Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 21

Ukrainian politics is not about parties, or even ideologies. It is about personalities. This has become especially obvious in the run-up to the March 31 parliamentary (Verkhovna Rada) elections. Several political blocs are named after their leaders, marginal groups include the namesakes of popular leaders on their lists to free-ride to the Rada and the powers-that-be apparently do the same with the fragmented opposition vote.

Ukraine’s political system does not favor political parties. Parties do not directly participate in forming the government. Only since 1998 have they been allowed to participate in Rada elections. It is, furthermore, difficult for the average voter to distinguish amongst the more than 120 officially registered parties (most of which are dormant). Official propaganda and President Leonid Kuchma, who is unaffiliated, foster this diminishing of party stature. Ukrainian parties, they say, represent the interests of separate groups rather than of society.

Popular politicians, knowing this all too well, have taken to giving their names to blocs of parties running in the election. The blocs of former Premier Viktor Yushchenko, Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and Kuchma’s ardent opponent Yulia Tymoshenko–which began their campaigns as Our Ukraine, Unity and Beauty respectively–have now added the names of their leaders to their official names. This has nothing to do with personality cult, however. Opinion polls show that the three leaders, as individuals, are much more popular among Ukraine’s voters than the professed ideology of the blocs or parties they head.

This situation has prompted several politicians to try for a free ride. Oleksandr Rzhavsky, leader of the obscure United Family party, set up a bloc called For Yushchenko. Yushchenko’s allies promptly threatened to sue Rzhavsky, because consent had not been given for the use of his name. Rzhavsky, imperturbable, responded with a stab at legitimacy by assigning the Number 2 spot on his bloc’s list to a certain V. Yushchenko (Volodymyr, not Viktor). This is a fine example of the confusion Ukrainian voters may end up facing on election day.

Bohdan Boyko’s Rukh for Unity, a splinter group of the once mighty Rukh, has adopted a similar tactic. First, Boyko misappropriated the Rukh name in initially calling his motley handful of marginal nationalist groups the People’s Movement of Ukraine. (The two primary Rukh blocs are the Ukrainian People’s Movement and the People’s Movement of Ukraine. Confusion enough to begin with.) This, however, was not enough for Boyko. He has included Andry Chornovil, the older son of the Rukh’s charismatic founder Vyacheslav Chornovil and completely untried in politics, into his bloc’s list as Number 3. A disgruntled Taras Chornovil, Andry’s brother, running from a single-seat constituency, now vows never to shake Andry’s hand should Andry be elected.

The left political flank also enjoys a parade of namesakes. The All-Ukrainian Party of Workers, a hitherto dormant party, has Oleksandr Moroz, the namesake of a popular Socialist Party leader, at the very top of its list. The “true” Moroz, pointing his finger at the presidential administration, denounced this as a dirty trick. The Renewed Ukrainian Communist Party, a small and virtually unknown group, has included a namesake of the Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko among its top five candidates.

The problem of “twins” is even more acute in the case of single-seat constituencies. Any popular leader in such circumstances is almost sure to lose the plurality vote to his primary contender. One such is Taras Stetskiv, a leading member of the right-wing Reforms and Order party, who will face competition from two other Stetskivs in his constituency.

Victims of the identical name tactic accuse the ruling elite of conspiracy to fragment the electorate, thus spoiling the campaign for strong opposition leaders. But proving such allegations is difficult to impossible. Worthy of note, however, is that neither party from Kuchma’s camp is facing the same problem (Ukrainska Pravda, January 21, 24; Studio 1+1 TV, January 27; see the Monitor, November 14, January 18).