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Ukraine's Yushchenko Prepares to Lead Democratic Change


For the first time in more than a decade, Ukrainians will begin the new year with a new president who promises democratic change for the nations 48 million people. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko swept the re-run presidential election this week according to full preliminary results, beating out his pro-Russia rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, outgoing President Leonid Kuchmas hand-picked successor. But the road ahead is full of challenges, as Mr. Yushchenko himself has said.

Massive vote fraud and a poisoning attempt have failed to rob opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko of his hard-fought victory as the apparent new president of Ukraine. That kind of single-minded toughness will serve him well in the job, where he will have to fend off powerful criminal clans as well as competing coalition partners.

In his first forward-looking interview this week with Ukraine's independent television, Mr. Yushchenko said he would focus on building an open and transparent Ukraine - free of corruption.

Mr. Yushchenko says rampant corruption is holding Ukraine back from achieving a stable economic and political future of which the people could be proud.

The apparent president-elect has already begun preparations to assume power, holding meetings with his top advisors and inviting tens-of-thousands of his supporters to join him for his inauguration. This, despite a two-pronged electoral appeal filed by rival Yanukovych with Ukraines Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court.

Mr. Yanukovych has vowed to lead a tough opposition in the event Mr. Yushchenko assumes the presidency a job that has been weakened in favor of the parliament, under new electoral and constitutional changes formed as part of a compromise with the government during the election stand-off.

Kiev-based independent political analyst Ivan Lozowy says the first thing Mr. Yushchenko must do, once he is sworn in, is focus on creating a team of honest, competent professionals.

"For close to 12 years, the former Communist party nomenclatura [power elite] has been grabbing up in the privatization process the nations wealth and also occupied positions of power on the national and local level," he said. "To change things, the people have to be changed. [The] people who broke the law, and government officials who helped falsify the elections over the last month and a half, have to be investigated and brought to justice."

But to date, Mr. Lozowy says he sees no sign that will happen. He also says he is worried by what he views as a general lack of preparation to assume power on the part of Yushchenko's camp.

Im a little worried by the fact that [Mr.] Yushchenko has been putting that off," he said. "He's going to be basically starting from ground zero. Theres no preparation, theres no shadow cabinet or database of officials and qualified people willing to assume government positions so its going to be a protracted process that's going to start, in [Mr.] Yushchenkos words, only after he becomes president."

Under Ukraine's election law, Mr. Lozowy says the newly-elected president cannot be sworn in until 30 days after the official publication of the election results.

If confirmed, he and other analysts believe one of the other first orders of business could be to revisit key privatization deals forged during President Kuchma's term. A likely target of such a review would be Krivorozstahl, one of the biggest steel manufacturers in central Ukraine.

Earlier this year, the company was sold - illegally in Mr. Yushchenko's words on the campaign trail - to President Kuchma's son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk and Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest oligarch from Donetsk.

Analyst Yulia Tishenko with Kiev's Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research says she thinks a re-do of privatization would be a big mistake.

Ms. Tishenko says it would be better for Mr. Yushchenko to stop speaking about the Krivorozstahl case publicly, in favor of clearing the way for some private negotiations. She says Mr. Yushchenko will have to find some way to make the eastern industrial clans go away quietly.

As Ms. Tishenko puts it, a public review of privatization in Ukraine - routinely listed as one of the most corrupt nations in the former Soviet Republic - would hurt rather than help Ukraine's international image as it seeks to join the western community of democratic nations and attract foreign investment.

Ms. Tishenko says it could also spark renewed threats by eastern leaders to declare referendums for self-rule, as a way of keeping their financial gains firmly in the east. But analyst Lozowy says he thinks concerns over the possible break-up of Ukraine are over-stated.

Mr. Lozowy characterizes Mr. Yushchenko as an intelligent, careful and moderate leader who, he says, will likely do a lot of things to heal the political rifts that emerged during the election. One of the principle tensions centers around Russia, Ukraine's largest neighbor and trading partner.

Many Ukrainians did not look kindly on what they viewed as Russia's interference in the election, after President Vladimir Putin twice traveled to Ukraine, just days before the crucial second-round run-off, to essentially endorse Mr. Yanukovych.

At the same time, President Putin was speaking out against so-called western influence in Ukraine's election in words so heated that some commentators said the tone was reminiscent of the exchanges between the United States and Russia during the Cold War.

Mr. Yushchenko says Russia's pro-government stance in Ukraine is a sore spot that will heal but not "for some time." Still, he has pledged to make his first foreign trip to Russia early in his term.

President Putin also appears to be back-tracking now that Mr. Yanukovych has apparently lost. Mr. Putin says bosses come and go but, for Russia, the Ukrainian people remain.

Mr. Putin said he knows Mr. Yushchenko and that Russia has worked well with him in the past, when he served as prime minister under outgoing President Kuchma. "I don't see any problems here," the Russian president said.

All the same, analysts Lozowy and Tishenko say Mr. Yushchenko will have to work long and hard to restore trust and support in the Russian-speaking eastern regions of Ukraine, home to the nations industrial wealth. Only then, they say, can he truly focus on his closely-held dream of leading Ukraine into the European Union and NATO.

Losing little time, he has already dispatched one of his key campaign aides, Yulia Timoshenko, to Donetsk for talks with leading politicians and businessmen. Mr. Yushchenko has said he will support the more radical Ms. Timoshenko as prime minister, if and when he is confirmed, if she does not prove to be too polarizing a figure for Ukraine.