- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

KIEV — In a stunning turn of events, the political forces that were ousted from power in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution are poised to make a vengeful comeback. And at their helm will be Viktor Yanukovych, a man who suffered a humiliating defeat, and who may be days away from returning to his former job as prime minister.

“The situation is so complex that you won’t make sense without a half liter” of vodka, former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski said during a recent conference in Yalta in summing up the situation in Ukraine today.

Just three weeks ago, the country appeared to be headed toward a period of political stability, following hotly contested parliamentary elections in March.

The three parties that backed the Orange Revolution and collectively won the most seats in parliament finally signed a coalition agreement after months of negotiations. The new government was expected to give President Viktor Yushchenko a chance to move forward with reforms, particularly in integrating Ukraine into the European Union and NATO. More importantly, the public was expected to have a three-year respite from a string of national and local elections, which had overly politicized the country.

Then, in a shocking development, just days after signing the agreement, Oleksandr Moroz, the Socialist Party leader, defected from the coalition on July 6. Instead, he formed a new coalition with Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Regions Party and the Communists. The new grouping voted in Mr. Moroz as parliament speaker, a powerful post following recent constitutional changes. They also chose Mr. Yanukovych as their candidate for prime minister.

Mr. Moroz’s defection has not only changed parliament’s balance of power, but has put Ukraine’s Western orientation in doubt and pushed the country into its worst political crisis since 2004.

“The people are tired,” Mr. Yushchenko said in his regular radio address last week, commenting on developments. “Society is unhappy with such a development in parliament. Responsible for the social apathy today are all national deputies and in particular, political leaders.”

Under new constitutional changes, Mr. Yushchenko is now left with two unsavory choices: dissolve parliament and call new elections, or forward the nomination of Mr. Yanukovych to the legislature and allow the man who is his political opponent to form a government.

The president has until Tuesday to decide. On Friday, he canceled a trip to Moscow for a meeting of ex-Soviet states, citing “political situation” back home.

If he decides not to disband parliament, under the complex new constitutional changes, Mr. Yushchenko has until Aug. 5 to decide whether to forward Mr. Yanukovych’s nomination to lawmakers.

As Mr. Yushchenko mulls over his choices, observers point out that leaders of the Orange coalition and the president himself are not without blame in the current situation.

For nearly three months, the Orange coalition haggled over government posts, critics say. Many of the arguments centered on whether Yulia Tymoshenko, the firebrand politician who has had a turbulent relationship with the president, would again become prime minister. Mr. Yushchenko had fired her from the job last year because of infighting with his own political allies, who were also jockeying for high-powered positions. What job would go to Mr. Moroz, who previously had been parliament speaker, did not appear to be a priority.

During this period, parliament’s work ground to a standstill. That prompted negative reaction from the public, which had high hopes for the new legislature. Instead of promised reforms, the public saw rising costs for energy and consumer goods.

Mr. Yushchenko’s initial hands-off approach during the political negotiations also cost him public support. In hoping to appear above the fray, Mr. Yushchenko increasingly looked like a weak leader.

“At the macro level, he has been a visionary rather than a strategist,” James Sherr of the Conflict Studies Research Center of Britain’s Defense Academy wrote recently. “At the micro level, he has been an arbitrator rather than an arbiter and a conciliator rather than a tactician. Since his inauguration in January 2005, he has frequently lost sight of the enemy and the country.”

Mr. Yanukovych and his party, on the other hand, have orchestrated an impressive comeback. An American public relations firm has been hired to boost their images. Until recently, Mr. Yanukovych has remained in the background, letting other party members do the talking.

The party has also tapped into the public’s discontent and blamed parliament’s standstill on the leaders of the Orange Revolution. They have aggressively questioned Ukraine’s readiness to join the EU and NATO — both priorities for Mr. Yushchenko.

Mr. Yanukovych’s party also has played the Russia card. Party leaders argue that relations between the two countries need to be strengthened and Russian must become an official language along with Ukrainian, because of the country’s large ethnic Russian minority.

The strategy seems to be paying off. A recent opinion poll conducted by Kiev’s prestigious Razumkov Center showed that if presidential elections were held today, Mr. Yanukovych would win 31.3 percent of the vote, while Mrs. Tymoshenko would earn 19.6 percent. Only 8.4 percent of those polled said they would vote for Mr. Yushchenko.

Mr. Yushchenko, a former central bank chief, served as prime minister under pro-Russian President Leonid Kuchma until he led protests against the authoritarian president in 2001. He contested the 2004 presidential election as the opposition candidate against Mr. Yanukovych, who was backed by Mr. Kuchma and Russia. In the vote seen by observers as riddled with fraud, Mr. Yanukovych was declared winner. The resulting Orange Revolution protests led to a runoff win by Mr. Yushchenko.

The political capital earned in the revolution was soon lost in political wrangling between Mr. Yushchenko and Mrs. Tymoshenko and corruption charges. The two leaders parted ways last year until they were forced to come back together to stop the ascent of the pro-Russian party.

In the March elections, Mr. Yanukovych’s Regions Party became the largest bloc in the 450-seat parliament, winning 186 seats, or 32 percent, but not enough to establish a stable government. The party was followed by the Tymoshenko bloc in the second place with 129 seats (22 percent) and Mr. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party in the third with 81 seats (14 percent). The Socialists and Communists came in the fourth and fifth places with 33 and 21 seats, respectively.

Initially Our Ukraine and the Tymoshenko bloc formed a coalition with support from the Socialists and with Mrs. Tymoshenko as the prime minister. That plan was upset by Mr. Moroz’s defection.

In a sign of the times, Our Ukraine last week announced it was going into the opposition, following similar statements by Mrs. Tymoshenko.

Mrs. Tymoshenko, however, is demanding the president dissolve the legislature and call new elections to keep the pro-Russian majority from gaining power.

Mrs. Tymoshenko vowedThursday that she and her deputies would stay away from parliament until Tuesday in an effort to pressure the president to dissolve parliament.

Mr. Yanukovych, for his part, met with Mr. Yushchenko Thursday, ostensibly to discuss the political situation and to promote his candidacy. He said there was no talk of dissolution and that he and the president shared many similar positions.

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, apparently are in no mood for another cycle of elections and political horse trading.

A July 10-14 poll by the International Institute of Sociology and the Center for Political Research in Kiev found 54 percent of Ukrainians are opposed to a dissolution of parliament, Agence France-Presse reported.

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