The Rise And Fall Of Yushchenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- Victor Yushchenko’s growing number of political foes and even some of his remaining friends agree: He is not the leader everyone thought – or hoped -- he would be. What went wrong?

Victor Yushchenko was propelled to power on the wave of the 2004 Orange Revolution, a peaceful uprising of millions of Ukrainians who protested vote-rigging in favor of his opponent, Victor Yanukovych, and forced a new vote.

Some believe that fame and conceit overtook him, that top-level isolation led to paranoia, which in turn fueled political combat with people who could have helped him.

Amid the relentless infighting and slimming record of accomplishments, Ukrainians have overwhelmingly turned on their president.

Polls show the nation is ready to relegate Yushchenko to the political scrap heap, with Ukrainians concluding that their lives and the nation’s fate have not improved during his four years of leadership.

If Yushchenko is to win re-election, he must rebound from near-zero approval ratings in the 10 months or so before the new vote.

Yushchenko’s spectacular fall is all the more dramatic considering that he was propelled to the highest echelon of power by the 2004 Orange Revolution.

The peaceful, pro-democracy uprising was backed by millions of Ukrainians who had hoped he was capable of ending the rampant corruption and low living standards that characterized the gangster-like Leonid Kuchma era before him.

Instead, Yushchenko has made little headway against corruption – raising questions among the most ardent critics about whether he ever intended to punish the lawlessness of the Kuchma era.

As for living standards, despite the strong credit-driven growth for most of the decade, the nation appears headed for a long and nasty recession that is exposing its over-reliance on commodity exports.

The Kyiv Post sought out people who were once close to Yushchenko for an assessment of what went wrong. Some talked openly; others not for attribution.

Many say they are baffled by his ineffective leadership, and what they regard as his delusional hopes of winning re-election whenever it is held, in late 2009 or early 2010.

“We can’t talk to him anymore … he seems to have lost his mind,” said one former ally, a Verkhovna Rada member with Our Ukraine’s parliamentary faction. While he didn’t want his name published, his comment reflected a pervasive sentiment among former allies.

“He thinks he has a chance to get re-elected,” this lawmaker continued. “We don’t understand what is going on in his head and why he sticks with all these self-destructive strategies.”

Oleh Rybachuk, a longtime friend and chief of staff to Yushchenko in 2005, said he saw problems almost from the start. After assuming the presidency, Rybachuk said, Yushchenko put more energy into destroying or containing political enemies than keeping his team together and making good on his promises to clean up Kuchma-era corruption.

“Earlier, the President’s ideas were clear to people and were supported by them,” Rybachuk said. Now, he said, the president’s messages are muddled and contradictory.

Stability needed to adopt an economic agenda to move Ukraine closer to Western integration and further from Soviet-era realities has been largely absent. Personal rivalries have, instead, supplanted policy goals.

Rather than brokering pragmatic compromises with foes such as Victor Yanukovych, head of the largest faction in parliament, and one-time allies such as Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, backstabbing and distrust have frozen the nation’s progress.

Escalating hostility with Russia also had unintended consequences. Yushchenko’s ambitious drive for NATO membership and recognition of Holodomor as Soviet genocide helped fuel personal animosity between the Ukrainian president and Kremlin leaders.

The effect has been to blunt, not to advance, Ukraine’s hopes for joining the NATO military alliance and becoming part of the European Union.

The West has taken notice of the chaos and many leaders don’t seem to take Ukraine as seriously as they did in the wake of the Orange Revolution.

Now, given the option between placating Russia’s desire for a privileged “sphere of influence” on its borders and deepening support for Ukraine’s dysfunctional government, Western powers – by action, if not by words – have opted to antagonize Kremlin autocrats as little as possible. But Moscow alone is not to blame for Yushchenko’s troubles.

Ukrainians are fed up. The last public opinion poll by the Democratic Initiatives and Ukrainian Sociology Service indicated only 2.4 percent would vote for Yushchenko if the elections took place this month.

It’s a stark contrast from the 15 million voters (52 percent) who not only cast their ballots for Yushchenko on Dec. 26, 2004, but who also made the do-over election possible by blunting election fraud with their bodies on Kyiv’s freezing streets.

Rybachuk says the president is not the same man who electrified Orange Revolution crowds on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and successfully rallied them to overturn election fraud.

“What is happening right now is irrational,” said Rybachuk, who started working with Yushchenko when the president headed the National Bank of Ukraine through much of the 1990s. “It seems to me that Yushchenko has lost touch with reality - like the rest of main political players.”

Yushchenko’s tenure as central bank head catapulted him into a favorable national political spotlight. He is credited with introducing Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, in 1996.

By keeping it stable, he injected a rare dose of predictability into Ukraine’s economy. And this helped Ukraine to rebound from the economic despair that accompanied the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

A stable currency also helped fuel economic growth which, in turn, propelled Yushchenko to the prime minister’s post in 1999. His government served through 2001 and is widely viewed as Ukraine’s best so far.

During his era, privatization shifted into high gear and his deputy premier, Tymoshenko, was credited with cleaning up the corrupt electricity sector.

Public coffers filled up, allowing the government to pay off long-overdue wages and boost pensions. Citizens took note and Yushchenko’s popularity surged. But there were notable exceptions to the bandwagon.

Those whose financial interests suffered from the anti-corruption crusade were not amused. And some believe that Kuchma, whom Yushchenko once regarded as his political mentor, was so jealous of his protégé’s rising popularity that the former president engineered Yushchenko’s sacking by parliament.

After becoming president in 2005, Yushchenko surprised many with behavior more reminiscent of Kuchma than of the anti-corruption “clean team” of Yushchenko and sidekick Tymoshenko.

“Yushchenko chose a clear strategy of trying to flunk governments” to enhance his own ratings, said Oleksiy Haran, a political science professor at National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy. But it backfired as a political strategy, partly because of the president’s personality. “His strengths were in finding compromise and achieving results,” Rybachuk said. “He was never any good in dog fights.”

Perhaps to compensate for these weaknesses, Yushchenko replaced Rybachuk as chief of staff in 2006 with hardliner Victor Baloha, a political pit bull and former confidant of Victor Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s chief of staff.

Rybachuk believes Baloha’s appointment was one of the president’s major mistakes. Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine, who served from 1991-1994, agrees: “Instead of working with foes to achieve results, Yushchenko sunk to the low depths by getting tangled in relentless political wrestling matches.”

If Yushchenko is, indeed, finished politically, the lesson for future political leaders may be this: Unproductive political mayhem annoys voters. The relentless attacks from Yushchenko’s administration have fueled nihilism, disrespect for power and the sense that “nobody is responsible for anything,” Kravchuk said.

One recent example of Yushchenko’s perplexing behavior is his criticism of the Jan. 19 gas agreement that Tymoshenko negotiated with her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It ended Gazprom’s three-week shutoff of gas to Ukraine, and nearly two-week interruption of supplies to Europe.

Unable or unwilling to negotiate personally with the Kremlin, Yushchenko reacted to the deal by criticizing Tymoshenko for not negotiating a lower price.

Yushchenko threatened to revoke the deal through his pliant National Security Council, only to back down following international pressure.

Rybachuk, among other Yushchenko allies, thought the deal deserved presidential praise instead of criticism.

The ex-presidential chief of staff said that Tymoshenko appeared to have succeeded where others failed. She curbed corruption in the gas trade by introducing direct bilateral sales between Russia and Ukraine, a step that will eliminate cancerous intermediaries that “made more than one generation of Ukrainian politicians and businessmen rich,” Rybachuk said.

Despite his current and persistent unpopularity, Yushchenko will be credited with lasting achievements, even if he leaves office next year.

Ukraine has made tremendous strides in democracy under Yushchenko, including holding two parliamentary elections internationally recognized as democratic.

The news media also became freer to conduct independent journalism and to criticize government authorities. Under Yushchenko, Ukraine also deepened contacts with the West.

“I am sure historians will better gauge Yushchenko’s achievements in 20 years,” said Vadym Karasyov, a political analyst and adviser to the president.

But some think his priorities were misplaced, contributing to his undoing. They say he spent too much time pushing greater use of the Ukrainian language, trying to unite Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and building international recognition of the 1932-33 Holodomor as Soviet genocide.

“He only cares for insignificant things and it looks like he doesn’t notice Ukraine’s larger crises,” said Nina Tymkovych, a Kyiv resident. “The president has no policy to rescue Ukraine. We have a chance to be saved if we change presidents.”

Oles Doniy is equally disappointed. A lawmaker with the once strongly pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People’s Self Defense grouping, he is among 23 lawmakers in the bloc who are distancing themselves from the president.

Doniy also delivered what could prove to be the president’s political epitaph: “Unfortunately, he turned out to be an ineffective president driven by irrelevant agendas and useless political battles.”

Source: Kyiv Post