After what his official biography calls his "youthful indiscretions," Yanukovych worked as an engineer, a factory manager and the Governor of Donetsk before President Leonid Kuchma named him Prime Minister two years ago. Since then he has presided over dynamic economic growth and, more recently, doubled pensions. Despite enjoying Russian President Vladimir Putin's energetic support, Yanukovych has seemed out of his depth in the current political crisis. At one point last week, he pledged to support a free press and transfer some presidential powers to the legislature. Soon after, he denounced Yushchenko for trying to mount a "coup." But if his frequent calls to resolve the election dispute without violence are to be believed, perhaps Yanukovych really has left his troubled past behind.
Like politicians everywhere, Ukraine's 54-year-old Prime Minister likes to invoke his humble origins, telling the media that "my main dream in life was to break out of poverty." What he often fails to mention in his Horatio Alger-style tale is that as a teenager he spent almost four years in jail for robbery and assault, though the charges were later reversed. Genial but wooden tongued and more fluent in Russian than in Ukrainian, Yanukovych is reminiscent of a Soviet-era party boss, an image aided by his 6-ft.- 6-in., 240-lb. frame. That style goes down well in his conservative home base in the Donbass, Ukraine's industrial powerhouse, where the Russian-leaning (and -speaking) population tends to view his rival, Viktor Yushchenko, as a pawn of the West.