Ukraine's Embattled Leadership: A Look At Its Roots To better understand the protests in Kiev, NPR's Arun Rath explores the background of beleaguered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with Taras Kuzio, a longtime Ukraine researcher and political observer.

Ukraine's Embattled Leadership: A Look At Its Roots

Ukraine's Embattled Leadership: A Look At Its Roots

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To better understand the protests in Kiev, NPR's Arun Rath explores the background of beleaguered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with Taras Kuzio, a longtime Ukraine researcher and political observer.


To understand how Ukraine got here, I talked yesterday to Taras Kuzio. He's a researcher and an expert on Ukrainian politics. He puts the blame squarely on Viktor Yanukovych, pointing to events last November.

TARAS KUZIO: After seven years of negotiations with the European Union on both sides of the political fence in Ukraine, President Yanukovych turned his back on the European Union in favor of a deal that helped him personally, not the country.

RATH: The deal with the EU would likely have bolstered the struggling Ukrainian economy. Some economists predicted GDP growth of up to 12 percent. But instead, Yanukovych bowed to pressure from Russia and rejected the EU bill. The irony, Kuzio says, is that Yanukovych thought that would be a safer political move. But that's when the protests began.

In January, Kuzio says, the situation escalated. Yanukovych supporters in the Ukranian parliament passed a set of bills aimed at bringing those protests to an end. They made things like setting up tents, using a sound system, organizing protests - all illegal. Protesters called it Black Thursday. Kuzio says it was the last straw.

KUZIO: Underlying all of this as well has been four years of just rampant corruption and abuse of office.

RATH: Billions of dollars have disappeared from Ukraine's government each year.

KUZIO: This has a tremendous impact on economic performance and growth. It's a disincentive for foreign investors because there's just no rule of law. I mean, a contract can be broken at a whim and you can be corporate raided.

RATH: Corruption in Ukraine isn't a new story. Transparency International recently ranked Ukraine as one of Europe's most corrupt countries. Kuzio also says that Yanukovych's style has a lot to do with his background.

KUZIO: Yanukovych is very different. He came from a backwater Donetsk. It's a coal mining, working-class town, which had no influence in soviet Ukraine. He came from a background with two, maybe three prison terms, and also comes from a region, Donetsk, where there was a massive high level of violence over the spoils of the post-soviet transition to a market economy. This really was the Wild West of Ukraine in the 1990s.

RATH: And that's where Yanukovych first came to power. He was elected governor of his eastern Ukrainian state in 1997. Then he became prime minister. As president, he became infamous for his opulent presidential palace, which at this moment is abandoned. The grounds flooded with joyous protesters. Kuzio says to understand that joy, all you have to do is ask: just how did Yanukovych make all that money?

KUZIO: Yanukovych provided political protection. In Russian criminal slang, it's called a krysha. He provided protection for these other oligarchs to suddenly emerge and become extremely wealthy. He provided protection as governor, as prime minister and as president. Now, when Yanukovych becomes president in 2010, he tells these very wealthy people, I've been helping you, now it's time for you to pay tribute to me. You now pay a percentage of your earnings to me. And you ensure that I live the lordly life that - of an aristocrat just like you have been doing.

RATH: Kuzio says Yanukovych is paying the price for having pushed things too far during the contested election of 2010. His main political rival at that time was Yulia Tymoshenko.

KUZIO: The two big political machines that were at each other's throats were Tymoshenko's block and Yanukovych's party of regions, and that culminated in this very bitter presidential contest in 2010. Now, Yanukovych, unlike his predecessors, took one step further. He put his opposition leaders in jail. Previous presidents had never done this. And this was his first major big mistake, which has haunted him for the last three to four years.

RATH: Taras Kuzio, a researcher and writer with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Right now, no one can say if Yanukovych will be part of Ukraine's political future.

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