Ukraine: Will Yanukovych Dodge the Debate?

By Tammy Lynch

On February 1, Ukraine’s two presidential candidates will meet for their first and only official debate. Or at least that’s the plan, according to the Central Election Commission.

In reality, it’s highly likely that one of the candidates – Viktor Yanukovych – will skip the event, which his campaign deems unnecessary. Although he debated Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential election, Yanukovych said his current opponent, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, would do better to “demonstrate her whims in the kitchen.”

Yanukovych’s deputy Hanna Herman avoided her candidate’s food-themed reasoning, suggesting instead that “There is nothing for Victor Fedorovych [Yanukovych] to talk about with Tymoshenko.” The implication, of course, is that Yanukovych also didn’t wish to use the time allotted to explain his policies directly to viewers without a filter.

In what must have been an attack on the Prime Minister, Herman continued, “Viktor Yanukovich does not wish to compete with [Tymoshenko] in a contest of beautiful lies.” Herman didn’t explain why Yanukovych could not simply tell the truth.

Regardless, this refusal to debate contradicts Herman’s earlier promise to do just that – “definitely.”

Many in Ukraine are not surprised by this position. Given Yanukovych’s past verbal challenges, as well as his approximately 10 point lead, the choice has merit. Rather than risk a lashing by the sharp, quick, acid-tongued Tymoshenko, followed by the unflattering sound bytes and critique, better just to let her talk to viewers. It is the safest position, and Yanukovych’s chief aim is clearly to protect his lead.

Tymoshenko’s response to Yanukovych’s debate avoidance is just as expected. “If you don’t think you have the brains and political experience to take part in televised debates,” she said, “you should admit that you are not ready to lead the country, rule it or represent it in the world.”

There may be a lot that Yanukovych would like to avoid discussing. He has either vacillated or been unable to effectively articulate his positions on a number of policies in the last week – including support for a gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine from Russia, his views on Russian investment in state industries, the status of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and his position on various CIS trade and economic configurations.

In fact, a debate could go a long way toward clarifying both candidates’ positions on these and other important policy points. Debates, of course, are not necessarily only about jousting with your opponent. They provide a candidate with the opportunity to explain their positions side-by-side with their opponent in order to allow the voters to see the clear differences and similarities. Yanukovych, it seems, is not prepared to do this. For a man who recently has touted his interest in closer cooperation with Europe—where debates are normally required—this is a politically understandable but unfortunate choice.

Tammy Lynch is a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy. Twitter: @TammyLynch.