The Next Act In Ukraine's Political Soap Opera


It was all suppose to turn out so differently.  The Orange Revolution, was suppose to be the birth of a true and lasting democracy in Ukraine, a peaceful uprising in late 2004 against what were widely seen as rigged presidential elections.  Tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) and in similar places around the country with a simple demand – to have their votes fairly counted.  A young, Western-leaning president was swept into office in what has held up as an example of people power to all the pseudo-democracies of the world.  But five years on Ukraine remains mired in a sad political soap opera and Viktor Yanukovych, the man who first rigged the vote back in 2004, stands poised to be elected president.

Ukraine’s presidential elections are set for January 17, a little over two months for now, and if the early polls are to be believed, Yanukovych is the clear front-runner.  He is polling at about 27%, eleven points ahead of current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who comes in at 16%, and miles ahead of current President Viktor Yushchenko, whose approval rating is mired at a mere 3% (given the margin of error of your typical poll that could mean that no one in Ukraine approves of Yushchenko).  So what happened?  Well, in large part Ukraine’s political woes are the fault of its two leading political figures, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko.

The problems began almost as soon as the echoes of the protests faded, with each jockeying to position themselves as the true hero of the Orange Revolution.   Having won the election, Yushchenko thought it should be him; Tymoshenko, an oligarch in her own right who is said to have helped fund and organize the Orange Revolution protests, wanted more than just a ceremonial role as prime minister.  It’s worth noting here that in addition to possessing the most complex set of braids this side of Princess Leia, Tymoshenko also has quite an ego – her political faction is known simply as the “Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko”, so it’s not surprising that she wasn’t willing to be shuffled off to the background.

The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko partnership then seemed doomed from the start, and it largely was.  Yushchenko would wind up sacking Tymoshenko from the PM job twice, and would have fired her a third time if the International Monetary Fund hadn’t made stability in the government a condition in giving Ukraine a $16 billion loan to prop up their faltering economy (an economy done in by political dithering, the global recession and a sharp drop in demand for Ukraine’s main export – steel).  But that hasn’t kept Yushchenko from accusing Tymoshenko of treason for not condemning Russia over last year’s conflict with Georgia and Tymoshenko from using her role as PM to try to strip his presidency of any real power.  

Meanwhile waiting in the wings is the former President Yanukovych.  But the divisions here are more than just political.  Yanukovych’s support comes mostly from the large ethnic Russian populations in Ukraine’s south and east, not surprisingly he supports closer relationships with Moscow.  Yushchenko is staunchly pro-Western, pushing for Ukraine’s membership in both NATO and the European Union; his support (when he had support) came from Ukraine’s western regions.  Tymoshenko has advocated something of a middle ground – future EU membership, but also a friendly relationship with Russia as well.  

Russia looms large in Ukrainian politics.  A dispute over payment, or non-payment, for Russian natural gas has become an almost annual winter crisis for Ukraine – last January Russia turned off the taps over what they said was a billion dollar bill owed by Ukraine for Russian gas.  Meanwhile, the Crimean Peninsula could be a future flashpoint.  Historically a part of Russia, Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in an act of Soviet solidarity.  Today, Crimea has a majority ethnic Russian population and is still the homebase to Russia’s Black Sea Naval Fleet, at least until 2017 when the Navy’s lease runs out.  The Crimeans tend to be proud of their Russian naval heritage (which dates back two centuries), while Moscow is raising tensions by handing out passports to ethnic Russians living in Crimea who are technically Ukrainians.  The West also has a hand in the upcoming election in the form of political consultants.  Tymoshenko has hired AKPD Message and Media, the team that ran Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign to run hers.  They’ve come up with the very humble slogan: “She is Ukraine”.  Meanwhile Yanukovych, perhaps inauspiciously, has hired Paul Manafort whose firm advised John McCain in his losing effort.

For now though Ukrainians mostly seem uneasy over the election and their choices.  The fear about electing Yanukovych is that he would make Ukraine again a de facto satellite of Moscow; while the concern with Tymoshenko is that as she could easily turn into an authoritarian leader a la Putin (remember: “She is Ukraine”).  Still others wonder if Yushchenko’s even bothering to run with a single-digit approval rating, might mean he has something up his sleeve to keep the presidency for himself.  A decade ago Russia’s Boris Yeltsin came from the single-digits to win re-election as Russia’s president in a vote that many believe was rigged.

Whatever the outcome in January, the election seems unlikely to give Ukraine what it really needs: political stability and a new direction in leadership.

Elections, Europe, Russia, Ukraine