David R. Marples
Two recent opinion polls monitoring Ukraine’s presidential election campaign in the lead-up to the January 2010 vote indicate that Regions Party leader Viktor Yanukovych is well ahead.
The Kyiv Research and Branding group, which canvassed respondents between August 4 and 14, has Yanukovych with 26%, followed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 16.5%, and Arseny Yatsenyuk 12.6%. Angus Reid reported on August 12 that Yanukovych has the support of 29.9%, with Tymoshenko at 15%, and Yatsenyuk with 12.8%.
The latter poll is the first to suggest that Yanukovych could poll more than the combined votes of his main challengers.
Although Ukrainians have often mocked the self-styled “Proffesor” (as the word was misspelled in his campaign literature in 2004) who in 2006 managed to expunge from the record his incarceration for manslaughter during his youth, and while electors seem weary of the familiar faces in political life, the 59-year old lawyer and engineer still looks the likely winner in January.
It is only five years since Yanukovych ran for president against current incumbent Viktor Yushchenko. In that campaign, not only did he have implicit backing from Vladimir Putin, but also Russia (partly through Gazprom) helped to fund his campaign. In Moscow his campaign posters were everywhere, and 560,000 Ukrainians resident in Russia signed his support list for presidential candidacy. At a Congress of the Ukrainian Diaspora in Moscow, city mayor Yuri Luzhkov and then First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev endorsed him as the next president of Ukraine.
During the 2004 campaign Yanukovych reportedly used funds designated for the Prime Minister’s office for his campaign, promised to make Russian the second state language of Ukraine, and offered dual citizenship to ethnic Russians. During the protests in Kyiv that followed the rigged vote of the run-off, Yanukovych supporters said that a referendum on the autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk regions would be held if Yushchenko became president.
Many observers considered that Yanukovych’s political career was over when Yushchenko won the rerun second round of the election in December 2004 and became Ukraine’s third president.
However, in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Yanukovych staged a comeback and once again became Prime Minister. His Regions party won more than 45% of the vote in 9 districts of Ukraine, all in the east and south of the country.
How did he achieve such a revival of fortunes?
First, his party had financial support from several businessmen, including Ukraine’s richest tycoon, born and raised in Donetsk, Rinat Akhmetov. Second, his party’s organization was centralized and even autocratic, prohibiting any factionalism. Third, the Orange coalition had split and its leaders were fighting each other. Lastly, he promised that his party would focus on economic issues and rectify problems promptly. He had little chance to do so because another parliamentary election followed in 2007 and a new Orange coalition was formed.
Yanukovych has always had solid backing. As the former governor of Donetsk province, he is assured of overwhelming support from Ukraine’s eastern industrial regions. His backers control the country’s leading banks, machine-building and metallurgical factories, steelworks, and coal mines.
Western Ukrainians and Ukrainians in the Diaspora hold Yanukovych in low esteem. His sycophantic responses to Russia’s various attacks on the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko suggest he will quickly move Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence. Nation building will end and the pro-European direction will be halted. Yanukovych has promised a referendum on Ukraine’s membership of NATO, and although he favors trade with the EU, he does not endorse full membership.
However, no Ukrainian president can change course so abruptly. In 1994, Leonid Kuchma became president on a platform of moving Ukraine closer to Russia, but once in office he maintained a firm distance. Belarus’ president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, sought a union with Russia in 1997, but today promotes independence and distance from Moscow. In the current climate, friendship with Moscow means being a client state.
Conversely, Ukraine’s path to the EU is closed as long as Germany and France persist in blocking it. Germany’s close economic ties to Russia preclude any short-term change of direction. The Eastern Partnership notwithstanding, Brussels has been a big disappointment from Ukraine’s perspective; its major players have made a mockery of Yushchenko’s goals of joining European structures.
The economic and political climate today does not allow for a radical change of direction. The current path to reduce dependency on gas supplies from the Russians will likely be maintained. Most voters are concerned primarily about jobs, wages, and pensions.
Ukrainians have reservations about NATO but they have no wish to become a pawn of Russia. A solution must also be found to the constant wrangling over power between president and parliament, likely through amendments to the Constitution.
As Ukraine celebrates 18 years of independence on Tuesday, it is at a difficult stage both economically and in its political evolution. To Western observers it seems unthinkable that voters would choose Yanukovych as the next president. The lack of suitable alternatives suggests nonetheless that it could happen.