Can He lead?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Since getting fired as parliament speaker, Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s standing has risen in polls. But is this 34-year old ready to be Ukraine’s next president?

Arseniy Yatsenyuk

His could be the easiest presidential campaign imaginable: just sit tight and let his rivals fight.

While President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko continue to savage each other, as opposition leader Victor Yanukovych timidly barks from the sidelines, former Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk is quietly watching his approval ratings rise.

Asked by the Kyiv Post whether he was planning to run for president in 2010, Yatsenyuk said he would make the final announcement in May when he turns 35, the minimum age the Constitution allows for presidential candidates.

Even if he postpones the decision, he can still easily make it to the pool of presidential candidates. In Ukraine the campaign officially lasts 90 days, while the probable election date is Jan. 17. But the Constitutional Court is yet to make the final ruling on the date.

However, some observers are already predicting that the final standoff next year will be between Yatsenyuk and Yanukovych, leader of the Party of Regions, who is expected to run for the second time.

Vicious mudslinging with Yushchenko and the pinch of economic recession are eating away Tymoshenko’s approval ratings. Meanwhile, Yanukovych is holding on to a steady base of support.

“People disappointed with Yushchenko previously tended to support Tymoshenko as they saw no other alternative, but now they have Yatsenyuk,” said Victor Chumak, a political analyst at Kyiv’s International Centre for Policy Studies, a non-government organization.

Yatsenyuk has been gaining an impressive two to three percent of support per month, starting from just three percent in autumn. Two polls this month suggested 10-11 percent of Ukrainians were ready to elect him president. Yanukovych currently leads with 21-23 percent, and 13-17 percent of those polled were ready to vote for Tymoshenko – down from mid-twenties in autumn.

“If the trend [continues], Tymoshenko's presidential prospects will be under threat,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Penta political consulting company.

There are several reasons for Yatsenyuk’s growing popularity.

Apart from a desire by voters to see a fresh face, many Ukrainians do not feel that he is responsible for the economic mess the country ended up in under the current leadership.

Also, many Ukrainians feel his removal from the parliamentary speaker’s seat last November was unjust.

“We sympathize with victims,” Fesenko added.

But it seems it’s not just the voters who are taking on a liking to Yatsenyuk. He has also been spotted by at least some of the former financial and political backers of the current leaders.

Tariel Vasadze, a deputy from Tymoshenko’s parliamentary faction and honorary president of Ukraine’s largest automaker UkrAvto, showed up at a February press conference of Yatsenyuk’s charity foundation Open Ukraine. Yushchenko’s former chief of staff and personal friend Oleh Rybachuk also attended.

If financial backers of his foundation are of any indication, Yatsenyuk will have no problem with the collection box for his presidential campaign. Topping the list of Open Ukraine financiers in 2008 is Victor Pinchuk, Ukraine’s second richest man and son-in-law to ex-president Leonid Kuchma. He donated Hr 4.28 million. Serhiy Taruta, an industrialist who donated Hr 2.95 million.

Yatsenyuk is a frequent visitor and speaker at high-key international events organized by Pinchuk, including annual round table discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos and Yalta European Strategy. Pinchuk did not explicitly say he would support Yatsenyuk for president, but told the Kyiv Post “it will be transparent” if he does.

Other indicators showed that Yatsenyuk may be the oligarchs' choice, too. Although he is today only a lawmaker holding no high-level posts, he continues to get impressive media coverage, including that of Inter, the most popular television channel allegedly controlled by billionaires Valeriy Khoroshkovksy and Dmytro Firtash.

Firtash co-owns RosUkrEnergo, a Russian-Ukrainian natural gas intermediary that was kicked out of the market by the recent direct deal struck by Tymoshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Tymoshenko recently said that Firtash controls Inter and has used his influence over the channel to prop up Yatsenyuk. Both deny the allegations.

Oleksiy Haran, founding director of political analysis school at Kyiv-Mohyla University, says there is no surprise that the nation’s rich are disappointed with unpredictable and petty current leaders, and are betting on Yatsenyuk.

“Business is interested in establishing transparent ‘rules of the game’ and an economy working to market principles, without administrative interference and government manipulations,” he said.

Yatsenyuk is perceived mainly as an economic liberal.

Despite being one of the youngest Ukrainian politicians, he has managed to hold many top positions: central bank chief, economy minister, foreign minister, deputy presidential administration chief and most recently, parliament speaker. He is also a lawyer by training and education.

“Yatsenyuk strikes many chords: he is young, smart, is good at economics and has a good sense of humor,” said Chumak of ICPS.

Should Yatsenyuk claim the presidency, he could use the position as a bully pulpit for his slick oratory skills, winning over more than the support of Ukrainian voters. Unlike the nation's three presidents, Yatsenyuk speaks perfect English. This skill could make him Ukraine's first leader capable of clearly communicating his agenda for the country globally.

But despite these virtues, he still has much work to do to capitalize on his achievements and advance. His weak points include a lack of a political team to back him up, an unclear agenda and few public achievements that demonstrate his ability to manage anything bigger than a ministry.

Referring to the prospects of a Yatsenyuk presidency, one western diplomat questioned if he had ever achieved anything in his previous short-lived posts, adding: “What will his team, or inner circle, be? Can he manage the balancing act … to keep his team together with all the vested interests at play?”

“He is untested. We don’t know what to expect,” the diplomat said referring to Yushchenko’s inability in four years of presidency to keep together a constructive base and avoid infighting.

To answer these big questions, Haran said: “It’s important to know what political force will back Yatsenyuk, what program he will propose and what his relations with leading business groups will be.”

“If we get an answer to these questions, we can talk about his future,” Haran added.

Source: Kyiv Post