The one enduring symbol of Ukraine’s problems since the 2004
Orange Revolution has been the constant, wearisome guerrilla warfare between
its main personalities: the predictable triptych of President Viktor
Yushchenko, current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Yushchenko’s defeated
rival in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych.
When the economic crisis hit Ukraine
in October-November 2008, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the newly created Front
for Change, initially seemed like a breath of fresh air. His Obama-lite
campaign turned the contest for the next president into a three-horse race,
with himself in third place as Yushchenko dropped out of contention. By this
spring, Yatsenyuk was polling at 12-13 percent, almost catching up with
Tymoshenko in second place behind Yanukovych.
But Yatsenyuk’s rise stopped abruptly in May. He had clearly started his
campaign too early, and by summer it seemed the bubble had burst. Private polls
now put him at 9 percent or less.
Now Yushchenko hopes to climb back from political death and rise above him in
the polls. So what went wrong? What explains the rise and fall of Arseniy
Yatsenyuk’s rise has indeed been meteoric. He only reached age 35, the minimum
required to stand for the presidency, in May. He served as foreign minister for
a few months in 2007 and chairman of parliament in 2007-08, though he has never
been in any position for long.
In the beginning, this seemed like an asset. On closer inspection, it seems he
has been given a series of leg-ups by his patrons: unlike most politicians in Ukraine,
Yatsenyuk has little wealth and few resources of his own.
Supported By Oligarchs
He was plucked from obscurity to become deputy head of the National Bank in
2003 by Serhiy Tyhipko. His main patrons now are two of Ukraine’s biggest oligarchs — Viktor Pinchuk
and Dmytro Firtash — along with smaller versions such as Donetsk tycoon Leonid Yurushev.
Pinchuk is an independent force, but has apparently made his peace with
Tymoshenko. Firtash was with Yushchenko, then shifted to the Party of Regions,
and more recently has been at daggers-drawn with Tymoshenko over the fate of
the shadowy gas intermediary company RosUkrEnergo, where he controls the
Ukrainian half. Yatsenyuk was therefore pulled in different directions by his
A turning point came in June when the putative coalition between Tymoshenko and
Yanukovych fell apart. Yatsenyuk demanded that Firtash switch to backing him
full-time, but Firtash stuck by Yanukovych.
Yatsenyuk was suddenly no longer omnipresent on the Inter TV channel then close
to Firtash. Pinchuk became the more important sponsor, and replaced Yatsenyuk’s
Ukrainian team with Russian-connected “political technologists:” Timofei
Sergeitsev, Dmitry Kulikov, and Iskander Valitov.
As well as working for Yanukovych’s controversial campaign in 2004, the new
Russian team came from the Duma Expert Council under Konstantin Zatulin. It is
headed by Sergei Markov and notorious for its attempts to set up
Russia-friendly NGOs and politicians throughout the CIS. If Russia cannot control or confront Ukraine directly,
it has an interest in helping to build up a “satellite ideology.”
The new team pushed a version of a Russian “third way” ideology, which
stretches from the nationalist right to earlier campaigns for the Union of
Rightist Forces and Anatoly Chubais’s infamous “liberal imperialism.” It
combines business-friendly policies with attacks on the bankruptcy of the West
and Western liberalism, the consequent degradation of structures based on them
like the EU, and the rise of an alternative pole centered around Russia in the
Yatsenyuk shifted from his plague-on-both-your-houses rhetoric and so-called
“New Ukrainian Pragmatism” to something more like a new Ukrainian isolationism,
suddenly repositioning himself as the Sinn Féin (“Ourselves Alone”) candidate
and lambasting the EU and everything non-Ukrainian. His campaign slogans – “Productive Village,”
“A Battle-Ready Army,” and “New Industrialization” – suddenly sent a different
message, one that also sounded more like “feed and support Russia.”
Yatsenyuk has even toyed with the idea of announcing a Ukrainian-led Eastern
European Union as a kind of club for all those disappointed with the EU within
what he likes to call “Greater Europe” — which would almost inevitably be a
Trojan horse for Russia.
The new Russian team also tried to sell Yatsenyuk as Putin-lite, the new tough
kid on the block. His campaign color became khaki green. But these messages
were too Russian and didn’t sell well in Ukraine.
Most Ukrainians would actually quite like to join the EU. Yatsenyuk’s
khaki-colored tough-talk was uncomfortably reminiscent of Michael Dukakis’s
ill-fated tank ride in 1988 and never sounded convincing coming out of the
mouth of someone whose nickname is “Kinder Surpriz.” Yatsenyuk even staged his
own Dukakis moment, careering around on a combine harvester.
Vladimir Putin is popular in Ukraine,
and many would vote for a “strong hand” as an alternative to disorder. This
sentiment is also exploited by Tymoshenko.
But Ukrainian political culture is different. There is no cult of power, or of
So Yatsenyuk has faded in the polls. He has three choices when the actual
campaign begins on October 17. He can switch back to Plan A and act as a
genuine “third force.” Otherwise, he risks losing this niche to other
candidates like Tyhipko or Yatsenyuk’s successor as chairman of parliament,
Volodymyr Lytvyn. Or his sponsors can keep him in the field with Plan B —
siphoning votes from Yanukovych.
Yatsenyuk’s chances of winning a powerful post like prime minister after the
election depend on either a strong performance or the eventual winner owing him
a favor. Or Yatsenyuk can play a long game and aim to be a player in the next
parliamentary elections — possibly even holding the key “golden share” between
Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. In that case, we may not have seen the last of him
or his supporters.
Andrew Wilson is a
senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and a
coeditor of the new volume “What Does
Russia Think?” The views expressed in this commentary are the
author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
This piece was first published by Radio Free Europe on 19 October 2009.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.