The strange multiplication by division of political parties in Ukraine and their internecine infighting
There are actually times when Ukrainian politicians and journalists privately recall the Yanukovych era with nostalgia. Because things were much simpler in politics back than, and much easier to figure out. There was Evil, personified by Party of the Regions, the communists and the Yanukovych family—and in order to remain on the side of Light, you had to stand up to them. A strong common enemy forced politicians from the national democratic camp to set aside their differences and work together. Everyone who was against Yanukovych had the sympathy of the opposition and could count on the moral support of a large chunk of ordinary Ukrainians. The country’s pro-Ukrainian voters were ready to forgive the flaws of those politicians who confronted the Regionals.
But the days of emotional alliances are now in the past. After the fall of the Yanukovych regime and his flight to Russia, the situation changed radically. Since 2014, it’s everyone out for themselves in Ukrainian politics. Whereas the country had been previously divided largely into two camps that took turns being in power and being in opposition, there became considerably more than just two after 2014. The opposition split into several branches: the old opposition, the “Young Turks,” the nationalists and the old pro-Russian guard, that are as likely to squabble among themselves as to fight those who are in power. The situation is further complicated by the fact that even these groups are not monolithic but consist of numberless competing teams who could break away or, equally possibly, join forces to establish yet another party in the run-up to the next election.
The first group includes the veterans of Ukrainian politics, such as Yulia Tymoshenko whose Batkivshchyna party has managed to be both in power and in opposition over the course of nearly two decades, having survived several major crises and found itself once again on the rise. Pundits have buried Tymoshenko repeatedly, but every time she has managed to pick herself up again and reach solid ratings while her opponents went into collapse. Today, she is the frontrunner among presidential candidates, even if only with slightly over 24% in the first round according to a March poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology so far, and so feels no need for her party to join forces with anyone. For instance, during a joint press conference back in February 2016, the Batkivshchyna leader announced that she planned to run together with another political veteran, one-time SBU Chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, but eventually the two went their separate ways. Today, Tymoshenko’s position is far stronger, as Nalyvaichenko trails among the outsiders.
The Young Turks more-or-less include individuals who became politically active after the Revolution of Dignity: Samopomich and a number of smaller parties along the lines of People Power, Movement of New Forces, DemAlliane, and The Wave. Everyone in this cohort claims that they are refreshing the Ukrainian political scene: their first priority is fighting the corrupt systems that will not be brought down by those in power or by Yulia Tymoshenko, should she win. Despite the promise of this niche, these young politicians are having enormous problems finding common ground. Multiple attempts to join forces into a single party have so far not led to anything. This could mean that the Young Turks will end up looking for common ground with oligarchic parties once again, and will cut deals to be placed on their lists—just as they did in 2014.
The nationalist niche was taken over completely by Svoboda back in early 2010, but today there is the National Corps led by Azov commander and current MP Andriy Biletskiy. Of all the parties in Ukraine today, NC seems to be the most determined to actually build a real party from the ground up. It’s been actively recruiting young people this past year, organizing concerts and making its presence felt all the time, putting up posters and handing out flyers in all the major cities. Both parties nevertheless intend, so far, to run for the parliamentary election as a common front. In March 2017, NC, Svoboda and Praviy Sektor signed a manifesto that they were joining forces.
The pro-Russian camp is mostly represented by the remnants of the once-monolithic Party of the Regions, which fell apart days after Yanukovych and his cohort fled Ukraine for Russia in February 2014. Although this flange was strongly unified in the past, now it demonstrates the same merry messiness that the democratic camp always did. A number of new election projects are active in southeastern Ukraine these days. The biggest of these, the Opposition Bloc and the Za Zhyttia party enjoy relatively strong ratings and are competing with each other for the pro-Russian voter. OppBloc is under two familiar oligarchs, Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov. The second one, say informed sources, is under Putin koum and leader of the Ukrainian Choice movement Viktor Medvedchuk. Yet another party on the pro-Russian side is Vidrodzhennia or Renaissance, run by an ex-Party of Regions’ Vitaliy Khomutynnyk, who is apparently also considering a run for the presidency, and Serhiy Taruta’s Osnova or Foundation, who has also been collecting former Regionals and people connected to them. The prospects for Nash Krai or Our Land, are less clear: it’s apparently a project of the Poroshenko Administration and is being handled by Deputy Chief-of-Staff Vitaliy Kovalchuk. Because of internal conflicts with others in the Poroshenko Administration, Kovalchuk is currently in mid-air, and with him Nash Krai.
The main advantage of the pro-Russian forces in the past was that they were consolidated. It helped them win in the 2014 election, but this has been lost since then. Moreover, Russia’s occupation of pro-Russian regions of Ukraine has seriously weakened their positions. Indeed, the fragmentation of the former Regionals greatly reduces the risk of a comeback by pro-Russian forces and the coming to power of a new Yanukovych. Still, the risk remains overly high and has a chance of coming to pass. Poll numbers for OppBloc and Za Zhyttia make that pretty clear. Should they decide to join forces and front a single candidate or party, their chances of winning will be that much higher.
Things are looking messy on both sides of the aisle: in the opposition and in the ruling coalition. Indeed, the strains in the coalition are easily as high. Relations between the president and his circle, and pretty much all potential allies have been damaged. For instance, talks about joining the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s People’s Front are in stalemate. There seems to be little common ground with Premier Volodymyr Groysman, as well, who is on much better terms with top cop Arsen Avakov, also with the People’s Front, and Yatseniuk than with his boss. In fact, there has even been talk that he might make a run for the presidency. These backroom squabbles could lead to surprise combinations with various parties in the opposition, which has clear chances of coming to power down the line. Lately, there have been many rumors about a possible joining of forces between Tymoshenko and Avakov, who is seeing the president’s prospects slowly dwindle and is looking for other ways of staying in power.
History has shown, time and again, that Ukrainian politicians, like Ukrainian society, tend to unite only when under threat from a strong enemy. This is what enabled them to consolidate in 2014, to get behind a single candidate and allow him to come to power without a run-off. But in the run-up to the 2019 elections, the political environment in Ukraine is extremely fragmented, in a kind of “war of everyone against everyone” that verges on a melee at times. The extreme crisis of 2014-2015 is already behind and now politicians are looking to find their spot under the sun. The result will depend on how capable its participants will be to reach a compromise and what kinds of alliances they can forge among themselves.