“Welcome to Hell”: The Difficult Legacy of Viktor Yanukovych

By Claudia Thaler | 15 April 2014

To quote this document: Claudia Thaler, ““Welcome to Hell”: The Difficult Legacy of Viktor Yanukovych”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 15 April 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1812, displayed on 29 January 2023

The radical right in the coalition, protests in the East of the country, crisis with the sister state Russia: the provisional government has lost control over the situation in Ukraine. Helplessness and a lack of transparency seem to have replaced reconciliation and pacification under Arseniy Yatsenyuk's government. 

On the first day in his new office, Yatsenyuk was welcomed with boos from the crowd. He himself greeted thousands of people waiting on Maidan with an encouraging “Welcome to hell!”. Arseniy Yatsenyuk took over the most influential, but at the same time most controversial, seat of the interim government in Kiev. Ever since his elevation to the role of head of government at the end of February, the 39-year old politician has been travelling around Europe, meeting his counterparts in Brussels and asking, above all, for financial support for Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych's removal from office. Indeed, Yanukovych's legacy is a heavy burden for the young government. Internal conflicts, disputes within the party and fatal political errors at the very beginning are leading, only some weeks after Yanukovych's fall, to a civil war-like atmosphere in Ukraine – although the government was supposed to reconcile the country.

No real dialogue among the parties

The name of the “All-Ukrainian Union” is misleading. So far, not all political movements and ethnic groups are participating in the changes and reforms of Ukrainian politics – and they are prone to violence in claiming their right to do so.

Thousands of citizens are protesting regularly in Eastern and Southern Ukraine against the government in Kiev and for referenda on the status of their regions. Yatsenyuk's liberal party “Fatherland” (Batkivshchyna), to which the former head of government Yulia Tymoshenko adheres, is in coalition with the nationalistic Freedom (Svoboda) party, representing four Ministers. Critical voices about the party come mainly from abroad. It has friendly relations with the far-right NPD (National Democratic Party) in Germany. On Maidan square, the party was close to the paramilitary collective “Right Sector” (Pravyi Sektor) calling for the “de-Russification of Ukraine” and for resistance against Russia, but also raising their voice against the EU. The militia of the “Right Sector” was fighting at the front line for the removal of government at the end of February 2014. They see themselves as crucial for the success of the revolution.

Moreover, a real dialogue among the parties is paralysed by mutual accusations. Two months before the presidential elections on May 25, the winners of the government are at war with one another. The three opposition leaders Yatsenyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok and above all Vitali Klitschko, seen as a saviour by the West, were protesting for weeks together on Independence Square. They put differing visions on the future of the country and ideologies aside for the success of the protests. In public, the former heavyweight champion Klitschko complains about internal differences of his former allies and reproaches the government for being “inefficient”. However, he declined to participate in the government. Klitschko's party UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform) is now simply an onlooker of the government.

Critics, however, see an excellent tactician in Klitschko: as the parties in government are constantly losing popularity, the chances of his candidate and oligarch Petro Poroshenko are rising against his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko at the presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Klitschko himself is now eyeing a new office: that of the mayor of Kiev.

No inclusion of minorities

Another weakness of the new elite thus becomes apparent: the citizens' complete lack of trust towards those in power. The fact that the representatives of the Russian speaking regions were neither included in the government nor given any realistic chances as contenders in the presidential election campaigns reawakens protests in the East, and even the wish for Yanukovych's comeback.

The great lack of Yanukovych's presidency had been similar: the state's powers were almost exclusively in the hands of a clique from his home in eastern Ukraine. Yanukovych was successful in gaining supporters from the electoral pool around the Eastern industrial towns Donetsk and Kharkiv. In his home town, Donetsk, Yanukovych has always found political backing and good connections to criminal organisations. At the same time, the Ukrainian oligarchs Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov were building up their steal empires in the same region – and secured financial and political support for Yanukovych. However, the fact that a potential splitting of eastern Ukraine could have bad consequences even for the oligarchs compelled the former Yanukovych ally Akhmetov, whose private assets are estimated at € 12,5 billion, to an appeal: “Ukraine's east belongs to Ukraine.” The multibillionaire Akhmetov is now ready to cooperate with all political parties in order to save his economic interest and capital.

Ukraine had in fact already been struggling for economic survival before the fall of the previous government. The crisis with neighbouring Russia opened new financial holes for the bankrupt and, at the same time, corrupt country. Russia raised gas prices by fifty per cent – and Ukraine has not even paid its own bills yet. Kiev's gas debts to Moscow alone amount to around € 1,2 billion. For Russia, gas is not only a source of money, but also a political weapon. Allies get gas to preferential prices. Ukraine, a poor but sometimes unruly country, which wanted to be completely independent of the Kremlin, has to pay more for Russian gas than rich Germany for example. Therefore, the Ukrainian government hopes for support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has already agreed to inject a credit of € 15 billion. However, the IMF wants governmental commitment to reforms in exchange.

Bankrupt state and corrupt elites

Corruption and political mismanagement are still at the centre of Ukraine's political stage. Most of the revenue coming from entrepreneurship disappears into bribes and corruption of civil servants. Experts of the federation of employers estimate the annual revenue of such amounts to be as high as 160 billion Hrywna ($ 16 billion or around € 11,5 billion). Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said that $ 35 billion (or € 25,5 billion) were needed in order to recover Kiev financially until the end of 2015. So far, Arseniy Yatsenyuk's government has not initiated any measures in order to tackle corruption. The interim government could so far only convince with helplessness.

After a month under Yatsenyuk's government, the initial errors of the new start have become apparent: Russia has annexed Crimea; Yatsenyuk's team is practically powerless against the mighty neighbour. The separatist movements might only escalate in case of an inevitable unilateral dependence in the economic and, above all, gas sectors. Whether the interim government is heading towards a fiasco depends considerably on the readiness to enter into a dialogue transcending party boundaries and not to exclude the Russian minority in the elite. A true new start cannot happen if the political legacy of the Yanukovitch era – corruption, lack of transparency, internal disagreements - continues. “Welcome to hell”: for Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Ukraine a peaceful conclusion to the revolution is fading far away.

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Photo credits: "Maidan reboot on the St. Michael’s Square" and "Opposition leaders" by Ivan Bandura on Flickr.