European Choice for Yanukovych

23 September 2013, 10:27

After a lengthy silence, Viktor Yanukovych has spoken. In an August 30 interview for several nationwide television channels he criticized Russia’s stance on Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU and said that European integration is Ukraine’s priority even if cooperation with Russia is not ruled out. On September 3, he spoke to legislators regarding the need to pass European integration bills, noting that “we must aim for success at the Vilnius Summit”.  

Active attempts to construct a new political image for Yanukovych prior the 2015 presidential race have been obvious. This comes as no surprise. Ukraine remains in a difficult socio-economic position; budget gaps are widening and the status of the Russian language – one of his election promises – was exploited in the parliamentary campaign, so he needs something new. Frustration in the president’s base in South-Eastern Ukraine is mounting as the “improvement of life today” – his key election commitment in the eyes of most of his voters – has not been achieved four years into his presidency, and is not likely to come anytime soon. Meanwhile, voters do not want excuses, whether justified or not.

If those in power succeed in portraying themselves as supporters of European integration, the opposition will have to communicate a clear alternative vision of reform and development for Ukraine

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In this situation, the ruling regime has no tools to halt the exodus of parts of its electorate to the Communist Party, the opposition (primarily Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR), and pro-Russian projects. Moreover, the opposition has a good motivation to seek new voters in Yanukovych's core oblasts where people feel disenchanted with the ruling regime, the opposition  to gain the additional votes needed to win the presidential election. Meanwhile, surveys paradoxically show a better dynamic for the Party of Regions and Yanukovych in Central and Western Ukraine, not south-eastern oblasts. Clearly, this is due to different starting positions. Yanukovych’s spin-doctors may well be contemplating further expansion of his electoral base in these regions. This is nothing new. Leonid Kuchma initially came to power thanks to his pro-Russian rhetoric and support of South-Eastern Ukraine but was re-elected in 1999 thanks to voters in Central and Western Ukraine.

Some local elites that found themselves out of the ruling conglomerate after the 2012 parliamentary election (Baloha, Poroshenko and others) have recently signalled that they would once again support Viktor Yanukovych if he had an attractive platform focusing on “European integration”. Moreover, such a focus would rob the opposition of one of its defining elements. Until recently, it was European integration coupled with resistance to Yanukovych’s anti-Ukrainian policies that distinguished the opposition from those in power (overall populism does not count). Opposition forces have often stressed that the president’s anti-democratic policy is the key obstacle to Ukraine’s association with the EU. The new strategy to promote Yanukovych as a European integrator who is eager to resist Moscow’s pressure and potentially sign the Association Agreement will negate this argument. The opposition confused reaction to this new image confirms the suggestion: so far, their arguments have centred on Yanukovych’s insincerity, but this will not work if Yanukovych backs his declarations with actions.

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This does not rule out other possible scenarios. Perhaps Yanukovych is using this European integration rhetoric as a bargaining chip with Putin to get a better price for ruining the association process (like the one previously offered for entrance to the Customs Union). Perhaps the Kremlin will arrange a provocation through its wide net of supporters in various government bodies—a net that has expanded significantly under the current president. If so, Ukraine may follow the Armenian scenario. However, Russia has far fewer mechanisms of influence in Ukraine than it does in Armenia, which currently sees Moscow as the only guarantee of protection from the growing threat of Azerbaijan. And convulsions by pro-Russian lobbyists in the Party of Regions as well as their tough criticism of the party and national leaders’ initiatives signal that the latter are serious about signing the Association Agreement.

Resistance to European integration among some junior Party of Regions MPs, including Oleh Tsariov, Vadym Kolesnichenko, Nestor Shufrych, Ihor Markov, Viacheslav Bohuslayev, prevented the passing of some European integration laws during the first plenary week. They claimed that the laws were “not finalized”. As a result, Oleksandr Yefremov, head of the Party of Regions faction, had to ask Viktor Yanukovych to “talk” to the MPs. According to Yefremov, the concerned MPs are mostly the owners of companies oriented entirely toward the Russian market (Bohuslayev, for instance), as well as those involved in various Russian projects in Ukraine (Kolesnichenko, Tsariov or Markov). Meanwhile, party heavyweight Rinat Akhmetov who has powerful groups both in the faction and the government and is mostly neutral in geopolitical issues recently said: “What happened on the border, I believe, will make Ukraine, Ukrainian business and every Ukrainian stronger. We should learn a lesson from this, and not depend on this… in the future.” Ihor Prasolov, Minister of Economy and ex-executive in Akhmetov’s business, made a similar statement at almost the same time.

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Apparently, there will be no serious confrontation within the Party of Regions. However, a split in the party and the emergence of an alternative pro-Russian force, even if small, would damage the party’s image of a “monolithic team”. Ways to persuade the dissenting voices are known. Ihor Markov, Party of Regions’ MP and leader of the Odesa-based radical pro-Russian party Rodina (Homeland), reported that the court might soon strip him of his mandate to “show everyone” that they should not confront the party line on European integration – High Administrative Court stripped Markov of his mandate on September 12 -. For whatever reason, Viktor Medvedchuk’s old ally Nestor Shufrych threatened to leave the party, stating that it would be either him or European integration at the faction meeting, sources claim. Eventually, though, he had to publicly deny this and persuade journalists that he would vote for all bills required to sign the Association Agreement except for the gay anti-discrimination one. Demonstration of tools for maintaining discipline in the faction and the readiness to use them were not the only challenges that opponents of European integration faced this week. Kyiv District’s Administrative Court banned the Communist Party’s public meeting to discuss a nationwide referendum on joining the Customs Union announced by CPU leader Petro Symonenko and scheduled for September 8.

If those in power succeed in portraying themselves as supporters of European integration and take credit for it, this will have a very visible effect on the prospects of Batkivshchyna and UDAR. They will then have to either communicate a clear alternative vision of reform and development for Ukraine or face the gradual loss of their political prospects.

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