The Comeback Kid

KIEV, Ukraine -- Viktor Yanukovych hasn’t stopped smiling since July. He was smiling when the Orange Coalition collapsed thanks to his new buddy Oleksandr Moroz crossing the floor, allowing his Blue Coalition to step in and take over.

He was smiling as the heart-wrenched President Yushchenko reluctantly agreed to admit his adversary to the most powerful post in the land. He was smiling during his swearing-in ceremony in the half-empty parliamentary chamber. And he was smiling as he strutted comfortably beside Russian President Putin at a private Black Sea resort, dressed in matching silver suits like two aging rock stars on a comeback tour.

Perhaps they were. The new PM rushed off to patch up “spoiled relations” with Russia, and it seemed remarkable that Putin – a president embroiled in civil war in Chechnya, and coming off a tough meeting with world leaders – would have cleared his schedule and found a whole weekend for such a minor figure as a government leader. The G8 leaders would have wished as much.

Just like the G8 summit, this meeting was all about energy – with Ukraine coming up with the short stick again and the average taxpayer footing the bill. Gas prices will rise, despite Yanukovych’s ridiculous campaign promises of 2004. By this time next year, the economy can be expected to slow down as higher gas prices help to depress the economy and drive trade underground and able-bodied workers abroad.

Even the most timid of political observers can also venture that gas was not the only topic on the agenda. One can almost smell the burnt rubber from the certain amount of backpedaling on trade issues and other crucial areas of Ukrainian-Russian relations. One can only hope that Yanukovych felt somewhat discomforted being compared in the press with former-PM and rival Yuliya Tymoshenko as to his conduct at the gas talks.

For Orange supporters – those supporting the West-leaning, democratic-oriented political parties - the last two months have been a nightmare. For the average Orange revolutionist, it was a cruel, cruel disappointment to watch Yanukovych sworn in as Ukraine’s 13th Prime Minister during the late-summer ceremony.

It was a bitter pill for the ordinary men and women, young and old, who awoke from the slumber of lethargic politics after a century, and who – having had their fill of corruption and deceit from public officials - sat in unwashed winter clothing for three weeks eating mass made soup and tried to prove a point.

The revolution symbolized a forum to turn all the grumbling and idealism into activity. Unfortunately, this opportunity to give a voice to people power has been wasted. Now the dream is over. There will not be another colored revolution. Nor will there be any need for a government crackdown. Yanukovych’s ascension to the throne ensured that such a huge show of public protest can be peacefully ignored.

The biggest public disenchantment lies with the politicians of the Orange coalition. Nobody can be more disappointed than Orange coalition mover and shaker Yuliya Tymoshenko, who remains in shock and awe at the defection of key coalition members, particularly such morally upstanding politicians as newly-enthroned parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz.

Moroz’s motives remain an enigma, particularly in light of press rumors of bribery. Although a staunch socialist, Moroz has proven a wily, yet calming influence on the Ukrainian political scene, averting more than one political crisis over two decades, and playing a major role in the Orange revolution. In 20 years, he has earned respect from all quarters of the political pie for being honest and loyal. He showed none of those qualities this summer.

This latest political meltdown of democratic forces should come as no surprise really. In fact, it follows a pattern established back when Soviet leader Gorbachev loosed the reigns on political candidates in the late 1980s.

A ‘kid-in-the-candy-store’ effect resulted quickly in which the very ability to form an alternative party after 70 years of one party politics sparked an explosion of parties and opportunities for personal political gain. Political diversity has now backfired with no unifying vision for the future, too many views of democracy and virtually no leadership material.

Until firebrand gas queen Tymoshenko entered politics, Ukraine had a dearth of charismatic and capable leaders in the democratic camp with countrywide appeal. In the end, the country settles for individuals like its current choice of PM – tough guys masquerading as father figures for the nation. But this tough talk and finger-pointing has become a hard sell with the modern, urban under-40 crowd who grew up under independence. They expect more finesse and professionalism.

The parliamentary elections in March were a disaster, and parliament should have been mercifully dissolved three months ago. The interim bickering has allowed Yanukovych and his kinder, gentler Party of Regions to reinvent themselves, aided by a gaggle of U.S. advisors.

However, these advisors and Western governments should not make the mistake of thinking that Yanukovych has had a change of heart or could be even mildly good for Ukrainian politics. He could not even wrestle lower gas prices – his big election promise – out of his new best friend, the Russian president. Yanukovych has simply changed his tactics.

Moreover, the only reason that Yanukovych regained his old Prime Ministerial office was because, for the first time in Ukraine’s new history, a president honored his word by following the rule of law and not his heart or the pocketbook of his cronies – and permitted the majority coalition of parties to form a government. The public should not be too angry with Yushchenko, who was left with a terrible choice.

It could have been so tempting for a minute to quash his rival, bringing some temporary personal satisfaction and revenge – all at the expense of the country’s political stability. But he didn’t do it. Now, for the next two years, Yushchenko will battle to keep Yanukovych in check.

This time around, rather than having free reign as was the case in the Kuchma regime, Yanukovych’s hands are somewhat bound by the Universal he signed with the president and by the whims of his political financiers.

Two years ago the PM hoped to gain power with the strong-arm tactics he learned in the penal system, like making ridiculous statements about his opponents and filling buses with large, leather-coated young men whose chief task was to beat up pensioners who were manning voting boxes. Today, opposition papers are rife with accusations that he has turned to the softer methods of promises and lining bank accounts.

So, what can we expect from the new Prime Minister? More of the same. The West – and more importantly the Ukrainian people - should be under no illusions that Yanukovych has changed and sworn off corruption and bribery. He is still a product of the soviet system raised on a feudal Russian system, and he knows and believes in no other.

Although his handlers try to paint a new image, the fine capitalist veneer cannot hide the coarse underlay – the tough, resilient boy from the coal mining regions who had to claw his way to the top. The ultimate key is power – both political and financial.

Finally, political watchers are wondering what awaits Ukrainian politics next. There are two possible outcomes. First, Yanukovych may enjoy a long run and achieve his goals of running for and winning the presidency, rewarding his friends and hiding behind the umbrella of Russian friendship for 5-10 years. But an even more likely scenario is possible.

As even the most casual spectator of Ukrainian politics has observed – prime ministers don’t last that long. With an average stay of 8 months, election to the Cabinet means a short but sweet career, although some PM’s have lasted up to two years.

In a peculiar twist of Ukrainian politics, Yanukovych could be gone in six months for any number of reasons, including the oft-cited presidential favorite “for failing to carry out his obligations as PM”. Whether he finds himself banished to the sidelines of politics or at the very heights of power, it is clear that even Yanukovych realizes Ukraine is a sovereign state that can no longer rely on good neighbors for such things as cheaper energy supplies.

Ultimately, a third of the voting public elected Yanukovych. His election is not about one man’s popularity, but about what he represents. So, a third of the population is trying to send a message that they cannot cope with the radical changes of the past 15 years and they seek solace in the comfort of familiar bygone days.

Runaway inflation, unemployment, high living costs and social changes threaten belief systems and security. The PM is promising a return to the familiar, something closer to the soviet utopia of predictable daily life and basic needs.

The Orange revolutionists offered the unknown. Thus, in the future both Western aid agencies and democratic movements must improve the circumstances of these most vulnerable sections of the population. It is on this basis that real democratic reforms can be built.

Source: Kyiv Post