Saturday, February 04, 2006

Orange power sours

The Times (reported in the Australian Newspaper)

Jeremy Page, Kiev`
(The times - The Australian)
February 04, 2006
VIKTOR Yanukovich, the burly former convict and then prime minister of Ukraine, looked like a broken man a little more than a year ago.

His victory in a presidential election had just been overturned after a fortnight of massive protests centred in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution and went on to win the election rerun, was being hailed around the world as a democratic hero who had wrenched the country of 47 million people out of Russia's stifling embrace. Mr Yanukovich was vilified as a Kremlin stooge.

Now, Mr Yanukovich, who has a newly refurbished office in the centre of Kiev, has a defiant gleam in his eye.

And with good reason. He is not just back at the forefront of Ukrainian politics: he is also on the verge of snatching back power from under the noses of the Western governments that so enthusiastically embraced the Orange Revolution.

"It is high time to end incompetence," he says in a slick new campaign advertisement. "Together we will win for the sake of Ukraine."

His Party of the Regions, which advocates closer ties with Russia, is leading all opinion polls before parliamentary elections on March 26. His personal ratings also outstrip his rivals. And since parliament, rather than the president, chooses the prime minister under constitutional reforms introduced on January 1, he is now a frontrunner to assume what will be the nation's most powerful post.

The West may have won the geopolitical battle over Ukraine in 2004. But, with less than two months until the elections, analysts say, it appears to be losing the war.

"In 2005 this country went from one crisis to another," said Mr Yanukovich, 56. "People got used to worrying all the time about what's going to happen tomorrow. People are tired of this instability. All they see from this Government is populism and unprofessionalism."

The fault lies principally with the business leaders who bankrolled the Orange Revolution, analysts say.

Mr Yushchenko took power promising an end to the corruption, human rights abuses and economic bungling that had plagued Ukraine under his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

He pledged to lead Ukraine into the EU and NATO, tearing it out of Russia's strategic orbit for good. But within a few months, infighting and allegations of corruption tore his team apart and in September he sacked the government of his revolutionary partner, Yulia Tymoshenko.

"The fundamental mistake was a lack of coherent political strategy," said Yuri Yakymenko, a political analyst at Ukraine's Razumkov Centre. "Right from the start, they were competing for position in the parliamentary elections."

The problems were not just internal, however. Many Ukrainians feel they did not receive the support they had expected from the West.

The EU poured cold water on Mr Yushchenko's promises to join the body and instead awarded Ukraine the nebulous prize of "market economy status" last year. "If there had been a definite signal on EU membership it would have been better for Yushchenko," Mr Yakymenko said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that the US had given Ukraine just $US174million ($231.15million) in aid last year, compared with between $US3billion and $US5billion that Kiev had received in subsidies from Moscow.

Ukraine says it hopes to join NATO by 2008, but Western diplomats say that is unrealistic given popular opposition to the idea and the complexity of integrating technical standards. Russia, meanwhile, has been flexing its economic muscles to remind Ukrainians of their continued dependence on their former Soviet masters.

It has studiously avoided backing any individual politician since its explicit support for Mr Yanukovich's presidential campaign backfired. But it severely undermined Mr Yushchenko when it cut Ukraine's gas supplies on New Year's Day in a pricing dispute that was widely seen as punishment for the Orange Revolution.

Yuri Yekhanurov, Mr Yushchenko's Prime Minister, predicted last week that their Our Ukraine party would triumph in the elections and form a coalition government. The question is with whom.

The latest polls give the Party of the Regions 25per cent of the vote, Our Ukraine 15per cent and Ms Tymoshenko's bloc 12per cent. Some analysts predict that Mr Yushchenko will resolve his differences with Ms Tymoshenko to form a new Orange coalition. If that fails, he could have to link up with the Party of the Regions, or face an opposition coalition led by Mr Yanukovich. Either of the latter would entail major policy changes.

The Times