Ukraine’s new president

Mixed blessing

A triumphant Viktor Yanukovich is inaugurated in Ukraine, but his problems have only just begun

Even in Ukraine, elections can end. After two rounds of voting and weeks of legal rumbles, Viktor Yanukovich was inaugurated on Thursday February 25th as Ukraine’s fourth democratically elected president. In November 2004 he tried and failed to steal the crown. Now he has played (mostly) by the rules—and won. Although Yulia Tymoshenko, his charismatic rival (and Ukraine’s prime minister), refuses to recognise Mr Yanukovich’s victory, she withdrew her legal appeals this week. Ukraine’s highest office has thus moved from an incumbent to an opposition leader: a rare achievement in an ex-Soviet republic.

Mr Yanukovich’s legitimacy is now accepted by the world’s leaders, and not just by Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who rashly congratulated him on his rigged victory in 2004. This time Moscow made no such crude statements. Instead, it asserted its feelings of fraternity towards Kiev by dispatching Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to bless Mr Yanukovich before his inauguration. This says as much about Mr Yanukovich’s piety as about Moscow’s tactic of using the church to extend its influence. Rarely have the Russians used soft power so well. Yet Mr Yanukovich, conscious of his pro-Russian image, tried to downplay the patriarch’s visit, and is planning his first foreign visit to Brussels, not Moscow.

His biggest problems lie at home, where his slender victory is yet to turn into real power. Ms Tymoshenko’s legal challenge was not meant to overturn the election or trigger street protests. Her aim was to rally supporters by showing that she never gives up, to label Mr Yanukovich’s victory illegitimate and to blame Ukraine’s corrupt courts for “cynically refusing to establish the truth”. All this was meant to chip away at Mr Yanukovich’s mandate. As it is, he is the first directly elected president in Ukraine’s history to win with less than 50% of the vote.

The election has affirmed Ukraine as a functioning democracy, but it has neither brought political stability nor resolved the crippling question of where power lies in a country of 46m people. Ukraine is still trapped in the constitutional compromise agreed to by the outgoing president, Viktor Yushchenko, which divides executive power between the president and a prime minister chosen by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament). This means that, despite his win, Mr Yanukovich can do little without a new parliamentary coalition.

Creating one has proved harder than he expected, not least because of conflicting interests in his own Party of Regions. After a long and expensive campaign, his backers want to turn his victory into profit and are thus reluctant to share power. Ms Tymoshenko is now calling on the Rada to hold a confidence vote in her government. Next week her nominal coalition could formally break up, but even that would not resolve Mr Yanukovich’s problem.

Mr Yanukovich may muster sufficient votes to oust Ms Tymoshenko as prime minister. But to form a majority coalition he needs the support of Mr Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine block. Our Ukraine’s deputies have their own financial and political interests—and satisfying them does not come cheap. Ms Tymoshenko is also bidding to hang on to some of the party’s deputies. Despite Mr Yushchenko’s spectacular defeat in the presidential election (he won just 5% of the vote in the first round), his party is now in a position to be kingmaker. In the words of Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, a weekly, the losers are bargaining as if they were winners.

Despite the cynicism of Ukrainian politics, ideology plays a part in all this. Our Ukraine draws support exclusively from western Ukraine, the more nationalistic part. Its voters will see betrayal in any alliance with Mr Yanukovich, who made his first victory speech in Russian, who has suggested that the Russian Black Sea fleet may stay in Sebastopol after its lease runs out in 2017, and who has offered Gazprom the lure of a joint consortium to operate Ukraine’s gas pipelines. The blessing by Kirill may be the last straw.

To make an alliance more palatable, Mr Yanukovich may have to accept a compromise prime minister. One choice is Arseniy Yatseniuk, a former central banker who has served as foreign minister and speaker of the Rada. Mr Yatseniuk, who himself tried for the presidency, has proved flexible in dealing with different political forces and yet is popular with Our Ukraine’s voters. He is also said to be favoured by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest tycoon and Mr Yanukovich’s sponsor.

Yet part of the new president’s entourage feels this would be too much of a concession to a losing party. Mr Yanukovich would prefer to see an old comrade, Nikolai Azarov, as prime minister. Mr Azarov served as Mr Yanukovich’s deputy in 2006 and is loyal to him rather than to Mr Akhmetov. He is seen by some as an ideal caretaker prime minister who could bring Ukraine’s dire public finances into some sort of order, even if he may not turn out to be much of a reformer.

If Mr Yanukovich fails to build a new coalition, he will have to call a new parliamentary election. This may be the best way to break the stalemate. It would certainly be more democratic than gluing together a coalition dependent only on participants’ vested interests. But it would be risky for Mr Yanukovich. Given his narrow win in the presidential election, there is a chance that his party would lose more seats than it would gain in a parliamentary vote. Serhiy Tyhypko, who came third in the first round of the presidential election, taking votes from both front-runners, will form a faction and have demands of his own. Unlike Mr Yatseniuk, Mr Tyhypko is seen as a potential rival to Mr Yanukovich.

The next few months may bring more clarity. But for the moment Ukraine’s politics continues to be in chaos. And its politicians are too busy making deals to pay much attention to the country’s economic problems—or its national interests.

(Original aqui.)

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