Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 10

By Pavlo Kutuev

Ukrainian politics has recently been highlighted by the unfolding of several trends that are of critical importance to the future of the country’s major political players. Despite being aware of Leonid Kuchma’s constitutional reform intentions–the president has been entertaining these ideas for more than half a year–the opposition was taken aback by the scope and nature of his March 5 proposal to amend the constitution in order to strengthen parliament’s powers (see Oleg Varfolomeyev, “Kuchma’s reform draft,” Russia and Eurasia Review, vol. 2, no. 7, April 1, 2003).

Kuchma’s initiative is a double-edged sword, one that is aimed at undermining the credibility of opposition politicians who claim that they want to reform the entire political system and not merely replace the existing head of state. Kuchma is also probing to test how resilient Ukraine’s body politic is likely to be if he insists on prolonging his term until 2006.

Although a prolongation of this sort is not explicitly mentioned in Kuchma’s proposal, the document does leave room for such an interpretation since it suggests that the president and the parliament be elected during the same year. This would mean either that the current parliament should dissolve itself and face elections in 2004 in tandem with the presidential race, or that the president should stay in office until the parliament’s term ends in 2006. In his annual state of the nation address delivered to parliament on April 15, Kuchma promised that the democratic transfer of power will take place in 2004. But given the Kuchma regime’s protean nature, this statement cannot be taken for granted and should instead be judged alongside the actions of the presidential camp.

The reactions of non-presidential forces in parliament revealed deep cleavages in their respective attitudes toward the proposed reform. Although communists, socialists and the Yulia Tymoshenko block could be called an anti-presidential opposition, Viktor Yushchenko’s stance towards the president remains uncertain. Many commentators claim that he may come to an agreement with Kuchma provided that the president gets rid of Viktor Medvedchuk, Yushchenko’s archenemy. Medvedchuk is leader of the United Social Democrats (SDPU(u)) and Kuchma’s chief of staff. Kuchma does not seem either to trust or be happy with Medvedchuk’s heavy-handed tactics toward the president’s opponents. Those tactics may be effective in the short run but they are harmful to the president’s reputation in the long run. Thus, removing Medvedchuk and engaging Yushchenko in talks might be an effective strategy for dividing the moderate and radical opposition to Kuchma while also leaving Our Ukraine’s constituency alienated from its leadership.

Kuchma’s initiative might have been seen as nothing more than a ploy to improve his political family’s chances after his departure from the presidency–had it not happened against the backdrop of other developments beneficial to Kuchma’s regime. There was, for example, a scandal over the alleged mishandling of the budget by Petro Poroshenko. He is probably Our Ukraine’s major financial backer and serves also as chairman of the parliamentary budgetary committee. There was also a controversial vote in the legislature on whether to send Ukrainian anti-chemical forces to Kuwait.

On March 13 communist leader Petro Symonenko claimed that the budget adopted by the legislature on December 26, 2002, was formulated by a committee chaired by Poroshenko. According to Symonenko, Poroshenko altered the version that had been approved by the deputies as it was on its way to the presidential office to be signed into law. The difference was around US$53 million, of which US$9 million, according to SDPU(u) deputy Nestor Shufrych, was allocated mostly for the needs of Poroshenko’s constituency in Vinnitsa. The parliamentary rules and procedures committee subsequently decided to submit all the findings to the prosecutor general’s office for criminal investigation.

The scandal is proving extremely damaging to Our Ukraine and to its leader in particular because the mass media is dominated by their political enemies. A savvy PR campaign against corrupt deputies is bound to have a significant effect on public opinion given that the population is distrustful of the parliament as an institution. A case in point is the “1 plus 1” TV channel program “Prote” (“Although”). It employs the charismatic founder and a former leader of UNA-UNSO, Dmytro Korchynsky, and Dmytro Dzhanhyrov, a former editor of Yulia Tymoshenko’s newspaper. They have been waging a carefully orchestrated assault on Yushchenko and the opposition, using their prime time, mud-slinging talk show. The program has become the Ukrainian equivalent of the notorious attacks on opponents of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin by Russian Public TV (ORT) anchor Sergei Dorenko.

The situation for those in the non-presidential camp is worsened by the fact that they are being denied access to nationwide TV channels that are owned by oligarchs dependent on the state, and by their inability to set up their own media outlets because of administrative constraints. The replacement on March 27 of Ihor Storozhuk, the moderately independent president of national TV, by the pliant Olexandr Savenko has further tightened the ruling establishment’s control over Ukrainian media.

The war in Iraq has also been skillfully exploited by Kuchma, and used to his political advantage on both the domestic and international fronts. The decision to send a Ukrainian anti-chemical warfare unit to Kuwait has placed Ukraine among the “coalition of the willing.” That, to some extent, had ended the international isolation of Kuchma’s administration. The decision to send troops was vehemently opposed by the communists, socialists and Tymoshenko block, while forty-four members of Our Ukraine supported the decision in a parliamentary vote on March 20. The decision won with 253 votes, and the Our Ukraine deputies were decisive in ensuring its passage.

The debate over whether to take sides in the Iraqi war has deepened antagonisms within the non-presidential forces, and it became the first occasion on which a split vote occurred in the Our Ukraine faction.

Although Yushchenko’s approval ratings are higher than anyone else’s, they do not guarantee his victory in the presidential race. Our Ukraine gained 23 percent of the party list vote in the March 2002 parliamentary elections, which roughly corresponds to estimates of Yushchenko’s personal popularity. Viktor Pinchuk, an influential Ukrainian tycoon who is also Kuchma’s son-in-law, correctly noted that Yushchenko’s party proved no match for the state backed tycoons and top officials running in single mandate constituencies.

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk–who is currently an SDPU (u) parliamentary faction leader–showed a deep and realistic insight into the workings of Ukrainian politics. Talking about SDPU(u) aspirations for the presidential office, he said that the United Social Democrats would be happy if Kuchma and elites of the most economically influential regions, like Donbas, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv, nominated Medvedchuk as their candidate. If such support is lacking, the SDPU(u) will work for the candidate who is authorized by the ruling establishment. The latter option seems the most likely outcome given both Kuchma’s decree of March 6, which limits the powers of his chief of staff, and Medvedchuk’s own readiness to endorse the nominee for president proposed by the current majority, which is as pro-presidential as it is anti-Medvedchuk.

Nevertheless, Kravchuk’s comment reflects the elitist nature of Ukrainian political society, where the question “who governs?” is answered in favor of the oligarchic nexus between political and economic elites. This nexus is more than capable of ensuring the desired outcome in elections by using vote rigging and manipulation, thus reducing the chances of a fair election with Yushchenko as a frontrunner.

To gain momentum Yushchenko should focus on transforming Our Ukraine from an umbrella movement into a party capable of capitalizing on his personal popularity on the one hand, and on the discontent of citizens with the ruling regime on the other. By creating a single party Yushchenko would be able to end the strife in regional chapters of Our Ukraine, which divides representatives of the different partner parties in his block, while also channeling resources into the development of a “catch all” party machine for the next elections.

Another crucial task involves forging ties with the other non-presidential forces. Yushchenko declared both goals in a speech to an Our Ukraine congress on March 29, but he failed to elaborate a specific and feasible mechanism for attaining them. The initiative to set up a civic association around Our Ukraine, one that would form the basis for a future coalition, appears too complicated to be an effective mobilization device. The call to the Tymoshenko block to unite with Our Ukraine sounded more like an invitation to dissolve itself inside a bigger partner than a proposal for a union of two equals. It is unlikely to find much support among Tymoshenko’s followers.

On April 14 the leaders of all four non-presidential factions managed to issue a joint statement. It condemned the presidential draft for constitutional reform and outlined their vision for political changes that would introduce proportional elections of the legislature and preserve the current unicameral arrangement. They did not, however, successfully convey the advantages of their proposal compared to that of Kuchma. The non-presidential forces seem to have come together to oppose the proposal merely because it came from the president.

And Kuchma himself reacted swiftly: On the day after the release of the opposition draft, in his state of the nation address, he legitimately described their proposals as compatible with his own vision.

It is an open question how long this situational alliance against Kuchma’s reform plan will last. Yushchenko faces a tough choice. Cooperation with the president could bring short term benefits to him personally (as well as to his associates), but would sink his chances of winning next presidential race.

Yushchenko’s oscillation between supporting mass protests against Kuchma’s rule on the one hand, and private consultations with the president on the other, enables him to avoid a direct confrontation with the abusive state machine and thus protects his business supporters from total elimination. At the same time, a policy of “containment” of Kuchma by means of talks and round tables instead of action-oriented politics may alienate Our Ukraine’s rank-and-file members and jeopardize the bloc’s popular appeal. Yushchenko’s indecisiveness might be a serious obstacle to his bloc’s aspirations for power.

Pavlo Kutuev is an associate professor of sociology at the University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy,” Kyiv, Ukraine.