Ukraine’s President Yanukovych: He Got Game

It’s been a pretty good two days for Ukraine’s embattled President Viktor Yanukovych, despite three weeks of massive protests against his reversal of plans to tighten cooperation with the European Union. Monday brought news that government-friendly candidates (most running as independents) won four out of five parliamentary by-elections, most of them in areas that should be friendly to opposition candidates. (Monitors from the Council of Europe judged the voting “well ordered,” although a prominent Ukrainian civic group said heavy vote-buying undermined a fair result in some races.)

Yanukovych Viktor UkrainePrez2What happened? The tide turned partly because the pro-government candidates were popular and led active, door-to-door campaigning. Opposition candidates were weak or politically extreme (in Kyiv the opposition standard bearer was from the far right Svoboda Party). The administration curried public support by spending on local infrastructure projects. And the outright vote buying helped.

In short, it was a model for the electoral survival of Yanukovych’s ruling party.

Today brings more good news. Yanukovych appears of be getting a short-term lifeline from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Putin and his finance minister say the deal includes a one-third discount in the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas, and a new line of credit amounting to $15 billion dollars. It’s said also to involve a swap of Ukrainian debt for Russian ownership of a piece of Ukraine’s pipeline network.

All this comes in return for Ukrainian concessions as yet unrevealed. Putin’s government is believed to be demanding that Ukraine not only cancel plans for integration with Europe, but also to instead establish long-term economic and strategic cooperation with Russia.

The election results and Russia’s offer of money mean that, despite the massive protests and his declining popularity, Yanukovych has got some game.

But that’s where his good news ends. In Spike Lee’s 1998 movie He Got Game, a convict  is given a short-term release from prison to persuade his son, a high school basketball star, to sign on with his state’s university. The problem is that the father has been far from a caring parent, and his alienated son has no intention of cooperating.

As Yanukovych tries to persuade millions of alienated Ukrainians to abandon their dreams of a Europe-oriented future and instead align their country with Putin and Russia’s sphere of influence, they, too, are of no mind to cooperate. The protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), along with the increasingly discontented business elite, Ukraine’s disaffected populace, and much of Yanukovych’s political party, are all fed up with the massive corruption and personal and family aggrandizement that has accompanied his rule.

Yanukovych has been given a brief respite. But unless he quickly changes his ways, sues for peace with the street and his opposition, makes concessions to his discontented oligarch backers and to his frustrated Party of Regions officials, he will find the clock is still ticking, the 2015 presidential elections are approaching, and his options are fast narrowing.

Related Experts: Adrian Karatnycky

Image: Euromaidan December 10, 2013 (Photo: Flickr/Mac_Ivan/CC License)