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Yanukovych Caps Comeback as Ukraine's Leader

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

In Ukraine, the man ousted by the Orange Revolution in 2004 has returned to power as prime minister. Viktor Yanukovich is now in a position to share power with the man who beat him. How that power sharing will actually work is still unclear.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Viktor Yanukovich's confirmation by parliament last Friday sealed a stunning reversal of fortune. The pro-Moscow opposition leader was closely identified with the disgraced old administration of former communists that was swept from power two years ago.

Speaking to reporters last week, Yanukovich said he's now reached a deal with the leader of that revolution - his archrival, President Viktor Yushchenko.

VIKTOR YANUKOVICH: (Through translator) In general, we've reached a common understanding on most questions about forming the new government. And we've essentially supported the president on all basic issues.

FEIFER: Yanukovich represents the industrial, largely Russian-speaking east of a deeply divided country. His party of regions came in first in recent parliamentary elections, but failed to win a majority. Nearly five months of tense negotiations followed before last week's deal.

Some analysts say Yanukovich's appointment preserves the Orange Revolution's ideals by giving power to a democratically elected party. Alexander Konovalov or Moscow's Institute for Strategic Assessment says both sides averted a possible constitutional crisis.

ALEXANDER KONOVALOV: They demonstrated some quality of - I wouldn't say developed democracy - but nevertheless, they demonstrated skill to find compromises.

FEIFER: As part of the deal, Yanukovich signed a memorandum on national unity, preserving key areas of the president's liberal agenda. President Yushchenko will maintain control over foreign and security policies. He's appointing the foreign, defense, and interior ministers. Prime Minister Yanukovich will run the economy.

But Konovalov warns the agreement doesn't mean the two men will be able to share power, since they represent opposite ends of Ukraine's political spectrum.

KONOVALOV: How it will work in practice, nobody will say for sure now. But I would foresee serious struggle between these two politicians for the practical ruling of the country.

FEIFER: Konovalov believes Ukraine is headed for difficult and unstable political times. Kirill Rogov of Moscow's Kommersant newspaper agrees. He says the country is going through transition after new constitutional reforms broadened the powers of parliament and the government.

KIRILL ROGOV: (Through translator) That kind of construction of democratic politics was a big role for parliament and political parties is new for Ukraine and the post-Soviet space in general.

FEIFER: Yanukovich says improving ties with Russia is at the top of his agenda. He won a pledge last week from President Yushchenko that Ukraine would hold a referendum before joining NATO - Yushchenko's foreign policy priority. Yanukovych has also pushed to make Russian an official language.

YANUKOVICH: Ukraine is pro-Western only from Moscow's point of view. In fact, Kiev has made a decision to strengthen Ukrainian sovereignty, and that's something Western Europe and the structures of the European Union will guarantee.

FEIFER: One major issue the new government will have to tackle is the price it pays Russia for natural gas. Moscow temporarily shut down pipelines last winter during a price dispute. Yanukovich will have to use his good relations with Moscow to prevent another possible standoff when the price comes up for renegotiation this year.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.