A man takes photos of a "Wanted" notice, of fugitive Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, plastered on the window of a car used as barricade near Kiev's Independent Square February 24, 2014
A man takes photos of a "Wanted" notice, of fugitive Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, plastered on the window of a car used as barricade near Kiev's Independent Square February 24, 2014
KYIV - Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych threat this week to return soon to Kyiv was greeted in the Ukrainian capital with ridicule.

Not only anti-Yanukovych protesters who remain camped in Kyiv’s Independence but also the country’s senior military figures say Yanukovych is now a political irrelevance and dismissed the claim he made at a press conference in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don that he remains “not only the legal president, but the chief commander” of Ukraine.

“Yanukovych is not the president,” says Gen. Mykola Malomuzh, who headed the country’s external intelligence service until 2010 and is advising Ukraine’s interim government. “He is not in a position now to recognize or not the decisions of the Ukrainian nation.”

Malomuzh says if Yanukovych ever returned, he should be bundled before a court on charges of crimes for humanity for ordering the killing in January and February of protesters against his rule. More than a thousand were injured and up to a hundred were killed in the Maidan uprising, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Health.

The former intelligence chief accused Yanukovych of being “a puppet of the Russian federation.” And he rejected claims by the ousted president that a “gang of ultra-nationalists and fascists” engineered the Maidan revolution. “People wanted broad change,” says Malomuzh.

May election opens new fissures

Exactly how that change develops may be clearer come May 25 when Ukraine’s interim government plans to hold an election for a replacement for Yanukovych.

There are already signs of increasing tensions between the Maidan protesters and the interim government, which consists of old guard figures as well as radicals from the left and right and independents. The protesters want mass sackings of judges and police chiefs and the introduction of a lustration law that would block officials from the Yanukovych era from holding public office or securing government jobs, say their leaders.

The pace of reform could impact the outcome of the elections, according to Sergey Poyarkov, one of the Maidan leaders. “We will judge politicians on whether they are saving the country and not on their slogans,” the 48-year-old artist-turned revolutionary says.

Most media attention has focused on three established politicians as the major contenders: lawmaker and former World heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who heads an upstart party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform; the confectionary billionaire Petro Poroshenko, a business oligarch nicknamed the “chocolate king” who backed the Maidan uprising from the start; and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from jail by Yanukovych at the tail-end of the uprising.

In January, opinions polls suggested Klitschko would have beaten Yanukovych in an election but surveys now suggest he is lagging behind Poroshenko, who is serving as an interim trade minister and is an independent lawmaker.

According to a poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology from February 28 to March 3 for a commercial client, Poroshenko was favored by 20 percent of the survey’s respondents while Klitschko trailed with 12 percent support just ahead of Tymoshenko’s nine percent.

Tymoshenko’s Russian ties an issue

Tymoshenko’s poor showing in the poll doesn’t surprise some commentators. For many of the young she is seen as a throwback and corruption allegations have dogged her, although the graft charges she was jailed on by the Yanukovych administration appear to most Ukrainians as politically motivated.

More damaging for her may be that Russia’s Vladimir Putin has hinted publicly that he favors her, noting that they had had a productive relationship when she was prime minister. Russian political analyst Yevgeny Kiselyov suspects Putin hopes that by endorsing her Tymoshenko might be able to win the support of the pro-Russian voters who previously stood behind Yanukovych.

Writing in the Moscow Times, Kiselyov argued that Tymoshenko shouldn’t be counted. “Considering that Tymoshenko's electorate traditionally includes elderly rural voters whom pollsters rarely survey, she stands a chance of once again outperforming predictions by at least 5 percent. However, Poroshenko and Klitschko hold an unexpectedly large lead over her, and it would come as no surprise if the two of them battled it out for the presidency in the second round of voting.”

Some lawmakers in her own Fatherland party say privately they would prefer Tymoshenko didn’t stand and hope she will use as an excuse her ill-health to bow out – she is currently in Berlin receiving treatment for three slipped discs, sustained during her imprisonment. “We will have to see if she stands,” says Lesya Orobets, a rights campaigner and lawmaker. Despite being a Fatherland member she remains undecided whom to support in the race. 

The Maidan’s Poyarkov says Tymoshenko shouldn’t stand. He doesn’t believe she will fare well in the race. But he also argues that Maidan has so upset established politics in the country that new leaders could emerge.

He warns: “The established politicians are thinking more about the elections than the country. They are focused on pushing their own careers. You shouldn’t think first about your career; you should think about the country because if you don’t, you won’t have a career. Pretty soon someone different can appear.”

One of the Maidan leaders, Olga Bogomolets, a medical doctor who was nicknamed during the protests the “white angel”, is considering running for the presidency. And Dmitry Yarosh, the fiery leader of shadowy far right group the Right Sector, declared last week he would run. No one is suggesting either can win the contest but they could shake things up.