Five and half years ago, Mr. Viktor Yanukovych was the villain in Ukraine. After “winning” presidential elections in 2004, disaffected voters took to the streets claiming fraud and hoping to reverse the results. One month of protests gave the world its first “color revolution” — the Orange Revolution, named after the campaign color of the eventual winner, Mr. Viktor Yushchenko.
This week, Mr. Yanukovych reclaimed the presidency, edging out Ms. Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister and one of the prime movers behind the Orange protests. Ms. Tymoshenko is again protesting the results, but this time she is unlikely to prevail. And given the deep and abiding divisions in Ukraine, the surest route to the presidency may well be to concede this ballot and return to office on the tide of disaffection that is most likely to rise during Mr. Yanukovych’s term.
It is tempting to see Mr. Yanukovych’s victory as the undoing of the Orange Revolution. That is a nice narrative, but it has little correspondence with the facts. Mr. Yanukovych was seen as the handmaiden of Russian interests in 2004 and Mr. Yushchenko as his Western-leaning opponent. The fact that Mr. Yushchenko was thought to have been poisoned during the campaign contributed to the good vs. evil iconography of the election. Yet, Mr. Yanukovych also served as prime minister in 2006 and 2007.
In Sunday’s ballot, the results were very much as they were in 2004. Mr. Yanukovych won overwhelming support from the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine; Ms. Tymoshenko won an equally large majority in the western part of the country. It was Mr. Yushchenko who tipped the balance. After polling a little over 5 percent of votes in the first round of the election in January, the president called on supporters to vote against both candidates — a margin large enough to deprive Ms. Tymoshenko of the victory the Orange group claimed in 2004. That was likely Mr. Yushchenko’s intent: He has developed an intense dislike for his current prime minister, evident in his refusal to endorse her candidacy.
With 99.99 percent of votes counted, Yanukovych led by 3.48 percentage points or almost 887,000 votes, according to
The new president has his work cut out for him. The Ukraine economy is in appalling shape: It contracted 15 percent in 2009. Its currency has lost 42 percent of its value against the dollar since September 2008, making it the second-worst performer in the world after Venezuela. According to one estimate, the government is the second most likely in the world to default on its debt; according to the price of insurance to protect against nonpayment, it is number three, after Venezuela and Argentina. The failure to pass a 2010 budget prevented the International Monetary Fund from providing an emergency loan of $16.4 billion. The government will soon not have enough money to pay government employees or pensions.
The disillusionment with Mr. Yushchenko and his Western inclinations means that Ukraine is likely to lean more toward Moscow — indeed, that was one of the biggest criticisms of Mr. Yanukovych in 2004. But that judgment is too blunt.
The new president still seeks Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, as did his predecessor. Ms. Tymoshenko is viewed with favor in Russia, having successfully negotiated a long-term deal last year that raised gas prices in Ukraine, even though 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe pass through the country. (Diversion of those supplies prompted Moscow to twice cut off flows in the middle of winter.) And Mr. Yanukovych’s sympathies for large industrial groups are likely to make him a more fervent defender of their interests — even when negotiating with Russia.
The more accurate verdict is that the new president has Russian sympathies, but he is a Ukrainian nationalist and that will be his bottom line. He has said that he wants to renegotiate the Russian gas deal to lower the price his country pays and to increase the amount sent through Ukrainian pipelines — which would theoretically increase transit fees. With Ukrainian gas bills reaching $1 billion a month, relief is imperative — even if that means clashing with Moscow.
Ultimately, Mr. Yanukovych’s fate rests on his ability to get the economy on an upward trajectory again and deliver on the campaign promise of 6 to 7 percent growth. He needs to restore international confidence in the economy. He also needs Ms. Tymoshenko to step down as prime minister so that he can craft a government that is committed to his program and agenda. Given the poison that courses through Ukrainian politics, that is unlikely. In that case, the president is likely to dissolve Parliament after his inauguration and call for new elections. At a minimum, that means three months of confusion and uncertainty — and that “minimum” presumes that elections return a parliament that matches the new president’s outlook. It is not a reassuring outcome or an auspicious start for Mr. Yanukovych.
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