Viktor Yanukovych’s Domestic and International Honeymoon is Over

By Taras Kuzio

President Viktor Yanukovych’s honeymoon with Ukraine’s voters is over – as is, judging by growing criticism from abroad, his honeymoon with the West. The Ukrainian-American Diaspora refused to meet with him during his visit to New York to attend the opening of the UN this week and embarrassed him with widespread protests. On September 13 and 21 respectively the European People’s Party and EU both issued strong condemnations of threats to Ukraine’s democracy, while an editorial in the Financial Times on September 21 was entitled, “Kiev’s backsliding on democracy.”

A new extensive opinion poll has found that the popularity of Ukraine’s politicians has returned to the same approximate levels as those found at the launch of the 2010 presidential campaign; that is, they have returned to “normal” after the post-election depression of the opposition and Yanukovych’s six-month honeymoon with voters.

It is during this honeymoon period that Ukrainian politicians can potentially undertake the toughest of unpopular reforms. Yanukovych, however, – like Viktor Yushchenko when he came to power in January 2005 –missed the opportunity of this time period, as no significant reforms were undertaken in his first six months in power.

The poll by the sociological group “Rating” found that Yanukovych continues to be Ukraine’s most popular politician with 26% support, but this number has significantly dropped from 38%. Yulia Tymoshenko is in second place with 16.8%, increasing her support from 13.2%. Yanukovych and Tymoshenko were the two main candidates in this year’s election and faced each other in the second round where Tymoshenko was defeated by a mere 3.5%.

The pollsters explain these ratings in two ways. First, Yanukovych’s support has plummeted because his honeymoon period with voters is over. Second, Tymoshenko’s voters have overcome their post-election depression and returned, giving her a popularity rating just short of what she had at the start of the election campaign. Tymoshenko is re-assuming her majority support in the West, Central and North Ukraine.

Yanukovych is threatened by disillusioned voters in the East and South, some of whom are moving to left-wing parties. The reasons for this are the president’s inability to fulfil all of his populist election promises and massive 50% increases in utility prices mandated by the IMF (one election promise was not to increase these prices). Yanukovych seeks to regain some support by focusing on the usual Party of Regions election strategy of raising the Russian language question. A draft law on languages that would significantly increase the influence of Russian could be adopted in October ahead of the local elections on the 31st of that month.

The re-adjustment of political sympathies are returning Ukraine to the pre-election position whereby Yanukovych and Tymoshenko are separated by 10% (in the first round they received 35% and 25% respectively). The major difference from 2009 is that Arseniy Yatseniuk was then in third place whereas this year Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Tigipko holds that position. Tigipko’s ratings are, however, slowly declining month by month, from 13.6% to 11%.

The next popular political leaders are Yatseniuk (4.2%), Communist Party (KPU) leader Piotr Symonenko (3.1%), nationalist-populist Svoboda (Freedom) party leader Oleh Tyahnybok (1.8%), former President Viktor Yushchenko (1.5%) and Parliamentary Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn (1.3%).

Lytvyn is undoubtedly being punished by Central Ukrainian voters for joining the pro-Yanukovych Stability and Reforms coalition and his fate could well follow that of Socialist Party (SPU) leader Oleksandr Moroz. Moroz took the SPU into the pro-Yanukovych Anti-Crisis coalition (2006-2007) and his popularity has never recovered. From a third place finish in the 2004 elections, Moroz’s popularity slumped to 0.38% and 11th place out of eighteen candidates in this year’s elections.

The popularity of Ukraine’s political parties reflects the above tendencies.

Ukraine’s most popular party remains the Party of Regions, but its popularity has slumped from 35.2% to 24.4%. In second place is Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, whose popularity has grown from 12.4 to 15.5%, returning to the 10% differential with the Party of Regions found on the eve of this year’s elections.

In third place is Tigipko’s Strong Ukraine party with 8.8%, a slump from 12.7% in March, which reflects the month to month decline of the deputy prime minister who in the summer bragged he was the second most popular politician in Ukraine. Yatseniuk’s Front for Change’s popularity has remained stagnant at 3.5%, a low figure when considering that Yatseniuk’s popularity in summer 2009 showed he had the potential to overtake Tymoshenko and replace her in the second round. Unfortunately, the June 2009 replacement of Ukrainian by Russian election consultants fatally undermined his election campaign and he ended up winning only 7%, coming in fourth place. Ukrainian media describe Yatseniuk’s 2010 election campaign as the worst conducted in Ukraine’s two decade history as an independent state.

Two other political forces with the potential to enter parliament are the KPU, whose support has grown slightly from 2.5% to 3.8% (the threshold to enter parliament is 3%) and the Svoboda Party, whose popularity is not surprisingly growing in response to the Yanukovych administration’s pro-Russian policies. Our Ukraine-Peoples Self Defence deputy Taras Stetskiv told Jamestown that Svoboda could very well receive first place in the three Galician oblasts in the October 31 local elections, the first time a nationalist party would have gained such ground.

If Ukraine were to hold parliamentary elections today, six political forces would enter parliament in the following way – first, the Party of Regions, followed by the Fatherland (previous elections would have been fought as the Tymoshenko bloc [BYuT]), Strong Ukraine, Front for Change, KPU and Svoboda. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, Lytvyn’s Peoples Party and the SPU have 1.4, 1% and 0.5% support respectively, and they are in crisis because parties are closely associated with leaders and all three (Yushchenko, Lytvyn, Moroz) are highly unpopular.

Such an election would lead to an alignment that would consist of the Party of Regions and KPU on the one side (they entered coalitions together in 2006-2007 and in 2010), and a “democratic opposition” on the other (Fatherland, Front for Change). This assumes that Yatseniuk could work with Tymoshenko, as he has refused to join the opposition Committee in Defence of Ukraine that Tymoshenko is a prominent member of. Tigipko’s Strong Ukraine would be the kingmakers, as the parliamentary coalition would be formed by either of the two groups (Party of Regions-KPU or ‘democratic opposition’) depending on which Strong Ukraine decided to join. Svoboda would remain a nationalist fringe of 20 or so deputies.