Ousted Ukrainian President: ‘I Supported the Ostriches. What’s Wrong With That?’

“Are you saying that the president of a country lived on the territory of someone else’s private zoo?”

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 12topcrop

Since his ouster in February 2014, the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, has lived in exile in Russia and has mostly avoided the international media. But on Monday, the BBC released a perplexing interview with the fallen leader, covering everything from the current war in Ukraine’s east to the Maidan square protests that led to his ouster. The most fascinating, head-scratching exchange, however, has nothing to do with the hard politics of Ukraine and comes when BBC journalist Gabriel Gatehouse probes Yanukovych over corruption allegations and the former Ukrainian president’s opulent residence outside Kiev, which had a man-made lake, 24-carat gold bathroom fixtures, and a private zoo with ostriches.

After denying that he had embezzled funds from the Ukrainian state, Yanukovych goes on to say that the residence didn’t belong to him personally and that the ostriches in the zoo “just happened to be there.” When pressed about the zoo by Gatehouse, Yanukovych responds by asking, “I supported the ostriches, what’s wrong with that?” Gatehouse, struggling to keep a straight face, poses the hilarious question, “Are you saying that the president of a country lived on the territory of someone else’s private zoo?” A flustered Yanukovych replies, “You are asking the wrong questions.”

The exchange can be seen here:

While the most immediate reasons for the Maidan protests and Yanukovych’s fall had to do with his decision to back out of an association agreement with the European Union, allegations of pervasive corruption at the highest ranks of government spurred widespread discontent. Between the ostriches and the vintage car collection, Yanukovych’s opulent mansion has come to symbolize the decadence and corruption of the pre-revolutionary government.

Over the course of his political career, Yanukovych has earned a reputation for gaffes and clumsiness, which has inspired many Ukrainian videos mocking him on YouTube. Already, Yanukovych’s odd ostrich comments have sparked a series of memes on the Ukrainian Internet, with one company selling t-shirts featuring a cartoon ostrich saying “we just live here.”

Beyond the issue of the ostriches, Yanukovych used the interview to describe Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “tragedy” but that he no longer recognized the peninsula as Ukrainian territory. “[Kiev talks] about getting Crimea back. How? By war? Do we need another war?” Yanukovych, did, however, still seem to recognize that Donbass, the site of fighting between Russian-backed separatist forces and Ukrainian government troops, as part of sovereign Ukraine and urged Kiev to negotiate a deal with the separatists. Fighting in the east has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

Moscow has attributed Yanukovych’s ouster to what the Kremlin portrays as a violent coup led by fascists and organized by the West. Russia has cited this spurious version of events, along with its historic ties to Crimea, as the main justification for the peninsula’s annexation in March 2014 and its subsequent support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In Yanukovych’s comments to the BBC, the former president echoed the Kremlin’s version of events. “I warned that they would not stop at Maidan — that they would go further. And they went further.… They’ve broken up the country. They’ve drawn the whole world into this conflict.”

An extended version of the BBC interview can be seen here:

Photo credit: screen shot of BBC YouTube video.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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