TORONTO — In what Western media have dubbed as a stunning reversal of fortune for Ukraine’s pro-democratic Orange Revolution of 2004, the former pro-Russian adversary was officially declared on Sunday the winner of this month’s presidential elections.
Viktor Yanukovych, the former Soviet apparatchik who was cast aside by the international community after Ukraine’s Supreme Court overturned his victory in 2004 over allegations of fraud and vote-rigging, won about 49.5 percent of the vote over the fiery incumbent prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, an erstwhile figurehead of the Orange Revolution, who received about 45 percent, according to official statistics from Ukraine’s Central Election Commission (CEC).
The incumbent, President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from the presidency during the first round of elections on January 17, securing less than 5 percent of the popular vote.
Tymoshenko, however, is refusing to concede and has said she will contest the results in the capital city’s Higher Administrative Court. Few analysts believe she stands a chance at success, as scores of international election observers, including the influential Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), declared the elections free and fair. Nevertheless, Tymoshenko’s camp is questioning the validity of about 900,000 ballots in the February 7 run-off vote throughout various polling stations. Coincidentally, the 3.5 percent margin between her and Yanukovych constitutes just over 850,000 votes.
Winning a slim but certain mandate, Yanukovych said he would improve Ukraine’s relations with Russia and unite the country’s population, which for long has been divided largely along western nationalistic and pro-Russian eastern lines.
The contest was a stark reflection of Ukraine’s climate of political nihilism. The former Orange regime, headed by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko and swept into power after weeks of pro-democratic mass protests in 2004, failed to deliver on their promises of combating corruption and pulling Ukraine toward Europe. Instead, Yushchenko pushed through a series of unpopular and divisive reforms further alienating the population of a country known for its ethno-territorial divisions.
Among them was mandating that all government business be conducted in Ukrainian; issuing a decree to remove all Soviet-era monuments; and honoring a World War II-era anti-Soviet insurgent leader with alleged ties to the Nazi occupation and the killing of Polish civilians in western Ukraine. The moves angered many pro-Russian Ukrainians, especially those in the east and south, who had sympathized with — and even fought alongside — the Soviet Union.
The unapologetically pro-Western Yushchenko also vigorously pushed for Ukraine’s membership into both NATO and the European Union, despite a majority of Ukrainians’ disapproval of both.
The past five years have been riddled with political infighting and the public disintegration of the ruling Orange coalition. For the majority of his administration, Yushchenko focused his energy on discrediting Tymoshenko, whom he first dismissed as prime minister in September 2005, a mere nine months into his nascent presidency. Since then, the two Orange heavyweights have been at loggerheads, with one blaming the other for corruption and deceiving the Ukrainian electorate.
Ukraine’s masses, meanwhile, lost all confidence in their ruling elite and marked their disapproval by voting Yanukovych, the two-time convict who was once vilified as a pro-Moscow stooge, into office. This time around, however, Yanukovych has softened his position and said he will seek a more moderate course for Ukraine, by maintaining cooperation with Europe and revamping its relations with Moscow.
Many Ukrainian voters saw this year’s vote as one between the lesser of two evils, and one against the perceived failures of the Orange Revolution. Throughout his political career, Yanukovych, famous for his Biden-esque gaffes and ungainly style, has been backed by oligarchs and has time and again been characterized as a front man for their interests. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko was cast as an unabashed populist who promised far more than she could deliver.
Though Tymoshenko, too, enjoys the backing of big business, she’s mostly viewed as an oligarch in her own right who made her millions as the "gas princess" in Ukraine’s shady energy trade of the 1990s. During the campaign, Tymoshenko relentlessly attacked Yanukovych as a marionette puppet for eastern Ukrainian oligarchs, among them the billionaire steel and banking tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, while Yanukovych responded with an apparently effective silence, claiming only that she was further destabilizing Ukrainian politics with her attacks.
Ukraine’s plummeting economy also guided the course of the election. After contracting nearly 20 percent in 2009, the economy has suffered dearly during the global downturn, and the currency’s freefall has sparked inflation and a dearth of investor confidence. As prime minister, Tymoshenko has suffered the brunt of the criticism.
Yet Yanukovych, whose Party of Regions controls a slim majority in parliament, pushed through a legislation last fall to hike social spending, a move that may boost further inflation and that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) strongly condemns. As a result, the IMF has frozen the last installment of its $16.4 billion assistance package to Ukraine, a loan that many consider a vital lifeline for the crippled economy.
Yanukovych, who has served as a regional governor of an eastern Ukrainian province and twice as prime minister under Yushchenko, will face the daunting task of rehabilitating the political and economic woes of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that straddles — ideologically and geographically — Europe’s eastern frontier with Russia.
Yanukovych hopes to succeed in calling an early inauguration on February 25 to derail Tymoshenko’s efforts to challenge the election results in court. The next step for the president-elect, his advisers say, will be to secure a majority vote in parliament to dismiss Tymoshenko from her post as prime minister, after which Tymoshenko would be expected to build an opposition coalition in parliament.