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14 June, 2017  ▪  Roman Malko

Narodniy Front redux

Despite its currently low ratings, Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Narodniy Front has managed to remain in the major league of Ukrainian politics

Renamed from its original Front Zmin or Front of Changes after the Euromaidan, Narodniy Front had the most support among Ukrainians in the 2014 VR election. At the time, the notion of a front was as current as it had never been as the war in the east escalated day by day, so who would not be prepared to vote for a newly revamped political party called “People’s Front” that included many volunteer commanders and Maidan activists among its candidates. The fact that mixed in with them in the top positions on its lists were plenty of dubious personalities of the Old Guard did not seem to put voters off too much. Such is the Ukrainian “c’est la vie” attitude: let’s elect the best of a bad lot and hope for the best. More than 22% of Ukrainians went to the polls with that in mind.

Still, NF had no chance of becoming the biggest faction and forming a majority in the Rada. By attracting a small army of FPTP candidates, its nearest rival, the Poroshenko Bloc, easily pushed its future coalition partner to the #2 position. Nevertheless, this also gave them a decent hold on power, which NF took full advantage of, filling the post of premier, a slew of ministries, and the position of NSC Secretary, among others. But power is not just a matter of taking up a seat: it means taking on responsibility—all the more so when the terrible events that had taken in the center of the capital were fresh in everyone’s memories, which every day the dead and the wounded were being brought in from the front, and Ukrainian society was strained to the limit. Indeed, calling himself and his team “the Kamikaze Government” was probably the most reasonable step for NF leader Arseniy Yatseniuk to take. But even such an admission could not serve as an indulgence for unfulfilled expectations, as it turned out.

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Indeed, those hopes had no chance of being fulfilled. First, the structure of NF was wrong from the very start, because it included unreliable and often even dangerous elements that, sooner or later, were guaranteed to bring it down. This continues to be NF’s Achilles’ heel. Secondly, the obligation to work closely with its “older brother” in the coalition was doomed to end badly. That’s simply the way domestic politics works and seems to be the fate of Ukraine’s ruling elite.

Some may deny that the ruling coalition is something nobler and entirely different than a clutch of oligarchic clans, but they will be disenchanted. Today, that’s precisely what it’s like: tycoons, representatives of FIGs, minor and major shysters. And that’s who’s establishing policy and running the ball. The difference is only in the level of arrogance and access to resources. One way or another, they are all orbiting around the same axis—the president—and to think they are somehow outsiders is simply naive. Of course, there is also an opposition—in the good sense of the word—and the fifth column, but that’s another story. But NF itself has “infiltrated” the government no less successfully as “junior partner” to the Poroshenko Bloc, and in any case has shared responsibility with the “senior partner” for all the mistakes and negative developments. The way the party’s ratings began to slide after the Yatseniuk Cabinet was in office a few months was the clearest proof of this. Nor did the situation improve much after Yatseniuk himself resigned and the dirty details of the internecine war among the coalition partners came to light. In fact, this conflict was inevitable from Day 1, because access to government means access to resources and that means ipso facto competition in the best of Ukrainian traditions during the grand redistribution of influence.

It’s obvious now that Narodniy Front was prepared for this eventuality from the start and went in aware that their image would suffer. Why they did so is a different question: one segment, indubitably, for selfish reasons, the other segment—and one hopes the bigger one—for patriotic ones. Whatever anyone might say, the Front is one of the few state-minded forces in the legislature. Despite its nuances and problems, in contrast to the presidential BPP, NF members are generally driven by national interests in process of legislating and developing a strategy. Of course, sometimes private interests are veiled under state ones, but to accuse the faction of being destructive would be completely unfair. On the contrary, its patience and sometimes even irrational commitment to its unscrupulous partners is striking.

NF’s diversity is no news. The groups that constitute the Front are often so different that they could not possibly coexist: old oligarchic political clutches with heroes of the war and members the Maidan Samooborona. And so we have the groups of Speaker Andriy Parubiy, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, one of the party’s main sponsors Mykola Martynenko, Serhiy Pashynskiy, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleksandr Turchynov, Acting President after Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Over time, this all became mixed up. Some field commanders came under the influence of business groups, some stayed with their old companies, and some preferred going solo. The most influential group in Narodniy Front remains Mykola Martynenko’s. This became clear when an attempt was made to jail him and a slew of MPs and Ministers raised a hue and cry in his defense. Some, needless to say, gleefully rubbed their hands together, insisting that all these people were on Martynenko’s payroll and that the way they closed ranks was the clincher. Some may be on his payroll, some may not. But that they are working with him is clear, and, to be honest, some of those who stood up on Martynenko’s behalf were a surprise. These included Leonid Yemets, who worked very hard to build a career as an independent young reformer and has now effectively trashed it in order to save his old friend. Or Infrastructure Minister Volodymyr Omelian, who was also not associated until now with Martynenko’s business interests.

Although this illuminated many interesting things about individual MPs and confirmed the diversity of NF—a significant number of faction members did not stand up to defend one of the party’s main sponsors—, it also played into the hands of the leader, Yatseniuk, who once again showed himself as one of the pillars of the current political system and whoever attacks him will face a serious confrontation. Based on the example of Martynenko, one of the top people in the party, this was clearly shown. Politics is not merely the art of the possible, but a game in which you either compromise or you don’t. Indeed, in this light, assumptions that Martynenko voluntarily gave up his immunity are fairytales. He did not want to do that. He was forced to do that and that nicely played the trick was nothing more than an element in the game of cooperation with coalition colleagues, in order to turn some of the negativity associated with Martynenko away from NF itself.

No less influential is the group associated with top cop Arsen Avakov, represented, among others by his deputy Anton Herashchenko and a top special purpose patrol police official Yevhen Deydey. Whatever one may think of him otherwise, Herashchenko is a charismatic individual and has considerable clout in the faction. Managerial talent, connections and financial resources lie behind his self-sufficiency and so others take his opinions seriously. Hence his influence and persistence. The faction also takes Turchynov seriously, who is represented by Pavlo Unguryan and Viktoria Siumar in the Rada. Some would like to see him join forces with Pashynskiy, but they have completely different spheres of interest. Rumor has it that Serhiy Pashynskiy and his business partner, Serhiy Tyshchenko, are interested in petro-products and in the Russian business connected to this—which they would happily take over, under cover of patriotic slogans.

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The Yatseniuk group is a fluid phenomenon. However the fact that it is represented by the faction head, Maksym Burbak, makes it influential. Parubiy’s group, which is mostly people from the Euromaidan, keeps more-or-less to itself. Martynenko is in competition with it because he’d like to see his own people in the Speaker’s seat and in charge of VR Secretariat, but so far he has failed in this game. Finally, there is Andriy Ivanchuk, who is seen as a completely independent player, sometimes even as the éminence grise of the party. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but he is, in fact, the party communicator and has friends in almost every single faction in the Rada.

How this motley crew manages to stay together is anyone’s guess, but the faction has demonstrated a solid level of discipline. Every Monday, there is a general assembly involving the top management, including Yatseniuk. They discuss problems and current issues, and set a plan for the week. On Wednesday or Thursday, the faction meets again, but without the bosses, to clarify any finer points. Decisions are made based on bills that were previously discussed and drafted by the top leadership, and are now presented to the membership. When the faction is radically opposed to some aspect, the bill is simply set aside since it won’t find the necessary support. Nothing unusual in that but, despite everything, NF tends to vote more-or-less unanimously, which says a lot.

Indeed, Narodniy Front has few real options for now, other than to stick together. Its marginal ratings make it unlikely that NF will return triumphantly to the new Rada. Its lack of a vision for a common future does not help. Anyone who has been at the trough once and tasted the parliamentary porridge is unlikely to refuse a second portion. However, this requires resources and a strategy. And this is precisely where some would say that NF is lacking: strategic thinking and the necessary capacity. Moreover, what direction should it go in? Other factions have enough of their own. If you’re not some honcho or otherwise of interest, who needs you? Whether it wants to or not, the herd will stick together, both at the micro, faction level, and at the macro, coalition level.

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The reluctance to call a snap election and the suspension of all possible appointments, such as a new CEC, for instance, is part of all this. The time for playing politics will run out in 2019—at least that’s what the current so-called strategy presumes. What will come next, what kind of configuration will present itself at that point, who will be breathing down their necks, whom they will have to fight and whom to kiss, is not clear at all. Yet going forward as a united Front, as in 2014, is also highly unlikely. For one thing, there are no grassroots structures. For some reason, the party has failed to establish itself locally, as its non-participation in the local elections testified. Secondly, warlike slogans alone will never capture anything, the names of commanders no longer carry the weight they once did, and the party does not have much to brag about in the way of achievements.

And thirdly, too many divergences have appeared among the allies as they have worked together, much less a vision for a common future. Perhaps the differences aren’t quite so huge as in BPP—where the cat seems to have dragged in every scrap it could find, especially among the FPTP MPs and, unable to grow together, the bits and pieces have long ago splintered along lines of interest—, but still noticeable.

Unfortunately, such is the nature of artificial parties that are organized in a hurry to go to the polls. It’s not necessarily bad, either. Given what was going on in 2014, this may have even been necessary. Someone had to be the kamikaze and take on the thankless suicidal task. Whether the execution was quality or slapdash only time will tell. But, working together, they managed to preserve the state. That alone merits a medal.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj 

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