The government, which generously wielded public resources on behalf of the party, operated in a “climate of impunity,” Walburga Habsburg Douglas, leader of a group of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Monday.
Most disturbing, she said, was that this election was a “step backward” from the democratic progress that Ukraine has made in years past.
Yet in important respects, Yanukovych’s standing is not parallel to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. Ukraine is a deeply divided country: between east and west, between Russian-speakers and Ukrainian-speakers, between those who loathe the 2004 Orange Revolution and those who only regret its subsequent disappointments.
And even those who voted for Yanukovych — eastern, Russian-speaking citizens — are increasingly dismayed by the corruption and cronyism that mark his regime.
Yanukovych’s opponents, even if they are divided and relegated to minority standing in the parliament, will be a vocal force nonetheless. Vitali Klitschko, a champion boxer and head of a new party called UDAR, said at a Monday press conference that he wants the opposition groups to join together to put Ukraine on “a democratic path” and remove “the Yanukovych regime.”
It’s not at all clear they could do that, even if they could find a way to unite. But unlike Putin, who has faced vocal opponents recently, Yanukovych has no oil or gas revenue to lavish on his country. He has raised salaries and benefits, with no obvious way of paying for them now that the election is over. His critics believe he also lacks the political savvy that Putin has used to cement his place at the top in Russia.
“Without money, they will try to stick to power by using physical force,” predicted Denis Kazansky, a political journalist in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home town. But that has its own risks.
Yanukovych’s oligarch friends, rather than fearing him, show signs of wanting to distance themselves from him. Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk businessman and one of Ukraine’s richest tycoons, chose not to keep his seat in parliament. He’s more interested now in improving his own image, said Yevgeny Stratievsky, a blogger in Donetsk, and Yanukovych and the Party of Regions aren’t good for that.
“Their shadow falls on his name,” Stratievsky said.
And Yanukovych has Europe to worry about. For 20 years, Ukraine has been trying to tie its future to the European Union — under Yanukovych as much as with his predecessors — and a break with Europe would be devastating to the Ukrainian economy. It also would make Ukrainian businesses vulnerable to Russian takeover artists.