Can Arseniy Yatsenyuk Save Ukraine From Itself

DENVER, USA -- In many ways the locus of Yatsenyuk’s path to victory that stresses ending the political rancor between the Regions Party and the Tymoshenko Bloc, and building a new sense of national unity and purpose mirrors Barak Obama’s road to the White House in the 2008 elections.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk

Unless a transformational figure emerges to capture the imagination and majority of Ukrainian voters in the January 2010 national elections, Kiev’s drift back to Russia will accelerate and the Orange Revolution will tragically perish in its infancy.

Five years after millions of Ukrainians defiantly overturned a fraudulent election orchestrated in Moscow to usher in Victor Yushchenko’s reform movement, corruption is rampant, chaos reigns in government and nostalgia to re-establish bonds of affection with Russia is metastasizing across Ukraine.

While Ukraine has been a strategic battleground between Europe and Russia, it is Kiev’s dysfunctional leadership that has furnished the means of its own nation’s destruction.

Today, the one leader who is uniquely positioned to save Ukraine from itself may be Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose meteoric rise is altering the political calculus of Ukraine’s upcoming elections.

If Yatsenyuk enters the race, his road to the presidency will be as difficult as it is unlikely. Ukraine’s next president will inherit a nation in the throes of a spiraling economic crisis still searching for the bottom out point.

With the 4th highest debt level on the planet, industrial output plummeting 30 percent last year, inflation at 24 percent and its national currency (the hryvna) in free fall; economic circumstances in Ukraine couldn’t be worse.

The December gas crisis with Moscow that shut off natural gas flows to twenty European countries has exacerbated Ukraine’s problems, and made it an unreliable provider of energy transiting that is so vital to Europe.

While Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko tried valiantly to reassure the European community at the recent Munich security conference that Ukraine has the capacity to fulfill its energy transiting responsibilities to the west, plans are moving forward on three natural gas pipelines from Russia and Central Asia that would all bypass Ukraine.

Further, when the IMF conditioned the release of the second tranche of Ukraine’s $16.4 billion package to re-capitalize the banking sector and service its external debt, Ukraine was obligated to submit a plan for a balanced budget.

Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s government presented a plan riddled with account deficits; prompting the resignation of Ukraine’s Finance Minister.

The gas crisis and Ukraine’s embarrassing proposal to the IMF are just two revealing examples of just how deeply Ukraine’s political leaders have been living in a fantasy world since the Orange Revolution.

The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko Orange coalition, disagreed on virtually everything once they took power in 2004. Since Tymoshenko was tossed out after the first eight months in office the two leaders and factions haven’t stopped fighting since.

Worse than the Ukrainian government’s incompetence is the atmospherics of adolescent carnival its leaders exhibit in conducting the nation’s affairs. Their governmental decorum has the dignity of a primary school dining hall food fight.

In short, Ukraine is not ready for rapid ascension into the European Union or NATO. Even Russia has its doubts about its dealings with Kiev. On February 16, Ukrainian leaders threatened to expel Russian Ambassador Chernomyrdin for his recent criticism of the nation’s leadership as totally disorganized.

President Yushchenko’s fight for the supremacy of the Ukrainian language, uniting Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and building international recognition of the 1932-33 Holodomor as Soviet genocide will not do anything to solve Ukraine’s crisis.

That is precisely why his popularity in the polls is down to less than three percent. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is a far superior administrator of state affairs than Yushchenko or former Prime Minister Yanukovych.

She managed to unite with Yanukovych’s Regions Party in 2007 to form a governing coalition and then defeated the Regions Party’s recent attempt to topple her from the Prime Minister’s post with a “no confidence vote.”

Tymoshenko also deserves credit for negotiating a deal with Russia to end the gas crisis, eliminating energy transit middlemen who were gouging profits and attempting to restore credibility to the nation’s wages and pension system.

But Tymoshenko is not trusted by vast numbers of Ukrainians who view her as part of the problem and are fatigued by her constant fighting with President Yushchenko and with Yanukovych. Thus, she does not have enough parliamentary seats nor the nationwide support to forge an effective coalition government and lead a genuine reform movement.

Yanukovych’s Region’s Party has a slim parliamentary majority but not enough seats to form a governing coalition. He is currently running behind Tymoshenko in the polls by a few points, and is facing a backlash in his party for fumbling the last attempt to depose Tymoshenko from office.

As for President Yushchenko, his spectacular fall from grace has virtually sunk his “Our Ukraine” coalition.

Against the backdrop of Ukraine’s crumbling economy and gross malfeasance in leadership, Arseniy Yatsenyuk has a tremendous opening to break out as a uniting force to save Ukraine’s flagging ship of state.

While Yushchenko, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko fight, Ukraine is sinking and Yatsenyuk’s poll numbers and popularity are rising. As a former banker, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Speaker of the Parliament, the 34 year-old Yatsenyuk is experienced and conversant in Ukraine’s byzantine politics.

He is young, relatively scandal free and has the best chance to represent the next generation of a new post-partisan Ukrainian leadership.

But can Yatsenyuk be the sober visionary leader who can impart a new sense of realism that implores Ukraine to clean up its own financial house?

Does he have the charisma to inspire Ukrainians to take their destiny in their own hands and not look to Europe or Russia for salvation or blame them when things go wrong?

Can he reign in Ukraine’s oligarchs who have ravaged the country in the same way that Russia’s oligarchs did during the transition from state ownership to free enterprise without Putinizing the system?

Will Yatsenyuk finally craft a sensible forward-leaning Ukrainian energy policy that modernizes its infrastructure and restores its credibility in Europe?

Can he convince Ukraine to diversify its economic platform and start weaning the nation off of costly subsidies?

Will Yatsenyuk try to articulate a vision that bridges the cultural and religious divide between Ukraine and Russian nationals?

And can he lead a parliament to get things done with significant numbers of members from the Tymoshenko Bloc and the Regions Party?

Although Yatsenyuk lacks money, party organization and a program for Ukraine’s resurrection, he has two things working in his favor; the Ukrainian peoples’ desperate thirst for new leadership and his political rival’s incessant infighting that makes him a more attractive alternative.

What Yatsenyuk needs now is a clear and compelling vision of a new Ukraine, and a new theory of nation-building that departs with the failed attempts of the past.

He cannot simply split the political difference between the major parties. He can be a radical pragmatist proposing solutions that benefit all Ukrainians struggling under severe economic conditions, but he cannot be a soft centrist who tries to be all things to all Ukrainians.

The fact that Yanukovych, and most recently Tymoshenko, have started attacking Yatsenyuk instead of ignoring him is an excellent development that provides him greater opportunities to highlight policy differences and new reforms, rather than engaging in personal smears. Yatsenyuk can and will have to be tough in taking on his detractors; he cannot be equally as dirty.

Yatsenyuk has formed a new organization called the Change Front Citizens Initiative. Unlike the Orange Coalition that was powerful enough to overturn a corrupt government in 2004, but too weak and too divisive to govern effectively, Yatsenyuk must build his own independent base of disaffected citizens and Ukraine’s youth early in the process that are anchored to his core vision.

By doing so he can position his campaign to break off sections of Ukraine’s other major and minor parties on principle and policy to forge a winning coalition as the January 17 elections draw near.

In many ways the locus of Yatsenyuk’s path to victory that stresses ending the political rancor between the Region’s Party and the Tymoshenko Bloc, and building a new sense of national unity and purpose mirrors Barak Obama’s road to the White House in the 2008 elections.

Can Arseniy Yatsenyuk be the change that the new Ukraine believes in?

Source: Brooks Foreign Policy Review