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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kuchma's Allies Seek a New Candidate

In a dramatic shift, the political and business elites close to outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma are changing horses in midstream and looking for a new candidate to take on opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in what they hope will be an entirely new election.

The elites that previously backed Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Kuchma's original choice, now appear to have dumped him and drawn up a shortlist of three Kuchma loyalists to take his place on the ballot.

Analysts have named Serhiy Tyhypko, Yanukovych's campaign manager, Dnipropetrovsk Governor Volodymyr Yatsuba and Odessa Governor Serhiy Grynevetsky as the candidates Kuchma's inner circle is thinking about.

"The authorities now understand that Yanukovych has no chance to win a new vote," said Volodymyr Polokhalo, an analyst at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. "They are driven by cynical pragmatism -- and are sacrificing their leader to defend their own political and economic interests."

Yanukovych, who on Wednesday was effectively fired as prime minister after parliament passed a vote of no confidence in his government, was never completely trusted by Kuchma's key allies, Ukrainian experts said.

Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the presidential administration, and Viktor Pinchuk, a lawmaker and Kuchma's son-in-law, fear that Yanukovych, second-in-command of the Donetsk clan headed by their business rival Rynat Akhmetov, would take Akhmetov's side in important disputes, the experts said.

The Donetsk clan is one of several geographically defined oligarchic groups that compete to dominate Ukrainian business and politics.

Yanukovych emerged on the national political scene in November 2002, when Kuchma appointed him prime minister. The appointment was reportedly a reward for the Donetsk clan's support for Kuchma in the 1999 presidential election, and Yanukovych was widely seen as a compromise candidate between Kuchma, the Kiev clan of Medvedchuk, and the Dnipropetrovsk clan of Pinchuk.

As the presidential election approached, Yanukovych had little influence over the Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk clans, but they preferred him to Yushchenko, whom they feared would step on their business interests.

As Kuchma has changed his public position in recent days to support a new election, he and his key allies, including Medvedchuk and Pinchuk, appear to be stalling for time to find a better candidate than Yanukovych. A new candidate could stand a chance of beating Yushchenko in three months' time -- when they hope that the momentum afforded the opposition by the massive street protests will be lost.

But it could be a tall order given the popular support Yushchenko has received in the election, and from the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have supported him on the streets.

"The best-case scenario for all of them [Kuchma, Medvedchuk and Pinchuk] would be to find another, more reliable candidate able to guarantee the status quo of the Kuchma regime," said Vadim Karasyev, director of the Global Strategy Institute, an independent think tank. "Given three months, they would have the time to find him. If there are new elections at the end of March, by then there won't be street protests."

Analysts see Tyhypko, who until this week was Yanukovych's campaign manager and head of the Central Bank, as a possible replacement for Yanukovych if a new election is held. In resigning his posts, Tyhypko, the leader of the Labor Ukraine party that Pinchuk belongs to, said he would not rule out a bid.

Besides Tyhypko, Yatsuba and Grynevetsky are also seen as capable of winning votes in the country's eastern, central and southern regions, Karasyev said.

Political analyst Kostyantin Bondarenko, director of the National Strategy Institute, agreed. "Tyhypko is a popular economist and is close to Pinchuk. Yatsuba is a close friend of Kuchma, and Grynevetsky is a very popular regional leader who has charisma," he said.

But Polokhalo said that none of these candidates is at the moment able to pose a threat to Yushchenko.

Hanna German, a spokeswoman for Yanukovych, said ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary vote that those in power had never really supported him.

"They pretended they were backing him," she said, without elaborating. "There are many things I can't speak about right now. But if you take a closer look at events, you'll understand they are not the way they seem." Asked whether Medvedchuk and Pinchuk had stopped backing Yanukovych, German said only that she could "not confirm it."

The other clans "were uncertain before the elections because they didn't know what the new president would have in store for them," Polokhalo said.

Both Medvedchuk and Pinchuk made their fortunes during the wild privatization of the early 1990s.

Pinchuk is reportedly Ukraine's second-richest man. His assets have been valued at about $3 billion, the Kyiv Post reported. Medvedchuk's assets are also believed to be valued in billions of dollars, the paper reported. The Kiev clan has interests in energy companies, agrobusiness and sports clubs.

The Dnipropetrovsk clan controls pipe, machine-building and metallurgical factories. Pinchuk's business empire also controls four major television channels: ICTV, Novy Kanal, STB and M1.

"Pinchuk and Medvedchuk are afraid that if Yanukovych becomes president, the balance will tip toward the Donetsk clan. They were given no guarantee that this would not happen," Karasyev said.

Akhmetov -- reportedly Ukraine's richest man with assets worth about $3 billion, according to the Kyiv Post -- continues to back Yanukovych, the experts said.