KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is about to elect a new president, but the main contenders are anything but new. In first place in the polls is former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the villain of the 2004 race, which was decided only after the country’s Orange Revolution.
Since 2004, Mr. Yanukovych has done much to shed his image as an ex-con, Russian stooge and henchmen of eastern oligarchs. He showed himself to be a confident manager after returning to head the government in 2006. But, he lost that position due to a coalition of Orange politicians, as surely as he lost the presidency to Orange revolutionaries in 2004.Yanukovych can now with equal force of argument be seen as the comeback kid or a perpetual loser. It depends on how one looks at it, really. Some feel that the ageing strongman from Donetsk doesn’t even need the hassle of public office any more.After all, with the prompting of numerous American PR gurus, the man has had to change so much – his speech, his hairdo and ultimately his views. More importantly, so has the presidency changed, its authorities watered down from the dictatorial days of Leonid Kuchma just as the victorious Orange team was about to take power.The Donbass region from where Yanukovych hails from has also changed: Independence has set in, the Ukrainian language is no longer taboo, wealth and globalization have begun to brighten the lives of bleak coalmining towns.The oligarchs of Donetsk can no longer justly be characterized as anti-Western revanchists bent on bringing Ukraine back into the Russian fold. They borrow money from Western lenders, sell their products abroad and compete with Russian tycoons for market share in Ukraine.Against such a background, the “old” Yanukovych is a dinosaur. But Ukrainian politics has always been more of a merry-go-round than a tug-a-war: once you climb on board, you can keep riding until you fall off, or the music stops.Yanukovych continues to ride, out of inertia more than anything else. Why run for president? Because politics is now the only trade that he knows, because eastern Ukraine doesn’t have any other candidate to put forward.So what does Mr. Yanukovych stand for now in terms of policy? Well if his latest public statements can be taken seriously, Yanukovych wants to strengthen Ukraine’s position in its relations with the IMF.“I think that both sides – the IMF and the Ukrainian government – are at fault for the disruption and discrediting of the loan program for Ukraine. The Cabinet of Ministers took on obligations that it couldn’t perform. Massive IMF funds were used without transparency, and the authorities haven’t been able to explain where the money was spent.”Mr. Yanukovych is right about IMF money being misspent – the case of Bank Nadra being the best example of such misspending – however, it wasn’t the government that controlled the National Bank as the global financial crisis struck last year.What Yanukovych is really saying – in addition to taking a campaign swipe at his primary election opponent Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is that he doesn’t want Ukraine to be pushed around by international lending organizations.Here in lies the vague basis of some kind of policy: namely, tighter fiscal control but also more rule setting by Ukraine’s industrialists.As for Ms. Tymoshenko, she’s been on Ukraine’s political stage even longer than Yanukovych. Also a former premier, she rose to fame in the long struggle to dethrone Kuchma. That struggle culminated during the Orange Revolution, after which Yushchenko was crowned Ukraine’s new king.As queen, Ms. Yulia soon filed for divorce and the three-way struggle for executive power that has characterized Ukrainian politics ever since began.Unlike Mr. Yanukovych, whose main support base is in the east, and President Yushchenko, whose remnants of a support base are in the west, Tymoshenko feels confident all over the country. She’s currently rated No.2 by polls, which always underestimate her, but her personal determination and campaign skills far outweigh those of her opponents.She is, indeed, such a force to be reckoned with that some (including Tymoshenko) are suggesting that Yanukovych has promised Yushchenko to be premier in exchange for campaign support.“If 18 candidates are running for president, it’s clear that none of them has a chance of winning. Instead, they are all running against one candidate. It’s all a campaign strategy that envisions they all work together to get Yanukovych elected in return for appointments after the elections,” she said.As always, Tymoshenko is positioning herself as the underdog, the defender of the people under attack by the forces of evil. What this translates to in terms of policy is known more commonly as populism. Tymoshenko has Orange (i.e. pro-Western) credentials but is not shy about courting favor with the Kremlin; and her economics are predicated more on political rivalries, but appear to be more transparent than those of her opponents.In short, Ms. Tymoshenko is a policy in progress, in flux and always in response.Maybe this is why President Yushchenko has said that a Tymoshenko victory would lead the country to “catastrophe.”“Tymoshenko is the essence of the crisis, a crisis in everything that she touches,” he said. The president has further blamed his former co-revolutionary for betraying the Orange team and predicted that her political career would soon come to an end.Although the president’s statements definitely betray a rather skewed interpretation of recent Ukrainian history, suffice it to say that he clearly seems more critical of Tymoshenko than his former arch enemy Yanukovych.It was the fight against Yanukovych, the oligarchs and the bandits that rallied hundreds of thousands in Kyiv to protest the initial, fraudulent results of the 2004 ballot and hand Yushchenko the presidency. Now, Mr. Yushchenko is attempting to vilify his former ally, Ms. Tymoshenko, before the people.The faces in Ukraine’s never-ending political drama have remained the same – not much of a choice for voters. But the issues have become completely blurred, if they exist at all.