Ukraine's Real Problem Is Viktor Yanukovych

It’s impossible to understand the situation in Ukraine without understanding the split between the Ukrainian-speaking West, which generally opposes President Viktor Yanukovych, and the Russian-speaking East, which generally supports him.

That said, oversimplifying the split would be a mistake. As Peter Pomerantsev notes at the London Review of Books, the “violent front line” of the Euromaidan protests actually appears to be multi-lingual. Even a divided country can find unity in focusing on one singular problem, and for Ukraine, there’s one big problem that actually appears to be quite simple: Viktor Yanukovych.

Let’s be blunt: Yanukovych does not seem like a good president. This isn’t even the first time his strongman tactics have led to mass protests on the streets of Ukraine; the “Orange Revolution” in 2004 was a successful attempt to stop Yanukovych, then Prime Minister, assuming Ukraine’s presidential office after allegations of fraud and voter intimidation.

Looking back, the situation before the “Orange Revolution” sounds outragous. Reports from the time suggested that “roving teams” featuring tens of thousands of people had gone from polling station to polling station in Ukraine’s East, ultimately giving Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of the Regions 97 per cent of the vote in some cities. His main rival, Viktor Yushchenko, became seriously ill during the campaign, and a British doctor claimed this was a result of dioxin poisoning (Government-controlled media then suggested he had eaten bad sushi).

Yanukovych’s 2010 election to the presidency was remarkable considering what happened in 2004, though still almost everyone agrees he won legitimately. A large amount of his success came from his history in the industrial East, where his status as a tough local boy done good (he was convicted of assault as a teenager, and now his son is believed to be one of the richest people in the country) had buoyed his career there as a regional governor. “For the millions of his [Yanukovych] supporters he is the Leader, he is the incarnation of their dreams, he is their hero,” Ukraine scholar Yaroslav Pylynski wrote earlier this month. “And his opponents are poor failures that should be deceived and used.”

Even back then, however, there were doubts about Yanukovych in the East, and his election was seen by some as a vote against Orange Revolution-leader Yulia Tymoshenko, then seen as corrupt. “Yulia [Tymoshenko]’s team will steal half the budget; Yanukovych’s team will also steal half the budget, but at least they’ll get something done,” one steel worker from the eastern industrial city of Donetsk told the Kyiv Post at the time.

If Yanukovych seemed to be the lesser of two evils at the time, few see his presidency as a success. The country’s economy is in terrible shape, and Yanukovych has been accused of using his power to ensure lucrative awards for his relatives and others close to him — the people obliquely referred to as “the family” in Ukrainian culture. Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years for allegedly organising an unfavorable gas deal with Russia, and international critics argue her prosecution was selective justice, a retribution from Yanukovych.

“Even before these protests broke out, I had been told by Ukrainian friends that Yanukovych’s support in the East was weakening,” Hannah Thorborn, a research assistant at the Brookings Institute who focuses on Ukraine said in an email to Business Insider. “They had seen him as ‘their guy,’ who would make decisions in their (the Donetsk-based and industrial east’s) best interest, but had been disappointed when his decisions seemed to be influenced by more base and venal desires, like lining the pockets of his sons and friends. They’ve seen few benefits out of having the local boy as president and are still plagued by the same issues that they were before.”

When the Euromaidan protests began, they began as a result of Yanukovych’s apparent U-turn away from a relationship with the E.U. toward Russia. His exact thought process is unclear — maybe he genuinely thought a deal with Russia was economically superior, or maybe he balked at one of the E.U.’s demands: The release of Tymoshenko. Regardless, when protesters hit the streets, what sustained them were not geopolitical issues — it was the violence used against protesters and the truly draconian anti-protest laws. Before long the situation had gotten so bad that the alleged “crucifixion” of a Euromaidan protester seemed almost mundane.

Disgust with the government’s performance and their reaction to the protests has clearly spread to Yanukovych’s East, though actual protests remain relatively limited in comparison to the situation in the west. Even if support for Euromaidan isn’t strong there, however, neither is support for Yanukovych. “Of course, in the east there is not much understanding for the protests, but the support for Yanukovych is plummeting there,” Taras Ilkiv, a Kiev-based journalist who has written for Business Insider on Euromaidan, says. “As I see it, he just has not fulfilled what he promised them.”

Yanukovych seems to understand his base is in trouble. He has been on sick leave due to a “severe cold with a high temperature” over the past few days, but he has found time to repeal the anti-protest laws and release a statement on the country’s crisis, laying the blame with the opposition for “continuing to whip up the situation, calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders.” By now even Ukraine’s military is beginning to grow impatient with him, with the army demanding today that Yanukovych take “urgent steps” to resolve the crisis.

If the entire of Ukraine recognises Yanukovych as the problem, can they remove him? It’s certainly possible that the slow decline of support in the East could be the nail in the coffin for Yanukovych.

But the bigger question is what would happen after that. The opposition parties remain hopelessly split, and here, unfortunately, the cultural and linguistic split rears its head again. As Leonid Ragozin pointed out in an article for the New Republic this week, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists are firmly intertwined with the Euromaidan protesters: One prominent Euromaidan protester, Oleh Tyahnybok, is the leader of the right wing nationalist party Svoboda. His party has been accused not just anti-Russian sentiment but also of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. For Russians-speaking Ukrainians who remember how Western Ukrainian militia helped Germany during World War II, that’s a scary prospect.

Cultural and linguistic differences can paralyze a country as rich and stable as Belgium. In Ukraine, an economically disastrous country where even a former president talks of “civil war,” it could be even more dangerous.

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