KIEV, Ukraine — When new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk invited anti-corruption activists to his apartment in Kiev last month, the first thing he showed off was his toilet. “See for yourself,” Yatsenyuk joked. “It’s not gold.”
It was a jab at ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who along with his government cronies had a notorious penchant for gaudy luxury.
Yatsenyuk’s interim government is seeking to carry out sweeping reforms to break from a culture of self-interest, cynicism and corruption that left the country on the verge of bankruptcy. Images of chandeliers, gilded pillars and ornate marble flooring that emerged from Yanukovych’s mansion after he fled caused revulsion across Ukraine.
By contrast, Yatsenyuk flies economy, lets whistle-blowers into his home and readily admits to mistakes. Those qualities have helped him grow in stature and win support for his administration — even as Ukraine struggles to avoid a possible breakup.
Yatsenyuk leads a motley team of young pro-Western professionals, idealists, nationalists and heroes of the Maidan protests — named after the square that was the magnet of dissent — as well as veterans of rough-and-tumble Ukrainian politics. As the eclectic group assumed power in February, it knew it faced a daunting challenge: State coffers were empty, the country was deeply polarized and the protest movement was not willing to give the new government any easy breaks.
Then things got dramatically worse: Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia and the government found itself battling pro-Kremlin insurgents, while trying to avoid war with its giant neighbor to the east.
But during the rocky journey, Yatsenyuk, who exudes the air of a somewhat nerdy intellectual, has gained respect by proving to be steadfast in the face of quixotic tasks, ready to sacrifice personal interests for the country’s good. Yatsenyuk often refers to his new job as a suicide mission — and, when congratulated recently on his post, he quipped that condolences were more in order.
As the country prepares for May 25 presidential elections, all eyes are on the interim government and its ability to ensure a successful vote, even as eastern and southern regions are riven by unrest.
A lawyer by training, Yatsenyuk, 39, made his fortune in banking before moving into government and serving as the country’s economy minister, foreign minister and parliament speaker. He has two daughters with his wife, Tereza, 43, who is involved in public activism and charity work. Tall, skinny and bespectacled, Yatsenyuk was a prominent figure in the Maidan protests movement that ousted Yanukovych, but lacked the charisma to become the ultimate leader of the protests. He was at one point ridiculed for vowing to take a “bullet in the forehead” from police forces — then shying away from any confrontations.
But as prime minister, candid talk and a willingness to make tough decisions have boosted Yatsenyuk’s support.
“Overall, I think Yatsenyuk has come out as a pragmatic, sensible and principled leader, who is trying as far as possible to uphold peace, integrity and the basic principles of Maidan,” said Tim Ash, an emerging markets analyst with Standard Bank in London, citing “respect for basic human rights, the rule of law, a market economy and democracy.”
“One can criticize the current government a lot,” said political analyst Vadim Karasyov. “But one should take into account the kind of extremely difficult historical and dramatic conditions they must work in today. This government is acting in the conditions of a revolution, a war, presidential elections and an economic crisis simultaneously.”