KYIV — A deputy director of the Ukrainian equivalent of the CBC says she is surprised at how quickly President Victor Yanukovych is proving to be the leader that former president Victor Yushchenko was not. And she’s not alone.
Talk turned to Yanukovych as Mischerska Zhanna Valeriivna and I watched the crescendo of his incredible political comeback on a tiny Sony television at her office in the rabbit's warren that is the National Radio Company of Ukraine on Khreschatyk Street in Kyiv.
It was 11:17 on the morning of March 11. Yanukovych, who was disgraced and driven from the presidency after getting caught rigging the 2004 election, stood in the parliament to nominate ally and fiscal conservative Mykola Azarov as prime minister, and thus cement his hold on power for the foreseeable future.
It was the last piece in the puzzle that started to take shape in February when Yanukovych first humiliated Yushchenko in the first round of the election, and then narrowly defeated Yushchenko's one-time Orange Revolution comrade Yulia Tymoshenko in a certified fair fight, had her stripped of her quarrelsome prime ministership, manipulated the rules governing coalitions to create a majority government, and then shunned calls for a compromise PM to placate critics.
The moves outraged many, but not the international political or financial communities, which have signalled that a stable and focused government would be a good thing after five years of chaos under Yushchenko.
The International Monetary Fund, which last November suspended a $16.4-billion loan to Ukraine, is signalling that all might be well again and it will come calling next week. The Ukrainian stock market has rebounded to its highest level in almost two years, and the value of the hryvnia has ticked up after falling about 40 per cent against the U.S. dollar.
Valeriivna is old enough to remember the bad-old Soviet days prior to the Ukraine's first free election 20 years ago this month. She remembers, too, the roller-coaster ride of the last 20 years, the elation of Ukraine's declaration of independence in 1991, the protests and disappointments of the nine-year reign of Leonid Kuchma, the euphoria five years ago when the Orange Revolution put an end to election fraud and promised to end corruption and begin delivering greater prosperity only to be torn apart by internecine war and begin its long slide into irrelevance.
Now here she was, coming to grips with Yanukovych and passing favourable judgment.
Not on what was transpiring on television so much, but by how quickly Yanukovych had dispelled fears that he was a stooge of Moscow by rebuffing Vladimir Putin's call for an economic union, saying it was impossible given that Ukraine was a member of the IMF -- while Russia and its erstwhile partners were not, and then by signalling Ukraine would seek loans on a multilateral basis (IMF) and not a bilateral basis (Russia).
The rebuff was not the kind of populist but ineffectual nose-thumbing that Yushchenko had directed towards Moscow, she said.
"That was a big play, a real play," she said.
"It prevented the first step to integration with Russia," she said, but it "was not offensive to good relations with our neighbour.
"I see the signs of a big player in Yanukovych," she continued. "It is a surprise to me."
And perhaps to a lot of Ukrainians.
Or at least to a lot of Ukrainians who think Yanukovych is the "bandit" that Yushchenko labeled him, and to the Ukrainian diaspora, which largely hails from "Western" west Ukraine and fears that a Russian-speaking president also must be a Russian-leaning president.
But not a surprise to most Ukrainians, as a recent survey found. The survey, shared with me by a member of the Orange-Revolution inspired PORA party that leads the city council coalition in Lviv, the heart of "western" Ukraine, found only 20 per cent of Ukrainians think Yanukovych will be Putin's puppet, while 60 per cent believe he will not lead Ukraine back into the Russian fold.
The remainder either were unsure or had no opinion, Andryi Bilous said.
"For now, people think they should trust him," he said.
In fact, why would Yanukovych compromise Ukraine's independence? Bilous asked. Why would be abandon an opportunity to be a great president to become a Kremlin lackey? His political mentor, Kuchma, didn't "and he had nine years of total power in which to do it."
As the February election confirmed, Ukraine is deeply divided between east and west, between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers.
Many blame the antipathy on electoral politics in which politicians appeal to the western region -- most notably Yushchenko and Tymoshenko -- by demonizing the east, and their rivals -- most notably Yanukovych and Kuchma -- demonize the west.
"I am a Ukrainian, not a separatist," a Lviv entrepreneur told me. "It is the politicians who encourage separatism."
And perhaps after five years of Yushchenko's Russian baiting tactics and the fact that the country declared Ukrainian the only official language as a sort of revenge on Soviet intolerance at the expense of the Russian-speaking east, it might well be that Yanukovych's Party of Regions is the right fit at this time.
Olena Ednearenko, a PR MP from Yanukovych's home, Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, said that far from being a hard-line conservative party, PR espouses "liberal" ideas such as tax holidays for small business as a means of creating local jobs. She said such a policy was paying dividends in eastern Ukraine until Tymoshenko cancelled it to free up money for social spending.
The cancellation created legitimate bitterness in eastern Ukraine, where 600,000 jobs were lost a decade earlier but where it was not so easy to skip over the border into friendly Poland to find work.
She said eastern Ukrainians prided themselves on the fact that they stayed and created jobs.
"In the east, we do not have the tradition of going away to earn money," she said.
She said it is a "simplistic" and "wrong idea" to believe eastern Ukrainians are Russian lackeys simply because they live close to the border and speak Russian.
"For economic reasons, you can't find more nationalistic Ukrainians than in the east," she said. "It is the eastern region that, (by protecting its economic interests) has been safeguarding and shielding Ukraine from Russian investors."
She said the Yushchenko government had its priorities backwards, promising enhanced social programs before creating an economy to support them.
This is a view shared by many, including Yuriy Skolotanyy, chief economics writer for the respected Kiev newspaper, the Weekly Observer.
Skolotanyy said the paternalism of Yushchenko's policies, in fact, caused widespread public backsliding into the Soviet view that the state provides, not the individual, with the result that total national debt doubled to about $40 billion last year in the wake of the economic crisis.
The federal deficit was about $10 billion, one third of the budget, he said.
But economic issues aside, Ednearenko said that eastern Ukrainians are most offended that the country declared Ukrainian its sole official language.
"In the rush for historical revenge for the suffering they (Ukrainian speakers) experienced when the Russian language was imposed on them (in Soviet times) they have used the same Bolshevik tactics to impose one language. And in the rush they forgot it is our right to speak Russian.
"We are not immigrants in this country. We live here, we were born here, have our children here, pay our taxes here. In the revenge on the Russians, it was forgotten that the policy was not against Russians, but against Ukrainians that speak Russian."
And then, in conclusion, she said something that should sound familiar to Canadians.
"To make sure the country remains united, we must have equal language rights in the cinema, in education, in the courts, in documents and on radio and TV.
"This is the beginning of our democracy."
Meanwhile, back at Valeriivna's office, the public broadcaster said she never thought the leadership of the Orange Revolution amounted to much, but she was inspired to see that Ukrainians by the millions joined the revolution and demonstrated that their democracy cannot be taken from then by fraud.
That, she said, is now the greatest bulwark against the loss of independence. And, she said, that for all his many failings, Ukrainians should be thankful that Yushchenko's legacy will be respect for free speech.
As I left the building, I was stopped by a crowd of protesters demanding through a bullhorn that the national broadcaster dispel rumours that local Kiev programming critical of the Kiev mayor would not be cut back. A spokesman for the broadcaster, also armed with a bullhorn, roared back that no such cuts were planned and that local shows would go on as usual.
"That's how it is now," my interpreter explained. "When people have a complaint they make it known and the authorities listen and respond."