When Viktor Yanukovych assumed the mantle of President of Ukraine in late 2010 he was primed and ready. However, his interests did not lie with the people, and that became obvious with incredible speed. There were warnings, but the Ukrainian people seemed ready to forgive, forget, and give him a chance. It was no small feat given his background, and while international observers were prepared to declare the presidential election results democratic, transparent, and fair – stories of voter coercion of employees of those within Yanukovych’s circle of influence being told “how to vote” abounded. Following failed promises, scandal, intrigue, and corruption in two decades of Ukrainian independent politics, Yanukovych was ostensibly given a second chance. He paid back by exploiting that chance...ruthlessly and like no other before him.
Phoenix From The Ashes
Yanukovych’s disgrace was brief – it shouldn’t have been – his modus operandi was exposed during the Orange Revolution. That revolution from late November 2004 to January 2005, came in the immediate aftermath of the run-off vote of the 2004 presidential election, which was marred by massive corruption, voter intimidation and direct electoral fraud, primarily in Yanukovych’s home region of Donbas, in attempt to rig the election in Yanukovych’s and his Party of Regions favour. The protests succeeded when the results of the first run-off were annulled, and a revote was ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court.
In the middle of the crisis, the parliament ratified constitutional reforms that shifted crucial powers from the president to the parliament. Under intense domestic and international scrutiny, the second run-off was declared to be “fair and free”. Viktor Yushchenko received about 52% of the vote, compared to Yanukovych’s 44%. Yushchenko was declared the official winner, and with his inauguration in January 2005, the revolution ended.
Yanukovych had had a taste of power as Prime Minister of Ukraine from November 2002 to December 2004 under President Leonid Kuchma. Surprisingly, Yushchenko showed his magnanimousness by again appointing Yanukovych Prime Minister from August 2006 to December 2007. By 2010, all was seemingly forgiven, and Yanukovych was ready to become Yushchenko’s successor.
Yushchenko’s leadership had been lacklustre, the changes to the constitution hammered through in the middle of the revolution created an unclear division of power, which later led to constant in-fighting between Yushchenko and then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovych watched, waited, and would later use those internal squabbles for political gain.
There were clues to his intentions even before the presidential elections of 2010 – especially when it came to Tymoshenko of whom he said “has her own programme, and I do not think that she would agree to implement somebody else’s. And what is even more important, even if she agrees, I won’t believe her; President Yushchenko believed her twice, and she deceived him, I don’t and can’t have any confidence in Tymoshenko”. That was polite; he also likened her prime ministerial term as being “like a cow on ice”. At the polling booths voter turnout was poor, but the result was emphatic: Yanukovych won the right to govern.
Yanukovych had choices; his redemption at the hands of voters gave him those choices. He could have become a president for the people. He could have committed himself to promoting the rights of those who elected him. He could have dedicated himself to setting Ukraine on a path of reform and European integration. He could have promoted those qualities the west prizes – democracy and freedom. He could have...but he didn’t...
Within weeks of his election it was clear; Yanukovych was going to use his office for his own ends and fast. His foot pressed the pedal to the metal and he did not hit the brakes. He reversed many of the changes adopted post-Orange Revolution and annulled the 2004 compromise that reduced the power of the presidential office – transforming parliament back to a rubber-stamp institution. Control back in his hands, he started to hunt his rivals.
First he secured constitutional court rulings to oust Tymoshenko, replacing her with someone from his own “camp”. The following year he went further, Tymoshenko was – sensationally – jailed for seven years. The electoral system was next – the proportional-representation structure was replaced with a hybrid in which 50% of deputies are elected in single-member districts – critics were quick to point out this could only work in the Party of Region’s favour. They were right; the 2012 parliamentary election delivered more seats to the ruling party than it would have won previously and weakened the opposition.
Yanukovych still found time to fiddle elsewhere. Media and public freedoms were curbed; inner tensions between the Ukrainian people, particularly between east and west, were inflamed. The fiddling also included the books, where Yanukovych, and particularly his sons, amassed fabulous, improbable, wealth, which they flaunted shamelessly. When asked to explain, the reply was dismissive and akin to a juvenile “just because”. Where Ukrainians sighed and initially said “we only have ourselves to blame”, that self-flagellation could only be internalised for so long. Inward regret transformed to outward resentment and, inevitably, anger. In late 2013, EuroMaidan would erupt.
by Jared Morgan