In Ukraine, Moscow's Man Makes Comeback
Sunday, March 26, 2006
KIEV, Ukraine, March 25 -- For a man who was supposed to be politically dead, Viktor Yanukovych has a light step. With a bounce in his stride, he emerged onto a downtown stage Friday evening, faux-marble columns framing his salute, as a crowd of thousands chanted his name in four hard beats: "Yan-U-Kov-Ych."
The Kremlin's favorite for power in this former Soviet republic, he was vanquished 16 months ago by the weeks of marches and sit-ins known as the Orange Revolution. Now, opinion polls predict that his party will win the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections Sunday.
His comeback reflects the advent of genuine democratic freedoms in Ukraine, a nation of 47 million people on the shores of the Black Sea, and the rapid disintegration of the political coalition the revolution brought to office. President Viktor Yushchenko and his former allies on the streets now trade accusations of corruption, incompetence and betrayal almost daily.
Russia is watching the vote closely. Yanukovych is the country's hope for the central goal of its foreign policy: the fostering of sympathetic governments in the former Soviet republics that share its borders. In the months since the revolution, Ukraine has aligned itself firmly with the European Union, the United States and NATO; Yanukovych has said that any government he heads would swing back toward Moscow.
Across the border in Belarus, elections last weekend brought results that pleased Russia, an official 82 percent victory for pro-Moscow President Alexander Lukashenko. On Friday and Saturday, riot police were crushing the seeds of what the opposition was calling the Denim Revolution. The West has promised sanctions. Russia has nodded its approval of the conduct of the election and the police response to the demonstrations.
Russia last year signed a military cooperation agreement with Uzbekistan, which closed a U.S. air base and is rounding up dissidents, but elsewhere, the Kremlin has failed to keep the former republics in its orbit. The three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, are now E.U. members; Georgia has a strongly pro-Western president.
Following independence with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remained largely in Russia's camp. State television and newspapers hardly mentioned the opposition; permits for rallies were rarely granted; and protesters were often harassed. There were accusations of politically motivated murders.
In late 2004, Yanukovych campaigned with Moscow's backing against Yushchenko. Drawing most of his votes from Ukraine's large Russian-speaking population in its eastern region, Yanukovych was declared the winner. That brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets, led by Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, a charismatic businesswoman and politician. A new vote was ordered; this time, Yushchenko was declared the winner.
But in September, Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko from the post of prime minister, sundering the alliance that was at the heart of the demonstrations. The political divorce heightened deep public discontent with Ukraine's weakening economy under their stewardship.
Economic growth fell dramatically in 2005 and is now stalled. In the first two months of this year, the economy expanded at an annual rate of only 2 percent, one of the slowest in Eastern Europe.
"There was a crash of illusions, a crash of expectations," said Kost Bondarenko, a political analyst. "A year ago, Yushchenko was an unambiguous hero."
In addition, tensions mounted with Russia. This winter, Russia's state-controlled energy firm Gazprom briefly cut off natural gas supplies in a pricing dispute that was seen here as punishment for the government's westward turn.