The Ukrainian Week looks at the new parties emerging in the country
Although it’s unlikely that a snap election will be called in the Verkhovna Rada this year, politicians of all stripes are busy preparing for them—and not just within existing parties, which have been rapidly losing voter confidence over the last two years. Quite a few activists from both extremes of the political spectrum are busy promoting new political projects that are supposed to replace the ones that are in decline and give their founders a much-desired seat in the legislature.
The most highly-anticipated political force, the party of former Georgian president and Governor of Odesa Oblast, Mikheil Saakashvili, was expected to bring together all the major movers and shakers of civil society. But since the winter, when Saakashvili did a multi-city tour with his Anti-Corruption Forums, plenty of water has flown without noticeable results. The courtship is over without having turned into a real political movement.
Back then Saakashvili managed to gather all the party activists who are euro-optimists, such as MPs Mustafa Nayem, Serhiy Leshchenko, Svitlana Zalishchyk, Yehor Frisov, and Viktor Chumak, anti-corruption activist Vitaliy Shabunin, ex-PGO staffer Vitaliy Kasko, DemAlliance leader Vasyl Hatsko, and other individuals whom journalists were confidently adding to the ranks of the ex-Georgian president’s party not long ago. Yet this did not lead to a building of one party. Most of the abovementioned people have decided not to wait for “Mikho” to get moving and instead to build their own political careers elsewhere. One example is Frisov, an ex-Poroshenko Bloc MP from Donetsk Oblast, who was running as an independent in Riding #206 in Chernihiv. Others are announcing their own parties.
In the last while, Saakashvili seems to have finally come to life. Not long ago, a huge office was leased for this party in the center of Kyiv on chichi Muzeyniy Provulok, and among possible sponsors, the name of Russian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin keeps coming up. The search is on for political strategists who can come up with a suitable plan and set up the party organization. Rumors have it that Saakashvili has already agreed to cooperate with Pavlo Riabikin, who was previously a functionary in Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR, and a few other UDAR members who found themselves out-of-place when their party merged with the Poroshenko Bloc. The first party convention is supposed to take place quite soon.
Azov’s time has come
On to the right-wing sector. Until recently, the name Azov was associated exclusively with the voluntary battalion and the war. One of the most successful volunteer battalions, it has been credited with participation in the liberation of Mariupol and Shyrokyne. It is also known for being Ukraine’s most disciplined and well-trained army divisions.
Not long ago, Azov has begun to be spoken of in a political context as well. Its noticeable pyrotechnical campaign in Kyiv against elections in Donbas left no doubt that Azov’s people have serious ambitions to get into high-level politics. This was confirmed by its leader, Andriy Biletskiy, who immediately also announced that the similarly-named regiment in the National Guard of Ukraine had no relationship to politics and that all political actions were to be associated exclusively with the Azov Civil Corps as an independent entity. So, Biletskiy’s own political ambitions are also serious, especially when Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s patronage of Azov is taken into account.
Azov does not shrink from direct action, which has enabled it to win the hearts of those looking for quick and simple solutions. It rejects any association with oligarchs out of hand, to avoid been seen as a pet project of those in power or of even Avakov. How serious Azov’s chances will be as a party is hard to say so far.
The Ukrainian Mejlis
Vilni Liudy, or Free People, is one of the most anticipated new political platforms. Its initiator is Andriy Levus, MP with Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Popular Front and an active member of Maidan’s Self-Defense, as well as his team. The project is being seriously looked at by Popular Front as an alternate vehicle if PF bottoms out in the ratings. So far, this group has not directly announced that it is establishing a party, although its membership already includes quite a few seated deputies from different levels of government and government officials. Given its aims and the scale of activities that have been launched, the transformation of Free People into a party will probably happen very shortly.
This group made itself known even before the Euromaidan Revolution, when the network’s activists launched the Euro Offensive campaign with the aim of defending Ukraine’s Eurointegration aspirations. Afterwards came the EuroMaidan, during which three Samooborona (Self-Defense) companies were formed—the 14th, 15th and 35th. After the Euromaidan ended, it was time to work actively against separatist declarations in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Odesa and the Donbas. Hundreds of members of FP also joined the volunteer battalions at the front, while in the rear guard, an eponymous volunteer network was rolled out to supply them.
Free People’s social base is activists from patriotic and nationalist organizations. There is no single leader among the FP. Instead, it is run by a group of coordinators that they jokingly refer to among themselves as the “mejlis,” after the Crimean Tatar governing council, which establishes the main areas of action, and plans and carries out projects. At this point, the network’s activists are focused on fighting Russia’s business in Ukraine, punishing representatives of the previous criminal regime, and de-occupying the country. They are also working to counter Viktor Medvedchuk’s separatist projects.
So far, FP members categorically refuse to discuss an independent political project, but the first steps towards forming a party have already been taken: a National Action Committee has been formed, along with a coordination center that includes, in addition to Free People, representatives of Dmytro Yarosh’s movement Diya (Action), the Officers’ Union of Ukraine, and parliamentary group called Nastup (The Offensive), and a large number of well-known community and political activists. The next step, according to the initiators of this project, will be to set up a national civil and political movement. Judging by FP’s current pace of development, this is most likely to happen closer to the fall.
A new Right Sector offspring
The civil and political movement Diya, meaning the Statehood Initiative of Dmytro Yarosh (ex-leader of the Right Sector – Ed.), has announced that it will hold its first congress in the fall in Kyiv. Diya began to emerge immediately after a split in yet another patriotic political force that was born during the EuroMaidan and had seemed powerful until recently, Praviy Sektor. For the moment, it’s hard to know, other than from the information of its organizers, what kind of entity this will eventually be.
Yarosh has stated that Diya’s goal is to bring together all the forces for statehood in order to defend Ukraine’s independence and embody the ideals of the Maidan.
“We want to bring together all those people who have not been engaged in politics so far and who are patriots but not necessarily nationalists, as was the case with Praviy Sektor,” says Yarosh.
Yarosh also does not rule out forming a party based on this unified movement, which will resemble nothing so much as “Narodniy Rukh prior to Ukraine’s independence and bring together people from absolutely different political and ideological convictions,” without regard to language, faith and so on. Diya considers itself a center-right organization and is actively recruiting people who have gone through the war. From the very start, it had a portion of former PS members, representing a number of military units, who are fighting on the front under the label “Ukrainian Volunteer Army,” and their medical arm, “Hospitaliers.”
It’s too early to say much about the prospects for Yarosh’s Statehood Initiative in the political arena. At least the first congress needs to take place when it should become clear who the top players in Diya are. Still, it’s already clear that this movement is only likely to be successful if it can come to agreement with other patriotic organizations and to draw them into its circle, and to offer voters the kind of agenda that those who are tired of the war and feeling hopeless about their government will be unable to refuse.
The left flank
The left is also coming to life in Ukrainian politics after two years of deep crisis, due both to the loss of traditional funding from the Party of the Regions and the Kremlin, and to its ideological impasse. The absolute majority of leftist movements and parties had openly supported Russia’s aggressions, placing themselves outside the laws of justice and morality. The majority of active leftists have been working hand-in-glove with the militants and fled long ago, either to the territories occupied by the Russian Federation or to Russia itself.
A recent issue of TheUkrainian Week wrote about the process of setting up a new, consolidated leftist political force based in part on Oleksandr Moroz’s Socialist Party. The new entity, formed in 2015, is called “Socialists,” whose leader is a one-time foreign minister under Azarov and loyal Yanukovych man, Leonid Kozhara. Funded by the Yanukovych “Family,” Kozhara has been touring the country in an effort to get all leftist and anti-Ukrainian organizations to consolidate into a single entity. According to TheUkrainian Week’s sources, his Kremlin handler, Vladislav Surkov, has decided once again to bet on leftist parties whose work will be to promote the idea of a ceasefire, fighting the oligarchs, and social justice, while actually working in Moscow’s interests. And of course Kozhara, with the support of a network of suitable organizations, is expected to be one of the leaders of this party.
Kozhara’s main rival right now is a former “political prisoner of the Yanukovych regime,” Vasyl Volga, who is just as eager to stake out the vacant post of leader of the left for himself with his Union of Leftist Forces. Rumor has it that his Moscow handlers are individuals opposed to Surkov in the forces: Putin’s Chief-of-Staff Viacheslav Volodin, Sergei Ivanov and others. The Kremlin powers-that-be are counting on the image of a “victim of the former regime” to help Volga persuade anti-Ukrainian voters by presenting himself as an alternative to both the “nazis” in power and the evil oligarchs.
Another rival not prepared to let Kozhara simply walk in is former Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, whom the Poroshenko Administration has so far been unable to charge with stirring up the war in eastern Ukraine. His new project, called the Left Movement cannot be removed from the balance because he still has considerable political and media resources at his disposal, including the Gamma TV channel, the Holos site, and considerable cash left from the halcyon days, when the CPU was completely supported by Party of the Regions.
The final political project that also falls into the nominally left flank is the “Successful Country” project. Its leader and main source of funding is none other than Oleksandr Klymenko, who headed the Ministry of Revenues and Taxes, “Ministry of Death” in popular slang, during Yanukovych’s time and is a member of the Family. For more than six months now, generously paid news and videos have been appearing in the media with the latest announcements by this corrupt official along the lines of “Everything’s OK” or information about the latest convention of his supposed party. He clearly has a dream to return to politics in Ukraine, hence the serious money being put into his project. The main intellectual and media center serving Successful Country is the Vesti holding, which also belongs to Klymenko. Some say that his entire platform and operations plan is being put together by staff at the notorious freebie paper of the same name.
And so, the political garden is full of new sprouts, some of which are quite poisonous, but not very developed yet and just waiting for the signal that a new election season is about to start. The question now is, when this season will be announced.
 Born in Zaporizhzhia, Grigorishin (Kostiantyn Hryhoryshyn in Ukrainian) is a Russian citizen and has extensive intersts in the power industry. He has been accused of collaborating with the FSB against Ukraine’s interests.