Two recent opinion polls by the Research and Branding Institute in Kyiv provide some startling revelations about political opinions in Ukraine, just as Parliament has approved new presidential elections on January 17.
A June 2009 poll with over 2,000 respondents from all regions of Ukraine is declared to have a margin of error of 2.2%. It provides a plethora of data about the leading candidates for president. Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who lost in the 2004 elections to current president Viktor Yushchenko, leads with the support of 26.8% of respondents, followed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 15.8%, and former Foreign Minister and chairman of parliament Arsenii Yatsenyuk, 12.3%. President Yushchenko is backed by a meager 2.1%.
If the election, as seems likely, requires a second round, then Yanukovych would triumph over either of his main challengers: against Tymoshenko by 38.8 to 28.8%; and against Yatsenyuk by 36.7 to 30.8%. If the second round were between Yatsenyuk and Tymoshenko, the former would eke out a narrow victory.
The emergence of Yatsenyuk as a serious contender is a recent phenomenon. A former protégé of President Yushchenko, he reportedly has financial backing from two controversial figures: Dmitrii Firtash, a leading stockholder in the RosUkrEnergo company that mediated in the dispute over the price for the sale of Russian gas to Ukraine; and Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, who owns four Ukrainian TV channels. A native of Chernivtsi, Yatsenyuk is of Jewish origin and turned 35 on May 22, the minimum age at which one can run for the post of president.
At present, 51.2% of those polled will definitely participate in the elections, while 24% may exercise their right to vote. As there is speculation that parliamentary elections may take place simultaneously, the standing of the major political parties is also of relevance: the Regions Party leads among respondents with 29.3%, followed by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc with 15.5%, and the Yatsenyuk Bloc with 10.6%.
Recently, a move to form a coalition between the two largest blocs (Regions and Tymoshenko) failed after Yanukovych ultimately rejected the idea. At one point the Regions leader had suggested changing the minimum age to run for president to 50, which would have removed Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk from the contest.
A poll conduced by the same organization in May focused on attitudes of residents of Ukraine to other countries and blocs. These results are perhaps even more enlightening, given the general synopsis in Western media that Ukraine is Western leaning or pro-Europe.
Over 35% of those polled would prefer to see Ukraine join a Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; 20% would like Ukraine to join a United Europe (European Union); and 23% want the country to remain independent without joining any such formation. Incidentally, support for joining the EU is much higher in Belarus than in Ukraine.
In terms of attitudes to leaders of former Soviet republics, 58% hold a positive attitude toward Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, 56% feel the same way about hard-line Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and 55% have a favorable attitude toward Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. By contrast only 11% feel positive about Georgian president Mikeil Saakashvili.
Western leaders are considerably less popular. The highest rated is US President Barack Obama (31%), followed by Angela Merkel of Germany (29%), and Frances’ Nicolas Sarkozy and Poland’s Lech Kaczynski (tied at 22%). Notably, however, both Obama and Merkel received higher totals than Ukraine’s leading candidate Yanukovych.
Lastly, looking at attitudes toward other countries, the results were as follows: 57% of respondents feel positively toward Russia, 45% toward Belarus, and 20% toward Germany. Only 3% feel positively about Georgia, which was supported firmly by President Yushchenko during its August 2008 war with Russia.
Some deductions can be made from these results, which are consistent with findings of Western researchers such as Stephen White at the University of Glasgow.
First, the economic downturn has not affected significantly the political attitudes of Ukrainian residents. Ukrainian citizens appear to favor strong leaders over weak, albeit more democratic–leaning statespersons. They are generally pro-Russian and skeptical toward both the United States and the EU.
Second, the chances of success of Prime Minister Tymoshenko in the January 2010 elections are slim. Her popularity has fallen in recent months after the seemingly endless squabbles with the president and what is perceived as her single-minded pursuit of the highest office. At one point she clearly intended to push through a constitutional change to elect the next president through the parliament, but such a maneuver today would only work in favor of Yanukovych.
Third, regionally there is a marked contrast between attitudes in western regions and the rest of Ukraine. Western Ukraine is more pro-Europe and anti-Russian, with political support divided between Tymoshenko (23.4%) and Yatsenyuk (23.2%). However, Western Ukrainians make up only one-fifth of Ukraine’s population.
Fourth, Ukrainians are deeply unhappy with the current president, an increasingly isolated figure who seems incapable of communicating in any meaningful way with his electorate. A realist might opt not to run and campaign for newcomer Yatsenyuk, notwithstanding the credibility of some of his financial backers. But Yushchenko seems intent on running again, even though every indicator suggests that he is unelectable.
This article appeared originally in the EDMONTON JOURNAL on 27 June 2009.