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Yushchenko seen as hope for fresh start

Viktor Yushchenko, who took the oath of office as Ukraine’s new president on Sunday, is seen by many as the country’s best hope for a fresh start after 14 years of corrupt or inept rule.
/ Source: Reuters

Western-leaning liberal Viktor Yushchenko, who took the oath of office as Ukraine’s new president on Sunday, is seen by many as the country’s best hope for a fresh start after 14 years of corrupt or inept rule.

Once a dashing figure during more than a decade of public life, the 50-year-old Yushchenko had his face disfigured last year by dioxin poisoning which he blames on the authorities.

He led hundreds of thousands sporting orange banners, ribbons and scarves in Ukraine’s two-month “Orange Revolution” to denounce fraud in a November poll and decisively win the re-run ordered by the Supreme Court last month.

A former prime minister and central banker, Yushchenko is well known to his fellow countrymen for giving the former Soviet state its own hryvnia currency and for his struggle to reform the economy.

He promises to implement sweeping economic reforms to stamp out widespread poverty and the corruption which plagued the administration of his two post-Soviet predecessors.

“If burning myself to ashes could help Ukraine ... I would be happy,” Yushchenko, an admirer of classical Ukrainian poetry and avowed patriot, once said.

Appointed prime minister in December 1999, he was the darling of Western lending institutions and investors even as the country was battered by a political scandal surrounding Leonid Kuchma, who stepped down as president on Sunday.

In the current prolonged election campaign, Yushchenko repeatedly addressed crowds, sometimes in driving snow, in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Appeals for unity
He went out of his way to appeal to the Russian-speaking industrial east of the country -- which heavily backed his rival -- and pleaded for a new outlook to overcome traditional differences besetting the post-Soviet state.

Yushchenko found himself under fire from powerful businessmen -- widely known as “oligarchs” -- for most of his one-and-a-half-year term as premier.

Others said his government was one of the most successful in the history of independent Ukraine.

It managed to achieve Ukraine’s first economic growth after almost a decade of contraction, escaped huge defaults on Eurobonds, pushed through vital reforms in the financial and energy sectors and speeded up stalled privatization.

Yushchenko took pride in his achievements but acknowledged much remained to be done.

He enjoyed a reputation for honesty among ordinary voters in a country notorious for corruption and remained untainted by the murder of a reporter in 2000 which plunged Ukraine into a crisis weathered with difficulty by Kuchma.

Yushchenko was scarred by allegations last year of misuse of International Monetary Fund loans in operations with central bank reserves in 1997 and 1998.

He denied any wrongdoing and an independent audit requested by the International Monetary Fund subsequently exonerated him, but said the central bank had overstated its currency reserves.

“These hands have stolen nothing,” he said in a tense television debate during the campaign against his rival, Viktor Yanukovych, who served time in prison in his youth. “I was never in prison. I was an honest banker and I am an honest person.”

Yushchenko, central bank chief from 1993 to 1999, has been hailed as the “father of the hryvnia” for masterminding a monetary reform to introduce the new currency in 1996.

Yushchenko was credited also with cushioning the impact of the financial crisis that caused havoc in Russia and other former Soviet republics in August 1998.

He has five children -- a daughter and son from his first marriage and two daughters and an infant son with his American-born second wife Kateryna. He also has two grandchildren.

In his spare time, Yushchenko keeps bees, collects Ukrainian antiques, paints landscapes, skis, works with wood and sculpts.