In Ukraine, questions about the future invariably entail an excursion into the past. It's a journey that passes through electronic security gates in the Kiev building that houses the Ukrainian cabinet, into a Soviet-made elevator and up to the seventh floor -- where courtiers whisper, petitioners wait patiently and a padded door opens silently. The prime minister approaches from the depths of the room.
"Hello," says Viktor Yanukovych.
For a moment it seems as though time had stood still here. Yanukovych was prime minister once before when the so-called Orange Revolution broke out and hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Kiev, shivering in the cold, singing and waving orange flags -- in an effort that eventually brought down Yanukovych's corrupt regime. It happened two years ago.
Yanukovych was the principal target of popular fury when crowds took to the streets to demonstrate against election fraud and nepotism, against corruption and the regime's failure to investigate contract killings of its opponents. Ukrainians were demonstrating against everything for which they believed the policies of President Leonid Kuchma and his would-be successor Yanukovych stood for.
After the country's supreme court annulled the election for being fraught with irregularities, Yanukovych was defeated in a repeat of the second round vote. He conceded defeat and resigned as prime minister in January 2005. But on Aug. 4, 2006, only 19 months later, he returned to the position of prime minister, after being personally nominated by Viktor Yushchenko, the new president and Yanukovich's old arch rival.
The two men have ruled jointly since then, in what has been more of an adversarial than a cooperative relationship. The president has written the prime minister indignant letters ("I demand that you address the facts I have presented"), has publicly criticized Yanukovych's maneuvering to block NATO membership for Ukraine and, in late November, horrified Washington by threatening to veto his prime minister's upcoming visit to the United States on the grounds that he felt left out of the loop.
The prime minister, for his part, has insisted that the parliament, controlled by his coalition, be placed in charge of foreign policy. When Yanukovych traveled in late November to meet with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, the Ukrainian foreign minister, an ally of Yushchenko, only accidentally learned of the trip from journalists. Although Yushchenko vetoed Yanukovych's dismissal of the country's pro-Western chief diplomat a short time later, the foreign minister kept being prevented from attending his cabinet meetings.
Yanukovych insists that what looks like the work of an amateurish puppet theater on the national stage is merely the unavoidable consequence of cohabitation a la Ukraine -- a "transitional phase" in the process through which the once-feuding camps of the president and prime minister must now pass. In Yanukovich's view, the effects of friction between the two groups have not been serious. "There are no hostile maneuvers nor is there a hostile mood. There are just many emotions," says Yanukovich.
And there is a sense of numbness among the general population. It's almost as if a thick layer of lava had coated everything that happened in Ukraine in 2004, creating a crust that has all but buried dreams of greater freedom, truth and prosperity. More than ever, this divided country that stretches from the Carpathian Mountains to the Sea of Azov, and from the Crimean Peninsula to the Pripyat marshes -- once the Soviet Union's bread basket and now a critical conduit for natural gas being transported to Western Europe -- seems to be suffering from its failure to find its place on the continent.
The president wants to guide his country into NATO membership, a plan the premier currently opposes. The president promised a settling of accounts with the old system, a system the prime minister practically embodies. The president wants to see the Ukrainian economy blossom in the wake of a post-revolutionary slump, but the prime minister is beholden to the coal and steel magnates in his native, Russian-speaking Donbass region, who expect him to leave them and the billions they raked in in the 1990s untouched.
What may look like chaos is actually democracy in action, cynics in Kiev say. The disappointed complain that what began as an honest popular uprising is ending in lethargic compromise at the highest levels of government.
Yanukovych insists that he has no problem with the president -- nothing against Yushchenko who, in December 2004, after suffering the effects of severe dioxin poisoning following a dinner with the head of the Ukrainian intelligence service, assigned part of the blame for the attempted "political murder" to Yanukovich.
"On a human level, I have felt sympathy for him since the day I learned of his poisoning," says Yanukovych, as he stares off into the distance. "But everything I know about the case I learned in the media."
The November 2004 presidential election is another contentious issue between the two men. At the time, an irate Yushchenko told his rival: "You must acknowledge that you and your team stole three million votes." Today Yanukovych insists that it is clear that there was no "massive voting fraud," and that the affair involved, at best, "individual violations on both sides -- because the people were not yet accustomed to democratic standards."
Transformed by US consultant
The new Viktor Yanukovych is unflappable, even more so than in the past. He chooses his words carefully, keeps his facial expressions under control and avoids using the kind of prison jargon for which he was once notorious. A 6'6" man from the country's southeastern coal and steel-producing region, Viktor Yanukovych has learned his lesson.
His advisors maintain a deliberately low-key presence in a ground-floor office at Sophia Street 4 in Kiev. There is no sign on the door, no doorbell and no security guard. The man running the office is Phil Griffin who, like most US-funded crusaders for more democracy and transparency in Eastern Europe, remains tight-lipped about his work.
Griffin's reticence is understandable, given that he works for Paul Manafort. Manafort is the kind of behind-the-scenes political operator who makes but never appears in headlines. A discreet grand master of political campaign management, Manafort worked in the White House under former US President Gerald Ford and later helped run the election campaigns of presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. He has also had a successful career as a lobbyist, with clients ranging from Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
In 2005, Manafort received a call from Ukraine. His latest assignment would entail transforming Viktor Yanukovych from a failed presidential candidate, a bogeyman who was ejected from the Ukrainian political scene in disgrace, into a statesman who could bring order to Europe's largest country.
It turned out to be less of a challenge for Manafort's team than might have been expected. Yanukovych, a former communist, has a reputation for being tenacious and yet open to advice -- a virtually ideal combination from an American political standpoint. US geostrategists, led by John Herbst, the US ambassador to Ukraine, had expressed concerns about Yushchenko well into the 2004 presidential election. Though considered respectable, Yushchenko also had a reputation for being an eccentric loner.
But thanks to the efforts of Manafort and other advisors, Yanukovych was completely repackaged just in time for the parliamentary elections in March 2006. He now sports a more dynamic-looking haircut, dark blue suits and matching silk ties, and he has become adept at charming the press. "I was shocked when I saw him for the first time after his absence," says a reporter in the prime minister's press corps. "He talks a lot now, but he doesn't say anything anymore," says another journalist. "In the past you could tell what he was thinking by looking at his eyes. Those days are gone."
Yanukovych's "Party of Regions" won a majority in parliament in March, trumping the alliance between now-quarreling revolutionary heroes Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko. Unlike Russian political advisors who were responsible for his political demise in 2004, "people of the caliber of a Paul Manafort never give advice that could lead to violations of the law," says Yanukovych today. "They tell you what the voters expect."
The new Yanukovych has become cautious, deftly wrapping his rhetoric around two central themes -- "democracy" and "reforms" -- and rarely forgetting to mention that Ukraine's future role should be that of a "bridge" between Europe and Russia. His goal is to send a message of reconciliation to the West without disappointing his friends and supporters in the East. Listening to this former communist party functionary speaking today, and watching him maneuvering his way around the political stage, conjures up the image of an honest old farm horse that has been carefully trained to perform in the ring, and in the process has mastered the high art of trotting in place.
From prison to prime minister
Yanukovych has come a long way for someone who was once thought of as little more than a thug from the brewery district of the mining town Yenakiyevo near Donetsk. After losing his mother at an early age, Yanukovych was raised by his grandmother and soon developed a reputation for rowdiness in the polluted coal-mining and steelmaking region of his youth.
Former friends in Yenakiyevo say that Yanukovich and his companions were known for "drinking, swearing and stealing fur hats." He acquired a criminal record as a result of two serious incidents in 1967 and 1969. Both cases involved violent altercations, with the second case resulting in moderately severe bodily injury, and in both cases the young Yanukovych was convicted and imprisoned. In 1972, shortly after his release from prison, he married and completed his education.
Yanukovych's political rivals believe they understand the reasons behind his fairy tale-like career, which would later culminate in the governorship of Donetsk and the office of prime minister. Grigory Omeltchenko, a member of parliament in the "Yulya Tymoshenko Bloc" and a veteran of the intelligence service himself, says: "Yanukovych was with the KGB. He was recruited after he came out of prison." Fellow party member Alexander Turchinov, who headed the SBU, the Ukrainian successor to the KGB, until September 2005, says that because of his obligation to preserve secrecy he can only comment "unofficially." According to Turchinov, "there are signs that Yanukovych was with the KGB."
Yanukovych himself finds the accusations so absurd that he even discussed them on a television program with Yushchenko. Smear campaigns are a routine political tool in the post-Soviet Ukraine, a form of security in the struggle for power. "Everyone has a skeleton in their closet or a corpse in their septic tank," says Ukraine's leading columnist, Yulia Mostovaya of Kiev's Weekly Mirror. As a symptom she mentions the latest hit by "Okean Elsi," the cult band that got its start in the days of the Orange Revolution -- because it is a signal, a swan song to the achievements of the revolutionaries who stormed the barricades in 2004. In the lyrics, which have caused a sensation nationwide, the singer explains "Why I will no longer walk with them."
The parliamentary groups, says Mostovaya, even those of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, have been taken over by a caste of politicians who came of age as "bazaar dealers" in the 1990s, without even the slightest understanding of "the needs of the state and of society as a whole. They have spent their entire lives thinking only of themselves." The old figure of 300 dollar millionaires in parliament -- two thirds of all members of parliament -- has apparently even been exceeded in the new term running since the March election.
Yushchenko seems helpless
Quarrelsome on details, but almost helpless overall, Viktor Yushchenko has been looking on as the achievements of the 2004 popular uprising are gradually being dismantled. The constitutional reforms of December 2004, ratified in the waning days of the Kuchma era, severely curtailed the president's powers in favor of the parliament and the government. How to interpret these reforms has become the subject of bitter controversy.
Journalist Mostovaya believes that there are also psychological reasons for the president's weakness. Yushchenko, an enigmatic "pretty boy with the soul of a bookkeeper," who is passionate about beekeeping and folk art, a man whose looks were once sufficiently dazzling to cause "western Ukrainian peasant women to drop like flies," has never quite overcome the devastating effects of dioxin poisoning on his face.
In a flight of courage though, Yushchenko has now removed his "dear friends" -- former patrons, comrades-in-arms and sycophants with oversized egos and little political experience -- from his immediate surroundings, replacing them with pragmatists. The deputy head of the presidential administration is now a former economics minister. His boss is a businessman from the Carpathian Mountains, a man who is as shady as he is successful and whom Western intelligence services linked to organized crime only a few years ago.
The more embittered their day-to-day rivalry, the more alike Yushchenko and Yanukovych are becoming in their choice of methods and personnel. Yushchenko's new man at the head of the National Security Council, Vitaly Gaiduk, a brawny Donetsk industrialist and former deputy prime minister, was a member of the leadership in Yanukovych's party until recently. Gaiduk was also Yanukovych's deputy when he was governor of the Donetsk region.
Despite having defected to the enemy camp, the media-shy Gaiduk still has no difficulties getting meetings with Yanukovych whenever he asks to see him. The shared experience of having grown up in Donetsk, the country's industrial heart, continues to unite, even across party lines.
Many of the moderately disreputable industrial barons from the Donbass region, sometimes with an entourage of drivers, cleaning women and servants in tow, now hold seats and influence in the parliament in Kiev. Parliament guarantees them immunity from prosecution for past misdeeds, a strategy invented by Rinat Akhmetov, the cardinal of the southeast, the country's richest man and president of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club, who hopes to reorganize the steel, coal and coke market in his region. Akhmetov was kind enough to suggest the candidates to his friend Yanukovych.
Akhmetov, a red-haired Tatar with a boy-like build known for his cool demeanour, apparently views Yanukovych as a man who can provide him with political influence -- someone who will not stand in the way of his business interests, will keep hungry Russian oligarchs out of the market and who won't touch the legal status quo of shady privatization deals struck in the 1990s. But Yanukovych can only do these things if he is in power.
This is where Paul Manafort comes in. Akhmetov is said to have hired Manafort in 2005, well before the election, to help ensure Yanukovych's return to political power, and the plan worked. Now that Yanukovych, together with communists and socialists, holds a slim majority in the parliament, there is little risk that old wounds from the country's more recent history will be torn open. It's telling enough that the former head of the state-owned natural gas company, the scandal-ridden driving force behind billions in construction projects to bring Russian gas to Ukraine, has since been named to the post of energy minister. The head of the central election commission, fired from his job in December 2004, was rewarded with a position in the justice committee. In parliament, he rubs shoulders with the general public prosecutor from the Kuchma era, whose former role in life was to act as a legal shield to the ruling class.
Armed with a coterie of former co-conspirators ensconced in parliament, reassured by love letters from Moscow and friendly talks in Washington two weeks ago, Yanukovych appears to be doing well both domestically and abroad.
But where is this divided country headed? "To the West," says Yanukovych, without batting an eyelash. "First we must join the World Trade Organization. The decision will be reached in February." The next item on his agenda, says Yanukovych, is a "free trade zone with the EU." He also wants a new ten-year agreement that sets milestones towards "Ukraine's path into the EU."
As a small concession to persistent doubters, the prime minister, while in Washington, trotted out a sentence from his new box of tricks. Further political maturing, says Yanukovych, cannot be ruled out. "Just as there can never be too much democracy in Ukraine, there also can never be too much freedom."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan