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Analysis: Ukrainian Endgame -- Premier As Independent Presidential Candidate

Viktor Yanukovych (file photo) Last week, President Leonid Kuchma signed a decree allowing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to go on leave to campaign for the rerun presidential election on 26 December. Simultaneously, Kuchma appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as acting head of the cabinet. Kuchma's decisions effectively defied the Verkhovna Rada's vote of no confidence in Yanukovych's cabinet on 1 December. At the same time, however, they have stripped Yanukovych of considerable political leverage that he possessed in the campaign while he was full-fledged prime minister.

Yanukovych left Kyiv for his native region of Donetsk. He has so far made campaign trips to Luhansk and Sevastopol, his two other electoral strongholds, but failed to appear in any central region of the country, let alone in western Ukraine, which voted overwhelmingly for his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, on 31 October and 21 November. The rules of the election endgame for Yanukovych have radically changed in comparison with the two previous votes. Now most regional governors seem to have lost faith in Yanukovych's ability to win and either sided with his rival or taken a neutral position in the campaign.

Even more significantly, the "Orange Revolution" has liberated the Ukrainian media from the clutches of official censorship and self-censorship, and now both Yanukovych and Yushchenko receive more or less equal and balanced coverage on most television channels. This represents a crucial breakthrough in the media sector in Ukraine, especially as in the first week of the Orange Revolution only the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5 showed antigovernment rallies on Independence Square in Kyiv and in other Ukrainian cities. According to Ukrainian media, now only the Donetsk-based Ukrayina television channel has remained completely devoted to Yanukovych in presenting a one-sided picture of developments in the country.

It is no wonder, perhaps, that this new political situation in Ukraine has forced Yanukovych into recasting his political image as a government-supported candidate into something more digestible for voters outside his political strongholds in the east and south of Ukraine. Yanukovych has begun to promote himself as an independent candidate who is disengaged from President Kuchma in particular and the Ukrainian government in general. "My opponents are using a propagandistic stereotype [by referring to] the Kuchma-Yanukovych regime," he told journalists on 6 December. In fact, Yanukovych revealed, as prime minister he was forced to make compromises with the presidency and "restrain his emotions" because, he added, he wanted to procure an "economic wonder" for all of Ukraine as he did in the Donetsk region while he was its governor.
"I am very frustrated by the fact that I trusted those cowards and traitors with whom I've worked for two years. I was right when I said that I've worked for the past two years fighting not only to strengthen my position but also against these shameful authorities."

Yanukovych also suggested that his two-year premiership represented a "new power" in Ukraine. "I can say openly that two types of state power have existed in our country for the last two years -- old power and new power," Yanukovych said on 6 December. "So our citizens should make their own conclusions as to whether Yanukovych is a candidate of the new power or the old power. I am sure that Yushchenko represents an attempt by the old power to seek revenge."

On 9 December, Yanukovych distanced himself from the current authorities even further by charging that they are doing nothing to prevent what he sees as "persecution" of his supporters in Ukraine. "I am the candidate of 15 million [voters]," he said on the Ukrayina television channel. "I am not campaigning as a candidate from the shameful authorities that have given up their position." According to Yanukovych, a part of the government has now sided with Yushchenko. "In fact, I have to fight today against a united group," he added.

A day later, Yanukovych took the biggest swing to date at his former political allies and patrons. "We have no president in Ukraine," he told journalists in Donetsk. "If you see him, show me where he is. Where was he during this orange coup d'etat?" And Yanukovych overtly accused the government and Kuchma of betraying him. "I am very frustrated by the fact that I trusted those cowards and traitors with whom I've worked for two years. I was right when I said that I've worked for the past two years fighting not only to strengthen my position but also against these shameful authorities."

Yanukovych also came out with several memorable phrases about Ukrainian journalists and their role in the country. "Be free and value your rights, be such as you should be by your nature -- free, honest, and independent," the Mass Information Institute website ( quoted him as saying last week. What is more, Yanukovych recalled the case of slain Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze -- about which he remained silent during his two years as prime minister in Kyiv -- and promised to take the case "under his personal supervision in order to investigate this resonant crime."

In other words, Yanukovych stepped onto the same path for which he previously scolded his presidential rival, Yushchenko; namely, he has became highly critical of the power system only after losing his clout in it. It seems to be a path followed by many other politicians elsewhere, but Yanukovych has a strong point here in highlighting the ambiguous political behavior of "president-in-waiting" Yushchenko, who served as prime minister in 1999-2001 and worked together with the "shameful authorities" without paying much attention to either the situation of the Ukrainian media in general of the Gongadze case in particular.

Is Yanukovych's astounding transformation into an oppositionist genuine? There are few in Ukraine who believe so. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn spoke for many when he opined on 13 December that Yanukovych's current antigovernment rhetoric is just an element of campaign propaganda intended to mobilize some part of the anti-Kuchma electorate into taking his side. "I think [this rhetoric takes its origin] in the election logic that makes us distance ourselves from the power system and remain in it at the same time," Lytvyn said.

But for many voters in the east and south of Ukraine, Yanukovych's bitter words about official betrayal and cowardice sound convincing. Those who voted for Yanukovych on 31 October and 21 November see the Orange Revolution in Ukraine not only as the prime minister's personal defeat, but also as a grave national setback. For them the prevalence of the "poor rural west" over the "rich industrial east" of the country comes not as a triumph of democracy over authoritarianism but rather as personal humiliation and frustration. It is they who appear to be primarily targeted by Yanukovych in his brand-new role as an oppositionist.

[For more RFE/RL coverage and analysis of the political crisis in Ukraine, click here.]

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