Don’t Count Yanukovych Out… Yet

January 22, 2014
Opposition supporters during clashes with riot police outside Dynamo stadium in Kiev. (RIA Novosti/Andrey Stenin)

The draconian laws the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada passed by a show of hands on January 16 were intended to quash the Euromaidan movement. Instead, the action ignited a furious backlash among pro-European Ukrainians: tens of thousands of protesters braved the cold on Kiev’s Independence Square on Sunday, in intentional violation of the new legislation. Fighting erupted on Sunday as frustrated protesters clashed with riot police on Grushevskogo Street, marking the most violent confrontation in Kiev in recent memory.

The U.S. State Department condemned the laws as “casting serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms.” European diplomats have expressed concern about the trajectory of democracy in Ukraine. The domestic and international response to “Black Thursday,” as January 16th has been dubbed, and the Euromaidan movement that has gripped Ukraine for the past seven weeks have underscored president Victor Yanukovych’s tenuous hold on power. For this reason, many analysts in Ukraine and the West argue that Yanukovych’s defeat in the 2015 presidential elections is all but inevitable.

And there’s good reason to think so: in a recent poll conducted by the Democracy Initiatives Foundation (DIF), 71% of respondents thought that the overall situation in Ukraine worsened in 2013.

The DIF poll asked people to cast votes in a hypothetical election in December 2013. The responses were enlightening. 40.7% of respondents said they would vote for Vitaly Klitschko if Yanukovych were to face off against the former heavyweight champion boxer in a second round run-off. Just 30.5% said they would vote for Yanukovych. The poll suggests that opposition politicians Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Petro Poroshenko, and even jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko would defeat Yanukovych in a similar hypothetical second round run-off.

But the first round of elections isn’t until February 26, 2015.

Klitschko is often considered the favorite to consolidate support and oppose Yanukovych in 2015, but his prolonged residence in Germany may mean that he will be ineligible to run for president, as the Ukrainian constitution requires that candidates have lived in Ukraine for the past 10 years. Oleh Tyahnybok’s aggressively nationalistic platform scares many moderates and is antithetical to the beliefs of pro-Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Arseniy Yatsenyuk seems unlikely to energize the Ukrainian electorate.

Klitschko, Tyahnybok, and Yatsenyuk, the three main opposition candidates, have announced that they will run in the first round of the 2015 presidential elections. Of these three, the two candidates who receive the lowest number of votes will pledge their support for the other candidate in the second round in a coalition against Yanukovych. Despite this pledge, Klitschko has expressed concern about facing-off against other opposition leaders in the first round of elections, because Yanukovych might be able to manipulate the vote if the opposition candidates do not unite behind a single leader from the outset.

Unless the opposition can support a single platform and a single candidate, Yanukovych will likely prevail. Even the most diehard supporters are frustrated with the lack of unity: during the rally on Sunday, protesters chanted , “Give us a leader” during Tyahnybok’s address.

Yanukovych has benefitted from this disunity: he remains the single most popular political candidate.

According to a poll conducted by the Research and Branding Group (RBG) from December 23-27, one in four Ukrainians said they would vote for Yanukovych if the first round of presidential elections were held in the upcoming week. Only 14% of respondents said they would vote for Klitschko, the next most popular candidate. Tymoshenko, Yatsenuk, and Tyahnybok, received 8%, 5%, and 4% of respondents’ votes, respectively.

This is remarkable, because late December should have been the high water mark of support for the opposition. But it wasn’t: in the same poll, 50% of respondents said they did not support the Euromaidan movement in general; 45% of participants said they supported the movement in general.

Much will depend on voters’ perception of Yanukovych’s handling of the economy in the lead-up to the presidential elections. Immediately after Yanukovych came to power in 2010, RBG conducted a poll in which they asked Ukrainians about what the new government’s priorities should be. Economic issues trumped all else: “economic growth,” “deal with unemployment; create jobs,” “increase pensions and wages,” “cut/stabilize prices,” “increase social benefits,” and “improve the standard of living” were the five most important issues to voters.

In the short term, Yanukovych’s decision to postpone signing an Association Agreement with the E.U. in favor of a massive bailout package from Russia means that the Ukrainian economy will avoid collapse. And the heat will remain turned on this winter – Russia will not disrupt gas supplies to Ukraine, as it has occasionally over the past decade.

The bailout may in fact improve the quality of life for Ukrainians in the short term: the day after Yanukovych announced the bailout package from Russia, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov promised to increase minimum wages and benefits for children, and increase pay for public employees three times before the presidential elections in 2015. This increase in social spending will also include 6 billion hryvna to be given to those who lost money during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, these promises are unlikely to be fulfilled. But stabilizing gas prices and preventing Ukraine from economic default may be enough to win over voters in 2015. The end of the Euromaidan movement and increased economic stability will certainly help increase Yanukovych’s popularity heading into the 2015 elections.

Russia’s support was invaluable during Yanukovych’s 2010 election campaign; after signing the recent agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych can expect to get all the help he wants in 2015.

The opposition candidates may not receive similar help from the West. The European Union said last week that it was no longer considering sanctions against Ukrainian officials responsible for the brutal repression of protesters on Independence Square. The U.S. has also been unwilling to issue sanctions against Ukrainian leaders. Maybe there’s a lack of interest in Ukraine, or maybe they don’t want to stir up tensions with Russia. The reasons are unclear. What is clear, though, is that support from the West could be crucial. Western support of Victor Yushchenko’s candidacy during the Orange Revolution in 2004 was instrumental to his success. But considering the U.S. and EU response to the Euromaidan movement, it seems unlikely that they will support an opposition candidate with the same resources and fervor that Putin will support Yanukovych.

It’s also worth remembering that Yanukovych has been through this before. He played the villain in the Orange Revolution, and then managed to stagger to victory in the 2010 presidential campaign.

Despite the backlash from Black Thursday, the suffocation of democracy in Ukraine may actually increase Yanukovych’s chances for reelection in 2015. Although many in Kiev and Western Ukraine support the Euromaidan movement, Yanukovych’s popularity may rise if the violence continues without an outcome. As former Kremlin mouthpiece Gleb Pavlovsky has suggested, the disorder in Kiev and the decreasing support for opposition candidates may strengthen Yanukovych’s grip on power.

As Ukraine has become increasingly authoritarian, it has become clear that Yanukovych’s regime will do everything possible to remain in power. There is reason to believe that Yanukovych will snuff out every modicum of dissent in the coming months and prevent free and fair elections from being held in 2015.

So although the Euromaidan protests make Yanukovych’s popularity seem as though it is at a nadir, don’t count him out. Yet.