A one-trick pony?

22 December 2017, 10:40

During the snap presidential election in 2014, more than 1.5 million Ukrainians wanted to see this controversial politician lead their country. At the time, Oleh Liashko picked up 8.3% of the vote, coming third among 20 candidates, although most opinion polls had given him only 3-6% support. The Radical Party leader’s result was one of the big surprises of the 2014 election. With his outrageous statements and clownish manner, this man, whom few took especially seriously, was suddenly breathing down the neck of the one-time people’s favorite, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been a political prisoner under the criminal Yanukovych regime. The lady with the braid managed only 12.8%, while Liashko outran an entire pack of political greybeards.

Completely theoretically—had Poroshenko and Tymoshenko decided not to run at the last minute, Liashko might very well have won the seat, as his nearest rivals were considerably behind him. Only Anatoliy Hrytsenko, with 6.0%, might have been in a position to beat him in a second round, whereas Yanukovych-era mastodons like Serhiy Tihipko, with 4.6% and Mikhail Dobkin, with 2.7%, had no chance at all.

But by the time the election to the Verkhovna Rada came around five months later, Liashko was not doing so well. This time, predictions that his party would come in with as much as 12% proved overly optimistic: the Radical Party got only 7.4% and 22 seats in the new legislature. Still, this was enough for Liashko to continue to join the political chess game and to prove quite useful.

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Since then, much has changed. The Liashko “family” in the Rada has faced some stress and strain: the party went down to 20, it left the coalition, and a few faces were changed. Liashko’s own ratings have also slipped somewhat: if we believe the latest opinion polls, about 5.6% of those Ukrainians who plan to go to the polls at the next election are prepared to vote for him. However, this is the same that was predicted for him in the 2014 presidential race, so there’s nothing new there. What’s more, much can change between now and 2019. If he manages to get a good PR team, he could surprise us all once again.

More importantly, however, does Liashko himself really want to be president? What is his real goal? Perhaps, deep down inside his soul, he wants to. Maybe he even believes such a miracle will come to pass sometime in the future. Certainly his supporters are talking in those terms. But to dream and to measure your real chances are two very different things. Liashko is both aware of this and is taking the measure. There aren’t many individuals with his particular style and background. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, such as twice-convicted presidents and presidents who were movie stars—and Liashko is not especially worse.

Still, this role is not for him. More than likely it doesn’t really interest him, and not just because it would clip his wings too much. The prize is simply not worth the effort and the time spent. To become president is to lose the love of the people. Ukrainians don’t respect their presidents and this is something Liashko understands perfectly well. Besides, Ukraine’s “top radical” is probably more interested in expanding his political base than in aiming for an elusive goal.

Who is Mister Liashko?

The real Oleh Liashko is not at all the person Ukrainians are used to seeing on their TV screens insist those who have known him more closely for a long time. To understand Liashko, it’s worth starting with his childhood. He grew up in an orphanage, which gave him a very strong survival instinct. To survive in that environment, you had to be strong, smart, and respond more swiftly than others. On top of that, Liashko is an extrovert, meaning someone who can successfully interact with the world around him for his own benefit. Everything he does is by way of surviving—only the shape shifts. To keep moving is his main impulse. Everything else is circumstantial.

Nor is Liashko lying when he says that he doesn’t owe anyone anything because he achieved everything on his own. Indeed, the people who may have helped him along in some way did so not out of pity or sympathy but because they saw a rare resource in him that they wanted to use in their own interests. So it’s no surprise that Liashko is quite prepared to drop the patrons from whom he took something just yesterday. His conscience does not get in the way because he agreed from the start that the only thing that mattered was mutual benefit: others for his, and he for theirs. A good example is how Liashko behaved with his faction-mate, Ihor Popov, when the other MP’s son found himself in trouble. There was no empathy, no understanding, just a cold political calculus. “Get lost, buddy, and fix your problems on your own. We don’t want the party’s name damaged.”

There are at least two Liashkos: the public face of the Ukrainian Zhirinovsky, and the real man. Comparisons to Zhirinovsky are, to be honest, not quite appropriate. The Russian MP is spiteful and schizophrenic, whereas Liashko, despite his shock value, is fairly balanced. Those who know him well say that, one-on-one, he is really quite thoughtful, practical-minded and without the kinks that his public persona displays. And if he promises personally to do something, he does it. So we have to separate this public Liashko as image from the private Liashko as real. How he manages to be constantly in these two separate roles is a good question. After all, this is hard and can only be accomplished if the person can organically combine their I and the I of their image. Clearly, Liashko has some natural artistic flair and a good dollop of what we call charisma.

Nor is Liashko one of those who absolutely and fully ignores his own ego in his public actions. The situation with Popov was a negative example, but there are also positive ones. H knows how to act the fool without overplaying it, to remain balanced at that level of his audience at a given point. He talks in that manner and about those things that his collocutors exhibit. He is able to match anyone and is not afraid of people, because he is able to approach them and to find common ground. It’s this that removes the barrier that typically exists between voters and a politician. With diplomats, he won’t mention pigs and cows and cleans up his rural accent: he has a good vocabulary and education.

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The national weathervane

Those who have watched Liashko literally grow up before their very eyes, who know him since early days when he showed up in Kyiv, say that possibly his most important trait is the ability and desire to learn and improve himself. This appears to be the truth and seems to have helped him get ahead—even if it’s sometimes been over others’ bodies.

Overall, Liashko comes across as psychologically stable and intact. A real master of the populist rant, he is probably the best in the field. In the jostling crowd of domestic demagogues, Liashko is clearly the brightest star, compared to whom all the Kaplins and Korolevskas are mere amateurs. He occasionally even outshines a veteran with two decades under her belt like Yulia Tymoshenko. Of course, Liashko has a good team of political handlers who pay attention to public opinion and advise him how and what to say. In the end, though, he makes his own decisions and his speeches are by and large off-the-cuff. It makes imminent sense when nature truly gifted Liashko with many valuable qualities and skills that he has managed to developed as well as he has thanks to his assertiveness, his willingness to learn and, most of all, his desire to rise from the bottom. This is precisely what others put their money on in him—even at the risk that he will toss them. The product is clearly worth the price being asked.

Of course, if the situation in Ukraine were different and required a different approach, Liashko would probably behave differently. Given that he’s in politics, he thinks in categories of scale. He appeals, he attracts support, and he grows his political force to expand his political reach. The key to Liashko’s behavior is his response to the demands of the electorate. That’s his coin and this is the only thing he spends it on. It’s not so much that he shapes opinion but that he relays it in the way that others are saying or want to hear. This is, in fact, much easier than to be the leader, safer and, as it happens, more profitable. Moreover, Liashko has no desire to lead. The role of a kind of national weathervane—a populist—suits him very well. And let’s face it, he plays this role very well indeed.

Ultimately, Liashko seems to have chosen the path that is best for his character and for the goal towards which he is moving. There’s no other way to capture the masses that continue to long for cheap sausage and their beloved soviet paradise than through populism. Why invent the wheel when everything is running smoothly and will do so for a long time yet?

The Liashko team

For the most part, the Radical Party of Liashko faction in the Rada is a group of random individuals who are not connected by one ideology or another. Without Liashko himself, the RPL faction would probably not be, likewise the Party—assuming that there is such a creature. Everything depends on him—on his ability to cut deals, and to calculate and win any bonuses. On one hand, one man in a field is not an army, no matter how clever or rich you are. On the other, this is no empty oligarchic project, either, and those who claim that Liashko is a Liovochkin project or, now, Akhmetov’s, based on his opportunistic partnerships, are deeply mistaken. Liashko’s Radical Party is just that—Liashko’s—, and who puts money into it is not especially important.

Sponsors and fellow-travelers alike are plenty. Some of them sit next to the fearless leader in the Rada, such as well-known yachtsman Serhiy Rybalko, a maker of snack foods, crackers and other crunchy stuff, property developer Serhiy Skuratovskiy, and Aliona Kosheliova, whose father runs the Kharkiv Liquor & Horilka Plant. Liashko apparently also has had some cash injections from the Volyn-based Continuum Business Group and from mid-sized landowners in Poltava. The presence of former Bionic Hill director Viktor Halasiuk shows that even the interests of one-time Kuchma man and odious oligarch, Vasyl Khmelnytskiy, are represented in this potpourri of a group.

Nor are these the most generous of the Radical Party’s donors. It’s definitely possible that Yanukovych’s Chief-of-Staff Serhiy Liovochkin is also sponsoring Liashko and the populist’s support for some positions favoring Rinat Akhmetov is unlikely to be given for free, either. It’s even possible that a percentage is dripping into party coffers in exchange for certain services to Bankova, the Presidential Administration, as well. The more powerful RPL gets, the bigger the injections will be.

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A democrat in demagogue’s clothing?

Despite his authoritarian leadership style, in relations with his colleagues, Liashko is fairly democratic. Every one of his MPs gets carte blanche to make what they can however they can, as long as it doesn’t cast a shadow on the party itself. Generally, this means lobbying for certain businesses, hiring and firing, and so on. Sometimes it becomes quite absurd, when RPL members are paid to promote the interests of obvious political rivals.

For instance, what to make of the recent scandal around the appointment of a director to the National Kyievo-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Preserve, for which one of Liashko’s allies decided to try himself and even announced from the Rada tribune that the Lavra was in danger of being destroyed. RPL sources say that the MP was determined to save the shrine, not out of patriotic fervor… or at least not entirely. The sponsor of this campaign was apparently his colleague from the Opposition Bloc, Vadim Novinsky, who is very keen to preserve the old leadership of the Kyiv-Pechersk Preserve. But that’s not the most interesting point. Before going ahead with this “project,” the hireling decided to get permission from his boss, who supposedly said, “Fine, do what you want as long as it doesn’t damage the Party’s image. The minute you cross some ideological church interests and Filaret (Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate – Ed.) calls me to ask about it, you’re history.”

Stories like this are actually not that rare but they are so typical for Ukraine’s political class that they don’t even put a dent in anyone’s reputation these days. On the contrary, they are more likely to improve the cohesiveness of the team and the encircling support that is so important at difficult moments on political wars. The success of the RPL faction, which has managed to take a motley crew at the beginning and become a virtual monolith today, confirms this. True, the desire to stay in big politics and not on the margins also plays a big role in consolidating a team. This, no doubt, is equally important for the leader and for all his fighters.

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To say that the Radical Party is a completely accidental lot is also not right. Among those who have the same relationship to politics as a sea lion does to lions, there are smart and really patriotically-inclined individuals as well. Before, people might have questioned what united them other than Liashko himself, but this is no longer the case. Overall, everything is more-or-less understandable. The role of the chained guard dog, who won’t let this oligarchic government sleep yet is able to support this government of oligarchs when necessary and carry out any number of covert commands is highly valued on this market and will continue to be so for a long time yet.

The ultimate goal

Given all the chaos and disorder in Ukraine today, and all the talk about some social lifts and other nonsense, the political system remains fairly inaccessible. Most of its players are either direct or modified products of the soviet-muscovite world. At best, they might be the children of such individuals. Liashko clearly is not part of that cohort: he’s an outsider and he knows that. It’s an environment that doesn’t like or respect the poor. After all, poverty is humiliating for an ambitious person, let alone someone who has clawed his way out of the very bottom of the well.

This is where we can find the answer to why the leader of the Radicals lives so well… just take a look at Liashko’s estate and his income declaration. But his real goal is not money but power—the more, the better. This he can achieve only when his theatrical talents remain in demand on the political stage as long as possible. The minute Liashko becomes unnecessary or falls, he will be trampled and tossed out like so much trash.

Today, everybody has to take him into account, because that’s the way it is. For now. Because you have to stay afloat and build up strength. And when you have it, you can cut deals—with Petro, with Rinat, or with whomever you want. And so movement is the key, movement and conquering political territory. When the faction is big, it has allies, it has opportunities to influence the process, to horse-trade, to raise bets. The bigger the faction, the broader its options: join the next coalition, or even take part in forming the next Cabinet, shuffling ministers, and so on. You can become premier, speaker or even president: these are all challenges that are resolved based on what’s been accumulated. In wonderful Ukraine, everything is possible.

But, leaving the element of surprise aside, it’s likely that Liashko cannot really expect to climb any further heights and occupying his niche firmly is the best he can hope for. The experience of others has shown that you’re better off glowing for a long time as a populist than burning out as a top official. And so the main challenge is to accumulate political capital and see what happens.

Without Liashko, domestic politics would be a lot less exciting in Ukraine: he brightens the landscape considerably, although he never really adds much to it. And so the wind blows. Although the Radical’s leader is very mediagenic and present everywhere, visible on every channel, he’s seen too often like a kind of hired clown. Still, this is a costly project—and not alone because of the appetites of the leader and his camarilla. As long as everyone is investing in him—and this they are—it means he’s doing what he’s expected to do. Liashko’s playing his role, carrying out certain assignments, and, possibly, will become the gun that’s fired at the designated point in the play.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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