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05 Aug 2009

Ukraine: The Rise of Yatsenyuk

Arseniy Yatseniuk, courtesy of Nataliya Kravchuk/Wikipedia

Arseniy Yatseniuk, former foreign minister of Ukraine

A fourth figure has entered the political melee in Kiev: a young economist named Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and he is snapping at the heels of populist candidate Yuliya Tymoshenko, Ben Judah writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Ben Judah in Kiev for ISN

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Kiev has been dominated by the failing President Viktor Yushchenko, the populist Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the ethnic-Russian backed Party of Regions. Now a serious fourth man has entered the race for the presidency, and with elections due to be held in January 2010, the young, highly qualified and economics-minded Arseniy Yatsenyuk is giving the rest a run for their money.

There is a sour mood of failed revolution amid economic turmoil in Ukraine.

Markian Bilynskyj, head of the prominent US-Ukraine Foundation think tank, cuts ‘orange revolutionaries’ Tymoshenko and Yushchenko little slack.

“Things have not greatly improved here since 2004. In many ways things are worse than they were then,” he tells ISN Security Watch. “Yushchenko claims that he brought freedom of speech and civil society to Ukraine. This is ridiculous as that was already there. All that was needed was for the government to stop interfering. That’s why I feel taking credit for this is as absurd as Yushchenko claiming to be responsible for the sun rising.” 

A stroll along Khrestatyk, Kiev’s attractive main boulevard, reveals a similar attitude. Dmytri is in his mid-twenties and trying to make it as a computer specialist. He is disillusioned. “When the Orange Revolution occurred I believed the promises they made for economic transformation. Nothing actually changed. Politics is still populist and I’ve entered the green-card lottery to work in the United States,” he tells ISN Security Watch.

At the International Centre for Policy Studies, Viktor Chumak believes that western misinterpretations of Ukraine stem from mistaking poor caricatures for political realities. He tells ISN Security Watch: “It is not really true that there is a pro-Russian and pro-western political division in the country. These parties are in reality electoral cartels trying to benefit from the polarization of the electorate around the language issue, backed both by different sets of oligarchs. If you look at the manifesto of the so-called pro-Russian Party of Regions you will see that it actually favors EU membership. Indeed, it was the policies of Yushchenko that actually opened up the country to Russian capital.”

Enter Arseniy

It is this mood on which Arseniy Yatsenyuk is attempting to capitalize. Young and charismatic, he has managed to hold an impressive amount of portfolios in Ukrainian politics, including parliamentary speaker and Central Bank head. He is mostly known as an economic liberal and favors a middle-road between Russia and the West in foreign policy. Recent moves by his rivals have strengthened his position.

According to Chumak, Tymoshenko’s recent attempts to change the constitution or strike a deal with Yanukovych “have damaged her.

“People previously disappointed with Yushchenko used to switch their votes to Tymoshenko, but now they have no choice but to back Yatsenyuk.”

With Yushchenko’s poll ratings hovering between 2 percent and 3 percent, his can clearly be qualified as at least an electorally failed presidency. Chumak says he believes that Yatsenyuk fits the bill. “He is young, economics-minded and good looking. All he has to do is let his opponents fight it out.”

In the past few weeks, Yatsenyuk’s campaign has picked up momentum.  Having announced his intention to run for the presidency, a billboard campaign has since swept Ukraine. In camouflage green and black tones, emblazoned with his face and the slogan “To Save the Country,” these posters have been the political talk of the town. Strangely having just “Arseniy” as the tag-line, there has been confusion as to what they stand for. 

Viktor Levy, an art student, shared his thoughts. “At first I thought it was a new Ukrainian action movie. Or maybe a perfume.”

These same amorphous qualities have had a negative impact amongst Kiev’s intellectual elite. A well-placed source tells ISN Security Watch that Yatsenyuk’s personal decisions on the poster campaign had gravely disappointed him, suggesting authoritarian streaks and populism.

“You may laugh, but what he is trying to do is be like Obama,” Bilynskyj says.

Despite having irritated some natural supporters, Yatsenyuk is very much in the running according to the polls. He has been gaining an impressive 2-3 percent a month since late 2008. According to Ukraine’s premiere polling organization, the Kiev International Institute for Sociology, his ratings are at 17.6 percent. This puts him just behind Tymoshenko with 21.5 percent. Both candidates are dividing the former ‘orange vote.’ Yanukovych support is at around 34.7 percent, having declined slightly from 37.9 percent in April.

Tellingly, the same data-set suggests that Yatsenyuk might fare better in the second round of the elections that Tymoshenko. A Yanukovych vs Tymoshenko fight would see the votes split 57 percent to 40 percent against her. A Yanukovych vs Yatsenyuk battle sees the Party of Regions down to 55 percent and Yatsenyuk to 42 percent.

Problems ahead

Yatsenyuk has two major issues that will come to a head before the elections. Firstly he is Jewish, which according to political analyst Taras Kuzio, could pose a major problem. There has been a recent, though rather quiet, campaign launched against Tymoshenko by the extreme right, which has called her the "Jew with the braid." This could be a taste of things to come. The remark against her gives one the ability to imagine how Yatsenyuk’s bona fide Jewish origins could become the brunt of anti-Semitic remarks during the campaign,” Kuzio says. More broadly the extreme right, such as Oleh Tyahnybok’s Freedom Party, has been boosted thanks for the financial crisis.

Yatsenyuk’s Judaism is not his only identity related political problem. Members of his family were prominent in the Ukrainian nationalist movement, which will doubtless cost him votes in the country’s Russian-speaking east.

His main problem, however, remains one of organization. Both Tymoshenko and Yanukovych have well-established party machines, with local offices and loyal supporters to draw upon. Yatsenyuk lacks these, though is busy remedying that.

A pro-western political consultant close to Yatsenyuk tells ISN Security Watch on condition of anonymity that “though I believe that Yatsenyuk is the best candidate, there is very little organization, things are quite shambolic, he hasn’t been talking to journalists enough and there is little support on the ground.

“Because I want to stop Yanukovych coming to power at all costs, I might have to end up working for Tymoshenko,” she conceded. 

For the moment, politics hangs in the balance in Kiev. It will be an up-hill struggle for Yatsenyuk to break the mould, but for the time being he seems to be doing remarkably well.


Ben Judah is a senior correspondent for ISN Security Watch, currently reporting from Russia and the Caucasus. He has reported for the Associated Press; and his work has also featured in the Economist Online, the New Republic Online and in Standpoint Magazine.

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