Ukraine Swaps Faith In Revolution For Revolving Door Of Discredited Rulers

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Presidential rivals in a land riven by divisions have only time spent in jail in common. With its allegations of mass fraud, warnings of imminent violence, claims of gross corruption and even a dash of espionage, this has been a typical week in Ukrainian politics.

A supporter of Viktor Yanukovych at a rally in Donetsk, this week.

It will culminate in tomorrow’s presidential election scrap between energy tycoon turned populist premier Yulia Tymoshenko and convicted felon and current opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, to see who will lead a country ravaged by political divisions and economic collapse.

Ukrainians will choose between two characters who embody their country’s tumultuous recent history.

Tymoshenko made a fortune in the murky and often deadly post-Soviet energy business, earning herself a reputation for cunning and toughness and the nickname of the “Gas Princess”.

She became deputy prime minister in 1999 before being sacked and briefly jailed on suspicion of forgery and gas smuggling, charges that were eventually dropped.

Yanukovich blames the desperate poverty of his childhood for a colourful past that includes two prison sentences for robbery and assault.

Those convictions were struck from the official record as he rose through the political ranks in industrial, largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, becoming a governor in the city of Donetsk and then prime minister in 2002.

The protagonists collided in late 2004, when Yanukovich’s attempts to rig a presidential election were thwarted by Tymoshenko and her pro-western ally Viktor Yushchenko, who together led huge street protests that became known as the Orange Revolution.

The rallies swept Yushchenko into the presidency and he made Tymoshenko his prime minister, as the European Union and United States rushed to congratulate them, beckon Ukraine towards EU and Nato membership, and celebrate a painful defeat for the Kremlin, which had quickly hailed Yanukovich’s election “victory” and quietly seethed as it was overturned.

It has required extraordinary levels of incompetence, arrogance, venality and selfishness to destroy the hope generated at home and abroad by the Orange Revolution, to miss all the opportunities that it presented, and to squander the political capital invested in its leaders by the West’s major powers.

But that is the shameful achievement of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, and the powerful businessmen that surround them, seeking and offering favours.

The people’s former champions are now widely reviled, and the election cheat that they humiliated then is now the most popular politician.

Yanukovich easily won the first round of the presidential ballot, beating Tymoshenko by 10 per cent and Yushchenko by 30 per cent.

The outgoing head of state staggered home fifth, confirming his spectacular fall from grace. Yushchenko proved to be a hopeless president, incapable of conveying a clear and inspiring message once in office, unable to outmanoeuvre the wily Tymoshenko in their incessant power struggle, and increasingly intent on blaming Russia for Ukraine’s many woes.

The five-year arm wrestle between president and prime minister paralysed desperately needed reforms, scared away potential investors and left Ukraine rudderless last year as its economy shrank by up to 15 per cent. Even after Kiev secured an €11 billion international loan, squabbles between the leaders prompted lenders to suspend payment.

The duo’s dismal performance also undermined Ukrainians’ faith in politics, reform and the EU and western nations that had so lauded the pair, while allowing Moscow to strengthen its traditional influence in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Yanukovich also exploited his rivals’ failings, mounting a swift comeback and broadening his support by softening his pro-Kremlin line and backing better relations with Brussels, all while an isolated Yushchenko alienated millions by constantly criticising Russia.

Yanukovich is expected to win tomorrow but no one dares write off Tymoshenko, whose political resilience has earned her another monicker, the “Iron Lady”. She will hope to benefit from any anti-Moscow feeling stirred this week by Ukraine’s capture of five alleged Russian spies.

The only thing that can be assured in this election is a tempestuous aftermath. Tymoshenko says Yanukovich is planning to use fraud and even violence to seize power, and she has vowed to launch mass street protests to oppose him.

Yushchenko has ordered troops to guard the Central Election Commission. A post-ballot stand-off in the fractious parliament and the courts is likely, though there is now little public appetite for the kind of demonstrations seen in 2004.

Ukrainians are prepared for their political and economic crises to continue; they have learned not to believe in revolutions.

Source: Irish Times