Yanukovych faces uphill battle in getting Lviv to accept him

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Feb. 18, 2010, 11:18 p.m. | Ukraine — by Natalia A. Feduschak

Supporters greet Victor Yanukovych, leader of the Party of the Regions, at a rally in his support in Kyiv on Feb. 5.
© (Yaroslav Debelyi)

Natalia A. Feduschak

Most worrisome for people here is Yanukovych’s promise to his compatriots in eastern Ukraine to make Russian a second official language in Ukraine. LVIV, Ukraine – President-elect Victor Yanukovych likes to say that Ukraine should serve as a “bridge” between Russia and the West. But, he will face an uphill struggle in building bridges with western Ukraine if he attempts to get Russian recognized as a second official language, introduces Donetsk-style management and disregards the region’s culture and history, according to political analysts and residents here.

“He’s not president yet,” said Anatoliy Romaniuk, a political analyst based in Lviv, the largest city in the Ukrainian-speaking west, which is often wary of Russia and sees Yanukovych as Moscow’s stooge. “But if he wants to have the support of others, he will have to make compromises. Our politicians don’t want to do that, but it’s something they will have to do.”

Although he edged out his opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko nationally, Yanukovych lost western Ukraine in the Feb. 7 presidential runoff by wide margins. In Lviv Oblast, for instance, he garnered only 8.6 percent of the vote, compared to 86.2 percent for Tymoshenko.

In interviews, some residents said they still hoped the prime minister would be successful in disputing the election results and blocking a Yanukovych presidency. They believe falsifications occurred. Most, however, said they were concerned that once he takes office, Yanukovych will try to push through an agenda that is disruptive to the region and the country.

Most worrisome for people here is Yanukovych’s promise to his compatriots in eastern Ukraine to make Russian a second official language in Ukraine.

That would be foolhardy, warned Romaniuk.

“When we speak of the Russian language, it’s a complex question, and is even more complex than UPA or Bandera,” he said, referring to the controversial guerilla Ukrainian Insurgent Army, known by its UPA acronym, and its leader, Stepan Bandera, who fought for the Ukrainian national cause in the 1940s and early 1950s in western Ukraine. “It’s a very emotional issue.”

Yanukovych would quickly find he had little support to move the language question through parliament because the fractious, but nationally-oriented, faction of Our Ukraine would quickly turn on him.

“Unless he’s suicidal or a masochist, he won’t raise the issue,” Romaniuk said.

Boris Kolesnikov, one of Yanukovych’s closest advisers, appeared to concede the point when he told journalists on Feb. 10 that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions currently didn’t have enough votes to institute Russian as a second official language. When asked how Yanukovych would treat more controversial aspects of Ukrainian history, such as the activities of UPA, he said: “It is important to have a fair attitude toward history and to attract to its investigation foreign sources.”

Kolesnikov’s statement can be treated selectively, but it underscores the unease Yanukovych and his team feel when dealing with western Ukraine.

On a campaign stop here recently, Yanukovych told journalists he liked the region’s “genocide.” The gaffe-prone politician meant to say that he liked the region’s gene pool.

Still, it was an unfortunate word to use in a region that suffered mass repressions and executions when the Soviets ruled it from 1939-1941, and then after 1944, cracked down on any Ukrainian nationalist sentiment.

In a televised interview immediately following the Feb. 7 presidential run-off, Hanna Herman, Yanukovych’s deputy, said one of his priorities would be to build bridges with Ukraine’s western regions.

“It is important that Victor Fedorovych becomes president for western Ukraine also,” she said at the time.

Herman offered no specifics on how he intended to do that. But her statement underscores another problem Yanukovych faces in the west. Other than Herman, who grew up in Lviv, Yanukovych doesn’t have any nationally prominent figure from his team who could be a link between the region and Kyiv. Using Herman as that bridge, analysts and those interviewed here said would be a tragic mistake. She is even more disliked and distrusted in western Ukraine than Yanukovych himself.

“She doesn’t have any authority here,” said Sofia Dyak, a Lviv historian. “I don’t know who they have who can speak with us.”

Romaniuk, the political analyst, said if Yanukovych wants to succeed in the west, he will have to appoint a neutral figure as governor, someone who is tied to the region and knows its traditions.

“Lviv is so symbolic that no president can shut their eyes to it. He will have to have a policy that is more balanced toward the region,” he said.

In an attempt to address concerns, Petro Pysarchuk, the head of Yanukovych’s campaign headquarters in Lviv Oblast, issued a statement that was reprinted in local papers this week.

“The Ukrainian language will not be humiliated. New forced Russification, which they scared you with, will never happen,” he noted. “Just the opposite. We will look for financial possibilities to preserve and restore unique architectural memorials, to properly finance theatres, cultural establishments, support publishers of Ukrainian-language books and talented youth. Ukraine will never become a province of the Russian Federation. Ukraine will become an equal partner to European nations.”

Vasyl Khomenko, a driver who worked for Yanukovych in Lviv, said he believed that if the president-elect can raise living standards and get the economy in order, people in western Ukraine will support him.

“But it has to be the economy,” Khomenko said.

Silently, some here believe because the margin of victory was so narrow, this presidential election is good for Ukraine. They hope that Yanukovych’s grip over eastern Ukraine will finally be broken, reasoning that it is only a matter of time before voters there become disillusioned with their leader. That will make eastern Ukrainians more willing to vote into power new political forces, according to this hope.

As for western Ukraine, Yanukovych will likely have to contend for several more years with his Orange Revolution foes: current Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and outgoing president Victor Yushchenko. Although many western Ukrainians are disappointed with their infighting, both politicians remain popular in western Ukraine. Romaniuk said western Ukrainians could still forgive Yushchenko for his tumultuous presidency. Smaller political parties could consolidate around Yushchenko, who will become a pragmatic representative of more nationally-conscience forces in the western region, he added.

Natalia A. Feduschak is the Kyiv Post’s correspondent in western Ukraine. She can be reached at
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