Ukraine: Yanukovych – president by default?

Viktor Yanukovych was elected president not so much for his pro-Russian platform as because he was the only viable anti-Orange candidate. His narrow victory leaves him with a limited mandate and forces him to seek compromise, says Olena Tregub.
Olena Tregub
15 February 2010

Russian-leaning opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych’s narrow victory in the Ukrainian presidential election on 7 February is not so much his achievement as the failure of the Orange camp to unite and deliver on their promises. Yanukovych was the only alternative to the discredited incumbents and so was destined to become Ukrainian president “by default”.

Yanukovich in Lugansk

Victor Yanukovych: was destined to become Ukrainian president “by default” (photo: courtesy Party of Regions website).

Many in Ukraine question the legitimacy of Yanukovych’s victory with his 48.95% to Tymoshenko’s 45.47% of the vote.   Support for the leader of the Party of Regions has not increased:  he has lost hundreds of thousands of votes since the last presidential election in 2004.  Unlike all previous Ukrainian presidents, Yanukovych failed to secure an absolute majority in the runoff. More than a million votes were actually cast for the option “against all”, which was on the ballot just below the names of Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.

Ukrainians had no heroes in this election, but they knew precisely who to vote against - the current president Viktor Yushchenko, and the prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former Orange revolution allies and bitter enemies ever since.

Yushchenko was humiliated ending up with just over 5% of the vote, nowhere near the 52% he garnered in 2004. Tymoshenko’s disappointing first round result (10% behind the opposition leader) left her with little hope of winning the runoff.

The Orange leaders may have been rejected by Ukrainians, but the Orange revolution has not. Yanukovych did not convince the majority of Ukrainians to turn towards Russia or to give up democracy. In the presidential campaign the issue of the geopolitical choice between Russia and the West was actually overshadowed by much more acute economic problems. 

The Orange camp dashed people’s hopes for a  “Ukrainian miracle” -  integration with the EU, the elimination of corruption and putting all “bandits behind bars”.  Now, all that Yanukovych is expected to deliver is a “stable Ukraine”, his main campaign promise.

“At least Yanukovych doesn’t lie and doesn’t promise anything, unlike Tymoshenko”, says Tetyana Melnychenko, a child psychologist from Kyiv. “People around him have got him under control, whereas Yushchenko ran amok and no one could say anything”.

Yanukovych offered no new solutions for Ukraine’s problems, which might have attracted new supporters. Over the past five years he criticized the squabbling Orange government, except for the brief time when he was a prime minister himself. He nurtured his traditional electorate from the east and south of Ukraine, many of whom believed that his presidency was stolen in 2004 and viewed the 2010 election as a chance for a pay back. Yanukovych’s strategy in this election was not to scare off voters. He appeared composed and benign, while Tymoshenko’s aggressive and nervous behaviour worked against her.

Despite the fact that the election campaign was competitive, the choice was always between the two front-runners: Tymoshenko and Yanukovych. Both of them were too familiar for anyone to have any illusions about them. The voters’ gloom is reflected in a joke: “There is good and bad news: the good news is that Yulia Tymoshenko didn’t become a president, the bad news is that Viktor Yanukovych did”.

This election was devoid of positive emotions like hope and faith. People voted against rather than for. Tymoshenko exploited this, particularly in western and central Ukraine, which are known for their anti-Yanukovych stance. Her campaign ads : “Voting against all, you vote for Yanukovych” or “Staying at home – you vote for Yanukovych” helped to increase the turn-out in her favour.

Mykola Smereka, a university professor from Tymoshenko’s heartland in the Kyiv region, might no longer be an ardent supporter of Ukraine’s Eva Peron, but his negative views about Yanukovych are just what Tymoshenko needs in her post-election struggle.  “How can we allow ‘the Boor’ to become a president now, if we have already rejected him once? Is he not the same person who behaved fraudulently at the 2004 elections? Is he not the same former convict, illiterate clown and Russian pawn who will embarrass us in the world?” laments Mr. Smereka.

In 2004 Yanukovych was seen by many Ukrainians as a combination of mafia-connected Berlusconi and gaffe-prone Bush.  If the oligarchic clans of Donetsk had put a less controversial candidate forward at that time, the revolution would most probably not have taken place.

Since then the American political consultants generously funded by steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov have given Yanukovych an image makeover. Upgraded, Yanukovych began speaking literary Ukrainian and abandoned his criminal jargon.

Yanukovych was still a pro-Russian candidate. He promised the Russian language official status. He also reassured Russia that her fleet would be allowed to stay on when the lease on the Ukrainian Black Sea bases expires in 2017.  He will recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and indefinitely defer membership of NATO.

At the same time, Yanukovych tried to soften his “pro-Russian” stance. He developed an interest in advancing the Ukrainian position in the EU, sensing the economic benefits that might come from the West.  He also proposed a new deal to Moscow on the gas transit pipelines, which would divide ownership equally between Ukraine, Russia and the EU instead, as many feared, giving Russia a major stake in the venture.

Yanukovych’s progress in understanding Ukrainian national interests (however illusory it may have been) prevented Tymoshenko from recreating the clear-cut divisions of 2004, when a pro-Western democrat was fighting a pro-Russian autocrat. This failure cost her the election. 

Instead, Tymoshenko was too smart for her own good. By trying to flirt with Russia she lost voters in Western Ukraine. She also destroyed her image as a democratic figure. In the summer of 2009 she allied herself with Yanukovych in an attempt to usurp power through an amendment to the constitution, which would have abolished the popular election of the president and postponed parliamentary elections until 2014. Yanukovych was the one who pulled out at the last moment.

Tymoshenko built her campaign around claims that she would not shun responsibility and would continue working as prime minister in spite of unfavourable conditions. The critics accused her of using her government position and state money to wield political pressure in the election.

Others, however, have a more favourable view of her.  “She is a much more charismatic politician than Yanukovych”, notes Sergiy Kysselyov, a political analyst from the School for Policy Analysis at the Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. “She scored an unexpectedly good result in this race, given that she was viewed as the incumbent and held responsible for Ukraine’s downfall during the global economic crisis. Had she been in opposition, she would have easily beat Yanukovych“.

The Ukrainian “iron lady” is now contesting the results of the vote, even though her manoeuvres will probably prolong political and economic instability in Ukraine. The Central Election Commission has dismissed Tymoshenko's requests for a vote recount, so the only option left to her is to contest the result in court. She claims that more than 1 million votes were falsified to steal her presidency.

In a historic turnaround, Yanukovych will defend his victory with the backing of the international community that has praised the election as free and fair. He will most probably succeed. Once sworn into office Yanukovych will, hopefully, remember that it was democracy, the legacy of the Orange revolution, which propelled him into power and that the majority of Ukrainians did not give him the mandate to surrender the national interest.

Olena Tregub is a US correspondent for the Ukrainian News Agency “UNIAN”. She returned to Ukraine for the presidential election run-off.

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