Despite the successful merger of the Front for Change and Batkivshchyna, the united party could face more dissent and lose voter support unless Arseniy Yatseniuk revises his approach to party building
Batkivshchyna’s merger congress on June 14 could well turn into a scandal, given all the earlier turmoil in the party. However, its leaders managed to stage a pretty show and the merger of Batkivshchyna, Front Zmin (Front for Change), Reformy i Poriadok (Reforms and Order) and part of Narodnyi Rukh (People’s Movement) did indeed take place. Apparently, the party leaders tried to seek a compromise and avoid a war at the congress, so some of Batkivschchyna old guard’s claims were fulfilled: the Front for Change dissolved itself (but did not suspend activity), Arseniy Yatseniuk was not authorized to fire local party leaders singlehandedly, while his grey cardinal, Mykola Martynenko, does not hold a position, nor has he become a member. Representatives of Batkivshchyna’s old guard who signed the notorious letter to ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko were not expelled from the party. The congress confirmed the decision to nominate Yulia Tymoshenko as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election without any mention of Yatseniuk in this context.
A precarious advantage
Apart from the new position of chairman of the political council, created specifically for Yatseniuk, amendments to the party’s charter entail the transformation of Batkivshchyna’s executive secretariat into its headquarters chaired by Oleksandr Turchynov, who was also appointed the party’s first deputy head. From now on, a person will be elected to this position by the party’s congress rather than appointed by its political council. At first glance, looking at the new composition of the political council and its presidium, the old BYuT members have apparently managed to maintain their positions and did not allow representatives of the Front for Change to take over the new united party. The Batkivshchyna to Front for Change ratio is around 3:2 in the political council and 2:1 in the presidium, which holds the exclusive right to dissolve territorial branches.
The Front for Change dissolved itself and recommended all of its members to join the new united party. The leaders of the Front for Change’s local branches will then become first deputy heads of Batkivshchyna’s local branches. This is precisely how Serhiy Tihipko’s Strong Ukraine merged with the Party of Regions. However, not all local branches of the Front for Change have consented to merge with Batkivshchyna. Many of the former’s current members once left Batkivshchyna for Yatseniuk’s party and are now reluctant to go back. Four MPs, including Andriy Pavelko, Leonid Serhiyenko (who have long been considered the most likely to jump ship soon), Volodymyr Polochaninov and Hennadiy Zubko have already expressed their opposition to the merger at the congress to dissolve the Front for Change. The latter has been in a conflict with Serhiy Pashynskyi, the head of Batkivshchyna’s branch in the Zhytomyr Oblast where he used to head the Front for Change branch, would thus become first deputy head to Pashynskyi after the dissolution of Yatseniuk’s party. For this reason, Zubko has recently been promoting his own regional project, Zhytomyr is Our Home.
Old vs new
Objectively, the merger of the Front for Change, Batkivshchyna and Reforms and Order has exposed the fracture within the new united party that could aggravate the discord within the Batkivshchyna parliamentary faction. Thus, in effect, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Mykola Katerynchuk and the Viacheslav Kyrylenko group (which has long exhibited its intent to reincarnate its own party, Za Ukrayiny!, (For Ukraine!)) gain a wider field for manoeuvre. Moreover, new party structures alternative to Batkivshchyna are being established within its faction. More specifically, a group of MPs is forming, that got into parliament under Petro Poroshenko’s quota in the united opposition. On June 17, his top manager and Batkivshchyna MP Yuriy Stets became head of the Solidarnist (Solidarity) party and became its representative in the united opposition’s political council. Oleksandr Bryhinets, another Batkivshchyna MP linked to the chocolate billionaire, has also welcomed this move. Moreover, given the rumours of Yatseniuk’s and Poroshenko’s rapprochement, these processes could signal Poroshenko’s growing influence on decision-making in the united party. His nomination in the upcoming mayoral election in Kyiv may be one of the first results thereof.
Immediately after the merger congress, Yatseniuk tried to confront the most proactive frondeurs. However, his failed attempt to exclude the initiators of the scandalous letter to Tymoshenko from the party was followed by an attack on Anatoliy Hrytsenko that has also proved to be fruitless so far. Attempts were made to disgrace him for his public criticism of the opposition that plays into the hands of the government, and force him to voluntarily leave the Batkivshchyna faction and resign from parliament. He refused to do this, and continues to criticize Yatseniuk for his inability to establish normal cooperation with fellow MPs in the faction. According to Hrytsenko, Yatseniuk views them merely as powerless button-pushers. Hrytsenko’s destructive criticism aside, the number of those unhappy with the united party who are ready to jump ship and oriented at alternative political projects will continue until Yatseniuk starts to respond to constructive criticism.
Yuriy Lutsenko has essentially launched a new project that could ensure a comfortable new political force for those in the united opposition who are frustrated with Yatseniuk’s voluntarism to switch to, without ruining their opposition image and turning into crossovers. Although Lutsenko stressed at the congress that his formal greeting to its participants addressed “the party of Yulia Tymoshenko”, he claimed that he had not become a member because he will “embark on a path to the same goal pursued by Batkivshchyna from the bottom up and from the people, by organizing a connection between opposition parties and the populace”. He also noted that “an important component of future victory is not the debate on who will be the single candidate (representing the opposition in the upcoming presidential election – Ed.) but efforts to encourage millions of those who do not belong to any party to support this candidate”. This implies Yatseniuk, who hopes that his membership in Batkivshchyna will allow him to be said candidate. A more candid signal came from Yuriy Hrymchak, one of Lutsenko’s allies, who stated in an open letter on Facebook that he was forced to leave the party because “the party I belonged to no longer exists. There were and will continue to be crossovers in the Rada,” so he expressed support to those opposition members who have decided to stay out of the united Batkivshchyna.
Clearly, each group that lobbied the merger – the leaders of the old Batkivshchyna headed by Oleksandr Turchynov, and the new party members led by Yatseniuk – is counting on using it for its own benefit. The former believe that the merger will allow them to keep the party rolling and financially safe. Under favourable circumstances (such as the release of Tymoshenko from prison or the rise of a more promising candidate than Yatseniuk), they will be able to remove the new head of the political council from his position or eliminate his influence in the party, as was the case with Serhiy Tihipko in the Party of Regions. The latter can count on a chance to “win Batkivshchyna from inside” turning what is a relatively strong party structure in the current opposition into their foundation for the presidential, local and parliamentary elections. Yatseniuk has a much better chance of implementing this scenario under current circumstances than Serhiy Tihipko did in the Party of Regions. The release of Tymoshenko prior to the Vilnius Summit of Eastern Partnership this autumn is the only factor that could ruin these chances.