The establishment of a new coalition in the Ukrainian parliament has left the Party of Regions (PRU) led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the opposition. Yanukovych wants to use this opportunity to come back to power on a wave of popular discontent with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s government, under which the Ukrainian economy has been among the worst hit by the worldwide financial crisis. Yanukovych has called for early elections in 2009, and he has threatened mass protests in the spring. President Viktor Yushchenko, also an opponent of Tymoshenko, may become an ally of Yanukovych.
Coalition talks between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych, which lasted for months, fell through as the two leaders failed to reconcile their ambitions. A new coalition that Tymoshenko built in parliament in mid-December in order to carry on as prime minister consists of her party, the Lytvyn Bloc, and the majority of the formerly pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine People’s Self-Defense caucus (NUNS). The Communists, although formally remaining outside the coalition, backed it in several crucial votes in parliament in December. As a result, the PRU is the only major party in the opposition.
This is a new situation for the PRU. In the past, it always had allies when in the opposition, most often the Communists. The PRU believes that being in the opposition at a time of crisis is a good way of winning elections. It hurried to distance itself from its former allies and rivals in the opposition, Lytvyn and the Communists. The PRU condemned them, saying that they had “betrayed” their electorate because the new coalition was “against the people” as it was based on “an ideology formulated by the supporters of NATO and forced Ukrainianization” (Ukrainska Pravda, December 16).
The Communists and Lytvyn, like the PRU, are wary of both the government’s NATO integration course and the campaign of cultural assimilation of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern and southern parts of the country. But now that its former allies are supporting the government, the PRU claims the anti-NATO and pro-Russian niche all for itself. If the PRU wins more support in the densely populated southeast plus the votes of those central Ukrainians who are disillusioned with both Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, it should win any election hands down. Yanukovych wants early elections early in 2009 in order not to lose momentum.
“If the government is ineffective, it should resign. If it does not want to resign, it should be ushered away,” Yanukovych said in a TV interview (Channel 5, December 14). Addressing his “shadow government,” Yanukovych said that he gave Tymoshenko 100 days to improve the situation in the economy and, if she failed, he would take people to the streets (www.liga.net, December 11). He also threatened a wave of strikes and protests (Ukrainska Pravda, December 16).
Speaking in a later interview, Yanukovych specified that he “did not see any other way out” but to launch mass protests in the spring if the government did not agree to hold simultaneous early parliamentary and presidential elections (Inter TV, December 21). In his most recent interview, Yanukovych repeated his calls for the “earliest possible” parliamentary and presidential elections in order to oust Tymoshenko (Channel 5, January 6).
The PRU conducted a dress rehearsal of mass protests in Kyiv in late December, when several thousand people organized by the Federation of Trade Unions (FPU) picketed the government building (Ukrainska Pravda, December 23). The PRU managed to install its member Vasyl Khara at the FPU’s helm this past November (www.fspu.org.ua, November 20). The FPU, an heir to the Soviet trade unions, is the strongest and best organized union, so its help in organizing a nationwide anti-government campaign may be crucial.
Interestingly, Yushchenko looks like a natural ally for Yanukovych in a campaign to undermine the government of his former Orange Revolution allies. Yanukovych probably meant Yushchenko when he suggested that “a certain portion of my opponents should join us to build our Ukraine together” (Channel 5, January 6). Both Yanukovych and Yushchenko deny the legitimacy of the new coalition, arguing that it controls less than half of parliament. They also agree that the main aim of the coalition is to keep Tymoshenko’s “populist” government afloat. Both hold Tymoshenko, rather than the global crisis, responsible for the current economic hardships and want her resignation.
Yushchenko and Yanukovych have also been on the same side in the recent banking scandals and possibly in the continuing Russia-Ukraine gas row. Tymoshenko accused the central bank, Yushchenko, and the Nadra bank of conducting illegal currency operations. She wants to oust the head of the central bank Volodymyr Stelmakh (Ukrainski Novyny, December 12; Ukrainska Pravda, December 20). Yushchenko defended the Nadra bank and refused to dismiss Stelmakh (Ukrainska Pravda, December 22, 27). Nadra is linked to businessman Dmytro Firtash, who is believed to be among the main financiers of the PRU. Firtash also co-owns RosUkrEnergo, which has been the intermediary, with Yushchenko’s consent, in gas trade between Russia and Ukraine since 2006. Tymoshenko has pledged to expel RosUkrEnergo from the market.