Goodbye, Yanukovych

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In the end, Viktor Yanukovych simply cut and run, abandoning the presidency, his palatial Mezhyhyria palace and Ukraine.

He couldn’t be competent at anything, except greed, as the hordes of journalists spending the night at his former estate north of Kyiv are discovering. The journalists who are going through Yanukovych’s belongings there are dividing up into teams to go over recovered documents showing millions of dollars in various transactions. Divers are recovering papers that Yanukovych tried to burn and throw into the Kyiv Sea on the way out. He evidently left in a hurry overnight. He was reportedly stopped by the border service in Donetsk while trying to flee Ukraine in a chartered plane.

His ignominious departure triggered immediate flashbacks to the only time that I met Yanukovych face-to-face, when I spent an hour with him in his office.

The year was 1999. Yanukovych was the governor of Donetsk Oblast and Leonid Kuchma was running for re-election. I was observing the election there for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The conversation with Yanukovych wasn’t particularly memorable. He gave me more than an hour of his time, granting the interview after a front-page story appeared the day before in a local newspaper about my presence and the OSCE mission in Donetsk.

Yanukovych was polite, patient and informed about election preparations, but he looked down a lot across from the conference table, probably out of boredom.

The truly memorable part of that election, besides all the cheating, was my friendship with Dmitry Kornilov and the insight he gave me into Yanukovych and Donetsk.

Kornilov was a journalist with an independent newspaper that shut down during the election because its publisher knew that he would be expected to publish only pro-Kuchma articles. So Kornilov, a great student of politics and the Donbas, was available to work with me as a translator and guide. He amazed me as a person and with his vast knowledge. I also remember his private political opinion: “If Yanukovych ever got elected president, it would be the biggest disaster for Ukraine.” Kornilov, who tragically died too early in 2002 only in his 30s, was prophetic.

As president during Ukraine’s three-month-old crisis, Yanukovych vacillated between whether he would be a bloody dictator or a democratic leader. He did a little of both, but neither effectively.

Finally, his allies in parliament, law enforcement and security started seeing what millions, including Kornilov, had long before – that the emperor has no clothes. So, in his final days, they abandoned him, first in a trickle and then with a flood.

The Maidan – shorthand for the street public opinion that is now in charge of Ukraine – flatly rejected his latest attempt to hold onto power, even though the Feb. 21 deal had been blessed by politicians in America, the European Union and Ukraine. According to the plan, Yanukovych would get to time until a December 2014 election (only three months ahead of schedule). If that would have happened, he would have had more time to maneuver.

But he didn’t get that time. The Maidan spoke late on Feb. 21, giving Yanukovych until 10 a.m. on Feb. 22 to get out. And he did.

In the video Yanukovych released, Ukraine’s fourth president stood in front of a softly lit yellow curtain and spoke into a video camera, possibly in Kharkiv, the nation’s second largest city, or possibly not. The location was not clear from the video. A source at UBR television in Kyiv said that no journalists from the pro-government business channel conducted the interview. The video was simply sent to the station for release.

While Yanukovych talked about staying in Ukraine and not resigning as president, he didn’t sound very convincing. He whined about physical threats of violence against him and the people closest to him. He condemned lawlessness, an ironic condemnation considering that he did so much to create this lawlessness since he took power in 2010.

But the fear was in his eyes, as he probably had visions of Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, Libya’s Moammar Quadaffi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein dancing in his head. To give Yanukovych some credit, he did not kill his own people on the scale of Syria’s Assad or Uzbekistan’s Karimov. He also recognized a few political realities – Ukrainians wouldn’t tolerate censorship or restrictions on their free movement.

There are reports that his ministers also fled, but some of them didn’t make it across the border, such as Viktor Pshonka, the former general prosecutor; Oleksandr Klymenko, the former deputy prime minister; and Vitaliy Zakharchenko, the former interior minister.They were reportedly blocked at the border. This suggests some quick action by those now in power.

Let’s hope that, finally, every crime committed by the Yanukovych administration – and those in power before him – gets investigated and properly adjudicated. Let’s hope that oligarchs who gained assets illegally will finally face justice. Let’s hope, however, that the desire for bloodlust is gone.

There is no reason yet for declaring victory in Ukraine. The next people in power could be worse. But Ukrainians – not politicians or diplomats or oligarchs or even journalists – have shown that they know how to get rid of regimes that push them too far and whose greed is unrestrained.

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