Yanukovich on verge of remarkable political comeback

Yanukovich on verge of remarkable political comeback

When Viktor Yanukovich`s bid for Ukraine`s presidency was stopped by the Orange Revolution, he was widely written off as a spent political force. But the big man of eastern Ukraine is back...

When Viktor Yanukovich`s bid for Ukraine`s presidency was stopped by the Orange Revolution, he was widely written off as a spent political force. But the big man of eastern Ukraine is back with a vengeance and heading for electoral success in this Sunday`s parliamentary polls.

Regional loyalties, money and political expediency all play a role in the remarkable recovery of the 55-year-old former prime minister, who 12 months ago faced political ruin and an investigation into his role in alleged electoral fraud in the disputed 2004 presidential election.

Mr Yanukovich grew up in poverty in the industrial Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where he was imprisoned in his youth for robbery and assault. He worked as a driver and transport manager before going into politics and becoming regional governor.

In 2002, former President Leonid Kuchma appointed him prime minister and two years later chose him to run in the presidential poll as his hand-picked favourite.

He gained broad support in the traditionally pro-Russian regions of eastern and southern Ukraine by promising close ties to Russia, state support for heavy industry, generous social benefits and strong personal leadership. But Ukraine`s Supreme Court found that his campaign also relied on ballot-stuffing and ordered a rerun, which was won by his pro-western rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

Mr Yanukovich seemed finished, with even close colleagues deserting him. But he retained the support of many of the 44 per cent of voters who backed him in the rerun.

This time, Mr Yanukovich is campaigning on similar themes and is expected to beat Mr Yushchenko fairly at the polls. Opinion surveys show Mr Yanukovich`s Regions party with about 30 per cent support, while Mr Yushchenko`s Our Ukraine bloc, hit by divisions, corruption claims and a faltering economy, is struggling with about 20 per cent support.

If undecided voters and other factors go his way, Mr Yanukovich`s party could end up with more than 40 per cent of parliament`s seats.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mr Yanukovich credited his political comeback to Mr Yushchenko`s "unprofessionalism" in government and a weak economy, which expanded by only 2.6 per cent last year after growing by 12.1 per cent in 2004, when Mr Yanukovich was prime minister.

Pointing to the dispute earlier this year with Russia over natural gas prices, Mr Yanukovich said Mr Yushchenko relied on "very low- level" people to handle the negotiations and ended up getting a bad deal. As prime minister he would re-open talks with Moscow.

However, Mr Yanukovich conceded the Orange Revolution had brought some improvements, including more freedom of speech.

"I won`t deny there have been positive changes, although in my view they are still very small. That journalists are stating their point of view about press freedom - that`s very good, that means we`re moving ahead," he said.

Analysts attribute Mr Yanukovich`s rise to continued support from the Kremlin and from a softening of Mr Yushchenko`s attitude towards him. In the first months after the Orange Revolution, several of Mr Yanukovich`s allies were arrested or charged and others fled the country. But Mr Yushchenko backed off last autumn after a split with his former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, which forced him to turn to Mr Yanukovich for support in parliament.

Mr Yushchenko is still hoping to foil Mr Yanukovich`s bid for power by re-uniting with Ms Tymoshenko. There is also the possibility of Mr Yushchenko forming a coalition with the Regions party, which may deprive Mr Yanukovich of the prime minister`s job because of negative attitudes towards him in central and western regions of Ukraine. 

The article was monitored by The Action Ukraine Report (AUR) Monitoring Service, Morgan Williams, Editor.

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