Yushchenko, Viktor

Image - Viktor Yushchenko (before and after his poisoning).

Yushchenko, Viktor [Ющенкo, Вiктoр; Juščenko], b 23 February 1954 in Khoruzhivka, Nedryhailiv raion, Sumy oblast. Independent Ukraine’s eighth prime minister (22 December 1999–26 April 2001) and third president (23 January 2005–25 February 2010). Yushchenko held numerous governmental advisory posts before assuming the presidency. He completed an accounting degree at the Ternopil Finance and Economics Institute in 1975. After serving in the Soviet Army (October 1975–November 1976), Yushchenko worked in a branch of the USSR State Bank in Ulianivka, Sumy oblast (December 1976–July 1985) before being put in charge of farm credit for an agency in Kyiv and subsequently of planning for the Kyiv branch of the USSR Agroprombank (December 1987–November 1990). He then joined the board of the Ukraina Joint Stock Agro-Industrial Bank and served as its first deputy chairman. From January 1993 to December 1999 Yushchenko headed the National Bank of Ukraine. His currency reform of 1996, specifically the introduction and survival of the hryvnia, is counted as Ukraine’s greatest achievement on the road to a market economy. Yushchenko was also a key figure in Ukraine’s dealings with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

After Ukraine’s parliament—the Supreme Council of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada Ukrainy or VRU)—rejected by one vote the reappointment of Valerii Pustovoitenko as prime minister on 14 December 1999, President Leonid Kuchma’s proposal of replacing Pustovoitenko with Yushchenko was adopted eight days later. Yushchenko, who was known for his pro-market and monetarist views, promised to reduce the state’s role in the economy, consolidate the expenditure budget, and promote privatization, including land reform. His appointment was interpreted as being aimed at restoring foreign investors’ confidence in Ukraine.

During his term as prime minister, Yushchenko oversaw an increase in the country’s GDP, improvement in real incomes, and payout of pension arrears. He also received endorsement from U.S. President Bill Clinton on the latter’s visit to Kyiv in June 2000. Despite these economic and diplomatic successes, President Kuchma dismissed Yushchenko following a parliamentary vote (263 to 64, with 24 abstentions) of non-confidence in him as prime minister on 26 April 2001. Yushchenko and his former cabinet ally Yuliia Tymoshenko were blamed for mismanaging the energy sector. In fact, he was brought down by an alliance of Communists dissatisfied with economic reform and ‘oligarchic’ parties whose fortunes were tied to the marketing of Russian oil and gas in Ukraine. Anatolii Kinakh replaced Yushchenko, but most of the same ministers were reappointed to Cabinet.

After his dismissal, Yushchenko worked to bring together reformist and democratic forces in preparation for the 2002 parliamentary elections. His electoral alliance, Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukraina, or NU), was launched in July 2001. The bloc’s slate of candidates, with an average age of forty, was announced in January 2002. In the face of considerable obstacles placed in its way by the ‘administrative resources’ of the presidency, NU, consisting of twenty-five parties under Yushchenko’s leadership, placed first (with 23.6 percent of the vote) on the party-list ballot. This yielded NU 70 seats, and 42 additional single-member seats brought the bloc’s parliamentary contingent to 112 immediately following the March elections, making it potentially the largest caucus in the Supreme Council of Ukraine. Despite this NU did not go on to form a majority in the VRU or to control its leadership (speakership and committees). Outmaneuvered by President Leonid Kuchma, who freely used rewards and coercion to encourage defections and realignments, Yushchenko reluctantly went into opposition together with other anti-presidential blocs and caucuses.

Yushchenko’s NU subsequently led and took part in numerous anti-governmental protests objecting to President Kuchma’s manipulation of parliament, the opposition’s lack of access to the mass media, and generally to Kuchma’s dictatorial ways. Symptomatic of the inefficacy of the VRU, many of these protests took place in the streets, squares, and public meeting places of Kyiv and other cities. Nevertheless, no ‘velvet revolution’ on the Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, or Georgian pattern ensued, and President Kuchma remained securely in place.

Throughout this time, according to public opinion polls, Yushchenko maintained his position as Ukraine’s most popular politician. As such, he was targeted by the presidential entourage to discourage him from running for president in October 2004, to discredit him by association with fascism, and to lessen his chances were he to run. He received death threats, and his party’s meetings in various localities were disrupted. NU consistently opposed the president’s constitutional-reform proposals, designed to weaken the presidency in the probable event of a Yushchenko win. (The proposals, in the form of a constitutional-reform bill, failed to obtain adequate support in the VRU in April 2004 and were temporarily shelved.) Yushchenko’s popularity, his acceptability in Washington (his second wife, Kateryna [née Chumachenko], is an American of Ukrainian heritage), and his pro-Western orientation were all anathema to the Kuchma cabal. A bloc of parties, led by the Popular Movement of Ukraine (aka Rukh), was therefore formed in March 2004 to support Yushchenko’s bid for the presidency.

The official announcement of Yushchenko’s presidential candidacy was made on 4 July 2004. Oleksandr Zinchenko, deputy speaker of the Supreme Council of Ukraine and a one-time political opponent, became Yushchenko’s campaign manager. Creating jobs, raising pensions, lowering taxes, fighting corruption, introducing ‘real’ reforms, doubling agricultural production, and reducing the term of military service were among the promises Yushchenko made in his election platform. He ran as an independent.

Beginning officially on 3 July, the presidential election campaign featured media coverage heavily favoring the establishment’s candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, and numerous tactics to intimidate Yushchenko as well as to smear him by association with extreme right-wing nationalists. Most dramatic was the poisoning of Yushchenko during a meal on 5 September with Oleksandr Turchynov, then head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), at the dacha of the SBU’s first deputy, Volodymyr Satsiuk (who later fled to the Russian Federation). Severe illness and facial disfigurement resulting therefrom interfered with his campaigning, as did three separate trips (in September, October, and December) to Vienna for treatment at the Rudolfinerhaus medical facility. Physicians there confirmed Yushchenko’s blood contained one thousand times the normal level of TCDD dioxin, which he had likely ingested with the food he was served. While Yushchenko publicly blamed ‘the authorities’ for his poisoning, no one was subsequently prosecuted in connection with the poisoning incident, and the truth became lost in a blizzard of controversy.

In the first round of the presidential election held on 31 October 2004, Yushchenko a received 39.87 percent of the vote and led a field of twenty-four candidates. Yanukovych ran a strong second with 39.26 percent. In the second round, held on 21 November, a runoff between the two men alone, the order was reversed: Yanukovych received 49.46 percent; and Yushchenko, 46.61 percent. Alleging vote fraud because of the discrepancy between this result and the exit polls, Yushchenko declared himself the winner, taking a symbolic oath of office in the Supreme Council of Ukraine on 23 November and demanding a new presidential vote. Meanwhile, with thousands of pro-Yushchenko demonstrators in the streets protesting against the second round’s result, the Orange Revolution (taking its name from Yushchenko’s campaign colors) got underway. Under pressure from this unprecedented public display of dissatisfaction, with the second-round results having been invalidated by the Supreme Court, round-table talks were convened in early December, bringing Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yanukovych, and Viktor Yushchenko together face-to-face along with representatives of European states and organizations. An agreement on constitutional changes weakening presidential powers and for a repeat second round of the presidential election was reached on 7 December. Accordingly, in the voting on 26 December, Yushchenko received 51.99 percent, while Yanukovych obtained 44.2 percent. Yushchenko was officially declared the winner. He promised change, citing overcoming corruption, a social policy, and joining Europe as his key priorities, declared that Ukraine was now free as well as independent, and (in retrospect, unwisely) stated that he foresaw no role for Yanukovych in his future government. He was officially inaugurated on 23 January 2005 on Kyiv’s Independence Square in the presence of some 300,000 enthusiastic supporters.

Coming to the presidency with a less than overwhelming margin and with support for him concentrated predominantly in the country’s western and central oblasts, Yushchenko was severely constrained in pursuing his pro-Western, pro-market policies. Therefore, while subsequently campaigning for Ukraine’s membership in the European Union (EU), he simultaneously maintained that good relations with the Russian Federation were essential. Accordingly, on 24 January 2005, Yushchenko’s very first trip abroad was to Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. Putin reciprocated by visiting Kyiv on 19 March, where the two endorsed fuller bilateral relations between their two countries. (In May, a bilateral commission headed by Putin and Yushchenko was formed to deal with co-operation on borders and other matters.) Not until April of the same year did Yushchenko travel to the United States, where he met with President George W. Bush, received a freedom award, and addressed Congress. Bush greeted Yushchenko’s campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq with understanding; a decree issued on 14 April authorizing their withdrawal by the end of 2005. Yushchenko travelled extensively in the first half of 2005, shoring up relations with neighboring countries, especially Poland, as well as other major European states and Japan. These excursions undoubtedly brought good will but few tangible benefits: normalization of trade with the USA was not achieved, and the restrictions of the Jackson-Vanik amendment continued to be applied to Ukraine; Japanese investment was not forthcoming; Germany and France did not exert their influence within the European Union for Ukraine’s accession; and no long-term contract for delivery of gas from Turkmenistan was obtained by his visit there.

In domestic politics, Yushchenko’s first acts after taking the oath of office were naming Yuliia Tymoshenko, his principal political ally in the Orange Revolution, as prime minister; appointing Oleksandr Zinchenko as head of the Presidential Secretariat (formerly the Presidential Administration); and installing Petro Poroshenko as secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (RNBOU). Tymoshenko was confirmed by the Supreme Council of Ukraine on 4 February 2005, and in the course of that year, as promised, Yushchenko replaced all of the oblast governors and went on to replace their raion counterparts. He also called for the replacement of all oblast police chiefs for inefficiency and corruption. On those same grounds, in July 2005 he abruptly abolished the country’s notorious highway traffic police (DAI), which was to be replaced by a conventional highway patrol, as in other countries. Local Security Service chiefs were sacked as well. His personnel changes within the ‘vertical of executive power’ were more extensive than Kuchma’s following the 1999 election, perhaps unsurprisingly so in the wake of the Orange Revolution.

Very quickly, however, the Orange team began losing its coherence. Already in February 2005 there were rumours of internal bickering in the President’s circle, which was not totally unexpected in view of the lack of clarity about overlapping responsibilities of the principal institutions at the apex of power, namely, the President and his Secretariat, the Prime Minister, and the RNBOU, not to mention the Speaker of the VRU. In the spring Yushchenko criticized his own government over the fuel crisis triggered by Tymoshenko’s freezing or capping of gasoline prices. He was rumoured to be advising her to resign, but he denied this. Congratulating his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, on his sixty-seventh birthday, on 9 August, did not likely go down well with some of Yushchenko’s Orange supporters. On 2 September Oleksandr Zinchenko resigned, citing concerns about corruption in the inner circle and naming Petro Poroshenko, Oleksandr Tretiakov, a senior presidential aide, and Mykola Martynenko, NU’s parliamentary caucus leader, in particular. Poroshenko replied in kind. After a long meeting with the RNBOU, President Yushchenko, acknowledging that the ‘team spirit’ was gone, dismissed the Prime Minister Yuliia Tymoshenko and her Cabinet on 8 September, accepted the resignations of Poroshenko and Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, and named Yurii Yekhanurov, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk oblast, acting prime minister. This move was intended to end the infighting, but it looked instead as though the Orange Revolution, like so many others, was beginning to devour its children.

Further troubles were in store for Yushchenko—and further departures from the ideals of the Orange Revolution, he all the while maintaining spoken adherence to them. It took two tries for the Supreme Council of Ukraine to approve Yekhanurov as prime minister; in the interval, President Yushchenko met with Viktor Yanukovych, his erstwhile rival, to secure support from the Party of Regions fifty-member caucus, and the two of them signed a memorandum of agreement. When Yushchenko announced an amnesty on 27 September 2005 for those who had rigged the presidential election in 2004, it was obvious to at least some observers that the fight against corruption was over. Indeed, with various corruption cases stalled in the investigative process and prominent individuals having gone into hiding, it looked as though that battle was effectively lost. Yushchenko’s statement that he wanted the investigation of high-profile cases stepped up merely emphasized the foot-dragging. The Cabinet appointed by him that fall, a mixture of new faces and old, and praised by him as pragmatic and willing to work productively, was another compromise with the status quo. Signing into law a bill giving local councillors immunity from prosecution, remarking that ‘in principle’ he opposed it, was another. Relations with the business community were equally ambivalent. On the one hand, Yushchenko ordered the resale of the Kryvorizhstal steel-industry complex in Kryvyi Rih (privatized and purchased earlier for a miniscule amount by Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk), promising that the windfall would be used for the benefit of all citizens. On the other, he publicly extended a friendly hand to the country’s business tycoons (‘oligarchs’), offering them legal security of property privatized before 2005. Yushchenko’s most serious challenge came at the end of that year when the Russian Federation’s Gazprom company proposed a fourfold increase in the price for gas supplied to Ukraine. It even shut off the gas as a bargaining lever. In the deal eventually agreed to, Ukraine would pay US$95 per 1,000 cubic meters (up from US$80). This so enraged Ukraine’s parliamentarians that in January 2006 they voted to dismiss the Cabinet, some even calling for Yushchenko’s impeachment, and passed a resolution branding the deal a threat to national security. The rebuke to Yushchenko and his government marked a turning point in executive-legislative relations from compromise to confrontation, with the president challenging the Cabinet’s dismissal in the Constitutional Court and calling for a referendum on a new constitution providing checks and balances.

On the eve of parliamentary elections in March 2006, Yushchenko, calling them the Orange Revolution’s second stage, expressed hope that they would result in the restoration of the Orange coalition with NU at its core. But this was not to be. The ‘winner’ was the Party of Regions (PR) led by Viktor Yanukovych; Yuliia Tymoshenko’s Bloc (BYuT, built around her Batkivshchyna party) ran second; and NU came a dismal third, followed by the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) and the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). Under new rules that came into effect on 1 January 2006 (as agreed to at the roundtable talks of December 2004), giving the VRU greater powers relative to those of the president, it would be up to the parliamentary majority to put forward a candidate for prime minister, whom the president would merely approve. Yushchenko was faced with two equally undesirable choices: either an Orange coalition headed by Tymoshenko, over whose earlier dismissal he had recently expressed no regrets, or an anti-Orange and anti-Yushchenko one led by Yanukovych. Following the parliamentary elections, therefore, there ensued an excruciatingly long period of negotiation and indecision. In the meantime, the Orange coalition of BYuT, NU, and the SPU fell apart when the latter’s leader, Oleksandr Moroz, abandoned the coalition to take up the post of speaker of the Supreme Council of Ukraine. President Yushchenko ruled out an ‘Orange and Blue’ coalition of NU with the PR. Ultimately, the deadline for presidential approval or rejection having expired, on 3 August 2006 Yushchenko endorsed Yanukovych, who was supported in the VRU by a PR-SPU-CPU coalition, as prime minister.

Not only did relations between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych not run smoothly thereafter—which might have been expected—but a full-scale power struggle between them and with the VRU developed at the beginning of 2007. In the process, fundamental and irreconcilable views clashed on their respective powers as well as the basic constitution of the country itself—matters thought to have been resolved in 1996 and 2004. Ultimately, the VRU won greater powers for itself over the executive branch, and Yushchenko switched his position on the 2004 compromise from one of reluctant acquiescence to outright advocacy of a fresh start with a consultative referendum on the constitution, taking the power question out of the executive-legislative arena altogether and into the public sphere.

At the mid-point of Yushchenko’s term of office, public dissatisfaction with his indecisiveness brought his popularity down to a level comparable to his predecessor’s: a presidential election in early 2007 would have given Tymoshenko and Yanukovych each 22 percent of the vote, but Yushchenko only little more than 8 percent.

On 2 April 2007, President Yushchenko, in a constitutionally questionable act, dissolved the Supreme Council of Ukraine and set parliamentary elections for 27 May. These were, however, put off to 30 September following weeks of bickering with Prime Minister Yanukovych and the dismissal of three judges of the Constitutional Court, thereby rendering that body ineffective. Pre-election polls offered the prospect of unresolved deadlock. In the event, the nine-party pro-presidential electoral alliance, Our Ukraine-Popular Self-Defense (Nasha Ukraina-Narodna samooborona, or NU-NS), ran third with just 14.2 percent of the vote, behind Viktor Yanukovych’s RP (34.4 percent) and Yuliia Tymoshenko’s BYuT (30.7 percent). The result was an endorsement of Yushchenko’s principal political opponents and a corresponding rejection of his own cause as well as raising serious doubts regarding his likely re-election as president.

Immediately after the elections Yushchenko went to work with renewed energy, issuing unsanctioned instructions to bodies not under his control, pressing for a new law on the Cabinet of Ministers that would give him more powers, and resuming to feud with and undermine his erstwhile ‘ally,’ Tymoshenko. A psychological portrait drawn up in 2008 emphasized Yushchenko’s authoritarian and inflexible personality, as well as his traditional view of women. His unflagging efforts to secure constitutional changes offering greater presidential powers must be seen against this background, as must his constant interference with the work of government and the VRU. The result was permanent political crisis.

When the VRU’s governing coalition collapsed in September 2008 with the exit of the NU-NS caucus, Yushchenko moved its dissolution and decreed fresh pre-term parliamentary elections. The order lapsed unexecuted. Instead, a fresh coalition of NU-NS, BYuT, and the Volodymyr Lytvyn Bloc—with Volodymyr Lytvyn himself as speaker of the VRU—was formed in December. The following March, in his final address (presciently labelled so by his nemesis, Yanukovych) to the VRU, Yushchenko cataloged the changes his country had seen, calling for unity to achieve greater progress, integration into the EU’s energy grid, more foreign investment, an growth in the economy. He reiterated a commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, promising, at the same time, better relations with the Russian Federation. Ukraine was especially hit hard by the global financial meltdown of 2008. In light of a serious drop in GDP, Yushchenko’s economic message therefore stressed battling the crisis, shoring up the banking sector, and restoring confidence in financial institutions. He also aired a favorite hobby-horse—allowing the sale and purchase of land—to a VRU overwhelmingly in favor of continuing the moratorium on such transactions. Pensions and privileges, badly in need of sensible rearrangement, concerned him as well. ‘For dessert,’ as the journalists put it, Yushchenko dwelt on his proposal for a new constitution—incorporating bicameralism, elimination of immunity for parliamentarians, open-list voting, and reform of local administration—and handed a copy of the draft to Speaker Lytvyn immediately. Parliamentarians hearing Yushchenko were unimpressed. He spent most of 2009 promoting his proposed new constitution, hoping to enlist popular support in face of the VRU’s indifference.

Nominated on 10 November 2009 for a second term as president, Yushchenko came fifth in the first round of voting on 17 January 2010, managing to receive just 5.45 percent of the vote. His failure to support Yuliia Tymoshenko in the second round (24 January) was deemed responsible for her narrow defeat by Viktor Yanukovych. Thus ignominiously ended Yushchenko’s political career, and with it the Orange wave begun so hopefully in 2004. To the disappointment of both domestic and Western backers, Yushchenko turned out to be a failure as transitional leader, equally prone to dividing rents with colleagues and friends, equally petty and vindictive, as were both his predecessor and successor. Perhaps the most lastingly distinctive feature of Yushchenko’s rule was his very forceful promotion of the Holodomor Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 as a defining moment for the Ukrainian nation, resulting in its being recognized as genocide by a number of foreign states, Canada included.

Out of office, Yushchenko has remained active in politics, notably testifying against Tymoshenko during her trial for mishandling the 2009 gas deal with the Russian Federation, and heading NU party’s list in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Coming seventh with a mere 1.1 percent of the vote, NU failed to qualify for a single seat among the 225 up for grabs. In a 2015 interview, Yushchenko blamed the West, the United States especially, for Ukraine’s misfortunes, and for the country’s betrayal in the face of Russian aggression in the Crimea and the Donbas since 2014. His memoirs, Nederzhavni taiemnytsi: Notatky na berehakh pam’iati (Non-State Secrets: Notes on the Margins of Memory), were published in 2014.

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Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2015.]

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