The first round of the presidential elections in Ukraine on January 17 saw the current and former Prime Ministers ahead of the pack, and President Viktor Yushchenko back in fifth spot. Were these results a rejection of the 2004 Orange Revolution and what do they imply concerning the country’s future directions?
The results vindicated a variety of polls, all of which predicted them more or less correctly. Viktor Yanukovych, who was the defeated candidate in the final runoff in 2004, led with 35.49%, followed by Yulia Tymoshenko with 24.87%, and businessman Serhy Tihipko, a former campaign manager for Yanukovych in 2004, in third place with 13.05%. The two frontrunners now enter the second round on February 7, and have embarked on a frantic quest to gather votes from the supporters of the defeated candidates.
Both candidates are from what is technically Eastern Ukraine, and from traditionally rival industrial cities—Yanukovych from Donetsk, Tymoshenko from Dnipropetrovsk. Both have a Candidate of Sciences degree (roughly equivalent to a PhD) in Economics. However, here the similarity ends. Yanukovych, aged 59, is from a working class background and began his career as a mechanical engineer.
As a young man he was jailed for manslaughter, and arrested a second time for common assault. His academic career may not stand up to close scrutiny: all his degrees are questionable and he has “remade” his image since 2004, under the patronage of powerful Donetsk businessman, Rinat Akhmetov. His Regions Party claims to represent all interests of Ukraine, small business, and advocates better relations with Russia. Formerly close to former president Leonid Kuchma (who led Ukraine 1994-2004), the two split over Yanukovych’s policies, including his advocacy of Russian as a second state language in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko, aged 49, began a business career as manager of a video rental store, but made her name as President of United Energy Systems of Ukraine in 1995-97, a company that gained control over imported gas from Russia, which was then resold at vast profits, during which time she acquired the name “Gas Princess.” She was closely associated with disgraced former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, now serving time under house arrest in the United States for money laundering. She was also linked to Akhmetov, Kuchma, and other oligarchs.
Tymoshenko served briefly as Deputy Prime Minister for the fuel and energy sector during Yushchenko’s tenure as Prime Minister in 1999-2001, but was fired in January of the latter year, after President Kuchma found her policies too radical for his taste. She was arrested and jailed in February 2001 for smuggling gas and fabricating customs forms, but released shortly afterward. Around this same time she formed her eponymous parliamentary faction, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.
Her finest hour was during the Orange Revolution, when she was arguably the most dynamic figure on the central square in Kyiv, coaxing and pressurizing Yushchenko to adopt a firmer position. He was more or less obliged to appoint her Prime Minister after his victory, but she lasted only nine months. Her second term in office since 2007 was a result of an Orange victory in the parliamentary elections of that year, prior to which she had managed to “steal” many deputies from Yushchenko’s “Our Ukraine” party.
Both final round contestants have spent millions of dollars on their campaigns. Yanukovych is popular in the east and south, Tymoshenko in the west and center. Both want to improve relations with Russia and maintain close ties with Europe. Tymoshenko has been ambivalent at best about NATO membership for Ukraine, whereas Yanukovych is a firm opponent, and believes that Ukraine should be neutral and nonaligned as it agreed after independence was proclaimed in 1991.
However, although there may be some personal animosity, it is less pronounced than that between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, and there is no polarization of the country as in 2004. Moreover, although corruption remains a key problem in Ukraine, observers concur that the election was free and fair, and the results valid.
The new president will face two critical issues: overcoming the economic crisis, which includes persuading the IMF to release the last tranche of its $16.4 million loan; and mending relations with Russia, which never accepted the Yushchenko presidency. The Ukrainian leader reciprocated that sentiment. He took Georgia’s side in the August 2008 war, and pushed hard for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. But an overwhelming majority has rejected Yushchenko’s platforms.
Ukraine must now move on. A cynic might comment that it does not really matter which of the two frontrunners becomes president. Both have remained part of the ruling elite for many years; represent industrial power bases; and are clinically ruthless in pursuit of their goals.
Arguably, Tymoshenko has a slightly less tarnished past and she is still linked to the Orange Revolution. However, Yanukovych has a significant lead, and Tymoshenko needs to coax about 70% of those who voted for other candidates to jump to her camp to win. All her talent, charm, and powers of persuasion may not be enough.
This article appeared originally in the EDMONTON JOURNAL, 25 January 2010