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From Prison To President

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Feb. 11, 2010, 11:02 p.m. | Ukraine — by Peter Byrne

Victor Yanukovych answers journalists’ question after casting his ballot at a polling station in Kyiv on Feb. 7. Complete, preliminary results show that Yanukovych, a two-time prime minister, has been elected as president over rival Prime Minister Yulia T

At least no one can argue that Ukrainians knew little about the man they elected as president.

Victor Yanukovych, the twice-convicted felon who almost became president in a rigged election overturned by the 2004 Orange Revolution, is set to become independent Ukraine’s fourth president. Preliminary official results released on Feb. 10 mirrored all exit polls. The Central Election Commission said Yanukovych won nearly 49 percent of vote, compared to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s 45.5 percent. Nearly 4.5 percent of 25.5 million voters who showed up on Election Day cast ballots against both, a valid option on Ukraine’s ballot. Yanukovych came out on top by 887,928 votes, or 3.48 percentage points ahead of his rival.

As of Feb. 11, however, Tymoshenko had refused to concede the election and her advisers promised to launch legal challenges alleging that large-scale voter fraud thwarted the will of the people – and her victory. But as the Orange Revolution heroine remained in seclusion for much of the week, she faced growing pressure to bow out.

The 59-year-old Yanukovych has loomed large – in physical stature and political influence – on the national scene for nearly a decade. He has served twice as prime minister. The first time was from 2002-2004 under ex-President Leonid Kuchma. He returned again in 2006-2007, serving under President Victor Yushchenko. Before that, during the late 1990s, Yanukovych served as governor and vice governor of Donetsk Oblast, the nation’s most populous region.

But Yanukovych has never been seen as his own man. His critics view him largely as a subservient tool of the nation’s wealthiest billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov, and other patrons. Many also say that the Party of Regions – the largest faction in parliament with 172 out of 450 seats – serves mainly the interests of Ukraine’s wealthiest citizens.

CNN’s Matthew Chance on Feb. 10 summarized this view with this preface to an interview question. “In the past you have been linked with corruption, with fraudulent elections, with inappropriate ties with big business. Do you think you have changed over the past five years as a politician and that you are now fit to lead a country like Ukraine?” Chance asked.

Yanukovych responded: “This is what the Ukrainian people who voted for me think. They voted for the change I offer.”

How much change Yanukovych delivers is yet to be seen. He was talking magnanimously after the vote, perhaps in recognition of the fact that he will enter office with support from less than half of citizens who voted in the runoff, and less than one third of all registered voters.

Speaking in Russian, a move that could further alienate Ukrainian-speaking citizens in western regions, Yanukovych promised after the vote to do everything in his power, irrespective of where people live in Ukraine, to make everyone happy. “We must not look for enemies in our country or in politics,” he said late on Feb 7. “We must join together and fight poverty, irresponsibility and corruption.”

Many will be watching to see how Yanukovych can make good on his promises, considering his inner circle – called a corrupt gang of oligarchic interests by Tymoshenko and many others – has been surrounding the president-elect for many years.

Then as now, members of Yanukovych’s inner circle are still there. They include Akhmetov, the richest of the rich in Ukraine; Borys Kolesnykov, deputy head of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions; Andriy Klyuev and his brother, Serhiy, whose interests span from industry to banking; Mykola Azarov, a co-founder of the Party of Regions who held top government posts under Kuchma; and Yuriy Boyko, chief of Ukraine’s state gas and oil monopoly Naftogaz monopoly when Yanukovych was prime minister in 2002-2004; and Serhiy Lyovochkin, Kuchma’s top assistant from 2002-2005. All were elected to parliament in 2007 on the Party of Regions ticket.

Of all the remarkable facets of Yanukovych’s political comeback, none is more laden with irony than the fact that Ukrainians have elected as president the same man who is widely accused of taking part in the grand conspiracy to steal the presidential election in a rigged vote on Nov. 21, 2004. Public outrage fueled the Orange Revolution and a Supreme Court ruling that fraud was so widespread that the winner could not be determined. Yushchenko easily won the head-to-head rematch against Yanukovych on Dec. 26, 2004.

To this day, Yanukovych has denied trying to steal the 2004 election, a position that flies in the face of massive evidence that went largely uninvestigated by those in power over the last five years. The individuals who organized the attempt to steal the 2004 election on Yanukovych’s behalf were never identified or prosecuted. And Yanukovych figures in none of the 1,887 criminal cases opened in 2005 in connection with the fraudulent 2004 presidential runoff.

Acting Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said in a Feb. 1 interview that there’s a reason for this. Lutsenko told the Kyiv Post that a compromise reached between Yushchenko and Kuchma to end the Orange Revolution precluded prosecution of the culprits. Yushchenko, elected in a repeat runoff on promises “to put the bandits in jail,” has denied making any deal to grant immunity.

Yanukovych has spoken contemptuously about the Orange Revolution that denied him the presidency in 2004. “So what did it give us?” Yanukovych said in an interview with the Associated Press on Dec. 27. “Freedom of speech? That’s very good. But what price did the Ukrainian people pay for this? For the development of this democratic principle in our country, the price was too great.”

Democracy is “above all the rule of law,” which the Orange Revolution failed to bring, Yanukovych added.

Ukrainians, if they haven’t forgiven Yanukovych for his alleged role as villainous thief of their votes back then, evidently decided that they liked the way Orange Revolution leaders Yushchenko and Tymoshenko governed even less.

Yanukovych has other trouble spots in his background that many thought would have been enough to prevent his election as national leader.

For instance, Yanukovych claims a master’s degree in international law and a doctorate of science in economics – all achieved while he was serving as governor of Donetsk Oblast between 1997 and 2002. While the degrees are valid, some question whether the academic effort that went into obtaining them was genuine. Questions have also been raised about the propriety of Yanukovych’s purchase of property in the lush 340-acre (130-hectare) Mezhyhiriya state residence outside Kyiv, where he currently resides.

But the most often-cited trouble spot in Yanukovych’s past took place more than four decades ago and is still subject of debate today.

Yanukovych was arrested in Yenakievo in 1967, tried and convicted pursuant to Article 141, part 2 of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Criminal Code (theft and assault, or pre-mediated theft carried out with a group of individuals).

According to court documents, on Oct. 29, 1967, Yanukovych was in the company of two friends who punched a man unconscious. Yanukovych denied hitting the man or stealing his belongings, but was convicted of the crime and sentenced to three years in prison. The sentence was commuted to 18 months in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Communist Revolution.

Yanukovych was sentenced to another two-year jail term for his participation in a drunken brawl. The fight, which took place in Yenakievo on Sept. 16, 1969, also involved several men. Yanukovych again denied guilt, but was convicted pursuant to Article 102 of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Criminal Code (inflicting moderate bodily harm). Released in June 1972, Yanukovych returned to Yenakievo and married Lyudmyla, his wife.

Prosecutor General Oleksandr Medvedko on Jan. 29, between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, said that the Donetsk Oblast Court in 1978 overturned Yanukovych’s convictions of theft and assault during his youth.

Talking about his criminal past during an appearance on the Savik Shuster TV political talk show, Yanukovych provided few details. “Of course it [prison] was a traumatic experience, but one that gave me the opportunity to think about life more deeply,” Yanukovych said. “When a person receives a test in life, he suffers and gains experience. The realization that something awful can happen to anyone at any time forces me to pause, to meet people halfway and, at a minimum, to understand them and empathize [with them].”

Over the years, Yanukovych has been reluctant to talk about his upbringing in grinding poverty in an industrial backwater in eastern Ukraine, where he spent his teenage years as a gang member in the shadow of coal mines, factories and metallurgical plants.

Yanukovych was born on July 9, 1950, to a working-class family in a village near Yenakievo, a heavily industrialized city in eastern Ukraine. His mother died two years later from unknown causes and his father remarried, leaving him in the custody of his Belarusian paternal grandmother, Kastusya. The pair lived in a clay-walled house so small that it only fit one bed. They tended livestock and grew vegetables. According to his biography, Victor walked 12 miles to school every day and celebrations – even for his birthday – were non-existent or rare.

Two 100-page hagiographies, titled “The Enigma of Victor Yanukovych,” by Valentyn Chemerys and “Touch the Destiny,” by Vera Nikolaeva, paint a bleak picture of the candidate’s formative years.

But the story that emerges is inspiring: A street kid who is raised in a violent town by his grandmother achieves success and enlightenment. And that’s how many of his supporters see in him.

Oleh Korenev, a native of Horlivka, an industrial town close to Yanukovych’s hometown Yenakievo, predicted Yanukovych’s victory weeks ago.

“It shows most Ukrainians are less interested in democracy than in their own economic suffering,” Korenev said. “People are fed up with the clowns who have been running the show for the past five years.”

Korenev, 40, who in the late 1980s spent two years in jail for stealing a hat, said he admired Yanukovych for putting his criminal past behind him, moving forward and making his dreams come true.

“The only reason he went to jail in the first place is because he didn’t have parents to bail him out,” Korenev said.

Kyiv Post staff writer Peter Byrne can be reached at byrne@kyivpost.com.
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