GeoPolitical Forecasts

Forecasts of international political events

Will Yanukovych exit the Ukrainian presidency before 10 May?

I see three ways Yanukovych could vacate the presidency before 10 May:
1) He could lose a snap election
2) The oligarchs (big business owners) could pressure him into resigning.
3) He could lose his support base in the south and east.

Yanukovych still retains enough power that there isn’t going to be an election before 10 May unless he agrees to it. If he did agree to a snap presidential election, he would probably lose. According to a recent survey, he would get roughly 30% of the vote in the first round of voting. That’s more than any of the candidates of the splintered opposition, but not enough to win. In the second round of voting, he would be facing only one opponent. The survey shows him losing by a large margin, regardless of who his opponent was. Against any of the major opposition figures, he would get 36%-46% of the vote, while the survey shows possible opponents getting 54%-64%. The survey was conducted between 24 Jan and 1 Feb, and the results released around 7 Feb.[1] Up until roughly 4 Feb, the president and members of his party were talking about holding early presidential elections, but on 3 Feb they started rejecting the idea[2], and after around 7 Feb I can’t find any news reports of the president or his party considering early elections. Within the last week, the EU has publicly called for early presidential elections,[3] but Yanukovych hasn’t responded.

After Yanukovych defeated Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential elections, his government brought criminal charges against her that are widely viewed as politically motivated.[4] Having established the principle that you imprison your opponent after defeating them in an election, and having resisted strong international pressure to release her, he’s not eager to lose an election himself, particularly when the biggest opposition party is still the party founded and lead by Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko herself is known to hold a grudge and to use the power of office to settle scores.[5]

A further reason for avoiding an election that would likely be won by the opposition is the fact that people who are likely to defeat him are in favor of joining the EU. In order to join, Ukraine would have to make its courts independent of the government. Croatia reformed its courts when it joined the EU, and one of the results of this is that the prime minister largely responsible for bringing Croatia into the EU was later convicted of corruption and sentenced to prison. In Ukraine, Yanukovych is thought to be afraid of being arrested if he vacates the presidency.[6]

The odds of the oligarchs pressuring Yanukovych into resigning are low. Yanukovych is still powerful and individuals who oppose him risk retaliation, even among the oligarchs. His family is corrupt and has made enemies by forcing the sale of businesses at below market prices, but the victims have been less wealthy than the oligarchs who command political power.[5] The victims are millionaires, not billionaires. In isolated cases, individual oligarchs have used the blocs of parliamentary delegates they control to oppose the government, but this happens when their business interests are threatened. In almost all cases, they use political power to support their businesses rather than to further ideological goals, and this usually means supporting the government.[5][7]

Yanukovych is a Russian speaker who didn’t learn to speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s. His political opponents occasionally made fun of the grammatical errors he made when he first started speaking Ukrainian. This makes him a sympathetic figure for many of his fellow Russian speakers. The protesters who want to remove him from power are politically diverse. What they all have in common is a desire for better, less corrupt government. This desire is shared by voters in the Russian speaking areas, but some of the more prominent groups among the protesters are right wing nationalists who use a lot of anti-Russian language. In terms of attracting voters, this is analogous to running for mayor in Boston by attacking the Irish. The anti-Russian component of the protest is repelling the voters who are Yanukovych’s support base and who might otherwise be inclined to support reform.[8][9]

And finally, there’s the problem of fatigue. The people who are spending their days at the barricades are not earning a living. The small and medium-sized businesses that are providing the protesters with food and supplies are providing them for free.[10] As the protests continue month after month, they become an increasing drain on the protesters’ resources. The longer Yanukovych can stave off political change, the more likely he is to survive. At the moment, he seems to be avoiding committing himself to any irrevocable choices and playing for time.

Some Russian analysts believe that many of the protesters are seasonal workers who will have to leave the protests in spring and summer in order to return to their jobs and earn a living.[11] I don’t know how true that is, but if Yanukovych believes that it is true, it would certainly encourage him to delay making any changes as long as possible.

Yanukovych will not resign or call snap elections that he is likely to lose because either will put him in a much worse position, both politically and personally. Most oligarchs prefer a Yanukovych presidency that generally supports their business interests to the risk and uncertainty of an opposition, most of whose leading figures are less oligarch-friendly. A large number of Ukrainians who claim Russian heritage are not going to support an opposition that prominently includes people they view as anti-Russian bigots. And eventually, the outrage over Yanukovych’s U-turn on the EU and his attempts to suppress the protests, as well as the excitement of the barricades, will wear off and the protesters will want to return to a more normal life. Yanukovych appears to have settled on a strategy of out-waiting his opponents.


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