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Ukrainian Prime Minister Areseniy Yatsenyuk in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Cabinet of Ministers in Kiev, March 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ukrainian Prime Minister Areseniy Yatsenyuk in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Cabinet of Ministers in Kiev, March 22, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Paul Waldie

Globe in Kiev: Yatsenyuk’s precarious balancing act Add to ...

He has been Ukraine’s Prime Minister for barely a month, but already Arseniy Yatsenyuk doubts anyone will vote for him again.

That’s not surprising, given that his agenda includes raising taxes, slashing spending, cutting subsidies, stamping out corruption, and transforming nearly every government institution. And all while the economy stagnates and the country faces a possible military confrontation with Russia.

“Who is to vote for me after this?” Mr. Yatsenyuk said with a smile during an interview Friday. “Not sure about my wife, even.”

The 39-year old lawyer and economist took over as Prime Minister on Feb. 27, rushed into office by parliament just five days after President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Now it’s up to Mr. Yatsenyuk to lead a nation caught up in a crisis over Crimea and still reeling from a popular uprising that swept Mr. Yanukovych from power.

He was not a popular choice. Tall and lanky, the bespectacled Mr. Yatsenyuk has a reputation for being too cerebral, and his attempts to be fiery during the recent protest movement often fell flat. There were plenty of boos when he took the stage in Kiev’s Independence Square last month and told thousands of protesters that he was forming a new government.

But since taking office, he has surprised many observers with his skillful handling of the job. He got kudos for taking on Russia’s UN ambassador during a recent Security Council meeting on Crimea, and he has been a near-constant presence in Brussels, pushing the European Union to take a tougher line with Moscow and organizing a financial package for Ukraine. Back home, he won points for travelling economy, selling government cars, and even showing flashes of humour. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper mused about kicking Russia out of the G8 during a press conference in Kiev on Saturday, Mr. Yatsenyuk jumped in and said: “If there is an empty seat at the G8, we’ll take it.” The line broke up many in the room, particularly Ukrainian journalists who were not used to seeing such lightheartedness from their leader.

Sitting in a boardroom near his office Friday evening, Mr. Yatsenyuk appeared to be relishing the many challenges facing his country. He was relaxed, talkative, and eager to offer his thoughts on a variety of topics, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, the dire state of Ukraine’s economy, and the tough remedies he has in store.

He has been on a whirlwind since taking office, travelling to Western Europe, New York, and Washington to meet President Barack Obama at the White House. In Kiev he has received a stream of diplomats including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His job is a “huge responsibility,” he said, and he is lucky if he sees his wife and two daughters for 20 minutes a day.

“I saw a friend of mine in Brussels [last week] and he said a very outstanding thing, personally, for me,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said. “He said ‘You need to realize that you are a wartime prime minister.’ And he’s absolutely right.”

While not exactly outright war, Mr. Yatsenyuk and the country have been consumed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fears that Mr. Putin has designs on other parts of Ukraine. The Prime Minister has vowed to fight the Russians if they move into more regions, and he has admonished the international community for not imposing more sanctions on Russia. “This is my land and this is my country, not Putin’s,” he said emphatically.

He certainly knows what he’s up against. Mr. Yatsenyuk said he has met Mr. Putin several times and he described the Russian leader as a clever strategist, someone who knows when to pounce and when to ease back. He’s convinced Mr. Putin is interested in southern Ukraine, particularly in Odessa, the country’s main port. Losing Odessa would cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea and cripple the economy. “He is not friendly to Ukraine,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said, almost wincing. “And it seems to me that he is not friendly even to the entire globe, and to his people.”

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