Acting Leader

8 February 2013, 19:28

The leader of the United Opposition, Batkivshchyna, has lately intensified his battle in the media for the role of the key alternative to Yanukovych. Apparently, initiatives on the possible creation of a united opposition party with Yatseniuk as leader – actual or acting – are supposed to serve this purpose. Is the Ukrainian majority ready to follow leaders like him? Not at this time, as it has many questions to the leader of arguably the main political force.

Most voters do not see Yatseniuk as a potential leader. Sociological surveys confirm this, reflecting ratings that are much lower than Batkivshchyna’s – the party he has been trying to become the patron of. Many observers have the impression that this is the reason why the party ended up with three times less seats in parliament after the 2012 parliamentary election than in the 2007 campaign – and this includes seats won in first-past-the-post constituencies.

With his lack of specificity, demagogy, self-adoration, dependence on promption and constant attempts to evade answering tough questions, Yatseniuk has forced many 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. He began his career in the entities of Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of then President Leonid Kuchma, in the late 1990s. Pinchuk helped to promote Yatseniuk to the position of Minister in the Crimean Cabinet and subsequently First Deputy Chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU). Yatseniuk launched his own political project in 2008 with the support of Dmytro Firtash. The media controlled by Firtash provided him with the necessary media promotion to boost the young politician’s rating in a society that was deeply frustrated with Viktor Yushchenko and old elites as a whole. Later, information surfaced that Rinat Akhmetov contributed to the financial support of Yatseniuk through Leonid Yurushev, his business partner and former owner of the Forum bank. Notably, Yatseniuk never mentioned that the close ties of oligarchs with politics were a major problem for the country.

By allowing people backstage to control him and influence his decision-making, Yatseniuk is turning into a puppet. This makes it impossible for him to become a true national leader. One part of Yatseniuk’s 2009 presidential campaign was organized by a team of Russian spin doctors headed by Iskander Valitov. Reportedly, they were the ones who had offered the concept of dividing Ukrainians into three sorts based on a region they live in. Later, Yatseniuk, who was seen as a pro-Western liberal and intellectual, ended up with their “military” concept, as well as speculation on nostalgic USSR-related sentiments of some voters and declarations of cooperation with post-Soviet countries as a priority as part of his campaign. The media buzzed then, that it was Pinchuk who foisted these spin doctors on Yatseniuk, demanding the right to choose convenient projects and the “right” people to implement them in return for his financial support. Two other spin doctors, who worked for Yatseniuk at that time, Semion Uralov and Vladimir Petrov, are still actively involved in Ukraine’s backstage politics. They worked in the team of the notoriously Ukrainophobic Ihor Markov who ran in one of the first-past-the-post constituencies in Odesa in the last parliamentary election. When his opponents broke into Uralov’s mailbox during the campaign, they found emails confirming close contacts between Markov, the leader of the Rodina (Fatherland) party, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a consistent lobbyist of Russia’s interests in Ukraine.

Yatseniuk’s poor choice of team members was also obvious after the last election. The first crossovers, father and son Tabalov, joined the United Opposition under his patronage. The switching of opposition MPs to the pro-government majority has temporarily come to a halt, but Batkivshchyna has quite a few suspicious figures: Denys Dzenzersky, former member of the board of Viktor Baloha’s Yedynyi Tsentr (United Centre); Vitaliy Nemilostivyi who is considered to be the creature of professional crossover Davyd Zhvania, and so on.  

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. They show his unpredictability in choosing partners and opponents: “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 Yanukovych coming to power, but 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.  It has been almost three and a half years, but he 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, such as “democratization”, “return to the European path of development” and the like.

Clearly, this raises doubts as to Yatseniuk’s intent to crush the current oligarch-monopoly model that stands in the way of the country’s successful development or real European integration. Given his current rhetoric, it appears that if Yatseniuk takes the helm, he will look like 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. First and foremost, he should understand the necessity, ability and political maturity to overcome postcolonial inertia, whereby Ukraine is not actually a sovereign state, merely a fragment of the Soviet Union, developing under the inertia of post-Soviet space, as opposed to a project for the development of a national European state.

Another question that remains open is whether Yatseniuk, born in Bukovyna which is a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking region, sees the Ukrainian language as an important basis for consolidation of the national identity – vital in overcoming the Russo-Soviet concept once and for all. Vladimir Putin views the Russian language not merely as a means of communication in the post-Soviet territory. It is rather an important marker that outlines the sphere of influence for him and potential frontiers of a restored superpower that he craves. He often mentions the large share of Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, which results from a targeted Russification policy and re-settlements of Russians to Ukrainian territories in the past, as a reason for interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs and limiting its sovereignty in determining its own political vector (read Russia’s Soft Power Wars for more details – Ed.). So, the question to Yatseniuk is whether he does have intent to turn Ukrainian into a full-fledged single official language used in the key spheres of socio-economic life in Ukraine. Or, whether he prefers to support it as a formal and ritual language, accepting the domination of the Russian language in a number of key sectors as a perfectly normal trend in Ukraine’s long-term development? In public, Yatseniuk presents himself as a politician who supports Ukrainian as a single official language and takes part in protests against the new law on regional languages in summer 2012. However, whenever he thinks he is out of the public or journalist’s eye, his conduct is quite the opposite. For instance, Yatseniuk and Oleksandr Turchynov spoke Russian to each other during the abovementioned language protests in summer. Why is that? Shortly before the New Year, MP Oleksandr Bryhynets left the New Year part for Batkivshchyna because the hosts spoke Russian and Ukrainian, surprised by Yatseniuk’s subsequent attempts to somehow justify the bilingual party for Batkivshchyna.

It is equally important to know what Yatseniuk is going to do to change the current oligarch-controlled and monopolized model of Ukraine’s economy. Apparently, this is the task of his entire team, the members of which should be in charge of specific issues and answer relevant questions on his behalf (which they partly do – sometimes during public discussion panels arranged by Ukrayinsky Tyzhden/The Ukrainian Week). However, their leader stubbornly avoids stating the importance of the struggle against the oligarchy and outlining the key mechanisms to do so. Moreover, 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. The same applies to his closer contacts with Ukrainian oligarch Petro Poroshenko. After serving in the Yanukovych-Azarov Cabinet, Poroshenko must have felt that the moment was right and is now trying to gain the support of the opposition, while his son Oleksiy is running for a seat in the Vinnytsia Oblast Council under the Batkivshchyna flag.

Or, is it that Yatseniuk does not see that oligarchs are the key obstacle to Ukraine’s development as a normal European state? Perhaps, this is because of his friendship with so many of them, and because both he and they are mentally Soviet, therefore feel as if they are a natural part of the post-Soviet oligarchy. They are blocking the emergence of a civilized market, democratic institutions and civil society in Ukraine; prevent the emergence of normal European-type political parties and a civilized media market that would bring real freedom of speech and make journalism independent of a group of monopolistic owners, most of whom are part of the oligarchy. After all, Yatseniuk seems to be turning a blind eye to problems on the local media market, which lacks civilized competition, while key assets are being monopolized by oligarchs and other groups linked closely to Russia. There is a problem with information security whereby a large part of the population is under the systemic pressure of both the oligarch-controlled mass media, and the propaganda-oriented machine of Putin’s regime which does not hide its neo-imperialistic ambitions on post-Soviet territory. The impression is that Yatseniuk only views the press as a platform for commercial or political advertising and believes that the key priority is to get exclusive access to a media resource through deals with owners, in order to create the “right image” of himself.

Arseniy Yatseniuk has yet to outline his personal vision of Ukraine’s geopolitical prospects. The frequent changes of his stance in the last presidential campaign cannot guarantee that he will not 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. 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” said his campaign platform. 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.  

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 his general democratic blah-blah. What kind of a country does he want to build? Which economic, political and social pillars will it stand on? Will it offer real free entrepreneurship and protected ownership to everyone or only to the chosen few? Is he prepared to de-sovietize all spheres of life? Should the Ukrainian nation consolidate on the basis of the Ukrainian language, and what does it take to achieve this? Should the post-Soviet oligarch-slave model, which is integral to “Eurasian space”, be reformed? How can Ukraine’s national security be guaranteed? Is the country capable of protecting its territorial integrity in the modern world by itself?

Unless Batkivshchyna’s “father” drops the tactic of feeding off the protest-oriented electorate and offers a constructive alternative project to the voters, he risks losing any political prospect he may have, while the majority of Ukrainian voters risk losing a potential leader, called on to lead it in the struggle against Yanukovych’s Soviet-style regime with its usurpative ambitions and anti-Ukrainian policies. 

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