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Will Weary Ukrainians Vote For A Dark Horse?

Presidential candidate Serhiy Tihipko at a press conference in Kyiv on January 13
Presidential candidate Serhiy Tihipko at a press conference in Kyiv on January 13
One would think that out of 18 candidates in the January 17 presidential election, there would be at least one or two reputable and respectable ones from which an average, hard-working Ukrainian voter could choose. But, alas, it would appear not. At least that was the partial result of an experiment carried out by the UNIAN news agency.

In an effort to gauge the mood on the street and at the same time have a little fun, the agency set up a voting booth outside its office on a central Kyiv central thoroughfare and asked passers-by to cast their ballots. "Street Vote," they called it.

The results were rather surprising, to say the least.

The majority of the participants voted "against all," a uniquely Ukrainian approach to voting that allows one to cast a ballot but not endorse any particular candidate. Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate who has been leading in the polls and who lost to incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko in the last election, came in second. Serhiy Tihipko, Yanukovych's former campaign manager, came in third. Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery orator and controversial prime minister, did not make the top three, despite consistently coming in second in all polls.

I guess Ukrainian elections can hold surprises.

Much has been made in the Ukrainian media of a possible third force -- a dark-horse candidate who will surge on the wave of popular discontent to challenge either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko in a second round, which, if necessary, will be held on February 7. If we take UNIAN's "Street Vote" as an indication of the public mood, Tihipko might be that dark horse.

Out Of The Shadows

But while Tihipko has projected a fresh persona in this campaign, he is far from a political outsider. He hails from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, the city that launched the careers of former President Leonid Kuchma, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko (who is currently in prison in the United States for graft and embezzlement), and Tymoshenko. The so-called Dnipropetrovsk clan was considered the most influential political and business group in Ukraine in the 1990s.

Tihipko's road to fame and fortune mirrors that of most of the richest people in the former Soviet Union, many of whom were former communist insiders whose connections paved the way for huge financial benefits as the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.

Tihipko was a Komsomol activist, chairman of its "propaganda and agitation" section, and its first secretary.

After establishing one of the country's first and largest private banks, he was summoned to Kyiv by Kuchma to serve as an economic adviser. Although Kuchma's presidency was tainted by corruption and the murder of journalists, Tihipko was not directly or indirectly connected to any of those issues.

Tihipko became economy minister in 1993, and three years later Kuchma appointed him chairman of Ukraine's National Bank.

Although he expressed interest in a possible run for the presidency back in 2003, in 2004 he opted instead to run the campaign of Yanukovych, a candidate widely supported by the Kuchma regime.

Tihipko got out of politics when the going was good. After seeing his former boss branded a fraudster and ousted in an election, Tihipko disappeared from the public eye. He concentrated on his banking business, focused on his private life, and started a new family with a new wife. Attractive, affable, well-dressed, even-tempered, and polite, Tihipko is a marked contrast to the somewhat hysterical, mud-slinging politicians who call themselves Ukraine's elite. Compared to them, Tihipko looks like a savior. That's why the "Street Vote" put him in third place.

Escaping The Gridlock?

Ukrainian politics are rarely about real issues or problems facing the nation; they are almost always about personalities. Electoral blocs are formed around personalities, such as the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. These personalities have dominated the airwaves for years, their faces are ever-present on television screens, and they are constantly squawking on countless screaming-match-type talk shows.

And I think the people are just plain sick and tired of them. I know I am.

This self-destructive and paralyzing political background, coupled with the weak and disappointing presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, makes a candidate like Tihipko seem full of promise and possibility. And that's why he may surprise everyone.

Because promise and possibility are driving forces in all our lives. Tihipko's long absence from politics has saved him from that familiarity that breeds contempt, and may just convince Ukrainian voters that he's the man to carry the day.

Irena Chalupa is director of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL