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26 November, 2012

Azarov Versus Firtash

News about escalating conflicts between groups of influence within the ruling party surface in the foreign media, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, after the Party of Regions fails to get the result it expected in the election

Mykola Azarov looked irritated on the night after the election. As No. 1 on the Party of Regions’ list, he was forced to appear at the PR’s official headquarters located at the InterContinental hotel in downtown Kyiv, and talk about the “victory” of his party with the 30% it won in proportional vote, which was the best result of all election participants.

The impression was, however, that PR’s No. 1 was not in a good mood. Azarov’s irritation came to the fore when reporters began to ask him about his prospects for remaining in office. Instead of waving them aside, saying something like “this will be decided by the president and parliament according to the Constitution”, the premier called the reporters provocateurs, then spoke offensively to some of them, but did not actually give a response.

AIRING DIRTY LAUNDRY

Something unimaginable followed: the internal conflict within the ruling party was not only made public, but was even the focus of the foreign media. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a well-known German newspaper, published an article called Der Gute Mann von Kiew? (The Good Man of Kyiv?) by Konrad Schuller, based on his visit to Ukraine during the October parliamentary election. The publication described the titanic struggle of Premier Mykola Azarov with the cunning oligarch Dmytro Firtash. If any Ukrainian publication were to print such an article, it would have immediately been accused of writing a deliberately misleading article for money. “In a narrow circle, Azarov said that the main group in this war of oligarchs, headed by chemical and gas billionaire Firtash, has been consistently trying to ruin Ukraine’s relations with the West for many years now,” stated the article.

It portrays Mykola Azarov as possibly one of the most pro-Western men in Ukrainian politics; one who personally insisted that Yanukovych should immediately free German political analyst Nico Lange, arrested by the Ukrainian Security Service – the SBU, (which at that time was headed by Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, a member of the Firtash group) at the airport under obscure charges in 2010, and recommended against the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko who was  also in a public conflict with Firtash, but in better relations with Andriy Kliuyev, head of the PR election campaign. Moreover, Azarov is personally doing everything possible to reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas, the article expands. He is aiming to replace Russian gas with that bought in Western Europe and is making every effort to intensify cooperation with German industrial giants. Firtash and his RosUkrEnergo (of which Gazprom is a co-owner), on the other hand, were portrayed as the main lobbyists of Russian interests in Ukraine.

The article may give the German readership, unfamiliar with Ukrainian politics, the impression that Azarov is a true European-oriented statesman and democrat, although it does say that the premier is doing all this as part of the war against Firtash, and not out of some abstract idealism.

CHAOS AS A STRATEGY

At first glance, the article has many rational points. Still, believing Mykola Azarov’s dedication to democracy and European values is as naïve as assuming that Viktor Yanukovych reads through Cicero’s works before he makes a public speech of his own. The article may stem from the long lasting animosity between the Firtash group and Andriy Kliuyev, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, who attained the right to run the Party of Regions’ election campaign this spring. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, one of the manifestations of this animosity was the chaos that lasted over ten days after the election in a number of FPTP districts, where pro-government candidates lost to opposition or disloyal independent candidates, but used an extensive arsenal of measures to rig the outcome.

The President’s Chief of Staff and Firtash’s man, Serhiy Liovochkin (the current Head of the Kyiv City State Administration – Oleksandr Popov, is trying to become the fully authorized Kyiv mayor under his protectorate, albeit without success as yet), got out of the challenge of ensuring solid support for the PR in Kyiv with its electorate that is decidedly unfriendly towards the PR. This was partly the reason why the PR essentially lost the campaign in all 13 Kyiv districts.

Meanwhile, Andriy Kliuyev, as head of the PR headquarters was responsible for achieving one of the PR’s key objectives in this election, i.e. to ensure a 226 one-party majority in the new parliament. The PR headquarters now blames the failure to do so on the sabotage arranged by the Firtash group. “They were literally sinking us. Just look at how maliciously their Inter (a TV channel with nationwide coverage controlled by Valeriy Khoroshkovsky) covered developments at problematic districts,” a PR source said.

Of course, nothing is that simple. Let’s say that Yanukovych or someone from his closest circle had personally authorized the chaos that unfolded at some districts after the election. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, Kliuyev came up with the following scheme: candidates capable of winning, should have done so on their own using the tools available to them. Meanwhile, the administration machine would merely not interfere with what they did. As a result, PR candidate Travianko at notorious District No. 132 in Pervomaisk, Mykolayiv Oblast, engaged special purpose police units to transport ballots from the oblast election commission. Others, such as Tetiana Zasukha at District No. 90, “encouraged” the courts to deem that tens of thousands of votes for the opposition were invalid. Some PR candidates quit the campaign, due to a lack of resources.

The idea of the scheme was for central government to look as if it had absolutely nothing to do with the scandalous developments in many districts. This was why Yanukovych stubbornly avoided commenting on what was going on for two weeks after the election. At the same time, as is now clear, the government obviously failed to dissociate itself, as the post-election rigging and chaos are now blamed on the president both at home and in the West.

In a situation like this, much now depends on who will present himself better in Yanukovych’s eyes. Will it be Liovochkin who has to prove not only that Kliuyev is to blame, but also that he is once more fueling a scandal, or Kliuyev, who would like to blame everything on Firtash’s saboteurs. After all, Firtash’s people ran in some scandalous districts. His protégé, Valentyna Zhukovska blatantly stole the victory from opposition candidate Mykola Bulatetsky.

This must have been the background for the publication in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The ongoing struggle, among other things, is for the premier’s office. The Firtash group has had its eye on it for years. Kliuyev also wants it, but has found himself in a lose-lose situation, falling hostage to Azarov who is not ready to retire yet. This explains the efforts to present Azarov to Western partners as a pro-Western premier who is supposedly protecting Ukraine from the pro-Russian Firtash.

Kliuyev’s opponents quickly responded to the anti-Firtash publication. On 6 November, the Ukrainian Internet was abuzz with the news of Firtash’s man Liovochkin resigning from the office of the President’s Chief of Staff and that Kliuyev was being considered as a possible replacement. The news appeared on a website notorious for posting blatantly false interviews, and was rebutted later in the day. It is common practice in behind the scenes political struggles for politicians to arrange the leaking of misleading information about themselves to see who will first claim a newly-vacant office, or to report to their bosses – Yanukovych in our case – that the enemies – in this case Kliuyev – are working tirelessly to overthrow the only loyal servant – Liovochkin. Whether the balance of power changes in the pro-government conglomerate, will largely depend on how well Kliuyev accomplishes his new task to recruit at least 40 self-nominated and opposition MPs into the PR faction in the new parliament. Actually, they are already getting “offers that are hard to refuse”. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the PR has already recruited at least 20 crossovers.

Ultimately, the current situation signals a serious internal struggle in the ruling party’s camp that strives to look unified and unbreakable. If it has not been leaked so obviously to the public so far, now it is – and will most likely escalate as the presidential election draws closer.


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