The Ukrainian Week takes a closer look at what lies beneath Svoboda's slogans in the interview with its leader Oleh Tyahnybok about the forms and tactics of political struggle, the prospects of a revolution, the interaction of opposition politicians and stereotypes about Svoboda
Oleh Tyahnybok’s answers pretty much clarify what the opposition actually expects from the Rise Ukraine! campaign. Arseniy Yatseniuk’s first call to a “national revolt” made Rise Ukraine! look like yet another promotion campaign for him to gain sole leadership. His unexpected loud statement (it emerged later that many Batkivshchyna MPs heard the call to the barricades from the media) coincided with the publication of a rating of potential candidates in the 2015 presidential election. It revealed that Vitaliy Klitschko has more popular support than Yatseniuk and Tyahnybok, and would win over Yanukovych with a wider margin than Yatseniuk. Meanwhile, Klitschko’s popularity also comes from UDAR’s proactive campaign, including the permanent blocking of the parliamentary tribune.
However, revolutions don’t have a schedule. The first “rallies” arranged by the opposition in Uzhhorod and Lviv confirmed this. The opposition may try to justify weak attendance by bad weather, but this sort of approach to arranging a “popular uprising” may once again signal that it lacks the strategy to resist the regime. The schedule of the rallies was complied when the forecast predicting snow storms in Western Ukraine was already available. Was it that the rally organizers once again made a simple miscalculation, or are they in fact reluctant to have massive rallies? Meanwhile, the government has already used its loyal media to portray protests arranged by the opposition as something unimportant.
Based on Oleh Tyahnybok’s answers, the biggest priority of Rise Ukraine! is to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections, while at the very least, the objective is to fuel protest sentiments in society. The key goal is to go to all oblasts, talk to the people and find out what kind of opposition they want, mobilize activists and create a platform of people who can come to Kyiv or rally in their home towns if necessary, and then have our local branches maintain active contact with the voters. Still, Svoboda’s leader made the point that the opposition should be more proactive. “Of course, we can wait for the nation to rise on its own, driven to the edge of desperation by social pressure and injustice. But it’s better to facilitate the process, boost revolutionary sentiments… hold rallies and conferences, intensify the situation,” says Tyahnybok, explaining the activation of the opposition.
All this seems right. However, the miscalculation lies in the fact that throwing down slogans about the beginning of a “national revolt” and allowing it to abate to a routine regional tour may devalue the idea of national resistance. In other words, the opposition’s actions risk turning into a false start. It would have more effect going around the country and announcing massive protests or a national strike that could grow into something bigger, taking into account the public opinions and sentiments they see in the regions.
Tyahnybok believes that the pressure on the regime is currently supported by a number of “islands of resistance” that exist in Ukraine and demonstrate that the regime is not omnipotent. In his opinion, these include, first and foremost, local councils in three oblasts in Halychyna, where Svoboda is well-represented, and parliament where “so far, the opposition is holding its ground” proving more proactive than its predecessors in the Verkhovna Rada. However, his statement that the opposition “already has some minor successes and victories in its portfolio” appears a little optimistic. He mentions the struggle for individual voting and the language law as examples, and approves of the three-month ongoing blocking of the Verkhovna Rada tribune.
Despite the fact that the country has virtually had no legislature for three months, Tyahnybok claims that “if it hadn’t been for these three months of war, the opposition wouldn’t have had its accomplishments.” So, “if the majority acts the way it did in the previous convocation, parliament will not work – we will not let it work,” he concludes. The latest developments in the parliament, however, prove that the accomplishments he mentioned are, for the most part, wishful thinking. This is because the opposition has made the same mistake of taking the Party of Regions’ commitments seriously, while the latter obviously believes that it has once again fooled the opposition. For instance, the very first session after the parliament was unblocked started with “button pushing” by at least three Party of Regions’ MPs, including Mykola Rudkovsky, Iryna Berezhna and Yulia Liovochkina. Have they ever been held liable for this? And they were only voting on the day’s agenda. What will then happen when the Party of Regions presents issues that are crucial for it?
Oleh Tyahnybok does not hide his concerns about the government’s attempts to discredit the Verkhovna Rada as a redundant and unnecessary body. Therefore, “we block parliament, demanding that MPs abide by laws and the Constitution on the one hand, and do everything to still make it work on the other. We take some risks, but it is only to create a fully-fledged parliament,” he comments. However, the government seems to have guessed the opposition’s fears and is now using them to discredit the opposition as clown-like blockers of the parliament’s tribune. Meanwhile, the opposition should have realized that once started, the blocking campaign has to be brought to a proper end, otherwise there was no point in starting it.
THE KYIV TEST
Since the beginning of the parliamentary campaign, Svoboda has been in a bitter and public confrontation with Klitschko’s UDAR. They didn’t even try to nominate common candidates in first-past-the-post constituencies, which largely resulted in the defeat of opposition candidates in them. After the new parliament started working, Svoboda was pleasantly surprised by UDAR’s change of attitude regarding cooperation, says Tyahnybok: “Our relations are now much stronger and better than I pictured them at first.” Still, he suggests that voters should not seek synchronization in the actions of “different opposition parties” because the only thing they have in common is the fulfillment of specific tactical tasks that include the removal of the Yanukovych regime and the adverse effects of its three-year governance, and initiate profound changes in Ukrainian society, then prevent the comeback of the overthrown regime. As to the implementation of these objectives, each party has its own plan. If this is the case, doubts arise as to whether Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda will act wiser compared to the 2005-2010 Orange leaders should they win. This signals that their joint governance will again be accompanied by an internal struggle, inevitably leading to yet another defeat, which could ultimately confuse the Ukrainian majority.
The next test will come with Kyiv mayor and city council elections if these take place. Following Yatseniuk’s suit, Tyahnybok is trying to push Klitschko to run for mayor, and if he doesn’t, run for office himself, since he believes it is a convenient springboard for the presidential election. "You have to be inadequate to bury your popularity rating given such opportunities and such an office," he said. "No one will demand a mayor do things he will not be able to do in principle. If in the short time that remains the mayor succeeds in stopping corruption and embezzlement and installs at least elementary order in budget appropriations and land parceling, this will not be lost on residents of Kyiv."
Oleh Tyahnybok’s ambitions are inspired by the latest parliamentary election where common candidates from Batkivshchyna and Svoboda won almost all first-past-the-post districts in Kyiv, winning 50% of the vote from Kyivites. “Any opposition candidate will win the election with consolidated support for the opposition,” Tyahnybok concludes, forgetting the experience of Oleksandr Turchynov who failed to win on the back of Batkivshchyna’s ratings in the 2008 mayoral election, losing to Leonid Chernovetsky.
The approach to the possibly upcoming mayoral election in Kyiv described by Tyahnybok signals that the risk of a war among opposition parties remains surprisingly high. “All candidates in the mayoral and city council election should be agreed upon, including the positions they will hold in city council executive bodies. When discussing the opposition mayoral candidate, we cannot but discuss the city council election. In addition, there are the offices of the council secretary and committee chairmen – they should all be part of the deal,” he suggests.
This is right in theory. In practice, however, this is hardly an option for Vitaliy Klitschko if he decides to run for mayor. As the most popular politician in Kyiv, he may be expecting to win without any deals with Batkivshchyna or Svoboda. UDAR has strong “Kyiv roots”, i.e. influential lobbyists who are unlikely to cede their quotas in the Kyiv district in favour of other parties. If Klitschko agreed to give them up for other parties, UDAR’s leader would probably end up without the support of the numerous faction in the Kyiv City Council on which he could have counted in the struggle for the powers of the key man in Kyiv against the Presidential Administration or its man - the Head of the Kyiv City State Administration. Therefore, Kyiv is very likely to once again become an apple of discord among the opposition, as it was in the parliamentary election – especially given that some Batkivshchyna people are promoting Petro Poroshenko as a potential mayor.
Similar to Vitaliy Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok prefers to leave the question of 2015 open: “We don’t know what will happen in the next two years. We can only sit and talk about it in detail when the time comes”. But so far, according to the polls, Tyahnybok is the only opposition leader who will lose the presidential election to Yanukovych if both happen to run in the second round, albeit narrowly. Instead, sources at the Presidential Administration claim that it is already developing a scenario for Yanukovych to get the least dangerous sparring partner in the upcoming presidential election, using the tactics that brought victory to presidents in Ukraine, Russia, Romania, to name but a few. The tactics is to represent him as the lesser of the two evils, with the rivals being extreme left or right candidates. Spin doctors at the Presidential Administration reportedly see Svoboda’s leader as a perfect candidate for the role, counting on the chance to persuade most protest-oriented voters of a nationalistic threat, using loyal media and manipulations, and to top it off, secure Yanukovych’s victory with administrative leverage and fraud. Meanwhile, Tyahnybok has the potential to boost his ratings in Ukrainian society, which is growing more radical, as confirmed by latest trends in public opinion.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Svoboda often wastes its efforts on secondary issues, such as those related to sexual or ethnic minorities, while leaving some crucial problems, such as the monopolization of the economy, the strategy to develop it, the dominance of Russian products in the cultural domain, and oligarch-dependent media on the sidelines. In his interview, Oleh Tyahnybok tried to deny this, blaming everything on his political opponents that use the media to portray Svoboda this way. “The Programme to Protect Ukrainians” contains hundreds of provisions,” he says. “They pick one controversial point and run with it. This results in the impression that Svoboda does nothing but fight against Lenin monuments, for the Ukrainian language or national identification, although this is completely wrong… We have many recommendations regarding the protection of the media space, freedom of speech, language policy and more.” To improve the situation for the Ukrainian cultural product, Svoboda, according to Tyahnybok, suggests exempting Ukrainian-language products from taxes and supporting it with taxes on products in other languages. Every sixth hryvnia from the box office receipts of foreign movies could also be spent to develop the Ukrainian film industry. And he recalled the “ultra-revolutionary economic laws that, if passed, will change the economic system dramatically” submitted by his party. In order to accomplish a real economic effect, however, they still need to be worked on.
The platforms of opposition parties often have many reasonable provisions, and Svoboda may have the most, but in practice, the party has different priorities. It is in practice that Svoboda often tilts to secondary issues that can easily be used for the promotion or problems that are only important if solved along with others, that are currently more urgent for the state. “We can’t stop being ourselves! People voted for us because we are what we are, and not something different. Our platform is our worldview, and it remains unchanged, based on Christian values, the rejection of perversions etc”, Tyahnybok explains the actions of his party colleagues after the election. It appears that Svoboda still does not understand the reason for the skyrocketing popularity that brought it to the Verkhovna Rada.
Many of those who voted for Svoboda in the latest election supported its proven reluctance to reconcile with the regime, which contrasts with the passivity and conformism of other opposition forces, rather than for the slogans Svoboda brings to most of its post-election public events. Indeed, the ever more radical society likes these slogans, expecting Svoboda to continue resisting the Yanukovych regime and not cooperating with it. This is great, but not if it means that this regime will be replaced by that of Tyahnybok or Svoboda. “The struggle against the enemy” as a top priority hides the threat of searching for new enemies to resist once the current ones are defeated. Meanwhile, many crucial problems may end up on the sidelines, especially given that the party lacks a definitive action plan or has a fairly superficial vision for their solution. When asked about economic priorities, should Svoboda come to power, Oleh Tyahnybok mentioned the nationalization of strategic enterprises and a focus on the food and engineering industries. However, these areas have already outpaced other industries in Ukraine in terms of development over the past few years. The aviation, ship building, aerospace engineering and defence industries that Svoboda is counting on, are Soviet anachronisms.
All political parties, including the Communists and the party in power, go back to it from time to time. In the current circumstances, these industries can only be an element of decoration in Ukraine’s obsolete economy, and not the driving force behind its development given their progress on the global market and the low capacity of the poor domestic market of Ukraine. If developed, they will still not make millions of Ukrainians better-off or contribute to the expansion of the domestic market. Tyahnybok offered no solutions to resolve this issue.
“We need to change the government,” he summed up the interview. “Real changes can only begin in 2015, or 2014 if there is an early presidential election.” Indeed, the current government has to go in order to make any transformations possible.
Unlike UDAR or Batkivshchyna, Svoboda has a clear ideology. However, just like its fellow opposition parties, it does not have a clear plan of changes for the country after coming to power. Instead, it focuses on how to gain power. Even though Oleh Tyahnybok says that preventing the regime from returning is one of the three key objectives, should the opposition come to power, this tactic and the lack of strategy will boost the regime’s chances of returning.