Yanukovych: The man who sparks revolution in Ukraine

AFP
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signs an agreement in Kiev on February 21, 2014 to end the country's worst crisis since independence
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Kiev (AFP) - He was once pushed out by the power of protest, and his famed political survival skills are again being put to the test by furious Ukrainians on the street.

Within three months, Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych has flip-flopped between the European Union and Russia, losing his legitimacy with a large chunk of the population that has risen up against him -- in an eerily familiar repeat of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Then this week, he became a member of that club of leaders who have brutally repressed challengers to their rule, after dozens of protesters battling his regime died in clashes with security forces in Kiev.

"Once you cross the rubicon of unleashing massive violence, you're in a totally different category," said Matthew Rojansky, director of the US-based Kennan Institute, which specialises in Russia and post-Soviet states.

For now though, Yanukovych is clinging to power, and on Friday he signed a deal to end the crisis with envoys from the European Union -- the very entity he spurned in November in favour of closer ties with Russia, sparking the mass protests against his rule.

And while the deal incorporates the main demands of the country's opposition, protesters on the streets seem bent on one thing only -- getting rid of a president they now associate with killing his own people.

- Echoes of 2004 -

This is not the first time that Yanukovych has triggered mass revolt.

In 2004, the pro-democracy Orange Revolution uprising sprung up when he claimed to have won elections that were rigged, and eventually prompted a re-run that saw his Western-backed opponent win.

"He will go down in history as the president of Ukraine who twice was sacked by the Maidan," Vadym Karasev, head of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev, told AFP.

Maidan first and foremost refers to Independence Square in central Kiev, where protesters trying to oust Yanukovych have camped out since November and where most of the deadly violence took place this week.

Yet the word now also embodies the essence of Ukrainians' thirst for Western lifestyles, being also the gathering place for Orange Revolution protesters.

Ukraine's wily leader has made a number of spectacular comebacks, defeating Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko in a poll in 2010 and then seeing her sentenced to seven years in prison.

Analysts say the 63-year-old is unlikely to stay in power for long this time around.

They say he will either have to step down in a negotiated resignation or he will lose early presidential elections -- which he agreed to hold by December in the deal signed Friday.

But the focus now moves on to what type of deal he will be able to negotiate for himself and his family, Rojansky said.

"When you leave power in Ukraine, you lose everything," he said, pointing out that former prime minister Tymoshenko had once been an adored revolutionary leader and was now languishing in jail, despite a vote on Friday by the country's parliament that could see her freed.

- Political streetfighter -

Formed as a politician in the rough-and-tough surroundings of his heavily industrial native Donetsk region, the burly Yanukovych is no stranger to the art of political survival and re-invention.

He prides himself as a political streetfighter who can claw his way out of any corner in life and in politics.

"He is a survivor, he's clever in a street sense. He knows how to be tough and ruthless," said Rojansky.

He has been dogged by allegations of an excessive penchant for luxury at a time of economic trouble, with critical journalists focusing on his personal riverside residence of Mezhygirya outside Kiev.

In recent years a so-called "family" of influential officials and relatives has also grown around him, including Yanukovych’s increasingly affluent businessman son Olexander.

Equally important is a group of billionaire oligarchs who are believed to have a huge say in decision-making, including the owner of the Shakhtar Donetsk football club Rinat Akhmetov and energy tycoon Dmytro Firtash.

Orphaned just two years into his life, Yanukovych has related how he ran around the streets barefooted and was brought up in abject poverty by his grandmother.

He fell in with a local street gang in the late 1960s under the Soviet Union and was convicted of robbery in 1967 and assault in 1970. Yanukovych served jail terms on both occasions but his record was much later mysteriously cleared.

He then worked for two decades as a transport manager in Donetsk before moving into politics in the late 1990s. Then, Yanukovych became the region's governor in 1997 and rose to become prime minister under president Leonid Kuchma in 2002.

Analysts say many of Yanukovych's decisions over the years have been triggered by his personal future, rather than concerns over Ukraine's direction.

"Many believe Mr. Yanukovych does not give priority to what is good for his country but focuses on his own political power and family wealth," Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, wrote in December.

"They may very well be right. But even then, his ability to pursue his personal goals will suffer as he mires his country between Europe and Russia," he said of the current crisis.

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