Where did Ukraine’s Yushchenko go wrong?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report EU-Ukraine Relations.

Five years ago, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko was swept to power as the father of the pro-Western 'Orange Revolution' but is now facing defeat as he bids to win a second term in presidential elections due next Sunday. Reuters' Richard Balmforth asks where it all went wrong.

The following is a reproduction of an analysis produced by Richard Balmforth for Reuters on 11 January.

"So where did Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko go wrong? 

Five years ago, as the father of the pro-Western 'Orange Revolution', he was swept into the presidency on a tide of mass protest over electoral fraud. 

Now, barring a major upset, the 55-year-old former central bank chief is staring at defeat when he bids for re-election in a poll next Sunday, surveys show. 

He risks becoming a historical footnote as the adversary whom he humiliated in 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, appears set for a comeback. 

Tens of thousands turned out in the winter of 2004-5 to back Yushchenko, his face disfigured by a mysterious poisoning from dioxin, against a sleazy post-Soviet establishment. 

But the story of Yushchenko's reign, analysts say, is that of a man who, once in power, hopelessly lost touch with the faithful who put him there. 

He declared he would root out the corruption that plagued Ukrainian business and official life. Instead, though he himself is seen as a clean pair of hands, bribery and cronyism have only ballooned in his five years in office. 

Many criticise him for throwing himself obsessively into restoring Ukrainian national identity, and righting, as he sees it, the wrongs of history that deprived Ukraine of statehood in the 20th century. 

He once said he would be ready to take a "second dose of dioxin" to defend the memory of lost generations of Ukrainians. 

But his aggressive drive to project Ukrainian language and culture, by tearing down Soviet-era monuments, have unnerved millions of ethnic Russians in his diverse country. 

And these efforts have often been undertaken at the expense of rebuilding an economy and making the ex-Soviet state of 46 million people fit to join Europe's mainstream. 

Exports in key industrial sectors such as steel have fallen sharply, banks have collapsed. Ukraine's financial welfare is reliant on a $16.4 billion lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. The health service is a shambles. 

Lonely figure

His inability to forge a balanced foreign policy between East and West for his country, which sits at the hub of Central Europe, has left him looking a lonely figure. 

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, denouncing him as anti-Russian because of his pursuit of NATO membership and his aggressive moves to expunge the Soviet past, will no longer do business with him. 

Equally the United States, his patron in the "Orange revolution", has left him high and dry, possibly unimpressed by his lack of strong leadership at home. 

For good reasons or bad, he broke early on with Yulia Tymoshenko, twice his prime minister but his main ally on the streets in the heady days of 2004. 

He has often been on the wrong side of the argument in clashes with the PR-savvy Tymoshenko, now one of his main challengers for the presidency. 

"When he tried to fight tough (with Tymoshenko), he often came off worse," British historian Andrew Wilson, author of "Ukraine's Orange Revolution", told Reuters in an interview. 

Insiders say he is not a sound judge of people and he has changed his team of advisers four times in five years. There is also a record of poor time-keeping and bad administration. 

He has, overall, seemed to be focussing on the wrong priorities as Ukraine has slid into economic hardship. His powers for handling these problems only diminished with constitutional reform to which he had unwisely signed up. 

The result has been political paralysis with the presidency, the prime minister's office and a fractious parliament hopelessly out of tune with one another. 

He has failed to broaden his appeal beyond his western Ukraine power base and reach into highly-populated, Russian-speaking areas, the bedrock of Yanukovich's support. 

"Yushchenko has never had a strategy for reaching out to the south and the east of Ukraine after the division that emerged in 2004," said Wilson. 

Others say that despite his political naivety he must be given credit for establishing the beginnings of a bottom-up democratic culture in his ex-Soviet country. 

The Ukrainian media is the freest in the ex-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States. The freedom of speech and assembly enjoyed in Ukraine is the envy of human rights activists in Russia. 

Political analyst Sergei Rudenko, writing in the journal Tyzhden, saw Yushchenko as a "hostage of circumstance", a president-by-accident. 

"In Yushchenko's opinion, the nobleness of his historic mission will be judged only by future generations and the electorate do not fully understand the logic of his action. 

"One can agree with the president only that he probably turned out to be in the wrong place at the wrong time." 

Subscribe to our newsletters