PR Disaster: Ukrainian President Can't Win Struggle with Tymoshenko

By Christian Neef

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych wanted to take revenge on his arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko. But locking up the former prime minister was the worst mistake of his presidency, say analysts. Tymoshenko has the upper hand in the battle for public opinion, while Yanukovych is ruining his presidency.

Photo Gallery: The Boxer from Donetsk Photos
AP

The humiliation that Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych experienced on March 27 couldn't have been worse.

The Ukrainian president had traveled to the South Korean capital Seoul to attend an international summit on nuclear safety. On the day before the summit, he had handed over the last highly enriched uranium still in Ukraine's possession to nuclear power Russia, in keeping with its commitment to relinquish its stock of the material before the summit. And now he wanted to receive the praise he thought he deserved from US President Barack Obama, the most important guest at the Seoul meeting.

The Foreign Ministry in Kiev had done everything in its power to arrange a private meeting with the America president. But the US president had no intention of enhancing the status of his Ukrainian counterpart with such a gesture. Instead, Obama spent only four minutes talking to Yanukovych while standing up in the conference center. It was clearly meant as a punishment for a political pariah.

But one photographer did snap a picture when the two men shook hands, and the next day the mass-circulation Kiev newspaper Segodnya ("Today") published a photo of the two politicians that almost filled the front page. Above it was the headline: "Yanukovych Breaks Through Isolation -- Return to the Big Political Stage. Our President Spoke with Obama Longer than Expected in Seoul." The story even characterized Yanukovych as one of the "main protagonists of this Seoul summit."

Inferiority Complex

It may have been a trivial event in terms of global politics, but it says a lot about Yanukovych, about his inferiority complex and his dream of joining the big league and working alongside major world leaders -- and about how he lies to his people at home in Ukraine.

Today, more than five weeks later, not even the government mouthpiece Segodnya would dare to perpetrate such a farce. By now, even the most remote shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains know that their president is isolated in the West.

This can be chalked down as a success for Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned four months ago at Kharkiv Prison Number 54 after a trial that many Western observers saw as orchestrated by Yanukovych. There are many indications that Yanukovych's insatiable lust for revenge against the former prime minister, his worst political adversary, could spell his downfall.

"The Tymoshenko case is the most egregious mistake the president has committed throughout his term in office. I don't know what came over him when he set this process into motion," says Yuri Romanenko, head of the Ukrainian think tank Center for Political Analysis. "Now that this affair has become international, he can no longer control it. It will bury him. The European Football Championship will be transformed from the longed-for triumph into a tragedy."

'A Nation of Losers'

How could Yanukovych have ruined his presidency in a mere two years? In the February 2010 election, he captured the votes of 12 million of the 36 million Ukrainians eligible to vote, in results that placed him clearly ahead of Tymoshenko and were not even questioned by the West. The Americans, the Germans and the French were the first to congratulate the new president.

Yanukovych announced his intention to "completely modernize" the country and wage an uncompromising battle against corruption, and he promised that Ukraine would become a paradise for investors. But he failed to make good on any of his promises.

Commenting on the current state of Ukraine, jailed former Prime Minister Tymoshenko likened her country to the H.G. Wells novel "The Island of Doctor Moreau" and George Orwell's "1984," calling it a republic of horror and "a nation of losers, without historical memory, without national pride, without positive economic prospects and a European future." Europe's largest country, she says, is now controlled by "one family -- a family with a large appetite or, rather, bulimia, a miserable IQ, and pretensions of eternal power."

The statement is an allusion to the president's origins and to how he and his friends have hijacked the country that was entrusted to them. Even if one takes Tymoshenko's remarks with a grain of salt, given her resentment of Yanukovych, her conclusions are correct. They explain why, after two years, barely more than 10 percent of Ukrainians still support their president.

Lacking the Necessary Qualifications

Ironically, it was already clear in 2010 that the man who had captured the presidency lacked almost everything that was needed to govern a country that was aimlessly adrift, namely political intelligence, tact and the ability to compromise. But what else could be expected from someone who had grown up without parents, surrounded by the black slag heaps of the Donbas steel-producing and coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine, and had already tangled with the law twice as an adolescent?

Yanukovych was born as the son of a locomotive engineer in Yenakiieve, in an area then known as Stalinsk. His mother died when he was two and his father was sent to a prison camp for 10 years for having collaborated with the Germans during the war.

Yanukovych began working in the local steel mill at 19. Later he became an engineer and, naturally, a member of the Communist Party, which installed him as the head of a repair business. He has never been able to furnish proof to back up claims that he earned a degree from the Ukrainian Academy of Foreign Trade.

Yanukovych was strongly influenced by the region surrounding the mining city of Donetsk. He was convicted of robbery at 17 and of assault at 20. He says today that he was rehabilitated, but it has since emerged that he later had the court records destroyed.

Karaoke and Wild Boar

His rise to power began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when bandits and oligarchs used Kalashnikovs and explosives to divide up the Donbas coalmines and steel mills amongst themselves. Akhat Bragin, a businessman who controlled virtually everything in Donetsk, from the central market to the Shakhtar football club, became a godfather figure in the region. But his power was short-lived. In October 1995, a powerful bomb blew up Bragin while he was watching an FC Shakhtar Donetsk game. His body could only be identified with the help of his severed arm, to which his Rolex watch was still attached.

Yanukovych, a down-to-earth giant of a man who likes to sing karaoke and can shoot a wild boar from a distance of 100 meters (330 feet), used to box with Bragin. He also boxed with Bragin's successor Rinat Akhmetov, who is now the head of the largest industrial group in Ukraine and the president's most important political donor. To the oligarchs, Yanukovych seemed to be the perfect man to help them safeguard their business deals. He became the head of the Donetsk regional administration in 1997. Five years later, then-President Leonid Kuchma brought him to Kiev and made him his prime minister.

Kuchma also wanted to install Yanukovych as his successor in 2004, but then overt election fraud triggered the Orange Revolution, bringing Tymoshenko and her ally, Viktor Yushchenko, into power. Five years later, it was all over for Ukraine's democratic spring. The leaders of the Orange Revolution were hopelessly at odds, and Ukrainians felt that the only solution to their troubles was to vote Yanukovych into office as president.

But it turned out that they had replaced one evil with another. The new president was more interested in promoting the well-being of the oligarchs, who had accumulated their wealth during the sale of public property in the 1990s. Whether the source of their profits was coal, steel, natural gas or titanium, Yanukovych made sure that they continued to flow. He reduced profit taxes on large companies while eliminating a low flat-rate tax on small businesses, driving them into the streets for protests lasting several weeks.

At some point Yanukovych must have perceived the independence of the newly wealthy oligarchs as a threat, and he began to build his own empire, dubbed the family, a group of like-minded people in which hierarchical relationships are governed by blood ties and private dependencies. His son Oleksandr, a 38-year-old dentist and businessman, was suddenly in the game.

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