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14 April, 2013  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhelson

People’s Self-Defence 2.0

Yuriy Lutsenko is going to create a new political project. The question is whether he will make the same mistakes as were made during the launch of People’s Self-Defence and whether the new organization will be constructed to serve the interests of Petro Poroshenko

No sooner did Yuriy Lutsenko, former Minister of the Interior and a “field commander” of the Orange Revolution, leave the Menska Penal Colony, than he assured the press that he had no intention of leaving politics. This remark generated a storm of comments, forecasts and plain speculation. There were two main questions. First, to what extent will his release change the current political landscape? Second, how will it affect the prospects of the opposition forces which have so far failed to convince the majority of Ukrainians of their ability to implement radical transformations after coming to power, or even their ability to successfully oppose the Yanukovych regime.

About two weeks prior to his release, Lutsenko met with other former leaders of the Orange Revolution: Roman Bezsmertny, Volodymyr Filenko and Taras Stetskiv. All these political veterans found themselves closed out of parliament, having failed to secure the support of any of the three opposition forces. Rumours that the “field commanders” were preparing a new political project began to circulate soon after their get-together. Expres, a western Ukrainian newspaper, even published an interview with Stetskiv, entitled “Lutsenko is Creating a New Radical Party”. But Stetskiv himself has assured The Ukrainian Week that the title was a journalist’s mistake. A new party is not on the agenda. Lutsenko also says that it is too early to speak about a new party being created for him to lead. However, a certain organization with the status of a civic movement is indeed in the pipeline.

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“By autumn 2014 we have to form a powerful popular movement involving millions… The opposition will only gain million-strong support in the streets if it has a plan for achieving positive changes for the entire country and for every Ukrainian. I call it the Plan of the Third Ukrainian Republic,” Lutsenko wrote in a speech, which he was not permitted to read in court on 3 April. On his release, when speaking on television, he said that during his recuperation, questions about the new movement should be addressed to Bezsmertny. Lutsenko thus outlined a certain “hierarchy” of the yet to be formalized structure. In his commentary for The Ukrainian Week, Bezsmertny emphasized several times that the ideology of the “people’s movement for the third republic” (a working name which Bezmertny recommends not to capitalize as yet) will be based on the key points in the speech Lutsenko had intended to read in court.

The main point is that removing Yanukovych from office or even replacing the regime in its entirety is not enough. The priorities for the public at large should be, first, European integration (as Bezsmertny put it, “at any price”) and second, the fundamental reform of the government. At the same time, the “field commanders” emphasize that the new movement will not be an alternative to existing opposition forces. On the contrary, its purpose will be to support their useful initiatives, including through the pressure of street protests which will only be of a peaceful nature.

It is clear that potential disagreements between the current opposition and Lutsenko & Co. do exist, the main one being the natural reluctance of opposition leaders to see Lutsenko as another political figure who is popular with the pro-opposition electorate. Moreover, even now the organizers of the “third republic” are criticizing some of the actions of the parliamentary opposition in private. For example, the opposition has let the issue of the Kyiv mayoral elections slide and is not actively working on European integration. According to information obtained by The Ukrainian Week, Lutsenko has not met Arseniy Yatseniuk or Vitaliy Klitschko in person since his release, even though he has been in “constant” contact with them by phone. Perhaps the sides do not yet see a mutually beneficial political subject to warrant such a meeting.

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Overall, the new initiative of the leaders of the Orange Revolution is reminiscent of the beginnings of Lutsenko’s Narodna Samooborona (People’s Self-Defence). Today, Lutsenko emphasizes that this party does not exist – it has merged with Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), although, by the way, there have been no reports about his party holding a congress to pass a decision to this effect. There was only Lutsenko’s letter written in a pre-trial detention facility in which he mentioned the merger. This letter was read at his party’s congress before the election. Lutsenko specifically created People’s Self-Defence in January 2007 as a “broad public movement”. Its declared purpose was to secure an early parliamentary election and remove the Yanukovych government that was formed in September 2006.

The new organization may show its worth during the election in Kyiv which will in all likelihood take place at the same time as the local elections across the country in 2014. Incidentally, Lutsenko did not deny the possibility of his participation in these elections. The “third republic” could also try to run for some seats in local elections in other regions. However, it is better done in the form of a party. Stetskiv did not deny such likelihood in his commentary for The Ukrainian Week but stressed that a transformation into a party, should it ever take place, has to occur closer to the election date. In conjunction with this, it is worth noting that People’s Self-Defence followed this scenario six years ago, turned into a party, merging with the Vpered, Ukraino! (Forwards, Ukraine! – it is not linked to Natalia Korolevska’s Ukraine, Forward! party running in the latest parliamentary election – Ed.) party formed in 1999 to do so. The party made it into parliament as part of the bloc headed by Viktor Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine), and Lutsenko was given the top spot on the election list in exchange. None other than David Zhvania donated to People’s Self-Defence. He became one of the key MPs who switched sides under pressure from the Party of Regions in 2010 and has possibly been involved in the current process of winning over Fatherland’s MPs who were put on the election list by his business partner Mykola Martynenko.

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In the Ukrainian reality, a more or less powerful party cannot be created today without significant financing, which can only be obtained through either access to the state budget, or one or more donors from among big businessmen. Tellingly, Lutsenko has shown signs of rapprochement with Petro Poroshenko and Fatherland MPs who are linked to him, such as Yuriy Stets. This forced one to remember that the fate of People’s Self-Defence and many other similar projects in the past years reflects the fallibility of this course. At present, the new initiative of Lutsenko and his brothers-in-arms is in its infancy. In any case, the movement’s official registration will only begin after Lutsenko is discharged from hospital: on 9 April, doctors recommended that he take a full medical checkup as an in-patient, which will probably be followed by the treatment of illnesses that were aggravated while he was in prison.

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