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Victor Yanukovych seeks to “come back” to repair his reputation with “sons” of Donbass

Does Viktor Yanukovych have a chance to restore his political reputation in Ukraine? The former president of Ukraine has lately appeared in the media along with Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev. His words “I want back to politics” have even created a sensation in both Russia and Ukraine. Nobody expected such audacity from him. The times when Yanukovych could get everything he wanted as if by magic are in the past.

Baby, come back

Yanukovych is a persona non grata for the residents of all regions in Ukraine. Who is he going to return to? Does he want back to the Ukrainians who are led by the nose by official propaganda “from television” and rage against everything at the slightest pretext raising hysteria in social media? In real life, these people trust in propagandistic clichés like “bloody anti-national regime,” “nationwide protest on Maidan,” “democratic politicians Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk” and demonstrate patriotism and look forward a ‘visa-free regime’ with the EU. Viktor Yanukovych has no and will have no chances here.

Yet not everything is lost. The economic crisis fueled by the decisions of Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Cabinet and Petro Poroshenko’s regime plays in the hands of the fourth president of Ukraine. All this affects the ordinary citizens first. The only possible target audience for Yanukovych is the Ukrainians who were skeptical about “Maidan’s achievements” from the very beginning and, maybe, those who have been disappointed at those “achievements” within the last two years. For these people, he can try to play on nostalgia for “the time when dollar cost 8 hryvnias.”

As for Yanukovych’s chances in Donbass, that is another matter. In the southeast of Ukraine paternalistic psychology is dominating the human behavior. It is industrial enterprises, collectivism, Orthodox Church, years-long traditions, “fathers and sons.” Yet not everything is that clear here. When leaving Ukraine in late February 2014, Victor Yanukovych undermined his positions in the Donbass hierarchy.

The point is that the Donbass model of paternalism brilliantly illustrates the model “fathers and sons” relations. The ordinary workers are “sons” who must work hard at factories and mines every day and mind their own business. What is most important that they should obey to the “fathers”  - the chiefs of productions, mines, factories, mayors, the owners of the mines like Yefim Zvyagilskiy, such local oligarchs as Rinat Akhmetov and Viktor Nusenkis, the “Donetsk” people’s deputies, governor (if he is insider). Actually, speaking of “fathers” we mean the “fathers of the village,” “the fathers of the town,” and “the fathers of Donbass.” The paternalist psychology implies existence of many “fathers” – a hierarchy of fathers where, a director of factory, mayor of Slavyansk or Artyomovsk, stand on a lower grade than Rinat Akhmetov, for instance. That is why Yanukovych was once called “Batya” (“gaffer”).

Yanukovych left alone

Paternalism means that “sons” do not engage in politics and government, while “fathers” care for the “sons.”  That is why the Donetsk elites has been creating the psychology of paternalism – “fathers and sons” for dozens of years. The people voluntarily avoid engaging in politics leaving the political issues for “seniors” to decide.  “Donbass works. As for the politics, the ordinary people just need to go and vote for what the “fathers” will tell them to do. Instead, the “fathers” need to settle their everyday problems – jobs, salary, assistance to pensioners, disabled, vulnerable people etc. Roughly speaking, they must ensure that mines recover coal, factories produce coke and rolled metal products, and workers receive their salaries in time. The psychology of paternalism was in favor of the local elite – this is where the “regional patriotism” featuring peaceful Donbass of the past years came from. It is logical when “sons” vote for “insiders,” because politicians from Kiev and elsewhere are not just outsiders, they are beyond the model of “fathers and sons.”

This is true for everyday life.  In the crisis situation, “fathers” should protect “sons” against enemies, shouldn’t they? Meantime, an overwhelmingly majority of the people think that at the hardest times – Maidan and war that followed it – Yanukovych – the “father” – and other “seniors” left their “sons” to the mercy of fate and fled the country. It turned out that in the crisis situation the “fathers” that used to decide everything and determine fates have disappeared violating the rules they had created for years. In other words, they had created a myth of the “owners of Donbass” for long years and at the last moment “proved unequal” to those from “Kiev” and left.  That is exactly why Yanukovych like other “fathers” of Donbass is being harshly criticized there now.

Therefore, Yanukovych has no chances to “come back”.  Yet politics is a field where people create their prospects on their own. To return to politics, he needs to take certain measures based on a plan. Here is a similar example: the former prime minister Nikolay Azarov who declared establishment of the government of Ukraine in exile, as he needed a platform for promotion and engagement in politics. Yanukovych finds himself in a different situation – at first, he needs to rehabilitate himself and only afterwards launch “the process of reincarnation” in politics. That is why Yanukovych said in his speech: “I am doing everything I can. First, I help the people that are persecuted in Ukraine and have already left Ukraine for Russia and not only. In Russia, I naturally keep in contact with them. I help them as much as I can.”

Yanukovych’s words can be interpreted as “I help for my own rehabilitation.” Once, the ex-president had already returned to politics after defeat. After the Orange Revolution of 2005, Viktor Yanukovych lived abroad for several months and was back closer to the elections to the Supreme Rada in March 2006. In his life, there were many episodes after which others would never come back to normal life, but he did. Suffice it to say that a regular guy from outskirts with all his disadvantages has reached the status of the first person in the country. This fact should not be neglected.

To rehabilitate himself, the ex-president had millions of chances. For instance, Yanukovych could open a charitable fund to help children affected by the war in Donbass and/or children that lost their parents during that war. He can unite lawyers into a public organization to inform his compatriots from Donbass about their refugee rights. Of course, he could live on his millions all his life, but the nostalgia in his words means that he wouldn’t do it.

Political rehabilitation is a long process that will take years. Words are not enough. Of course, Yanukovych will not bring back his post of the president, but in politics everyone creates his future on his own.

Sergey Slobodchuk, political analyst (Kiev, Ukraine), for EADaily

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