Yushchenko: How Low Can He Go?

KIEV, Ukraine -- We all know about the rise and fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. He was respected as the head of the National Bank, then trusted during his short stint as prime minister, and finally swept into the presidency during the country's Orange Revolution.

SBU security service armed men, sent by Viktor Yushchenko, stand in the headquarters of Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogaz in Kiev on March 4, 2009.

It seemed like a fairy-tale political career - and indeed it was. A common thread that runs through Yushchenko's fairy tale is inaction: As the nation's top banker he was a technocrat, as prime minister he bowed to the corrupt President Leonid Kuchma (who ironically may go down in history as a more capable Ukrainian leader), and as president he has allowed himself to be manipulated by allies and bullied by opponents, many of whom are former allies.

Yushchenko isn't only the hero of his fairy tale gone wrong, he is one of the few people who still believes it. At one time, his fellow countrymen, with more hope than experience in democracy, also believed in Yushchenko. Now his public approval ratings are in the single-digit range.

He was hailed as 'the messiah' upon taking over the country in 2005. Part of the reason that Yushchenko was honored with this seemingly blasphemous appellation is that he suffered like a messiah during his rise to the presidency, particularly when his face was disfigured by poison during the 2004 election campaign. But despite the treachery and indignity of it all, Yushchenko showed himself to be more of a patient sufferer than an indomitable hero.

Over the succeeding years, the pro-Western Ukrainian president managed to squander the confidence of voters, foreign leaders and - most importantly - the vast majority of his political allies. His faction in parliament is no longer his, or apparently anyone else's; his appointments in the government are assailed and then dismissed, often later joining one of Yushchenko's political opponents. But Yushchenko's biggest mistake has been current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his one-time co-revolutionary turned unrelenting competitor for the presidency.

Either because of her or in comparison to her, Yushchenko has come to be known as weak, incapable and indecisive. In turns and sometimes in league with the villain of the Orange Revolution, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko has isolated the president from his power base while stripping him of his power. The presidential authority enjoyed by Yushchenko is a fraction of that wielded by his predecessor Leonid Kuchma.

As the road to the next presidential elections shortens, flanked by economic chaos, trench political warfare and sour foreign relations, it appears that Yushchenko is trying to consolidate his legacy. Resigned to electoral defeat, he might at least be trying to lay the foundations for future stability - European integration, NATO membership, Orthodox unity, confidence in Ukrainian culture, etc.

Whatever his drawbacks in terms of teambuilding, resolve and decisiveness, the man's integrity has never seriously been challenged, either because it is unassailable or because most Ukrainians wouldn't believe otherwise. Instead, Yushchenko's opponents have almost always accused him of surrounding himself with corrupt advisors and fellow travellers, thereby making him guilty of only bad judgment.

But now, after years of inter- and intra-factional instability, Yushchenko's enemies (i.e. Prime Minister Tymoshenko) are going for the juggler. No longer just the guy who failed to fulfill the values of the Orange Revolution, failed to reign in political infighting, failed to deliver economic prosperity, and ticked off the Russians to boot, Yushchenko is being painted as a desperate man willing to ally with the foulest of characters and betray the most basic of national interests in order to keep his job. And worst of all, the president himself is holding the paint brush.

Last week, the battle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko for power reached a new low, when the nation's spy service, the SBU, raided the offices of its national energy company, Naftohaz-Ukrayiny. The SBU, which is controlled by President Yushchenko, claimed that Naftohaz, which is controlled by Ms. Tymoshenko, had "stolen" 11 billion cubic meters of natural gas from now redundant intermediary gas dealer RosUkrEnergo.

With no pipelines or gas fields of its own, RosUkrEnergo had made billions of dollars trading gas between Russia and Ukraine, before Tymoshenko agreed with Moscow earlier this year to get rid of the Swiss-registered company.

Connected in numerous media reports to a Russian gangster, RosUkrEnergo is championed and half owned by a previously little-known Ukrainian businessman named Dmytro Firtash.

Tymoshenko has made Firtash out to be a parasitic middleman, but RosUkrEnergo was also half-owned by Gazprom, and the gas-trade contracts were approved by the Kremlin and Mr. Yushchenko.

But up until now, everyone has sort of given Yushchenko the benefit of the doubt when he said that it was the Kremlin that included Firtash and company in the Russian-Ukrainian gas trade.

Then why - the question goes - is Yushchenko trying to protect the interests of Mr. Firtash by forcing Tymoshenko to turn over the 11 billion cubic meters of gas (about a fifth of what Ukraine imports annually)?

When customs chief Valery Khoroshkovsky refused to clear the "stolen" gas, Tymoshenko fired him. Yushchenko, however, rehired him as deputy head of the SBU, from whose ranks Khoroshkovsky began to try to get control of the gas from Tymoshenko.

Khoroshkovsky, who formally owns a major Ukrainian TV stations de facto controlled by Firtash, even went so far as to arrest the customs official who eventually cleared the gas, but lawmakers from Tymoshenko's faction in parliament pulled "a raid" of their own to free the official from the remand center where he was being held.

On the one hand, this incident is just the latest battle between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko over state revenues, which both suspect each other of planning to use to finance their presidential ambitions.

If we give Yushchenko the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is trying to stop Tymoshenko from commandeering state resources, the question remains as to the president's connection to Firtash.

If Yushchenko really isn't trying to help Firtash in return for the controversial businessman's financial backing, the president is really making it look that way.

As for Tymoshenko, she comes out relatively well either way: either she is robbing a man who is seen by many as having robbed Ukraine, or she is trying to keep gas prices low for ordinary Ukrainians.

Another issue is the lawlessness of it all. Yushchenko pushed the limits of legality before, during his power struggles with former Prime Minister Yanukovych. But Yanukovych had been trying to usurp presidential authority.

Tymoshenko, at worst, is trying to finance her campaign against a man destined to lose his re-election bid anyway. Surely these aren’t grounds for sending the nation's spy service into action?

We may never know who actually benefited from Ukraine's shady gas trade - except of course Mr. Firtash - but with the Kremlin having distanced itself from RosUkrEnergo, Yushchenko may end up holding the bag.

He's going to lose the presidency anyway, and his visions of Western integration may be lost as well, but the hero of the Orange Revolution's reputation is now in the air, along with the question: how low can he go?

Source: Eurasian Home