By Michael Averko
Not too long ago, it was fashionable to write off Donetsk-based Ukrainian political leader Viktor Yanukovych as an also-ran whose time had come and gone. What many overlooked was the topsy-turvy political landscape of post- Soviet Ukraine, where otherwise dubious (as seen by some) figures resurface as acceptable leaders.
For much of his career, Ukraine's first post Communist President Leonid Kravchuk was seen as a loyal apparatchik of the Soviet Politburo. As the USSR broke up, Kravchuk discovered Ukrainian nationalism and a penchant for bashing just about everything Russian. During the so called "Orange Revolution," of last year, he noticeably distanced himself from the pro-Viktor Yushchenko street throng in Kiev and provided commentary that might have confused him with the mainstream Russian political elite.
Back in 1994, Kravchuk's then anti-Russian platform lost the presidency to the Russocentric campaign of eastern Ukrainian Leonid Kuchma. Shortly after assuming the Ukrainian presidency, Kuchma did an about-face as a number of Russian language schools in Ukraine were closed and the democratically elected pro-Russian Crimean government of Yuri Meshkov was overthrown (rather interestingly, at the time of this occurrence, the future Orange candidate Yushchenko, was a Meshkov ally). In 1996, Freedom House lauded Kuchma with an award and in 1999, the Ukrainian president was in Washington to honor NATO's 50th anniversary, while the presidents of Belarus and Russia stayed home in protest of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia (90% of Ukrainians
opposed the NATO bombing).
After 2000, Kuchma's legacy of corruption is discovered by some leading American policy groups and one time Kuchma ally Yushchenko is targeted as a desired presidential replacement (in the months leading up to the Ukrainian presidential elections, Yushchenko became a client of Madeleine Albright's Democratic Party
funded political consulting group). During his tenure as prime minister under Kuchma - Yushchenko openly supported the fire sale of Ukrainian assets abroad at a time when the Ukrainian economy was faltering.
On the other hand, Yanukovych's prime ministerial reign saw Ukrainian economic growth and a protectionist economic policy of not seeking to quickly sell off business interests to foreign subsidiaries. Upon his bid to become Ukrainian president, Yanukovych's strong points were overlooked and the reasons appear quite obvious.
His opponent Yushchenko had the benefit of experienced American political consultants, who are quite adept at imagery. Yanukovych on the other hand relied on Russian spin doctors, who with all due respect aren't as experienced. Pouring massive amounts of money alone into a campaign doesn't by itself necessitate success.
The Orange side succeeded on the negative campaign front.
Yanukovych should have been able to deflect the personal attacks against him into a plus for himself. A
case in point being his adolescent criminal record. Had this been a blemish on Yushchenko, his handlers would have highlighted how he grew out of that by earning a degree and becoming a family man.
I have never been sold on the idea of massive voter fraud against Yushchenko for several reasons. The individuals most involved with articulating this view had clear biases for the Orange candidate. Besides CIS election monitors, those from the British Helsinki Human Rights Group and the Israeli based Institute for the Study of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe found large scale Orange fraud which was downplayed by Western dominated observers with ties to the Orange candidate. In conjunction with that, the Western mass media coverage of the Ukrainian presidential elections showed a definite bias for the Yushchenko campaign. I very much remember nightly CBC telecasts of commentary from Canadian election monitors with west Ukrainian sounding and spelled names (for example, those surnames ending in the Russian "sky" were spelled in the west Ukrainian preferred "ski"). Western Ukraine was decidedly pro-Yushchenko. Likewise, the promoted Ukrainian-American views heard throughout American mass media typically showed a similar bias for those of west Ukrainian origin. All this as I was able to gather contrary views from those Americans having roots in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Whatever doubts on the final election result, several points remain clear. Yanukovych received over 40% of the vote and his power base in the influential Donbas region is nothing to take lightly. On the other side, Yushchenko surrounded himself with some dubious oligarchs in Petro Porsohenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, to go
along with a wily group of Galician centered nationalists.
Out of all of this, Yanukovych has emerged as an influential force in Ukrainian politics. The upcoming Rada elections make for great analysis in the field of punditry on the former Soviet Union.
For their own respective reasons, Washington and Moscow have good reason to be disappointed at the way events have occurred in Ukraine. Look for the White House and Kremlin to avoid getting too involved in future Ukrainian political matters. Try as some have throughout the centuries, anti-Russian forces aren't likely to ever
succeed in separating the historic relationship firmly bonding much of Ukraine with Russia. Some faulty Russian policies towards Ukraine and vice versa contradict the natural fraternal interests between Kiev and Moscow. From the Western mindset, it will hopefully be understood that Ukrainian overtures to the West shouldn't be
undergone in the spirit of some grand anti-Russian geo-strategic board game (anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine is at best restricted to a 1/3 minority in the western region of that country). Like their Ukrainian brethren, Russians welcome closer ties to the West.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst whose commentary has appeared in Eurasian Home, Johnson's Russia List, Intelligent.Ru, The Moscow Times, New York Times and Newsday. Michael has his own blog http://averko.blogspot.com which is currently being reconstructed.