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A Year of Yanukovich
Yanukovich Must Quickly Heal the Ukrainian Economy in Order to Maintain Popularity, but He Has to Do So Without Oil and Gas Reserves

Viktor YanukovichViktor Yanukovich will address Ukraine today in a "conversation with the country" to mark the one-year anniversary of his inauguration as president. The event seems to consciously mimic a similar tradition established by Vladimir Putin in Russia, where the prime minister answers questions in marathon sessions on national television once a year. But while some challenges facing the two politicians are similar, Yanukovich will have to find solutions unique to Ukraine.

While Yanukovich has lost ground in popularity ratings this year, he remains the strongest political figure in the country and much of that popularity is based on comparing the results of his presidency with that of his predecessor. Yanukovich's supporters wrote that as president he has brought Ukraine a degree of calm and responsible leadership after five difficult years. "Yanukovich inherited a country on its knees both economically and politically," wrote Oleksandr Feldman, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, in the Kiev Post last month. He believes that the new president has largely turned the situation around: "Stability has returned, the economy is on the up, and foreign policy is being carefully balanced."

- - Nonetheless, Yanukovich's personal approval ratings have dropped from close to 47 percent to 26 percent over the past nine months, reported the Ukrainian magazine Korrespondent on Thursday. The economy is probably a large part of this: Ukraine was dealt a strong blow by the international economic crisis in 2008, and has been struggling back toward pre-crisis levels for the past two years. Ukrainians are impatiently waiting for the economy to rebound, said Aleksei Tolpygo, an expert on politics at the Kiev Center of Political Studies and Conflictology, and Yanukovich's popularity will depend heavily on the economy's progress. "We've had some economic growth, but it is small enough that it hasn't reached the levels that we were at before the crisis, and it seems that even by 2012, it won't return to that level. This naturally is the cause of some dissatisfaction."

Yet Yanukovich has so far avoided the precipitous drop in popularity that his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, experienced over a similar period. The difference, argues Tolpygo, is that Yanukovich has not had to compete with the kinds of expectations that were put on his predecessor, who came into power on the wings of the revolution. "It's possible to say with complete certainty that there would have been a lot of dissatisfaction with Yushchenko, even if he'd turned out to be a much more talented politician than he was, because so much was expected of him. But from Yanukovich, I don't think that as much was expected, and so dissatisfaction with him is notably less as a result."

Public ire has built up over certain issues during the year, including the introduction of a new tax code which led to street protests last November. The reform would have significantly increased the burden on small business owners and favored the rich and super-rich of Ukraine. Yanukovich ultimately vetoed the tax law, sending it back to Ukraine's parliament the Verkhovna Rada to be amended. But passing some painful internal reforms is integral to the receipt of important loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union. On Wednesday the European Union announced that it would hold up more than 100 million euro, in support for the Ukrainian government until it amends a new public procurement law, Reuters reported. If the country must play by Europe's rules in order to gain access to important resources, there may be cases in the future where Yanukovich cannot defer to the crowd and will push through politically unpopular measures.

At the moment, though, Yanukovich has no political opposition that could challenge him in an upcoming election, and an Interfax poll published on Wednesday showed that Yanukovich's ratings are nearly double those of his nearest opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko, in what appears to be a selective application of law, has been caught up in a corruption probe that was reopened last year. Yet, if the case is being pushed through by the Yanukovich camp, it is a dangerous strategy. It has become clear that Tymoshenko has not been as effective as a politician as she was as a revolutionary. The possibility of making her a martyr, however, would put her in a position where she has proven herself to be effective and dangerous.

A View from Moscow

In Russian-Ukrainian relations, the most important moment this year for Yanukovich was the signing of the Kharkov agreements. The treaty extends Russia's lease on its naval base in Crimea to 2042, while in return Ukraine received a 30 percent discount on the greater part of its gas deliveries through the year 2019. The deal marked a change in direction from president Yushchenko's rocky relationship with Moscow. During his presidency, Russian gas deliveries to and through Ukraine were cut off multiple times due to pricing disputes. Yet Yanukovich's closer relations with Russia also led to one of the lows of his first year in power, when opposition politicians threw eggs and smoke bombs inside the Verkhovna Rada during the ratification of the treaty of the Black Sea port, which they viewed as a betrayal of Ukraine's territorial integrity.

At a video-conference between politicians and analysts in Moscow and Kiev to mark Yanukovich's first year as president, Russia's relationship with Ukraine and its gas infrastructure was a central topic and exposed marked differences in opinion as to how Russia can best work with its downstream neighbor. "We need to put politics to the side. I don't really relate to that," said Konstantin Simonov, the general director of the Fund for Energy Safety. "Our ultimate goal is to take politics out of decisions concerning energy security." Going on to speak about questions concerning the future integration of oil infrastructure between Russia and Ukraine, he said: "For me it is not so important who actually controls the pipelines through Ukraine, whether [the Ukrainian company] Naftogaz or [the Russian company] Gazprom, but what's most important is that integration takes place."

Considering past disputes, though, it may be difficult for many Ukrainians to completely believe in the gospel that energy politics can be completely divorced from a vast array of political issues between Russia and Ukraine. While analysts on the Ukrainian side said they are interested in putting Ukraine's interests first, and not declaring a preferential attitude toward either Russia or Europe, some on the Russian side declared that it was time to choose whether you are "with us or against us." While under Yanukovich the relationship has seemed fairly stable, said Sergei Markov, a deputy in the Russian State Duma, "as we've seen, Ukrainian politics can change very quickly. And we need guarantees against political blackmail in the future."

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