Another Perspective

Ukraine’s Man of the Hour

An unusual guest at Washington's Nuclear Summit.

By 4.12.10

The name of one man attending this week's Nuclear Summit in Washington was "mud" only four years ago. Today he is the president of his country.

He is Viktor Yanukovich, elected president of Ukraine in February. Four years ago he and Viktor Yushchenko were contesting for the presidency, the first "open" campaign after decades of strongman rule in that former Soviet republic.

Yanukovich comes from the eastern part of Ukraine with a heavy concentration of pro-Russian voters. Yushchenko was supported primarily by Western Ukrainians who favored closer ties with the West, perhaps even membership in NATO.

At one point, Yushchenko was the victim of a mysterious poisoning which partially disfigured his face. Russian operatives were widely blamed. Although Yanukovich was not involved, there was considerable speculation -- certainly in the Western press -- that he was somehow in cahoots with the Russians to win the election. The outcome was contested, amid charges of ballot irregularities. Yushchenko finally was declared the winner, after thousands of young Ukrainians occupied Kiev's central square for days, vowing not to leave until Yushchenko was declared the victor. At the moment he was very popular, including with many members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States who were pleased that is married to an American. 

The pro-democracy atmosphere was heady, but Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko were at swords points from the beginning. The economy began to slide,

inflation soared. The Russians stopped shipping natural gas to Ukraine over a price dispute. From spring 2008 to early 2009 the country's gross domestic product fell by 20 percent.

By the time of this year's election, Yanukovich had become a more polished speaker and candidate. He was facing Tymoshenko. He won a clear victory. Yushchenko ran a distant fourth. Since then, Yanukovich has moved quickly to consolidate his control of the government. He appointed an ally as prime minister and assembled a coalition of individual members who, along with his own party's contingent, give him a parliamentary majority.

Investors like the turn of events. The Kiev stock market has gone up 30 percent since Yanukovich became president. The Russian natural gas price contretemps has been settled for now. Yanukovich has submitted a prudent budget and has renewed an International Monetary Fund program that had been stalled for months and had caused much economic anxiety.

At the same time he has made sure that Ukraine maintains friendly relations with the European Union while also keeping Moscow closely informed of his moves to stabilize his country's economy. 

So, a man who was seen as a pariah just four years ago, comes to Washington as the Man of the Hour. The frosting on his particular cake is a scheduled private meeting at the White House with President Obama. 

(Mr. Hannaford is a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.)

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford is a board member of the Committee on the Present Danger. He is the editor of “Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69,” which will be published in September.