Ukraine viewpoint: Novelist Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych Viktor Yanukovych was elected in February 2010

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Ever since Viktor Yanukovych came to power as Ukrainian president almost a year ago, the big question has been whether he would bring the country back under Russian influence. Acclaimed Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov argues that he has been far more preoccupied with staying in power.

Ukraine's new year celebrations were cautious. In his televised speech to the nation, President Yanukovych announced that "the worst is behind us" but "there is still a lot of work to be done".

Precisely what work, he did not say, but the coming months will certainly be busy for the country's state prosecutors who have been told to draw up a list of illegal activities carried out by the government of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

A number of high-ranking officials have already been arrested, including a former interior minister who is also leader of the Narodnaya Samooborona (People's Self-Defence) party, while Ms Tymoshenko - the so-called Orange Princess - is called in for questioning seemingly every other day.

One of these interrogations lasted 11 hours, after which a spokesperson for the state prosecutor explained that Ms Tymoshenko had not wanted to leave.

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Novelist Andrey Kurkov

The blitzkrieg against Yulia Tymoshenko has failed. Now we are into a slow and boring war, the motivation for which resembles corporate revenge”

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The government insists that these legal actions are in no way a vendetta against the opposition, but such statements are for Western ears. Ordinary Ukrainians have their own opinion.

Yulia Tymoshenko is Mr Yanukovych's chief political opponent.

Unless her party is destroyed now, and unless she is prevented from standing at the next presidential elections, she will become Ukraine's next president.

This is the worst fear of those close to Mr Yanukovych, who represent only the eastern part of the country - the Donbass region.

Corrupt practices

As soon as Mr Yanukovych became president he vowed to uncover corrupt practices in Ms Tymoshenko's government and, to this end, spent taxpayers' money hiring an American accountancy firm to investigate the financial practices of her cabinet of ministers.

The Americans worked for several months and left in silence. There have been no announcements about the results of their investigation which indicates that they found nothing. The blitzkrieg against Yulia Tymoshenko has failed.

Now we are into a slow and boring war, the motivation for which resembles corporate revenge.

But Ms Tymoshenko is a very experienced fighter and politician. She was held in custody during Leonid Kuchma's presidency and, if she becomes the next president, corporate vengeance will continue and members of the present government will be sent to prison. Ms Tymoshenko has already said as much herself.

Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko arrives at the state prosecutor's office (22 Dec 2010) Yulia Tymoshenko has been charged with abuse of office

Mr Yanukovych behaves as if the battle with the opposition has nothing to do with him - after all there is a legal system which can find out who is right and who is guilty. However, even Ukrainian children know that the legal system is totally in the hands of the president, and almost totally corrupt.

It seems Mr Yanukovych is little worried by Western or local views about the situation in the country. He has made encouraging statements about how Ukraine is striving towards the European Union, about how Ukrainians will soon be able to travel to Schengen countries without a visa and about how democracy and free speech will continue to flourish in Ukraine.

But all the while, the president and those around him are clearly moulding a Russian form of government and, if possible, they would like to reform the country into a "controlled democracy" as in neighbouring Russia. While a real opposition exists in the country, this is going to be very difficult.

In Moscow, only 150 people turned out for the last anti-government march - and were immediately arrested - while in Kiev tens of thousands demonstrated against Ukraine's new tax legislation.

Cruelly parodied

However, I would not call Mr Yanukovych a "pro-Russian" president. At the outset, he regularly met Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, while fitting in visits to Brussels as well.

He had promised the electorate that Russia would reduce Ukrainian gas prices. Evidently, he was counting on that when he signed an agreement allowing the Russian Black Sea fleet a 25-year extension on their use of a base in the Ukrainian city of Sebastopol.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (Kiev 26 Oct 2010) Mr Yanukovych welcomed the Russian prime minister to Kiev in October last year

But the miracle did not happen. Gas prices did not fall. Then Ukraine did not recognise the independence of Abkhazia as it had promised Mr Putin it would. As a result, Mr Yanukovych has been cruelly parodied on Russian state TV.

Mr Putin unexpectedly cut short his last visit to Kiev, going off home in a huff, having cancelled a lunch with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.

The Russian prime minister recently made his anti-Ukrainian sentiments even clearer when he announced that Russia would have won World War II even without the participation of Ukrainian soldiers. The new Ukrainian government pretended not to have heard this announcement, just as it had ignored the Yanukovych TV parody.

'Anti-Ukrainian'

The geopolitical position of Ukraine's government is slightly reminiscent of Belarus: siding neither with Russia, nor with the West - the important thing is to stay in power. It would not be worth taking this comparison further.

Ukraine remains relatively democratic, partly because of the two very distinct parts which make up the country: the eastern, more Soviet part and the western, more European part which was joined to the USSR for only 45 years.

Ukraine has never had a president from the western part of the country. It is there, in Galicia, that the right-wing nationalist parties find support and the Party of the Regions and its president are considered "anti-Ukrainian" occupying powers because of their contact with Moscow and because of their promise to make Russian the second state language.

So, logically, future opposition will come from there, from Galicia. In an attempt to reduce the vote for Yulia Tymoshenko, Mr Yanukovych's Party of the Regions actually gave unofficial support to the radical nationalist Svoboda party in last autumn's local elections.

The ploy worked and local councils across Galicia are now controlled by the right-wing party.

However, it is hard to foresee the future of such parties in Ukraine, when the cost of living is rocketing and Mr Yanukovych is losing support even in his own regions. The country itself was saved from defaulting only by yet another tranche of funding from the IMF.

The failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution robbed the average westward-looking Ukrainian of any enthusiasm for politics. In the east of the country Viktor Yanukovych has failed to inspire active support for his regime.

The main question is whether economic hardship will further dampen Ukrainians' interest in politics or spark popular protests. The latter is more likely.

Andrey Kurkov is a Ukrainian writer, best known for the satirical 2001 novel Death and the Penguin.

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