Ukraine Leader Swaps Thriller for Default Fight as Kiev Watches

Oleksandr Turchynov once wrote a thriller that Ukraine nominated for an Oscar. Now he’s starring in one in real life.

Clad in a black leather jacket and his trademark black polo neck shirt, the 49-year-old economist has struck a somber tone since lawmakers bestowed presidential powers on him on Feb. 22. He had reason to avoid jubilation as the nation picks through the rubble of its bloodiest week since World War II following the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych.

With protesters in Kiev’s iconic Maidan square wary of the post-communist elite maintaining its grip on power, Turchynov has to convince them that he can be trusted after a political career that includes co-founding ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. He will also have to steer the country toward May’s planned elections without going into default.

Turchynov is “a person who’s really good at getting things done,” Stefan Meister, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “He’s not a front-row figure. The decisive thing is preventing a Ukrainian state bankruptcy. How he deals with Maidan is another crucial issue.”

The interim leadership estimated its financing needs at $35 billion over the next two years. While the U.S. and the European Union pledged aid for a new administration, the government drew immediate scorn from Russia, which said it had been hoisted to power through terrorist means.

Oscar Submission

Bald and stubbled, Turchynov wrote the screenplay to Ukraine’s 2009 foreign-language Academy Award submission “Illusion of Fear,” which the Ukrainian Cinema Foundation says is about a businessman “entrapped in the net of law enforcement structures.” The movie didn’t make it to Hollywood’s final list of five nominees.

Now, Turchynov says he’s more interested in shoring up the country’s finances than staying in power and says he’s not interested in remaining president for the long term.

“The new government’s task is to stop the country’s slide, to stabilize the currency rate, to ensure the timely salary and pension payments, to win back investors’ trust and to create new jobs,” Turchynov said on parliament’s website.

Libor Roucek, a member of a European Parliament delegation to Ukraine, called forming a cabinet Turchynov’s “biggest task.” The country’s leaders estimated that Ukraine needs $4 billion by the end of the month to cover payments for wages, pensions and Russian gas shipments, he said.

‘Economic Troubles’

“Ukraine will face economic troubles in the next few months, before the early elections,” Roucek said by phone yesterday.

Turchynov, born in Tymoshenko’s eastern Ukraine hometown of Dnipropetrovsk, got his first degree in metallurgy and started his career at the country’s then-largest steel producer, Kryvorizhstal.

Active in the Communist Youth League in the late 1980s, Turchynov entered national politics after the the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as an aide to former President Leonid Kuchma, Yanukovych’s mentor.

He was elected to parliament in 1998 and joined Tymoshenko in setting up the Batkivshchyna party a year later. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, when a month of demonstrations overturned Yanukovych’s fraudulent election victory, Turchynov served as a protest coordinator. He worked as deputy premier in Tymoshenko’s cabinet in 2007-2010.

‘No Need’

That long career through Ukraine’s conflict-fraught post-communist history is cause for skepticism among the protesters who felled Yanukovych and are fuelled by frustration with two decades of corruption and inept governments.

“He spent so many years in power and never did anything good for us,” said Mykola Tereshenko, a 56-year-old activist from Krivyi Rih, holding an ax in each hand at the protest camp on Independence Square. “We don’t need people like Turchynov, Yatsenyuk or Poroshenko. We don’t want them at all.”

With the people who form the backbone of the protest movement watching his every move, Turchynov has to assert control over a nation polarized by the political crisis. Emotions are running high in western and central regions bordering the European Union as well as those in the south and east that are home to more Russian speakers and ethnic Russians.

‘Old Elite’

While people toppled statues of Vladimir Lenin across the country in protests, according to Ukraine’s Channel 5, more than 2,000 rallied for closer ties with Russia in the southern city of Odessa. In Kerch, also in the south, marchers replaced a Ukrainian flag at the mayor’s office with Russian and Crimean flags, the Unian news service reported.

“He needs to be seen as having control over the country, to be legitimate to get the EU funding,” Lars Christensen, an economist at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen, said by phone yesterday. “He’s part of the old Ukrainian elite, which I think in itself is problematic.”

Jostling has also begun among those seeking future leadership roles.

Mykola Tomenko, a member of Batkivshchyna, said Tymoshenko was a candidate for the premiership, along with party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and billionaire ex-Economy Minister Petro Poroshenko. Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned more than two years ago for abuse of power, later ruled out the role for herself, as did Vitali Klitschko, who heads the UDAR party.

While a new government needs to be established before Ukraine can receive aid, the first payments may arrive next week, Elmar Brok, the head of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told reporters in Kiev yesterday.

With a vote on a new cabinet scheduled for today, Turchynov, who has Tymoshenko’s trust and political experience, needs to focus on keeping “the situation under control,” according to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.

“Turchynov doesn’t have any great political ambitions,” Lukyanov said by phone yesterday. “He is a quite convenient figure, as he’s not after the presidency.”

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