Viktor Yanukovych: From Partner to Violent Kleptocrat

Taras Kuzio

Over the course of four years a highly negative view of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has evolved from that espoused by only a minority to being uncontested. This was because much of what US and EU policymakers had believed about Yanukovych was wishful thinking rather than being based on facts or intelligence. Links between Yanukovych, the Party of Regions and crime have been long known to US policymakers as seen in US cables from Kyiv that are available in Wikileaks. At least eighteen Party of Regions deputies continue to hold criminal ties according to Hennadiy Moskal, deputy head of parliament’s committee on organized crime and corruption.

Attitudes towards Ukraine’s President have evolved through four stages.

The first stage – wishful thinking – dominated 2010, when Yanukovych became president in the last free election Ukraine has held with policymakers either believing he had changed under the influence of US consultants or would be no different to President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004). Policymakers reserved their criticism arguing Yanukovych needed to be given a ‘chance’ to prove himself. Yanukovych attended the April 2010 nuclear summit in Washington where he offered to give up Ukraine’s stockpile of HEU (highly enriched uranium).

Wishful thinking papered over democratic regression, the transformation of parliament into a rubber stamp institution, corruption of the constitutional court and local election fraud. It also side-stepped the first signs of selective justice against defeated opposition candidate and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The US to its credit condemned Lutsenko’s imprisonment on New Year’s Eve. Wishful thinking was mixed with lobbying by US journalists and consultants such as Adrian Karatnycky who praised the reformist and democratic credentials of Yanukovych.

The second stage – thaw – began with Freedom House downgrading Ukraine from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ and they continued to issue highly critical reports. Although Ukraine’s democracy was being rolled back and opposition leaders persecuted the EU continued to negotiate with Ukraine for an Association Agreement (AA) and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

EU and US comments became more critical from summer 2011 and culminated in a crescendo of condemnations when Tymoshenko was imprisoned in October. The EU in what could be only described as a slap on Yanukovych’s wrist postponed the initialing of the AA from December to the following March but continued to hope it would be signed in late 2012.

The third stage – stagnation – dominated 2012 with efforts to end selective use of justice and free Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. Yanukovych was only invited to one Western country – Cyprus – as he became internationally isolated. Additional criminal charges were added against Tymoshenko, including murder, which did not prevent the EU from continuing to negotiate with Ukraine. Meanwhile, the US adopted a different policy and placed First Deputy Prosecutor Rinat Kuzmin, who oversaw selective use of justice, on a visa black list.

Attacks on democratic rights and media freedom continued to escalate and parliament adopted a highly controversial language law in July 2012 that raised Russian to the same level as Ukrainian. Transparency International (TI) reported on rampant growth of corruption and emergence of ‘The Family’, a new clan of presidential loyalists from Yanukovych’s home region headed by his eldest son Oleksandr who, although a dentist by profession, entered the top fifty wealthiest people in Ukraine list. In the former USSR, only four Central Asian countries had worse levels of corruption than Ukraine, according to TI, while the Heritage Foundation ranked Ukraine as having the least economic freedom in Europe.

The OSCE, the Council of Europe, and Western governments criticized the November 2012 parliamentary elections as not meeting democratic standards. The Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party that was predicted to barely scrape into parliament received 10 percent of the vote as Ukrainians turned to it in protest at attacks on their national identity and language. Svoboda and other nationalist groups entered national politics just ahead of the following year’s crisis where they played an important role.

The fourth stage – violent kleptocracy – took a long time in coming because news was dominated by negotiations over the AA and whether Tymoshenko would be released or permitted to travel abroad for medical treatment. Yuriy Lutsenko’s release in April 2013 had been insufficient to satisfy US and EU demands for an end to selective use of justice. Many believed Yanukovych’s desire to enter history as the leader who would take Ukraine into Europe would outweigh his fear of Tymoshenko and that she would be freed (

At the end of November 2013 the Ukrainian government, without public consultation or warning, abruptly cancelled European integration and locked Ukraine into a Russian loan agreement. Incompetent and corrupt policies by Party of Regions leader and Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov had brought Ukraine to bankruptcy.

The decision ended Western illusions about Yanukovych’s commitment to Europe and most came to believe his choice of foreign policy partner was linked not to Ukrainian national interests but what would be best for his re-election the following year. Russian loans with fewer conditions – rather than unpopular reforms demanded by an IMF agreement – would be more likely to secure his re-election.

The occupation of downtown Kyiv and massive popular protests that reached a million people at its peak – which remain on-going in freezing winter weather – were also fuelled by four years of attacks on democracy and Ukrainian national identity and rapacious corruption. Unwillingness to compromise added fire to the protests as did the use of vigilantes working with the police who beat, kidnapped and tortured protesters.

Protests turned violent after “Black Thursday” (January 16) when what was left of Ukraine’s democracy was destroyed in the space of twenty one minutes when the Party of Regions and Communists voted by an illegal show of hands rather than using the electronic system. Ukraine had become a dictatorship.

The image of Yanukovych and his administration dramatically changed to violent kleptocrat after a tally of seven dead (including an Armenian and a Belarusian), 2,000 protesters wounded, 136 journalists attacked, 30 protesters kidnapped and 120 detained. This was reinforced by images of Automobile-Maydan leader Dmytro Bulatov who had been kidnapped and tortured and crucified in what Amnesty International described as a ‘barbaric act.’

US and EU policymakers took four years to come to view Yanukovych as a violent and corrupt kleptocrat who had no allegiance to European values. With Yanukovych now persona non grata in Europe and North America it is time for the EU to follow the US and Canada in introducing targeted sanctions.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. The cause of these protests are due to Yanukovych in office, once he is out, these protesters will subside.

  2. Pingback: Viktor Yanukovych: From Partner to Violent Kleptocrat | Crisis in Ukraine

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