Who is Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president Putin reportedly wants to put back in power?
Russian president Vladimir Putin is preparing to place former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych back in power if his forces succeed in taking Kyiv and removing the country’s current democratically elected leadership, a Ukrainian news site has reported.
Ukrayinska Pravda, an independent online publication, cited a Ukrainian intelligence official as saying that Yanukovych, who has been living in exile in Russia since fleeing Ukraine in 2014, is currently in Belarus, waiting for Russian troops to take Kyiv and Putin to declare him the country’s new president.
Who is Viktor Yanukovych?
The 72-year-old Yanukovych was Ukraine’s president from 2010 until he was ousted in February 2014 following widespread protests over his decision to reject the country’s agreement to align itself more closely with the European Union, with an eye toward future membership in the bloc, and instead pursue a Russian financial bailout package and tighter ties to Moscow.
Many Ukrainians and many international civil society groups had also criticized Yanukovych for running a corrupt administration, including charges that he embezzled funds from the government. (Yanukovych has denied he misappropriated government money.) He favored a small cabal of wealthy Ukrainian business tycoons, including his own son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, and members of his extended family. He also amassed a large personal fortune.
Despite having worked for most of his life as a mid-level business executive and then as a civil servant and politician, Yanukovych lived an extravagant lifestyle. His lavish estate on the outskirts of Kyiv, called Mezhyhirya, featured a giant wooden mansion with a pure copper roof, a private zoo, an underground shooting range, tennis courts, a bowling alley, and an 18-hole golf course.
Donbas origins and political rise
Born to a poor family in Donetsk Oblast, in the heavily Russian-speaking region of Donbas, Yanukovych was a trucking and transportation company manager before being appointed vice head and then head of the Donetsk Oblast regional government in 1996 and 1997.
Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma appointed Yanukovych the country’s prime minister in 2002 and his appointment was confirmed by the country’s legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, by a slim majority. He was viewed as pro-Russian, although he publicly stated that he supported Ukraine eventually joining the EU. His cabinet also agreed to send Ukrainian soldiers to support the U.S.-led coalition in the 2003 Iraq War, although it had come out against Ukraine seeking NATO membership.
In 2003, Yanukovych ran for president, drawing much of his support from the southern and eastern areas of Ukraine, which were traditionally seen as more pro-Russian. In the first round of voting in late October, no candidates passed the 50% threshold to be elected, so a runoff election was held a month later. In that vote, Yanukovych was declared the winner, but the election was marred by widespread allegations of fraud made by both Ukrainian civil society groups and international election monitors.
This resulted in two months of sustained protests, civil disobedience, and general strikes, a period that became known as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. (The protesters had adopted the orange election campaign colors associated with Yanukovych’s opponent, Viktor Yuschenko.) The Ukrainian Supreme Court declared the election void and ordered a re-vote for late December 2004, in which Yuschenko was declared the winner.
Immediately after Yuschenko’s victory, Ukraine’s parliament passed a nonbinding no-confidence motion against Yanukovych’s government and urged the outgoing president, Kuchma, to appoint a caretaker government. Instead, Yanukovych resigned, saying later that he did so to avoid any political violence.
Following his resignation, Yanukovych led the main parliamentary opposition party against the coalition government headed by then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. At the same time, Yunokovych’s political party, called the Party of Regions, moved explicitly closer to Russia, signing a formal collaboration agreement with the Russian political party United Russia.
Second presidential campaign
In 2009, Yanukovych ran for the Ukrainian presidency again, ultimately defeating Tymoshenko, the other main candidate, in a February 2010 runoff. Initially, Yanukovych said Ukraine’s integration with the EU was the country’s “strategic aim,” but he continued to say that Ukraine should not join NATO and that the country should seek a neutral position between NATO and Russia.
In 2010, Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would give up its stocks of highly enriched uranium and convert its nuclear research reactors, which it had inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to run only on low-enriched uranium fuel. Both moves were hailed internationally as positive steps in nuclear nonproliferation.
At the same time, Yanukovych agreed to extend Russia’s lease on its naval bases in the Crimea, which were due to expire in 2017, for an additional 25 years with a further five-year renewal option. In exchange, Ukraine was given a discount on purchases of Russian natural gas.
While president, Yanukovych was widely condemned for the prosecution of his rival Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 on corruption charges, widely seen as politically motivated, related to a gas deal Ukraine signed with Russia when she was prime minister. Yanukovych subsequently refused to pardon her or release her on compassionate grounds to have medical treatment in Germany after she suffered from debilitating back pain while in prison. (She was eventually released in 2014 following Yanukovych’s ouster.)
Tension with Russia
In November 2013, Yanukovych was due to travel to Vilinius, Lithuania, for a summit with the EU where he was widely expected to sign an agreement that would have set out a framework for Ukraine’s relationship with the European bloc, including preferential terms of trade. The agreement would have set Ukraine on a clear path for eventual EU membership.
But the agreement and Ukraine’s move closer to Europe angered Putin, who engaged in a campaign of economic pressure against Ukraine: cutting off energy supplies to the country and blocking almost all imports from Ukraine. This resulted in a 25% reduction in Ukrainian exports and pushed the country’s economy into recession. The Kremlin publicly threatened to drive Ukraine into default on its sovereign debt if it went ahead with the EU trade deal.
On Nov. 21, Yanukovych succumbed to this pressure and suddenly reversed course, saying he would not sign the EU alignment agreement, although he still favored eventual Ukrainian membership in the EU. Instead, he would accept a package of Russian financial assistance to meet the country’s debt obligations.
His decision sparked a series of protests, initially centered on Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan, that became known as the Euromaidan protests. Demonstrators camped out in the square and refused to leave unless Yanukovych signed the EU agreement, released jailed protesters, liberalized Ukraine’s constitution, and resigned from office. Police attacked the demonstrators, a move that touched off further protests throughout Western Ukraine. Violence escalated after Jan. 16, 2014, when Yanukovych signed into law a draconian series of restrictions of freedom of speech and assembly. Demonstrators occupied provincial administration buildings throughout Ukraine. Lawmaker repealed some of the measures, but the protests continued to grow.
By mid-February, the increasingly violent clashes had claimed the lives of at least 28 demonstrators, seven police officers, and a civilian bystander, and injured hundreds of others. On Feb. 21, Yanukovych claimed to have reached an agreement with the opposition, but he then departed Kyiv. He later said his car had been shot at as he left. He eventually traveled to Crimea and then fled to Russia, allegedly with Russian help.
The next day, the Ukrainian parliament voted to formally remove him from office. Months later, the body issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of being responsible for “the mass killing of civilians.” In January 2019, a Ukrainian court would eventually sentence him in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason. He later thanked Putin for “saving his life.”
Since going into exile, Yanukovych has given interviews in which he has said he remained “the legitimate head of the Ukrainian state elected in a free vote by Ukrainian citizens.”
Now it appears that Putin may intend to put him back into power.
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