Most Western politicians in Viktor Yanukovych’s position would have long resigned. But the Ukrainian president has no such intention. A review of the past four years explains why.
"Do I look like somebody who is afraid of anything?" That was the answer President Yanukovych gave DW when asked whether his policy of rapprochement with Russia could split the Ukraine. The interview took place in August 2010.
Nearly four years later, Ukraine is on the verge of a true split. In the western part of the country, opposition protesters have essentially seized power and are now in control of public administrations and security forces. In the eastern and southern parts of the country, where most of the president's supporters are, calls for secession are growing louder.
The protest began at the end of November 2013, following a surprise decision by the Ukrainian government not to sign the negotiated association agreement with the European Union. Instead, President Yanukovych announced rapprochement with Russia.
Only one demand: resignation
The situation has escalated since then. Dozens of protesters have died in street riots in Kyiv. The demonstrators have only one demand: Yanukovych's resignation.
Western leaders would have long resigned under similar circumstances, claim Ukrainians in the social media. But the Ukrainian president has no such intention.
"Yanukovych cannot and will not give in," said Winfried Schneider-Deters, a publicist and Ukraine.
If the president were to lose power, "he could face trial and be sentenced to a number of years in prison," Schneider-Deters told DW.
A review of the past years of Yanukovych's presidency provides insight into why the president is acting the way he is and why prison is a possibility.
Since taking office in February 2010, the president has established an axis of power based on the Russian model. In Russia, Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, filled key offices with intelligence officials and friends.
In Ukraine, Yanukovych has done the same with people from Donetsk, his hometown in eastern Ukraine. Critics say the country, with its 45 million people, is governed by the so-called "Donetsk clan." Indeed, the president, the prime minister and the minister of the interior are all from Donetsk.
The coal-mining region in Donetsk-Becken has a special history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, organized crime flourished in Ukraine more than in any other former Soviet bloc country. And Donetsk was home to a particularly brutal gang war. Those who didn't do what they were told were killed.
The political rise of Viktor Yanukovych and many others in his government party took place against this background. The president knows the criminal world inside out. As a teenager, he was tried twice for robbery and brawls, and later spent time in prison.
That's why many protesters in Kyiv can be heard shouting "Seka het!" ("Get rid of the lag").
Schneider-Deters views this as another reason why Yanukovych won't step down. The president's character, he argues, has been shaped in a criminal milieu. "Compromise is a sign of weakness," he says.
At the very beginning of his presidency, Yanukovych extended the agreement with Russia to station its Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea for another 25 years. The opposition accused him of treason for the move, viewing the fleet as an instrument of power to be used by the Kremlin.
The list of possible charges against Yanukovych and his associates is long. The president is accused of amending the constitution in his favor and manipulating local and parliamentary elections. The Ukrainian justice has put numerous opposition figures, including former Prime Minster Yulia Tymoshenko, behind bars. Its methods have been criticized in the West as "selective justice."
The Ukrainian economy has never been as exploited as it has during Yanukovych's four years in office, critics charge. At the end of 2013, in fact, the government declared the country was on the verge of bankruptcy. Huge financial relief from Russia helped the president avoid this in the end.
"The current economic problems and especially raging corruption are the result of four years of mismanagement by his government," says Schneider-Deters.
The media and opposition politicians in Ukraine accuse the president of personally enriching himself and his family. The personal wealth of Yanukovych's son, Alexander, is estimated to be about US$190 million, according to Forbes magazine. Other sources put the number at $500 million.
Yanukovych has governed more ruthlessly than any other leader before him. Given the numerous deaths in the Kyiv street riots, the president and his family have good reason to "fear for their lives," the political scientist Andreas Umland told DW. He believes Yanukovych and his regime will stay in power "for only a few weeks longer, at best."
They laugh, joke and play with children: The heavily armed men in camouflage uniforms without badges are trying to come off not as bandits but as protectors in eastern Ukraine. And it appears to be working.
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