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Yanukovich Seen as Front-Runner in Ukraine Presidential Election

Andre de Nesnera | Washington 28 January 2010

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich faces current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a presidential runoff February 7. Mr. Yanukovich, who lost the last presidential elections in 2004, but is now seen as the front-runner.

He is the leader of the powerful "Party of Regions" in the Ukrainian parliament.

University of Toronto Ukrainian expert Frank Sysyn says the party is composed of various business interests in the south and east of Ukraine. "It comes predominantly out of the Donbass and particularly the Donetzk Oblast (province). It is a party that represents forces who wish to keep control by certain oligarchs within that region and to a very considerable degree it was financed by one of the richest, or the richest, man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. In many ways the Donetzk Oblast can seem to be his bailiwick. It also has influence throughout the south and east of the country, although there are other regional and economic elites that oppose it. It has relatively little support in central Ukraine and almost none in western Ukraine. And it also is a party that is closely allied with what may be seen as Russian-language interests and with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine," he said.

Mr. Yanukovich was born in 1950 in the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine. His chief rival for the presidency, Yulia Tymoshenko was also born in that city, but 10 years later.

David Marples, an expert on Ukraine from the University of Alberta, says Yanukovich had a troubled youth. "He was arrested in 1968 and convicted to a juvenile colony for manslaughter. And then in 1970 he was arrested again and sent to jail, apparently for beating up someone. His official biography has been actually revamped, removed most of this early period out of there," he said.

Ironically, says Marples, Yulia Tymoshenko also spent time in prison - but for so-called "white collar" crimes. "So both the presidential candidates of Ukraine have been in jail, which I think must be quite unique in the history of presidential elections in any country. They are very different kinds of felonies: one arrested for corrupt business practices and the other for attacking somebody. So one is a kind of working class felon and the other is a kind of middle-class business felon, you could say," he said.

Marples says Mr. Yanukovich has a masters degree in international law and a doctorate in economics - as does Ms. Timoshenko. He is also a member of Ukraine's National Academy of Sciences.

But Frank Sysyn says there are questions about Mr. Yanukovich's educational background. "Much is made of the fact that in an application about his background, he called himself a 'professor' and could not spell the word 'professor," he said.

Mr. Yanukovich's political career began in the mid 1990s as a member of the Donetzk regional administration, where he ultimately took over as chairman and was elected a deputy in the Donetzk regional council. In 2002, President Leonid Kuchma appointed him prime minister and he held that position through the first two rounds of the 2004 presidential election, in which he was a candidate.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of the "Orange Revolution" and its leader, Viktor Yushchenko took to the streets protesting the results of the second round, won by Mr. Yanukovich, but declared fraudulent by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and international monitors. In a third election, Mr. Yushchenko defeated Mr. Yanukovich.

This time around, Mr. Yanukovich is considered the front-runner as Ukraine prepares to vote for a new president February 7. His rival, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, is a former leader of the "Orange Revolution."

Mr. Yanukovich is more pro-Russian than Ms. Tymoshenko. But analysts say he will not steer a pro-Moscow course exclusively, because the business interests he represents do not want to be cut off from the European Union. Experts say he is far more moderate than he was five years ago.

But David Marples and others say it is hard to picture Mr. Yanukovich in western political circles. "This is a figure who really seems to herald from the old Soviet era - even looks the part of a typical Soviet apparatchik [bureaucrat]," he said.

Many experts say the key now for Ukraine is political stability - and only a stable Ukraine can achieve the needed economic reforms. In a recent editorial entitled "Ukraine's Dilemma" [1/11/10], London's "Financial Times" said "Ms. Tymoshenko is the polar opposite of a stabilizing force. Mr. Yanukovich, for all his manifest faults, may prove the lesser evil." The paper concludes by saying: "Pity Ukraine that it has come to this."