KIEV, UKRAINE — Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will meet President Obama at the White House on Wednesday, is a lawyer and economist with substantial political bona fides for a 39-year-old who last month abruptly came to the helm of a country in crisis.
Previously serving as both foreign and economy minister in Kiev, Yatsenyuk was closely associated with the pro-Western movement that led to the flight of former president Viktor Yanukovych on Feb. 22.
Yatsenyuk, who was selected by the parliament to help fill Ukraine’s power vacuum after Yanukovych’s departure, hails from the Fatherland party of Yulia Tymoshenko — Yanukovych’s arch opponent who was jailed in 2011 after what many here see as a politically orchestrated trial.
Though Yatsenyuk appeared with Tymoshenko onstage after her recent release, observers here say their political relationship remains marred by a clash of visions.
In a now-infamous recording apparently intercepted and posted on YouTube by Russian intelligence, the top U.S. diplomat on Europe — Victoria Nuland — backed Yatsenyuk as a credible force to guide Ukraine through its political crisis.
Yatsenyuk is seen as a leader willing to make tough decisions in difficult times. During Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, Yatsenyuk, then a senior official at the central bank, advocated the limiting of cash withdrawals — a decision that experts now credit with saving the Ukrainian banking system.
“That was a very brave decision at the time,” said Veronika Movchan, academic director of the Kiev-based Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting.
Even as he seeks to galvanize the West against Russia’s reach for Crimea, Yatsenyuk has spoken of the need for major — and unpopular — economic reforms in Ukraine, a country also in the midst of a financial crisis.
His government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for desperately needed rescue loans. Members of his government have already warned that any bailout package is likely to carry painful demands for reforms, including deep cuts in energy subsidies.
Russia dismisses Yatsenyuk, who is also set to address the U.N. Security Council on Thursday, as the head of an illegitimate government.
In Kiev’s Independence Square, many of the pro-Western protesters who called for Yanukovych’s ouster remain holed up in tents, not yet confident enough in the political transition to return to their homes. While they see Yatsenyuk as an ally to their cause, they also view him as a temporary bridge. The clamor here is for new faces, new names in Ukrainian politics — and Yatsenyuk, even given his youth, is not a new name.
While president, Yanukovych enjoyed broad powers as head of state. But since his ouster, parliament has moved to diminish the power of the presidency and selected Yatsenyuk for a beefed-up office of prime minister.
Yatsenyuk has said he will not run for the presidency in May, but experts nevertheless think that if asked, he will stay in the job of prime minister through the next parliamentary elections, which could be later this year.
Yatsenyuk was born in western Ukraine not far from the Romanian border and graduated with a law degree from Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University in 1996, earning a second degree in accounting in 2001 from the Chernivtsi Trade and Economics Institute.
In 2010, Yatsenyuk unsuccessfully stood for president on the ticket of his own party, Front for Change. In a country where there is an undeniable link between anti-Semitism and some sectors of the far right, his supposed Jewish ancestry became a campaign issue.
After Tymoshenko was jailed on embezzlement charges, he meshed his Front for Change with her Fatherland party, becoming the parliamentary leader of the opposition bloc.