Vasyl Boychuk still smokes too much, but at least now he has a proper roof over his head. In 2004, at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the then-38-year-old was frequently seen pulling on a cigarette well into the early hours, poring over logistics and political strategy with other demonstrators in the tent city that had grown outside the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Boychuk spent that December commanding the improvised camp, girded against Kyiv’s bone-chilling cold and the prospect of violence by government authorities. Marching in the streets, tens of thousands of Ukrainians angered by a rigged presidential election the month before were buoyed by the prospect of democracy as promised by Viktor Yushchenko and his Orange forces. “It wasn’t really an easy life,” Boychuk now says, recalling those days in the camp. “But it was a life with a lot of hope that things would change for the better.”
They have not. Five years on, the Rada has often been paralyzed by endless quarrelling. Corruption among state officials has only grown worse. In 2009, Ukraine’s economy contracted by 15 per cent, inflation stood at 12.3 per cent, and with the government teetering on the brink of insolvency, the International Monetary Fund suspended disbursement of its US$16.4-billion aid package when parliament refused to rein in spending. Then on Jan. 17, in the first presidential election since the bloodless uprising, President Viktor Yushchenko, still pockmarked from an assassination-by-poisoning attempt, was vanquished from office when he drew just 5.5 per cent of the first-round vote.
Now, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, who ultimately lost the presidential election battle to Yushchenko five years ago and was widely seen as a Russian-backed stooge, might well become Ukraine’s president. What happened?
Some observers have asked whether Yanukovich—whose remaining opponent in the Feb. 7 runoff vote is Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the 49-year-old populist gas baroness with the ubiquitous blond peasant braid—is somehow a changed man. Once perceived as Russia’s lapdog and a thug (Yanukovich was twice convicted and jailed for violent crime as a teenager), the 59-year-old has orchestrated a resurrection of sorts. While he remains close to Russia, he has signalled a willingness to work more closely with Europe. Fundamentally, though, he hasn’t changed, says Ihor Kohut, chairman of the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, an independent Kyiv-based think tank. “There’s been no transformation,” Kohut says. “If Yanukovich has an opportunity to win, it’s because people are looking for something different.”
But American consultants have helped, if not to transform Yanukovich then to at least tame his more imprudent impulses. While all the major candidates used high-priced advisers, Yanukovich was guided by the same people who advised U.S. presidential hopeful John McCain, and has been carefully managed. He avoids live broadcasts and is prone to answering questions only from sympathetic journalists. Still, while just about everyone inside Ukraine expected Yanukovich to win in the first round, which he did with 35 per cent of the vote, victory in the runoff is by no means assured. Tymoshenko, once one of the firebrands of the Orange Revolution who subsequently fell out with Yushchenko, “came in second, with 25 per cent, as a sitting prime minister in the worst economic crisis since the ’30s,” notes Taras Kuzio, editor of Ukraine Analyst. “That’s not bad. What we have, really, is a cliffhanger.”
Indeed, many of the candidates who have now been eliminated drew votes from the same Orange Revolution pool as Tymoshenko. Those votes are, “potentially, Tymoshenko’s,” Kuzio says. In contrast, Kohut notes, Yanukovich’s prospects for growth are comparatively dim. He can probably count on getting a good chunk of the 3.5 per cent who voted for the Communist party candidate.
After that, things look bleak.
In many ways, the two candidates couldn’t be more different. Tymoshenko is telegenic and quick on her feet, a diminutive dynamo and self-made businesswoman, while Yanukovich, a mechanical engineer and native Russian speaker who struggles with his Ukrainian, can come off as oafish, hulking and dim-witted. Perhaps that’s why he refused to take part in a televised debate on Feb. 1, concerned he might end up a modern-day Richard Nixon to Tymoshenko’s JFK. In declining, Yanukovich said he wanted to avoid Tymoshenko’s “torrents of dirt and evil.” In typically defiant fashion, Tymoshenko took the stage alone. “I believe that an empty spot is exactly what he is,” Tymoshenko told her television audience. “And although he is absent from here, I can feel his smell.
This is the smell of fear. I do not want a common coward to become the next leader of our nation.”
Throughout this campaign Russia has largely, and sensibly, remained on the sidelines. That is not to be confused with disinterest: Moscow does not want to lose Ukraine to EU enlargement, and sees the neighbouring country as part of its “near abroad.” In 2004, when then-Russian president Vladimir Putin prematurely congratulated Yanukovich on his electoral win before final results were released, angry protesters saw that as the ultimate sign that the election had been fixed, and that Moscow was interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. Since then, the Kremlin has consistently applied pressure on Kyiv, whether diplomatic or through cutting gas supplies.
But recently, Moscow has been muted, likely because, in Tymoshenko and Yanukovich, Russia has two candidates with whom it can work—Tymoshenko also wants to improve ties with Moscow. This in turn has caused many observers to predict a rapprochement in the coming months. It’s already begun.
Signalling a thaw in relations, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the return to Kyiv, on Jan. 25, of his country’s ambassador, after withdrawing the diplomat over what had been described as Ukraine’s anti-Russian stance under Yushchenko.
It’s easy to understand why Russia values Ukraine. Of its 46 million people, eight million are ethnic Russians. Much of Russia’s trade infrastructure linking it to Europe and the Caucasus runs through Ukraine. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. “The (quite realistic) Russian fear,” writes analyst Peter Zeihan in a recent report for Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company, “is that without Ukraine, the Europeans will pressure Russia along its entire western periphery, the Islamic world will pressure Russia along its entire southern periphery, the Chinese will pressure Russia along its southeastern periphery, and the Americans will pressure Russia wherever opportunity presents itself.”
Still, unlike in 2004, there have been no signs of overt Russian interference in this current campaign. But concerns have been raised over whether the coming vote will be fair. They were reinforced in a bizarre attack that took place before dawn on Jan. 25, when dozens of masked thugs, reportedly armed with clubs, tear gas and concussion grenades, attacked the plant that prints the ballots. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov, a staunch Tymoshenko ally, said the government had recently replaced the plant’s CEO in what was described as a commercial dispute centred on the printing of passports, and implied that Yanukovich’s side was to blame for the disturbance. But Yanukovich’s Party of Regions accused the Tymoshenko camp of wanting to print off 1.5 million bogus ballots, and said her supporters had sent the thugs to the plant. “Tymoshenko’s policy is aimed at destabilization of the situation and election fraud,” parliamentarian and Party of Regions stalwart Nikolay Azarov said. “Their raid is confirmation of this fact.” Tymoshenko’s representatives strongly refuted the claims.
The great fear, of course, is that the election may not bring an end to Ukraine’s deep-rooted political problems. If Tymoshenko loses on Sunday, she will remain as prime minister, with tremendous power and an intact parliamentary coalition to back her—all of which can be used to undermine Yanukovich.
Because she already has a coalition in place, she has no need to call a parliamentary election (the next one is due in 2012)—unlike Yanukovich, who in the event of victory will likely have to call a snap election in the hopes of forming his own alliances. For him, the stakes are particularly high. “If Yanukovich loses the election,” Kuzio says, “he’s finished,” and he will be unceremoniously replaced as party leader and marginalized. But his party will remain strong, reflecting the continuation of the great divide in Ukraine.
Whoever wins, one thing is clear: given the disillusionment over the failures of the past five years, the Orange Revolution is a thing of the past. For Ukrainians like Boychuk, Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are “like a pair of boots—they’re the same.” Gone are the heady days of late 2004. “Back then,” Boychuk says, “I thought that by this time we would have become members of the EU.” Instead, this election may leave Ukraine facing a continuation of the political mess it has been mired in—under the ever more watchful eye of Moscow.