Ukraine’s president is a political survivor
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has a history of being humiliated, most memorably in the 2004 Orange Revolution that deprived him of the presidency.
He fought back to become president six years later, only once again to face mass protests on the streets of Kiev and the derision of his countrymen. One of the persistent chants of the protesters now besieging the capital is “criminal, get out,” a reference to his teenage convictions for robbery and assault.
Yanukovych has given no clear indication that he knows how to solve the current crisis, but he seems to be relying on the same tactics that have made him a political survivor.
Ukraine was thrown into crisis last month when Yanukovych suddenly backed away from a long-awaited political and economic agreement with the European Union, deciding to focus instead on restoring trade ties with Russia. The abrupt shift back toward Moscow angered many in Ukraine, particularly in Kiev and the western regions of the country.
For Yanukovych, it was a seemingly natural choice. His support is in the Russia-friendly east of the country, where he grew up and began his political career. To survive he needs the backing of the coal and steel magnates in the east, whose industries depend on Russian markets and supplies of Russian natural gas.
But he continues to insist that Ukraine’s future belongs in Europe and that he could still sign the agreement with the EU in the spring.
As he alternates meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with Western diplomats, Yanukovych appears to be trying to please both sides. The sense is that he is maneuvering between Moscow and Brussels, negotiating for the best deal.
The political standoff is aggravated by Ukraine’s rapidly deteriorating finances. The economy has been in recession for more than a year, and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default.
The EU holds out the promise of long-term economic benefits, with foreign investment and greater access to European markets. But Yanukovych wants the EU to come up with more immediate cash.
Moscow might be more willing to offer a bailout and a better price for gas, but it expects Ukraine to join a Russia-dominated trade bloc instead. If Yanukovych were to make a deal with Putin, the reaction on the streets of Kiev would be fast and furious.
Yanukovych also has waffled on his reaction to the protests. Shortly after they began on Nov. 21, his government sent baton-swinging riot police to disperse a few hundred demonstrators spending the night on a central square. But the violence only galvanized the protests, and Yanukovych quickly apologized.
He seemed set to wait them out. But early Wednesday, riot police flooded into central Kiev and appeared to be preparing for a brutal assault, only to withdraw hours later when the protesters stood their ground.
To Yanukovych, the protest camp on Independence Square and the vast rallies must be a bitter reminder of the Orange Revolution, when similar demonstrations against voting fraud forced the annulment of a presidential election that he thought he had won.
But instead of vanishing from the political scene, he returned in 2006 as prime minister, a position he had held from 2002 to 2004. And in 2010, capitalizing on disappointment with the Orange government, he won election as president.
Yanukovych had only been in office a few months when a gust of wind once again made him look foolish. To honor the war dead on Victory Day, he was bowing his head in front of a large wreath when it was blown over by the wind in a direct hit. He freed himself from the branches, smoothed his hair and walked on.
Berry reported from Moscow.