In a move that has special significance for Ukraine, one of its numerous pro-presidential parties–the Democratic Union (DU), composed of oligarchs and top bureaucrats–has replaced its chairman. On the exit ramp is Oleksandr Volkov, an oligarch and long-time aide to President Leonid Kuchma. On the entry ramp, emerging from semi-retirement, is Volodymyr Horbulin, the “patriarch” of Ukrainian politics.
The DU officially explained Volkov’s departure by saying that he had decided to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2002, from a single-seat district, rather than from the DU list. He was not, however, withdrawing from the party, they pointed out, and would remain a member of its governing body. He was simply resigning his post as chairman, because the party’s list of candidates should after all be headed by its leader. Regardless of this official line, it seems clear enough that the change of DU leadership is a move to improve its chances, which are at present rather slim, of gaining seats in the March elections.
The party–founded in May 1998, it is believed, by Volkov–had risen to power under his leadership, reaching its full strength two years later, by which time it controlled the Verkhovna Rada’s (parliament’s) second-largest faction, Regional Revival. And it was Volkov who, acting on Kuchma’s behalf, was behind the formation of the center-right Rada majority in February 2000. The DU ranks by this time were filled with numerous notable oligarchs and bureaucrats, among them Ihor Bakay, former head of the oil and gas monopoly Naftogaz Ukrainy, and Zinovy Kulyk, former information minister and deputy Security and Defense Council (SDC) secretary. Toward the end of 2000 and during this past year, however, the party suffered several major blows. Volkov was implicated–his voice identified among the most scandalous records–in the now-notorious Melnychenko-Kuchma audiotape scandal. Bakay, also accused of corruption and dismissed from all his official posts, quit politics. The United Social Democratic Party (USDP) refused to form an electoral block with the DU. It was clear enough, with popular approval ratings hovering around 1 percent, that the party risked sinking into political oblivion.
Volodymyr Horbulin has kept a low profile in Ukraine since his dismissal from the Security and Defense Council two years ago. Best known in the West as the person who supervised Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament and its rapprochement with NATO, he is also responsible for developing the country’s “multivector” foreign policy of balancing Russian interests in Ukraine with Kyiv’s European aspirations. Domestically, Horbulin is believed to have orchestrated the formation of the two “parties of power”–the People’s Democratic Party in the mid-1990s and, later, the USDP. Wielding far more power than his official title as SDC secretary would suggest, Horbulin acquired a number of enemies in the corridors of power–including the then chairman of Ukraine’s powerful Security Service, Leonid Derkach. Between the two presidential election rounds in the autumn of 1999, Horbulin was replaced as SDC secretary by General Yevhen Marchuk. Since then Horbulin served, most recently, as head of the state commission for Ukraine’s military-industrial complex, a position not particularly challenging for a man of his caliber, and thus was all too willing to return to big politics, and was regarded as a top candidate for the defense minister post made vacant when Oleksandr Kuzmuk was dismissed last month after the accidental downing of a Russian airliner by a Ukrainian missile on October 4 (see the Monitor, October 12, 25).
It will be difficult for Horbulin to regain the power he once wielded, but he is full of ambition. “My humble personality will significantly improve the party’s image,” Horbulin said, half-jokingly, at a press conference on October 30. Speaking to journalists about why he had accepted the DU proposal, Horbulin explained that he “did not want to be Number 2” in former Premier Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc, and that “personal differences” prevented him from joining the USDP. He dubbed the presidential United Ukraine bloc as one of “bureaucratic parties” and denied the rumors that he coordinated his choice of heading the DU with Kuchma, but admitted that he and the president have worked together for thirty-eight years.
Horbulin said virtually nothing about the ideology that the DU under his leadership would profess, only that he did not “like things excessively Ukrainian [meaning Yushchenko’s nationalism] or anti-Ukrainian.” But Ukrainian politics is about personalities, not ideologies. But Horbulin, almost uniquely for a politician who has been in Kuchma’s administration since 1994, has a “clean” reputation. Respected in the government, he is almost unknown to the public. This is a dubious virtue for the leader of a party only five months before election day (Forum web site, Ukrainska Pravda, 1+1 TV, October 30).
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