Saturday, November 21, marked five years since the start of the Orange Revolution that saw protesters mass in the streets of Kyiv to protest a flawed vote in the second round of the presidential elections that favored incumbent Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovych. After a series of events and the intrusion of the Constitutional Court, that round was re-run and challenger Viktor Yushchenko was elected president of Ukraine. He formed a coalition of Orange forces that included his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Speaker of Parliament, Oleksandr Moroz.
Five years on and into another election campaign, the Orange camp is in a sorry mess. Moroz has left. Although Tymoshenko is in her second term as Prime Minister, she faces a large opposition in parliament and feuds constantly with the president. She is running against Yushchenko for the presidency in January 2010. Yanukovych, leader of the Regions Party, is back once again, intent on sabotaging the Tymoshenko campaign as well as opposing fiscal measures to deal with the recession.
Very little makes sense in Ukrainian politics, which are so intricate, corrupt, and mutable that few can unravel events to make a pertinent analysis.
Recently, for example, the International Monetary Fund, which last year provided a loan of $16.4 billion to help Ukraine, withheld a tranche of $3.8 billion. The reason was that the president and the parliamentary opposition (Yanukovych) backed a rise in minimum wages of 20% next year, thus contravening IMF conditions for continuing the loans. Perhaps they acted from humanitarian motives, but more likely they simply wished to undermine the position of the Prime Minister.
The president has also vetoed a law that would have provided about $125 million to combat H1N1 in Ukraine, which recently reached epidemic proportions with 189 deaths. There is little logic to him agreeing to wage increases but ignoring the flu virus.
One of the ironies of the president’s approval of the pay rises is that Yushchenko is known as a fiscal conservative, who lambasted Tymoshenko’s 2009 budget for its free-spending profligacy. Rumors in Kyiv now suggest that the president’s office would like to secure the release of former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, currently under arrest in the United States for money laundering. The reason is that his return to Ukraine would undermine the position of his former Deputy PM, Tymoshenko, then known as the ‘gas princess’ in an era of runaway corruption.
Tymoshenko for her part has campaigned hard to improve her position. Without doubt she has spent the most money—according to Yushchenko she has exploited the office of Prime Minister to finance her campaign. This week she met with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Yalta and secured an agreement on gas prices in 2010, which would mean that Ukraine would not be penalized for purchasing less gas than agreed. This was a major coup given the interruptions to gas supplies to Europe last year as a result of a Russian-Ukrainian impasse. It also signals to voters that under a Tymoshenko presidency, relations with Russia would improve dramatically.
At the same time, Yushchenko hosted Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili in Kyiv. According to the Ukrainian media, Tymoshenko and Putin enjoyed a few jokes at the expense of the two chief leaders of the color revolutions of the early 21st century. Russia has accused Ukraine’s president of supporting the Georgians in the August 2008 conflict.
Polls suggest that Tymoshenko is catching up with Yanukovych as the election’s frontrunner. A poll conducted by Ukrainian Project System on November 12, indicated that Yanukovych has the backing of 21.4% of voters to her 18.1%. Arseny Yatseniuk, in third place, has only 8% and is no longer a serious contender.
The most recent poll of the Razumkov Centre on a potential runoff between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych suggests that it would be a very close call. Tymoshenko would win easily in Western Ukraine, by a lesser margin in the Centre, and Yanukovych is well ahead in the south and east.
The choice for voters seems rather stark. Yanukovych is still the arch apparatchik, fumbling and inarticulate, and bankrolled by Ukraine’s main oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. The Western media describe him as pro-Russian, but he is essentially a tool of eastern oligarchs, people who wish to maintain their influence and power over resources and industry. There is no question that Prime Minister poses a threat to such forces.
Tymoshenko, on the other hand, is a ruthless politician with few clearly delineated principles other than her own advancement and power. In her first period as Prime Minister in 2005—it lasted only 9 months—she alienated most of her Cabinet. In the second, she has struggled to deal with the economic crisis. IMF funds have cushioned the blow, but the Ukrainian economy shrank by almost 16% in the third quarter of 2009. The steel industry will take years to recover from a dramatic drop in trade abroad.
The next president will not only need to introduce radical economic measures, he/she will need to work with Parliament. To date, the failure to form a workable coalition in the legislature, added to unseemly squabbles between the main leaders, has resulted in deadlock. In 2004, Yushchenko was the outsider, a potential candidate to end the rampant corruption in Ukraine and make a new beginning. In 2010 voters face a bleaker choice and the alternatives seems less clear-cut.
(Edmonton Journal, 23 November 2009)