Man in the news: Viktor Yushchenko

By Stefan Wagstyl

Financial Times

Published: November 27 2004

There is something slightly awkward about Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian opposition leader. When he speaks to hundreds of thousands of supporters, he seems less comfortable than some of his deputies, especially the glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko and the dynamic Petro Poroshenko, owner of the main pro-Yushchenko television channel. Mr Yushchenko is no natural orator: he uses notes, makes clumsy pauses and touches his face constantly, as if reminded of the scars left by the poisoning he has blamed on Ukraine's "authorities".

But the crowds hang on his every word. His appearance reduces people to tears. They are crying not because of the damage done by the poison to his once-handsome face but because of the hope he has inspired. They are crying not for him but for themselves. "For me, Yushchenko means freedom and independence and a chance for us to rule our own country," said Liliana Kuzyutyna, a Kiev office-worker, as she stood in the crowds blockading public buildings in the city centre this week.

Mr Yushchenko is fighting for the country's presidency after disputed elections in which the authorities have declared Viktor Yanukovich, the government candidate, the official winner, with the support of the current president, the authoritarian Leonid Kuchma. On Friday, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, and other international mediators visited Kiev to appeal for a peaceful and democratic end to the crisis.

Mr Yushchenko's supporters say they are backing him because of his honesty. They want an end to Mr Kuchma's corrupt administration and have no faith in Mr Yanukovich, a man twice imprisoned for violent crimes in Soviet times. "Yushchenko is a good man. Yanukovich is a convict," said a bus driver from the central city of Cherkasy, who on Friday used his bus to block the cabinet office entrance. In a protest note, 400 of Ukraine's diplomats have said they want a president with "high moral authority".

For a long time, Mr Yushchenko refrained from attacking Mr Kuchma directly for fear of the possible consequences, including the risk to his life. But in this campaign he has condemned the Kuchma administration as a "bunch of bandits" and Mr Yanukovich as nothing more than "Kuchma III" - in other words, a successor to Mr Kuchma, who is ending his second term. The mysterious poisoning in September, which his doctors said nearly killed him, seems to have fired his determination.

It is all a long way from Mr Yushchenko's provincial origins. The son of teachers, he was born in 1954, in north-east Ukraine, near the Russian border, graduated as an economist and started his career in Soviet agricultural finance. After the Soviet Union's collapse, Mr Yushchenko emerged as a banker and in 1993 became head of the central bank. The bank was involved in a damaging row with the International Monetary Fund over the use of IMF loans to falsify the country's credit position and make secret, low-interest loans to politically favoured banks. He survived the ensuing scandal.

Mr Yushchenko's skills prompted Mr Kuchma to appoint him prime minister in December 1999 to help end a severe economic recession. His liberal reforms had rapid effects. But, as secret tape-recordings later showed, Mr Kuchma was envious of his popular prime minister and tried to undermine him - even though Mr Yushchenko at this time defended his boss against accusations of involvement in the death of Georgy Gongadze, the opposition journalist.

After 16 months, he was sacked when the oligarchs around Mr Kuchma decided Mr Yushchenko's liberalisation plans threatened their interests. Mr Yushchenko, who had by then established his credentials as a potential challenger to Mr Kuchma, came out into the open and formed the Our Ukraine opposition coalition which fared well in the 2002 parliamentary elections.

This summer, Mr Yushchenko finally launched his all-out offensive. Before Sunday's vote, he campaigned hard, despite the poisoning. This week, he has worked tirelessly to inspire the protests that have surprised the world. People who were scared to raise their voices for fear of the authorities have found the courage to shout "Yushchenko". Mr Yushchenko's team has also shown considerable organisational skills, learning from protest movements elsewhere in eastern Europe, including Poland's Solidarity movement, whose former leader Lech Walesa this week appeared in Kiev and backed the demonstrators.

Mr Yushchenko now faces two challenges. The first is to maintain the protest momentum while ensuring that his supporters are not tempted into violence. The second is to use all possible political and legal means to secure a transfer of power. His supporters are in no mood to settle for anything less than the complete defeat of the Kuchma regime.

But Mr Yushchenko must tread carefully. Unlike Mr Walesa, he does not lead a united country. Mr Yanukovich, who was officially credited with 49 per cent of the vote, won 42 per cent even on the basis of a western-funded exit poll. His supporters are heavily concentrated in Donetsk, Ukraine's industrial heartland, and elsewhere in the east, just as Mr Yushchenko is backed by the west and the centre. The danger of a regional divide is real, although the traditional cultural differences between eastern and western Ukraine are no longer as deep as they were.

Further complicating the picture are the interests of the rest of the world. The west broadly backs Mr Yushchenko and Russia openly supports Mr Yanukovich. Mr Yushchenko would face huge difficulties if he had to rule Ukraine in open conflict with Donetsk and Moscow. But that is to look too far ahead. First he has to win power in Kiev.