INTERVIEW: Ukraine's "Kinder Surprise"

By bne IntelliNews August 11, 2009

James Marson in Kyiv -

In Kyiv they call him "Kinder Surprise." At 35, Arseniy Yatsenyuk has already been Ukraine's parliamentary speaker, foreign minister and economy minister - and now he wants to be president.

With presidential elections set for January 17, Yatsenyuk is using a Barack Obama-like rhetoric of change to mount a challenge to the "big three" - President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych - who have maintained a stranglehold over Ukrainian politics since the Orange Revolution in 2004. With an economic crisis raging and politicians locked in a destructive struggle for hearts and minds ahead of the election that has paralyzed policymaking, Yatsenyuk's talk of unity and cooperation, as well as his outspoken criticism of the widely-despised political elite, has set his ratings soaring. A June poll by the Research and Branding Group puts him on 12.3%, compared with Tymoshenko's 15.8%, Yanukovych's 26.8% and Yushchenko's 2.1%.

In an interview at his headquarters in a modern building in the fashionable Podil area of Kyiv, Yatsenyuk lived up to his nickname - English-speaking, media-savvy and full of sound bites. "Tymoshenko, Yanukovych and even Yushchenko are more focused on their personal position in the state rather than the position of the country," he tells bne. "Ukrainians fully realize that this is a way to nowhere."

Deleting the divide

Criticized in some quarters for not having a clear plan for the country, Yatsenyuk says his programme has four main points: a new industrialization, developing the agricultural sector, creating a healthy and educated nation, and building a strong army.

Yatsenyuk wants to see Ukraine as part of the EU, but stresses that this is a long way off. He is noncommittal towards Nato and calls Russia a "tough friend." He says it's time for Ukrainian politicians to stop playing the east and the south of the country (broadly speaking more pro-Russian) off against the west and centre (more nationally minded and pro-West). Instead, he says, he wants to strengthen "the will and ability of Ukrainians to make decisions for their own country" by "deleting the dividing line between east and west."

This is not an insignificant task. The first obstacle would be the politicians whom he frequently rails against. "If I win, I will face an absolutely antagonistic and furious parliament with two defeated candidates [Tymoshenko and Yanukovych]. I will call snap parliamentary elections, and I believe that I will find consensus with some political forces in Ukraine. This is the job of the president," he says, criticizing Yushchenko's failure to do so.

Yatsenyuk is already drawing a lot of fire, particularly from Tymoshenko's camp. Opponents and critics accuse him of lacking substance. More bitingly, they say he doesn't represent change at all, given his previously close working relationship with Yushchenko, whose unpopularity stems largely from his inability to push through promised reforms. At a party conference in July, Tymoshenko called his talk of being a "new" candidate "a big illusion and a big fraud." She warned Ukrainians not to "carry out experiments. We shouldn't rely on dark horses."

A number of political analysts have also questioned his independence from the business clans that hold sway over Ukrainian politics, citing his frequent appearances on top-rated channels owned by Dmytro Firtash and Viktor Pinchuk, who is also a supporter of Yatsenyuk's charitable foundation. Firtash is the gas trader who the prime minister has been locked in battle with since ousting the company he part-owns, RosUkrEnergo, from the murky Russia-Ukraine gas trade in January; Pinchuk, the son-in-law of ex-president Leonid Kuchma, is a steel magnate with a penchant for modern art.

When questioned on this, Yatsenyuk raises his voice for the only time during the interview. "I don't have any relations with Firtash. Yulia [Tymoshenko] is brilliant at this. She sent a message to the entire Ukrainian society that Firtash is a culprit and he backs Yatsenyuk." He says he will declare his backers when campaigning officially starts, and that he wants individuals and small and medium-sized businesses to donate to his campaign, including via the Internet, so that he is not "a puppet of Ukrainian tycoons."


But scepticism about his reformist credentials is far from his only obstacle. He is currently devoting much time to travelling throughout Ukraine establishing grassroots organizations to compete with the powerful, long-established party machines of the other two leading contenders. His ratings have also plateaued in the last couple of months as the crisis has abated somewhat, and Yushchenko's decision to run could knock a crucial few percent from his vote share. "He is benefiting from peoples' disillusionment with the political conflict... but he is no Ukrainian Obama," says Neil Pattie, a spokesman for the PM's eponymous party, Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko. "He lacks a national party structure, strong team and policies; the four-point plan lacks genuine substance."

But however he is viewed, Yatsenyuk's popularity clearly makes him a political force to be reckoned with. He will largely be competing with Tymoshenko in the west and centre of Ukraine for votes in the first round, with the winner of that contest expected to face off against Yanukovych, who is favoured in the east and south.

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