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Ukraine's leader gains stature with honest image

Sunday - 5/11/2014, 3:36am  ET

FILE - In this March 19, 2014 file photo, Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, speaks with a passenger as he travels in economy class aboard a commercial flight from Kiev to Vienna, en route to Brussels for a European People's Party summit. Despite being a wealthy man, Yatsenyuk, flies coach when on trips to Western capitals, which is a sharp contrast to his predecessors who preferred government jets or first-class luxury. (AP Photo/David Azia, File)

MARIA DANILOVA
Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- 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 whistleblowers 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. "Nobody fully realized the bonus, so to speak, we would be getting in the annexation of Crimea and separatist movements," Ostap Semerak, who holds the title of Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers and is a close ally of Yatsenyuk, told The Associated Press.

The road has been paved with successes and setbacks. 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.

While eastern Ukraine is deeply suspicious of the new government, the rest of Ukraine appears to trust its new leaders: A nationwide April poll conducted by the International Republican Institute shows full or partial support for the Yatsenyuk government at 52 percent, up from 46 in March. The poll had 1,200 respondents and a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

The positive assessment is not shared by Russia, which casts the new government as a group of nationalist radicals that seized power during an armed coup.

As the country prepares for May 25 presidential elections to choose a new leader, 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.

One undeniable success of Yatsenyuk's Cabinet was getting a $17 billion loan commitment from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a meltdown of the debt-ridden economy. Getting the loan required implementing highly unpopular reforms such as allowing devaluation of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, and hiking household utility bills.

"I don't promise an improvement, neither today nor tomorrow. Our main task is to stabilize the situation in the country," Yatsenyuk told parliament in February as he was being appointed. "We have no other way but to make extremely unpopular decisions."

Anticipating widespread discontent, Yanukovych's administration had resisted such reforms for years and failed to secure the aid.

Despite being a wealthy man, Yatsenyuk, flies coach when on trips to Western capitals -- a sharp contrast to his predecessors who preferred government jets or first-class luxury. Yatsenyuk also announced austerity measures for state employees, putting government cars, country resorts and other property up for sale.

"We are introducing the toughest system of control and reduction of budget expenditures in the financial history of Ukraine," Yatsenyuk told lawmakers.

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.

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