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The Ukrainian ?€?W?€™

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych bears a striking resemblance to former President George W. Bush.

Although Bush was born rich and Yanukovych poor, both were rowdy as youths, with the former drinking and carousing and the latter serving two jail terms for hooliganism.

Eventually both became serious, went into politics and became governors of large and economically important states — Texas and Donetsk — that served as springboards for their presidential ambitions. Both are — or claim to be — deeply religious: Bush a born-again Christian, Yanukovych an Orthodox Christian, and both love to hunt.

Like Bush, Yanukovych has an embarrassing proclivity to get his facts wrong. He has confused poet Anna Akhmatova with his billionaire backer Rinat Akhmetov, the Jewish writer Isaac Babel with the German socialist August Bebel, Slovenia with Slovakia and genocide with genetics. He has called playwright Anton Chekhov a Ukrainian poet and the Helsinki Treaty the Stockholm Treaty.

Yanukovych’s best-known gaffe was to have misspelled “proFFessor” back in 2004 — a mistake that is doubly embarrassing inasmuch as he claims to have two degrees, a master’s of international law and a doctorate of economic sciences. Bush only has an MBA from Harvard University, but his academic record was respectable and the degree is real. Yanukovych, in contrast, somehow managed to acquire both degrees and write a dissertation while serving as full-time deputy governor and then governor of Donetsk.

Both rose to power with the support of a regionally concentrated and ideologically focused base. Bush’s was in the red states in the middle of the United States and among Christian fundamentalists. Yanukovych’s was in the east and south of Ukraine and among pro-Soviet and anti-Western fundamentalists. Both also had the support of powerful billionaires who helped propel them to power.

Unsurprisingly, educated elites looked down on both men as crude, simplistic, dull-witted and undiplomatic. Although the two claimed to be unconcerned with such criticism, they quickly made adjustments in their image, polished their language and brushed up on their knowledge of the world. They also both relied heavily on U.S. public-relations and campaign consultants.

Like Bush’s victory over candidate Al Gore in the 2000 presidential vote, Yanukovych’s narrow victory over Yulia Tymoshenko on Feb. 7 produced several weeks of legal contestation and political maneuvering that was resolved only after the intervention of higher courts.

There is one final point of similarity. Both men promised to unify a deeply divided country. Bush failed to do so in his first term because he adopted a polarizing rhetoric and pursued partisan politics that alienated half the country. His attempts to rectify the situation in his second term came too late to save his reputation.

Yanukovych now faces a choice. He can pander to his base in Donetsk, divide Ukraine and be first-term Bush. Or he can appeal to the whole country, alienate some of his base and be second-term Bush.

If Yanukovych does the latter, he’ll succeed as president, and Ukraine will in all likelihood emerge from its current economic and political crisis. If he does the former, the Ukrainian “Dubya” will go down in history as an ignominious failure.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

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