The Ukrainian majority is waiting for a solid alternative to the Yanukovych regime, but existing candidates from the parliamentary opposition are currently unable to offer one
The October 2012 parliamentary election showed that the majority of Ukrainians once again voted against the Yanukovych regime. Despite the opposition’s weak media, financial, organizational and leadership resources, and administrative leverage used by those in power, over 50% of the population voted for opposition parties compared to 30% for the Party of Regions. Having granted this goodwill to the opposition, voters have not provided enthusiastic support for its recent protest initiatives. Very few attended the numerous rallies arranged by the opposition, while Facebook posts and conversations with average voters confirm that people do not go to the rallies of the current opposition leaders because they do not trust them nor do they consider them to be much better than those in power. Most people are generally reluctant to take risks like they did during the Orange Revolution without the assurance that another success will not be wasted. So far, opposition leaders have failed to communicate their advantages to the public, or their ability to offer and implement a positive plan of transformations that would benefit Ukrainian society.
However, resisting the Yanukovych regime is unrealistic without mass popular support, including in protests. Image-making and parliament blocking methods of political struggle under current conditions do not leave the opposition much chance of victory. If necessary, the Party of Regions (PR) can afford to hire many more protesters, ensure that the right picture is aired on TV and that its version of events is published in the media. Also, it can easily get a situational majority with the Communist Party and independent MPs in the Rada. Finally, it controls the courts, including the Constitutional Court.
As a result, the opposition has just two options: act as shell opposition to show the West “the diverse political spectre of Ukraine’s democracy” in parliament, or to finally start building up effective popular support; develop a network of local organizations and cultivate party members, who will maintain close contact with society on a daily basis. It could rely on these activists and the new supporters that they recruit in protest campaigns which could then turn into long-lasting, mass and pan-national events, and in elections at all levels. The activists should also serve as a personified link between opposition political forces and NGOs, particularly trade unions which are now mostly loyal to the government, and the protest potential of which is wasted. To accomplish all this, the activists must be genuine and able to influence decision-making in the party hierarchy – from local and regional offices to the top – in reality, not simply on paper. They must have real motivation for political struggle which is distinct from just receiving a salary from the party fund. Equally important, these activists should be attracted by the party’s real political objectives – most of them feasible – rather than the lavish populist promises that the opposition has been feeding to the electorate for a while now.
Batkivshchyna’s leader Arseniy Yatseniuk has lately intensified his battle in the media for the role of the key alternative to Yanukovych. According to sources, he is preparing to create a joint party based on all political forces within the Batkivshchyna alliance. Unless elected as its leader, Yatseniuk seems to be ready to create a new party that will involve all Batkivshchyna MPs loyal to him.
However, the public has many questions to Yatseniuk and the party he wants to lead. Most voters do not see Yatseniuk as a potential leader. Sociological surveys confirm this as his personal ratings that are much lower than Batkivshchyna’s. With his lack of specificity, demagogy, self-adoration, dependence on promotion and constant attempts to evade answering tough questions, Yatseniuk has forced many to think of him as a representative of the “establishment” that is foreign to the interests of most voters and lives a totally different, post-Soviet life. Of course, he seems to be the lesser evil. And that is enough to encourage people to vote for him or his political party in the election, yet insufficient to make the Ukrainian majority believe that he is ready for an open conflict with those in power. Most voters have no idea how Yatseniuk will act, should he take the helm.
The first reason for this is the history of Yatseniuk’s political ascent, linked to proactive support from the most influential oligarchs at the time and bringing controversial people to parliament that jumped ship shortly after. Batkivshchyna’s human resources policy is equally discouraging, fueling suspicion of internal corruption. As a result of Yatseniuk’s poor choice of team members, he brought the first crossovers of the united opposition – father and son Tabalov – to parliament under his quota. They were not the only ones. So far, another five MPs from Yatseniuk’s quota have done so, and at least three more vote in line with the government and may announce their exit from Batkivshchyna officially anytime soon, according to sources. Another aspect that forces voters to doubt Yatseniuk’s sincerity as leader of the opposition, stems from relations with his current partners in Batkivshchyna and Svoboda. “Tymoshenko - a democrat?! It must be a new definition of democracy…”; “The choice between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych is a choice between two evils. I see no difference” – these are Yatseniuk’s quotes prior to the previous presidential election. Even in the summer of 2010, Yatseniuk said: “I want to dispel the myth that the opposition must be united. Tell me: how can I unite with Tymoshenko and Tyahnybok?!”
The second reason is the lack of clear answers from Yatseniuk as to why he wants power. Does he need it to replace the current President or to change the nature of the post-Soviet political and socio-economic model? “My objective is to shape Ukrainian ideology, to shape project Ukraine. And for this I must use all means and methods,” said then presidential candidate Arseniy Yatseniuk about his ideology at the 2009 Yalta European Strategy summit. Almost three and a half years later, he has not managed – or wanted – to outline and inform the public of his own vision of transformations in the country, should he come to power. Despite his warlike rhetoric, he sticks to general phrases about “democratization” and “return to the European path of development”. These raise doubts about his and the party’s intention to break the oligarch-controlled monopolized system that makes Ukraine’s development or European integration impossible. His phrase “Don’t worry Viktor, you’re not an oligarch” to Viktor Pinchuk at the last Yalta European Strategy Summit raises doubts as to whether Yatseniuk is ready to fight the oligarchy. So do his closer contacts with Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko – another political opportunist who must have felt that the moment is right to try and seek support of the opposition after serving in the Yanukovych-Azarov Cabinet. Or, is it that Yatseniuk does not see – or turns a blind eye to the fact that oligarchs are the key obstacle to Ukraine’s development as a normal European state?
Arseniy Yatseniuk has yet to outline his personal vision of Ukraine’s geopolitical prospects. Currently, Yatseniuk seems to be one of the most zealous proponents of Ukraine’s European integration and opponents of it joining the Customs Union or any other Eurasian clubs – at least in his speeches. But during the last presidential campaign, his views were completely opposite. “The need for total modernization is not unique for Ukraine alone. Other East European countries, including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Russia, have the same problems” his campaign platform wrote. The new “East European Project” Yatseniuk wanted to create entailed close cooperation with Ukraine’s post-Soviet neighbours, including a common policy for energy, transport, communication, aviation, space, military, foodstuff production and other sectors. The signals that he may support the Kremlin’s concepts of a “great Europe” from Lisbon to Vladivostok once again, which will put Ukraine’s identity and sovereignty under serious threat from Russia.
Given his current rhetoric, it appears that if Yatseniuk & Co take the helm, they will be yet another change of decoration. If this assumption is wrong, he would be wise to answer difficult questions that are crucial for the country more frequently and clearly, rather than avoid doing so. If Arseniy Yatseniuk wants to become something more than just an acting leader of an artificial political conglomerate, he should declare actual political goals, rather than empty rhetoric and populism.
The secretive UDAR
After the parliamentary election, many called UDAR’s Vitaliy Klitschko the second Serhiy Tihipko. Before the latest presidential campaign, Serhiy Tihipko created his own political project called Sylna Ukrayina (Strong Ukraine). Proactive promotion campaign helped him land third with 13% in the run, following Yanukovych and Tymoshenko. Both owed success to their image. However, neither Klitschko, nor Tihipko – former vice premier in Azarov’s Cabinet, presented a reasonable and specific action plan of profound transformations to implement if they won. Almost six months after the latest convocation of parliament kicked off, they appear to have no clear solutions or actions for key problems, including de-oligarchization, the protection of economic freedom, or the development of national identity. Overall, UDAR’s parliamentary activities and the rhetoric of Klitschko and his party-members have all focused on current political issues. These include the distribution of seats in parliament and blocking. To many, this looks like efforts to boost the party’s ratings. Klitschko often notes that the key objective is to remove the Yanukovych regime. Meanwhile, he does not explain what exactly he is going to do once the regime is removed, and how he will avoid the mistakes of the Orange epoch. And his party has shown hardly any interest at all in language, education and culture.
Vitaliy Klitschko and his party are hard to identify in terms of ideology. Its party platform seems to be designed to please every group of voters. “Our ideology is European integration, the protection of democratic standards and improved living standards,” is how UDAR’s MPs describe their platform. Long story short, they support all things good against all things bad. Requests to be more specific often leave them confused. “(Our ideology is – Ed.) social liberalism. Right-Centrist,” Klitchko said in one of his interviews. Perhaps, the party leader has a hard time expressing its ideology accurately because he has little experience in politics. But his team could have done it as they are the ones who will help him bring it to life. Yet, that’s where the problem starts. Most of Klitchko’s current allies do not seem capable of filling the nice wrapper of the boxing champion’s political project with real content. Different party members often make opposite statements, thus adding to the confusion. While Iryna Herashchenko campaigns to leave Soviet holidays behind, Vitaliy Klitschko greets Ukrainians on the Soviet Army Day and condemns the demolishing of Soviet monuments, even though this is an integral element of de-Sovietization used by all post-Soviet countries that are now EU members.
UDAR members look more like a conglomerate of Klitchko’s old friends and allies, opportunists and oligarchs’ creatures – often with virtually opposite views on the key problems in Ukrainian society and its future – than a team of people united by a common idea. This is a risky mish-mash: it could fail to shape the agenda for Ukraine and implement it consistently, ending up working for self-preservation in politics and personal interests.
Vitaliy Kovalchuk is considered to be UDAR’s grey cardinal. Before coming to parliament, he was unknown to the general public, and linked by some to Leonid Kuchma’s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, which Kovalchuk denies. During his time in parliament, he has become one of the party’s main speakers, and a key representative of UDAR in permanent talks on unblocking parliament. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, he defined UDAR’s line in political negotiations. It is difficult to say anything specific about his ideology. Just like most UDAR MPs, he expresses generally declarative views; European integration, democracy and welfare, while consistently and suspiciously avoiding any specifics. This is understandable, given the intention to win everyone’s affection. But vague priorities entail unpredictable risks for the party’s future conduct and political focus. Also, Kovalchuk does not speak of the prospects of a struggle with oligarchs. “Elites (apparently for the most part made up of oligarchs – Ed.) will soon be forced to support Klitchko because society will bet on him,” he said in an interview. Given this, UDAR’s grey cardinal seems to have no plans to change the oligarch system in Ukraine. Overall, it is doubtful now whether UDAR’s leaders will drop its populist promises anytime soon.
Against the backdrop of on-going internal scandals and crossovers in Batkivshchyna, and the constant scandals that Svoboda fuels around itself, the solid-looking UDAR and its leader have a much better image. Some of its initiatives, such as the blocking of parliament to force MPs to vote in person, seem to bring good electoral results. Yet, the first crossover from UDAR – if this should happen – may become the needle that will pop the party’s popularity balloon and damage the image of the “new era of politicians”. The nation’s frustration could mount if Klitschko’s party fails to offer a clear roadmap for Ukraine’s alternative development, should it come to power.
The fear of heights
Svoboda is arguably the major winner of the latest parliamentary election. Over the past five years, it has grown from an outsider with barely 1% of voter support into a party with a decent amount of seats in parliament. However, it owes this success to voters weary of the PR’s arbitrary rule and impudence rather than a growing core electorate. Voters expected to have a party in parliament that would be able to resist the PR and react to the rule of force it used in the previous parliament. When Svoboda largely met the expectations in the first months of the new convocation, its activism encouraging opposition partners to decisiveness, it saw its rating grow. Still, it appears that Svoboda will not turn into a party that meets the hopes of most Ukrainians, capable of changing the country. The key reason is Svoboda’s reluctance to adjust to the new reality, respond to constructive criticism, and – first and foremost – learn the lessons of its own previous mistakes. So far, it keeps being pulled back to its marginal past.
One of its major problems is the focus on secondary issues, such as protests against propaganda of homosexualism, unconventional gas extraction or initiatives to ban foreigners adopt Ukrainian children, at a time when Ukraine needs radical and deep transformations. The party seems reluctant to develop in line with the new reality, respond to constructive criticism and learn the lessons of their own mistakes. It also attempts to find simple solutions to complex problems as it submits sloppily drafted bills to parliament. The party seems to lack the professional resources – economists, lawyers and diplomats - to implement comprehensive transformations. One reason is that Svoboda has absorbed a huge number of diverse organizations or their members over the past few years. Despite the new membership, these people rarely change their views and ideas. Instead, they communicate their own worldviews, thus shaping the image of a marginal party, often fueling local scandals. Even the members that can be considered as its spin doctors seem to have a simplistic concept of social problems. For instance, Oleksandr Shevchenko, Professor of Law and author of Svoboda’s National Constitution Project, said in an interview with the Glavcom online publication, that all Ukraine needs to improve its quality of life is to prohibit oligarchs from taking capital out of Ukraine. “If we cap this, we will instantly become a European country as far as the standard of living is concerned,” he said. “…we shall pay pensions and salaries at European levels… upgrade industrial technologies, facilitate agriculture! We could eliminate unemployment and bring home ethnic Ukrainians living in misery abroad.”
Apart from this, the party seems unprepared to get rid of its image as a xenophobic and anti-European party, largely artificially orchestrated by predominantly pro-Russian forces. However, moderate voters will never support it with its current reputation. It is not taking efforts to push aside part of the old guard that continues to use the rhetoric and actions typical of outsider radicals, as opposed to striving for an influential role in Ukrainian politics.
“We need to replace the government,” Oleh Tyahnybok said in a recent interview with The Ukrainian Week. “In other words, real changes along these lines can only start in 2015 or in 2014 if we have early elections.” Clearly, the government has to be changed in order to affect any transformations. Yet, Svoboda has no clear plan of changes once it’s in power, while focusing on how to get there.
Unless Svoboda changes to fit the sentiments and needs of the majority of voters, it will have 10-13% at the most until they find an alternative party to support. Then, its rate risks dropping to its core 3-4%. But no matter what future is awaiting Svoboda, its emergence in parliament was important as radical circumstances require radical parties.
Building the Third Republic
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. 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. “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. It is currently considered the key platform document of the new initiative. Its main point is that removing Yanukovych from office or even replacing the regime 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, including law enforcement authorities.
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. Meanwhile, it is clear that potential disagreements between the current opposition and Lutsenko & Co. do exist. The organizers of the Third Republic already criticize some actions of the parliamentary opposition, including the failure to set elections in Kyiv when due and inert stance on the European integration, off record. Meanwhile, Yuriy Lutsenko seems to be drawing closer to Petro Poroshenko and Batkivshchyna MPs close to him, such as Yuriy Stets. But the story of Narodna Samooborona (People’s Self-Defence) funded by Davyd Zhvania, a Ukrainian oligarch of Georgian origin who is now on the government’s side, and many other similar projects of the past years, proves that his path is wrong. Given some scattered information currently available, the new project of Lutsenko and field commanders is deciding on whom it will choose. Could the Third Republic campaign thus grow into yet another political project to bring those left outside the current parliamentary opposition back to politics?
Currently, there is a huge gap between Ukrainian majority demanding immediate reset and opposition leaders, most of them feeling perfectly happy in a post-Soviet environment. For a slew of reasons, none of the existing opposition forces will be able to grow into a mainstream party to offer an alternative project including all necessary economic, social and identification transformations and consolidate the majority of Ukrainian voters around it. Apparently, such a political force can only grow from civil society and elites oriented at changing the country rather than getting in power at any price, as it has been for the past 22 years.