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13 May, 2011  ▪  Alina Pastukhova

Engine Failure

If it does not make cardinal changes, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party risks inviting the fate of Our Ukraine

Opinion polls show that over 40% of Ukrainians are ready to participate in protests. Trust in the government is plummeting – the most recent poll by the Razumkov Center shows a mere 16.6% of people support Viktor Yanukovych as president. However, even in such “favorable circumstances” the opposition has gained virtually nothing in popularity. Instead, there is an increasing number of people willing to vote against all parties (15.2%) or willing to not participate in the election at all (11.2%). A growing number of people are pinning their hopes on “street” opposition movements and associations.

Such trends in society are a challenge above all to Yulia Tymoshenko’s political force, which leads the opposition in ratings and still stands a chance of becoming the main alternative to the ruling party in the next election.

After power changed hands in the country, some hoped that Tymoshenko would be a containing factor to many controversial initiatives pursued by the Party of Regions. However, the failure to prevent the government from ratifying the Kharkiv Treaties, followed by Tymoshenko's year-long absence from the government, showed that the BYuT engine, which seemed to be an unstoppable generator of victories, has stalled.

UNDER PRESSURE

Tymoshenko herself and the spokespeople of her political force attribute the lack of results to one thing only: given the pressure the current government has put on them, preserving the opposition is an achievement in and of itself. It is true that Tymoshenko visits the General Prosecutor's Office nearly every day, while the government comes up with one charge after another. Many members of her faction defected to the other camp under threats to their business or to their relatives. Kostiantyn Zhevaho is, in effect, the only remaining big business figure who still supports Tymoshenko's party. On the local level, businessmen are threatened with tax police checks and bullied into deserting BYuT and government employees are told they will be handed their walking papers if they remain loyal to her.

The flight of investors quickly made its mark. According to BYuT members, the organization lacks funds and has had to trim its staff by nearly 50%.

Opposition members have virtually no way to present the results of their work. According to the Academy of the Ukrainian press and the NANU Institute of Sociology, which monitored evening news on the Ukrainian TV channels in February 2011, 84% of airtime was given to government representatives and a mere 14% to the opposition.

The parliament minority lost its right to head three committees (on the budget, VR procedure and freedom of press) and to set the parliament’s agenda on certain days.

However, external pressure does not account for all the problems Tymoshenko’s bloc has run into. It has experienced pressure before when former President Leonid Kuchma was in office. Tymoshenko was even thrown behind bars in a detention unit under Kuchma, but this only boosted her popularity. Moreover, in opening criminal cases against her, the government has now made a mistake. It has effectively helped the ex-premier to attract voters' attention and has given her party access to the media. Western countries and influential organizations have also denounced her persecution, calling it biased, and this complicates already difficult foreign relations for the government.

Consequently, the main reasons for Tymoshenko’s faltering political force are internal, rather than external.

SEEING NO PROSPECTS

Sources close to the party link shrinking membership not only with repressions on the part of the authorities but also with a lack of faith in its leader’s prospects.

Tymoshenko’s charisma, which drove her opponents to despair, in particular by leaving her invulnerable to criticism, has a reverse side. Without her personality, BYuT does not stand a chance. This is, in fact, the weak spot at which the government is taking aim. If she is found guilty and is unable to participate in the election, BYuT may not be much competition at all.

BYuT’s program, strategy and ideology are secondary to Tymoshenko's personality. At the moment, voters cannot even get access to her party’s program – it has disappeared from the party’s site. The Ukrainian Week’s inquiry did not lead to a satisfactory explanation: it was removed to be “modified.” However, at times Tymoshenko herself seems to be at a loss about what to do. She tries to ride the wave by sensing people's attitudes and keeping their attention for long-distance runs. And then the slack in her organization becomes most conspicuous as conflicts surface in the center and the regional branches.

Among the defectors who left her party are people who were personally committed to Tymoshenko and who were in no way expected to desert her. One of them is MP Dmytro Vetvytsky, who is closely related to Tymoshenko and at one point served as the chair of the board of directors in United Energy Systems, the energy firm she ran in the 1990s.

In the course of the year, internal conflicts in Fatherland’s local branches have erupted with alarming regularity, enabling the government to further compromise the opposition.

In February, head of the Odessa party organization, Dmytro Spivak, was dismissed from his office allegedly for anti-party activities. He offered his own version of events, saying his exit was caused by a conflict with MP Oleh Rudkovsky, head of the oblast party organization, whom he accused of using the local party structure to further his business interests. A similar confrontation occurred in Zhytomyr where the local leader, Mykola Savenko, was expelled from the party. He blamed personal wars within BYuT on the eve of parliamentary election. Last winter, the the Kyiv oblast organization went as far as targeting Tymoshenko herself. It came up with an initiative to expel her and her close associate Oleksandr Turchynov from the party in order to “purge it of corrupt politicians.”

Inside fighting points to the depth of the existing problems in Tymoshenko's political force and raises the issue of how efficient her inner circle is, especially the people responsible for regional activities and human resources.

EACH TO HIS OWN

Turchynov is the perennial number two in BYuT. He has traditionally been responsible for HR and local party organizations. Thus, BYuT’s structural failure after the election, spreading conflicts and the inability to operate in the new conditions are largely his fault. Sources in BYuT attribute these problems to the recent cooling in the relationship between Turchynov and his boss.

Sources close to Tymoshenko and politicians who have left her party revealed the shadow schemes used to finance the party and its HR policy, claiming that they all come down to Turchynov. These schemes led to a situation when the organization preferred to attract rich fair-weather friends, while the ideologically strong, active and eager-to-work members were pushed into the background or reduced to the role of “cannon fodder.”

The problem is plain to see even without these testimonies: “fellow travelers” jumped off the bandwagon which was heading nowhere, while the party system they corrupted has not been able to bounce back, make contact with the active part of the public and restore its ability to generate fresh ideas and act.

Ex-SBU officer Andriy Kozhemyakin has traditionally been considered close to Turchynov. He is charged with the security of BYuT and its leader and essentially shares responsibility for the organizational structure with Tymoshenko.

An internal security problem which was fuelled rather than averted by Tymoshenko’s lieutenants was that she became surrounded by people who wanted to use her to get into the government, make a fortune or carry out special interest operations. For example, Andriy Portnov was her close associate for a long while. The media has report about his past experience of corporate raids and legal schemes costing BYuT’s leader many a vote. After her defeat in the presidential election, Portnov was appointed to an office in Viktor Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration. Other odious figures previously close to Tymoshenko have also switched sides. The most conspicuous among them are Andriy Yatsenko and Serhiy Osyka, the masterminds of murky government procurement schemes, and Bohdan Hubsky, a one-time SDPU(o) member.

However, BYuT’s fundamental problem is its lack of an ideological basis that would constitute its moral core and would not allow would-be defectors to take top offices in the party structure.

NEW HOPE

Tymoshenko claims that “40,000 people, primarily representatives of medium and small business and intelligentsia” have joined the ranks of her political force in the past year. The party started to “reform its regional structures which will soon be headed by young leaders.”

Party functionaries promise to tackle party reform with greater urgency when the president signs a bill on parliamentary elections into law and it becomes clear what new challenges need to be addressed.

However, if it chooses to wait for the final version of the bill, BYuT may not have enough time to kick the party into working shape before the campaign kicks off.


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