Yanukovych's survival skills may fail him this time, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 6:09am

He was once pushed out by the power of protest, and his famed political survival skills are again being put to the test by furious Ukrainians on the street.

Within three months, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has flip-flopped between the European Union and Russia, losing his legitimacy with a large chunk of the population that has risen up against him - in an eerily familiar repeat of the 2004 orange revolution.

The orange revolution sprang up when he claimed to have won elections that were rigged, and eventually prompted a rerun that saw his Western-backed opponent win.

"He will go down in history as the president of Ukraine who twice was sacked by the Maidan," said Vadym Karasev, head of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev. "Maidan" first refers to Independence Square in central Kiev, where protesters trying to oust Yanukovych, 63, have camped out since November.

Ukraine's wily leader has made a number of spectacular comebacks, defeating orange revolution leader Yuliya Tymoshenko in a poll in 2010 and then seeing her sentenced to seven years in prison. But some analysts say he is unlikely to stay in power for long this time around.

Formed as a politician in the rough-and-tough surroundings of his industrial native Donetsk region, the burly Yanukovych is no stranger to the art of political survival and reinvention.

He prides himself as a political street fighter who can claw his way out of any corner, in life and in politics.

"He is a survivor, he's clever in a street sense. He knows how to be tough and ruthless," said Matthew Rojansky, director of the US-based Kennan Institute, which specialises in Russia and other post-Soviet states.

Yanukovych has been dogged by allegations of an excessive penchant for luxury at a time of economic trouble.

In recent years a so-called "family" of influential officials and relatives has also grown around him, including Yanukovych's increasingly affluent businessman son Olexander.

Orphaned just two years into his life, Yanukovych has related how he ran around the streets barefoot and was brought up in abject poverty in Soviet Ukraine by his grandmother.

He fell in with a local street gang in the late 1960s and was convicted of robbery in 1967 and assault in 1970. Yanukovych served jail terms on both occasions but his record was much later mysteriously cleared.

He then worked for two decades as a transport manager in Donetsk before moving into politics in the late 1990s. Then, Yanukovych became the region's governor in 1997 and rose to become prime minister under president Leonid Kuchma in 2002.