LVIV, Ukraine – More than three months into his presidency, Viktor Yanukovych finally made a trip to Lviv, where he is a deeply unpopular and divisive figure for his pro-Russian policies.
He came. He talked. He answered questions. And he probably didn’t change many minds in the unofficial capital of western Ukraine, where less than 10 percent of voters supported his presidential bid.
Olha Balaban is a second-year student at Lviv Politechnic University, where Yanukovych spent two hours of his five-hour visit. Balaban may have summarized the local feeling with these comments: “I didn’t see him. I don’t want to see him. Everything would be fine if we had a normal president.”
As one might expect, more than 1,000 protesters turned up outside Polytechnic University, where a similar number officers, many of whom were helmeted and armed, forcibly pushed the crowd to a side street for their demonstration. There were, unsurprisingly, conflicting reports over whether unruly protesters were to blame for breaking through security lines or whether the officers got overly aggressive and started striking demonstrators with truncheons.
In either case, Yanukovych barely noticed the demonstrators before he ended the official part of his visit about 3:30 p.m. on May 27. He suggested the protesters had been hired to cause trouble.
“I think Lviv Oblast in general positively assesses our work, but the group of people [yelling outside] are paid for political issues,” Yanukovych told regional government leaders. “We have a democratic society and this shouldn’t get in the way of our decisions and our attitude toward any regions. Do you agree with me or not?” Members responded: “Yes!”
The biggest news of the day, perhaps, was his announcement that Ukraine will make an official bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2022.
The president arrived at the airport, visited a new soccer stadium under construction to host the Euro 2012 football championships and also spent time at a military academy. The bulk of his visit was taken up by a two-hour discussion that he chaired with regional government officials. Yanukovych brought along many leading members of the Ukrainian government, including Central Bank chairman Volodymyr Stelmakh and Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Tigipko.
He took four questions from regional journalists. He brushed aside one question about whether his Russian-friendly policies are dividing the nation. Yanukovych has criticized early 20th century Ukrainian nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, both popular in western Ukraine for fighting Soviet rule. The president also has agreed to let the Russian Black Sea Fleet remain based on Ukrainian territory until at least 2042, a decision that is an anathema here. His appointment of Dmitry Tabachnyk as education minister continues to rile many, since Tabachnyk has questioned whether Ukraine deserved to be an independent nation and has been
especially dismissive of western Ukrainians.