Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated as Ukraine’s new president on February 25. His first steps and statements have proved reminiscent of President Leonid Kuchma’s (1994-2004) first term. Yanukovych selected Kuchma’s former secretary as the head of his administration and demonstrated that in foreign policy he will revive the multi-vectored approach of the Kuchma era, when Ukraine played on differences between Russia and the West. Yanukovych also confirmed his inclination toward populism in economic matters.
Yanukovych pledged in his inauguration speech to reform the government, in order that it should become “a team of professionals,” most likely meaning that a future successor to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko will chair a technical cabinet rather than one representing the parties in a coalition. Yanukovych said he would cut spending on government administration to increase pensions and wages. Immediately after the inauguration, he decreed trimming the presidential staff by 20 percent. His team also said that he would cut the presidential salary by 50 percent and trim the staffs of regional governors by 20 percent in order to decrease administrative spending. Similarly, he instructed prosecutors to ensure that the government adheres to parliament’s decision from late last year to increase wages and pensions (Channel 5, Ukrainska Pravda, February 25). This populism is due to the fact that the elections, when popular decisions are important, are not over for Yanukovych. Parliament is expected to schedule local elections for later this year, and early parliamentary elections are possible if Yanukovych fails to form a new coalition in parliament to oust Tymoshenko.
Yanukovych renamed the presidential secretariat into the presidential administration, as it was known under Kuchma. He appointed Serhy Lyovochkin, 37, as head of the administration. Lyovochkin has been a key aide to Yanukovych, and had been Kuchma’s secretary, and officially first assistant. In another move aimed to wipe out his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko’s legacy, Yanukovych removed the banners featuring information about the 1932-1933 famine from the presidential website, www.president.gov.ua (Segodnya, February 27). Yushchenko had cherished the memory of the famine as an important nation-building myth, but this vexed Moscow and many Ukrainians.
In a move aimed against Tymoshenko, who refused to admit her defeat in the February 7 presidential election runoff and to resign, Yanukovych instructed the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Accounts Chamber to check government spending. This concerns both domestic funds and International Monetary Fund loans which accounted for the bulk of foreign assistance received by Ukraine in 2008-2009. Yanukovych also expressed his concern over the situation with regard to taxation. In particular, he instructed prosecutors to ensure that “the tax administration should not levy taxes three months in advance,” as reportedly was the case under Tymoshenko (Ukrainska Pravda, February 26).
Yanukovych said in his inauguration speech that Ukraine would strive to be an equal partner for Russia, the EU and the US as “a bridge between the East and the West” (Channel 5, February 25). It is becoming clear that Yanukovych is not aiming to make Ukraine Moscow’s puppet as many in the West feared. Ukraine will not join the customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, Yanukovych’s economy aide Iryna Akimova told Inter TV on February 26. She said such a union is not on the agenda because it would complicate Ukraine’s relations with the World Trade Organization. Moscow apparently hoped Ukraine would join the customs union under Yanukovych. President Dmitry Medvedev instructed the Federal Customs Service to start preparing the union for Ukraine’s possible membership (ITAR-TASS, February 19). Yanukovych also reiterated his election promise to push for a revision of the 2009 gas accords with Russia so that “the price of gas should be fair” (BBC Ukrainian Service, March 2). However, this may come at the price of accepting Russia’s old plan for an international consortium to manage Ukraine’s gas pipelines.
Yanukovych is scheduled to visit Moscow on March 5, but on March 1 he first visited Brussels to meet with EU officials. There he pledged, like both Kuchma and Yushchenko did before him, that European integration would be Ukraine’s key priority. Yanukovych optimistically predicted that an association agreement and a visa-free regime with the EU would be attained within one year (BBC Ukrainian Service, March 2). Ahead of Yanukovych’s visit, the European Parliament sent a powerful message to Ukraine, by declaring that as a European state that adheres to the principles of democracy and freedom it may apply for EU membership in the future.
Yanukovych’s initial steps are reminiscent of Kuchma, but Kuchma ended his second term as an international pariah. That was due not only to his own mistakes, but also arguably to George W. Bush’s short-sighted foreign policy. Yanukovych, who understands how much depends on America, wants to build his transatlantic bridge. He said in his most recent interview that he wants to meet with Barack Obama to discuss “many questions” (BBC Ukrainian Service, March 2).