an attempt to poison him.
It took tremendous courage on his part and the part of his family to continue the campaign in spite of this vicious criminal act that threatened to take his life.
The atmosphere of intimidation and corruption persisted throughout the campaign and the election itself. In the first round of balloting, international observers cited numerous problems and irregularities. Names were missing from voting rolls, and local election officials were excluded at the last minute from their posts. Nevertheless, Mr. Yushchenko prevailed by a small margin and advanced to the second round as the opposition candidate.
As the stakes increased, so did the electoral fraud and abuse. Absentee ballots were falsified to inflate the government’s support. Suspiciously high turnouts took place in key government strongholds. Intimidation and even violence occurred at polling places.
In desperation, before the legal challenges were resolved, the election commission announced preliminary results showing its candidate had prevailed.
In outrage and anger, Yushchenko supporters poured into the streets, their ribbons and scarves creating a sea of orange. They vowed court challenges, non-violent protests, and other civil disobedience to overturn the fraudulent result. Demonstrators in Kiev numbered in the hundreds of thousands and peacefully blocked the parliament and other government buildings. Secretary of State Powell’s declaration that the United States did not “recognize the legitimacy of the results” also had a galvanizing effect.
The Ukrainian Supreme Court prohibited official publication of the election result, pending its review of the charges of fraud. The parliament approved a resolution calling the election invalid, adopted a motion of no confidence in the election commission, and later adopted a motion of no confidence in the government.
Finally, the Supreme Court declared the election invalid because of the widespread fraud, and ruled that there should be another vote. The parliament passed a series of reforms to reduce the chance of fraud. Mr. Yushchenko was the clear winner, and the people’s will was vindicated. When he took the oath of office, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians looked on, and people watched in awe throughout the world.
In his inaugural address, he said: “We have already taken an irrevocable step towards democracy. Only democracy guards the most valuable things for every person – family and children, peace and order, work and well-being. Only in a democratic state are the highest values those of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity. Only in a democratic Ukraine can the bright palette of languages, cultures and views become the country’s wealth.”
These dramatic events last fall marked a historic turning point in Ukraine’s long journey. The path was difficult, but the people never abandoned their dream of a true democracy, and it was Viktor Yushchenko’s unparalleled courage that made it possible.
Ukraine’s poet laureate, Taras Shevchenko, brilliantly wrote in 1845, in an earlier time of great ferment, “The spirit is immortal and free in spite of the tyrants, and human speech cannot be stifled.” Because of our honoree, the people of Ukraine know that those words have great power in the 21st century as well.
I know how much President Kennedy would have cherished this occasion. Rarely, if ever, in our time has there been a more vivid example of a Profile in Courage.
Last weekend, several of us in the Kennedy family visited the church in Richmond where Patrick Henry made his famous appeal in March of 1775, urging the people of Virginia to join the people of Massachusetts in the struggle for independence.
Responding to those who urged caution, he said: “It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. The gentlemen may cry, Peace, peace! But there is no peace… Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle?…Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty of give me death!”
As I thought of those inspiring words, I wondered who President Kennedy would think best exemplifies their spirit today – the love of freedom and the courage to build a nation dedicated to that principle. I’m sure that President Kennedy would think of President Yushchenko.
In his own Inaugural Address, my brother pledged that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” President Yushchenko has shown the world that there are extraordinary leaders who feel that way today, and who have the courage to live by them. He deserves our nation’s admiration and strong support, and so do the Ukrainian people.
Persons of good will throughout the world are heartened by his shining example that freedom, tolerance and hope are the common birthright of every human being on our planet.
I know how much President Kennedy would have valued this moment, and we are honored that his daughter Caroline is here this evening to present this Profile in Courage Award. She’s the inspirational leader for the library, an accomplished author in her own right, a devoted mother, and a powerful and eloquent symbol of the values her father cherished. It’s a privilege to introduce her to you now – Caroline Kennedy.
Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy on presenting the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, April 5, 2005.