BOB GARFIELD: Last weekend, a Parliamentary election in Ukraine came to an end. The biggest share of the votes went to Vicktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions. But a coalition between the two next largest parties may prevent Yanukovich from keeping the prime minister post, a position he's held since August 2006.
To the outsider, Yanukovich winning a plurality still seems like a minor miracle. He lost in the 2004 presidential election in the wake of the so-called Orange Revolution after an initial victory was declared invalid because of voting fraud allegations by both domestic and international groups, and after his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned with dioxin.
But that was the old Yanukovich. This election saw something of a rebranding, an effort orchestrated in no small part by Paul Manafort, an American political consultant who's worked with everyone from Bob Dole to Ferdinand Marcos. Clifford Levy of The New York Times explains one of the first things Manafort scrapped was the prime minister's boring TV commercials. CLIFFORD LEVY: The commercials that Mr. Yanukovich was using were relatively staid. Some people suggested they almost looked like old Soviet-style film clips. BOB GARFIELD: Man sitting behind desk, yammering to audience without a smile and so forth? CLIFFORD LEVY: Exactly. The ones now were not that different than the kind of commercials you would see in an American campaign -- a lot of smiling people, candidates surrounded by elderly people, working people, babies. BOB GARFIELD: Now [LAUGHS], putting aside whatever suspicions may have been aroused with the poisoning of Yushchenko the last time around. Back in 2000, Yanukovich was actually caught on tape threatening to smash journalists', quote, "heads against the wall." I gather he’s softened his tone with the media as well? CLIFFORD LEVY: Yeah. I mean, he was portrayed before as an old-style Soviet autocrat. And if you watch him in this campaign, they really tried to soften his image. They tried to make him much more accessible. They changed his speaking style.
You know, there's an old ideal in American politics that you train a candidate to give a stump speech and it lasts five minutes long, and you tell the candidate he has to give the stump speech everywhere he or she goes. The candidate, of course, gets extremely bored with it, but the consultant says, you may be bored with it but it's the first time the audience has heard the speech.
Well, they really did that with Yanukovich also. He used to go out and give these kind of rambling speeches. They had no signature points to them. Now it's much different. BOB GARFIELD: When people like Paul Manafort show up, is it your sense that the Eastern Europe former Soviet states and elsewhere on the globe are emerging markets for the political consultancy business, or is it something more like marginal major-leaguers who show up playing in Japan? CLIFFORD LEVY: Well, I mean, I think they are definitely emerging markets for these political consultants. And it's not only Mr. Yanukovich. Mr. Yushchenko hired several very well-known American political consultants, including the firm that is run by Stan Greenberg, who's the former pollster for Bill Clinton.
I wouldn't say that it's fair to portray these consultants as coming in and trying to make a lot of money and trying to capitalize off the naiveté or the backwardness of the political culture here. I think they play an important role in advancing the political culture.
There's a lot of stuff that goes on here that involves kind of machinations and trickery and intrigue. And I think, whatever you think about the political consultancy trade in the States, there are certain norms and certain rules of the game. And I think they try to bring those to what goes on in a place like Ukraine. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm interested that you said that, because from my perspective the political consultancy industry is actually the dioxin of the American [LAUGHS] political system that we're exporting abroad. But is it possible that our dioxin is their oxygen? CLIFFORD LEVY: Well, you have to understand it from the perspective of what the political culture used to be like there and what kind of still goes on. And I'll give you a perfect example.
I wrote this article about Mr. Manafort's role in Mr. Yanukovich's campaign. A couple of days before the story came out, I got emailed an article that was saying that Mr. Yanukovich had decided Mr. Manafort was doing a terrible job, he was tanking on the polls and that Mr. Manafort had been fired.
I was completely shocked. No one had mentioned anything about this to me. So I put out some calls, and it turned out that story was complete fiction. It had been planted by some of Mr. Yanukovich's enemies. And the journalists who wrote it never called Mr. Yanukovich aside or Mr. Manafort aside to find out anything about it. And this sort of stuff happens a lot in Ukraine. They refer to it as chernyi P.R., which is black P.R. And I'm almost 100 percent certain that if an American political consultant saw that going on, they would get very upset and tell their side not to do it, because they consider it to be almost juvenile and kind of a waste of energy. And so if you look at what the American political consultants do in the context of what has happened often in politics in Ukraine, I think you might have a little bit of a different perspective. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Cliff. Thanks so much. CLIFFORD LEVY: Thanks very much, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Clifford J. Levy is a reporter for The New York Times. He reported his piece in Ukraine. He spoke to us from Moscow.