The Republican Insider on the Wrong Side in Ukraine

As the Ukrainian crisis came very close to the brink of a civil war late last week, one of the missing storylines the help President Victor Yanukovych received from a Republican campaign consultant to become president of Ukraine in 2009.  It was Paul Manafort of Davis Manafort and Freedman, a so-called Republican establishment lobbying and campaign consulting firm heavily involved in John McCain's presidential campaign, that helped remake Yanukovych's image from one of damaged goods in 2004 to a presidential victory in 2009.  

Inexplicably, Manafort decided to offer his campaign services to Yanukovych after he tried to steal an election in 2004 from the least corrupt leading politician in Ukraine, Victor Yuschenko.  Before the election, Yuschenko was even poisoned with dioxin.  When Yanukovych tried to steal the election during the vote itself, this provoked the Orange Revolution in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested on the streets of Kiev.  Yanukovych backed down.  There was a re-election.  Yuschenko won the revote.

Paul Manafort committed his campaign expertise to reverse the political gains of the Orange Revolution by remaking Yanukovych's image.  Within a few years, Yanokovych was rehabilitated, and this, together with a slick political campaign, helped him finally win the presidency in 2009.  After four years into Yanukovych's presidency, the people of Ukraine once again took to the streets in massive numbers protesting his corrupt activities that made Ukrainian politicians blush.   This time, there was blood on the streets of Kiev where more than one hundred people were killed and many more hundreds were beaten and injured.  According to many other reports, Yanukovych also hired mercenary gangsters from southeastern Ukraine to help the police keep the protests in check with more covert, but cruel tactics.  This, however, inflamed the protesters even more.

Yanukovych has since left Kiev to hide in the friendlier Russified southeastern and southern areas of Ukraine.  The Ukrainian Parliament overwhelmingly impeached him from office 328-0.  On Saturday, Yanukovych remained defiant, calling the protests a coup against his rightful government.  However, by Monday, he is now a fugitive of the Ukrainian government.  Even Russia has abandoned him.  A Russian State TV host recently stated that Yankovych committed an act of betrayal when he left Kiev.

After living a very rough childhood with a criminal record, he joined the Communist Party in 1980 at the age of 30, and never looked back.   During the 1980's he worked himself up the Communist Party ladder occupying himself in the industrial heartland of southeastern Ukraine.  During the 1990's, when the former Communists throughout the former Soviet Union privatized and took control of massive state companies, essentially making themselves the biggest mafia the world has ever seen, Yanukovych became the Governor of the Donetsk Region. 

In 2002-04, he was the Prime Minister of Ukraine under President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004).  Kuchma, however, suffering from his own corruption problems, did not have long enough coattails to lead Yanukovych to victory.  After the 2004 election debacle that stained Yanukovych's political reputation, Manafort came to the rescue and worked on remaking his political image.  Yanukovych was able to become the Prime Minister again in 2006-07, and finally was elected president of Ukraine in 2009 campaigning as a pro-western government reformer riding on a white horse.  

When Manafort was asked why he became a political advisor for Yanukovych, he replied that he was an outstanding leader who has been mischaracterized and misunderstood by his opponents.  He elaborated further, "I am not here just for the election.  I am trying to play a constructive role in developing a democracy.  I am helping to build a political party."

How is it that Republican election insiders like Paul Manafort managed to help a Soviet apparatchik win a foreign election in Ukraine, but failed to help Bob Dole and John McCain beat Bill Clinton (1996) and Barak Obama (2008) in two critical national elections at home? 

While Manafort himself blamed President Yuschenko for the growing unpopularity of his own presidency in 2004-09, such turmoil and disappointment is hardly surprising.  First of all, Ukraine does not have anything like what may be called a Republican Party or a conservative wing of Republicans who believe in liberty, free enterprise, and limited government.  What exists in Ukraine are various brands of socialist parties, including communists and fascists on both fringes, many of whom represent the various mafia clans of their particular regions.  Secondly, it was never clear that Yuschenko even ever wanted to become president of Ukraine.  Before 2004, he appeared to be very reluctant and passive about running for president.

Thirdly, before Kuchma stepped down, he and the Ukrainian Parliament stripped the president of some critical powers (which Yanukovych brought back after he won the 2009 election) to severely curtail what the president could do.  Perhaps worst of all, Putin was baring his chest, especially as the Russian-Georgian war in Ossetia exploded in 2008 near Ukraine's southeastern border, which kept Yuschenko's pro-western stance in check. 

All of this left Ukraine increasingly divided so that Yuschenko was left more and more alone. Julia Tymoshenko became his rival as Prime Minister and started cooking up more energy sweetheart deals that resembled her actions with Pavlo Lazarenko in the 1990's, when she earned herself the reputation of being Ukraine's "Gas Princess."  This split the pro-democratic westerners into two camps, which Yanukovych's Party of Regions, with much political advice and help coming from Paul Manafort, took advantage of in 2009 when they won the presidential election. 

Upon becoming president, Yanukovych placed his only political rival, Julia Tymposhenko, into prison.  While the EU and many Ukrainians have tried to paint Tymoshenko as a political prisoner, she worked hand in glove with one of the most corrupt Ukrainian politicians of the 1990's, Pavlo Lazarenko, who was Kuchma's Prime Minister in 1996-97.  Lazarenko was arrested in Switzerland and found guilty in a United States Court in 2006 for money laundering, extortion, and wire fraud.  Lazarenko embezzled some 200 million dollars or more from the government of Ukraine.  Today, they are still trying to figure out what to do with all of his stolen money.   

Manafort finally picked a big winner in a big election, but for the wrong team.  His so-called political expertise helped win an election, but has come precariously close to losing a nation.  The partition of Ukraine is still a very real danger.

Mark Musser is a pastor/missionary who spent 7 years in the former Soviet Union, including 6 years in Kiev, Ukraine.  Mark is contributing writer for the Cornwall Alliance, which is a coalition of clergy, theologians, religious leaders, scientists, academics, and policy experts committed to bringing a balanced biblical view of stewardship to the critical issues of environment and development. Mark is also the author of two books, Nazi Oaks: The Green Sacrifice of the Judeo-Christian Worldview in the Holocaust and then Wrath or Rest: Saints in the Hands of an Angry God, a commentary focusing on the warning passages in the book of Hebrews.

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