Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s bloc for the early parliamentary elections scheduled for September 30 has been formally set up. At a July 5 meeting chaired by Yushchenko, representatives of several right-of-center parties signed a declaration proclaiming the Our Ukraine People’s Self-Defense Bloc (NUNS). The bloc’s pillars are Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko’s People’s Self-Defense (UNS) group. It also includes several tiny parties allied with NU and UNS, and the Ukrainian Rightists.
The chief of Yushchenko’s secretariat, Viktor Baloha, became head of NUNS’s election headquarters. This makes NUNS potentially vulnerable to accusations of using “administrative resources” during the campaign. Lutsenko won the competition to top NUNS’s electoral list against the formal leader of Our Ukraine, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko. Lutsenko is a substantially more popular and experienced politician than Kyrylenko. At the same time, Lutsenko will be an easier target for criticism by NUNS’s bitter rivals, the Party of Regions (PRU) and the Socialist Party (SPU), as he is quite a controversial figure.
Lutsenko earned Yushchenko’s sympathy as one of the leaders of the popular protests against former president Leonid Kuchma in 2000-2002, and as “the deejay” of the Maidan – the main venue of the Orange Revolution in late 2004 that brought Yushchenko to power. As interior minister in 2005-2006, Lutsenko targeted the PRU as part of his crusade against corruption. However, the crusade’s results were far from impressive. Lutsenko was sued for libel on several occasions, and one PRU leader, Borys Kolesnikov, whom he put behind the bars, was later released from prison when accusations of corruption against him were not substantiated.
Lutsenko himself became the target of corruption allegations at the end of 2006, which were used as a pretext for his dismissal from Yanukovych’s cabinet in December. Speaking from the parliamentary rostrum, his successor as interior minister, Vasyl Tsushko, accused him of populism and legal nihilism. Although a court later acquitted Lutsenko of the corruption accusations, Lutsenko’s popular image was tarnished.
Lutsenko was one of the SPU leaders until the summer of 2006, when he quit the SPU to protest its coalition with the PRU. Yushchenko reportedly asked Lutsenko to chair NU in 2006, when NU was in a deep identity crisis, but Lutsenko refused. Instead, he preferred to set up UNS using money from a businessman of Georgian descent, Davyd Zhvaniya, who had spent some of his wealth on the Orange Revolution. Lutsenko said in a recent interview with Kommersant Ukraine that his task was then “to restore faith in democratic principles of those voters who had abandoned Our Ukraine.”
Since early 2007, Lutsenko has been touring Ukraine drumming up support for his UNS, arguably at the expense of the popularity of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and NU. Lutsenko’s natural charisma and Zhvaniya’s money made UNS quite popular very quickly. When opinion polls began to show that UNS would easily clear the 3% barrier to win seats in parliament, he proposed a merger with NU to Yushchenko. As Lutsenko explained in the interview with Kommersant Ukraine, he came to Yushchenko and said: “I’ll get to parliament, so there will be a certain degree of confrontation between our teams.” Lutsenko’s interviewer described that proposal as blackmail.
Commenting on Lutsenko’s top position on the NUNS list, Russian analyst Kyril Frolov suggested that Lutsenko is set to compete against Yulia Tymoshenko for the post of prime minister and possibly even president. Lutsenko is widely believed to harbor far-reaching ambitions. His rivals have been trying to use this circumstance to make Yushchenko, who can run for a second term in 2009, jealous. Segodnya, a newspaper linked to the PRU, has suggested that Lutsenko may return to the post of interior minister and use a corruption-fighting platform as a launching pad for the presidency. SPU leader Oleksandr Moroz declared as early as this past March that “Lutsenko has always wanted to become Ukrainian president.” Lutsenko told Channel 5 that he will become prime minister, “but not this year.” He did, however, say that he is not going to run for president in 2009.
Speaking at a press conference on July 5, Lutsenko outlined NUNS’s essentially populist priorities. “A crusade against crime” topped Lutsenko’s list, followed by the development of small and mid-size businesses, and “European standards of life with European wages, European education, and healthcare.” Lutsenko ruled out a coalition with the PRU in the future parliament, and he said that Tymoshenko’s bloc will be NUNS’s only ally. Interviewed by Zerkalo nedeli, Lutsenko urged an early election for mayor of Kyiv. The incumbent mayor, banker Leonid Chernovetsky, used to be Yushchenko’s ally, but recently he has been drifting towards Yanukovych’s camp, and Tymoshenko on several occasions has accused him of manipulating real estate deals.
(uatoday.net, March 24; samooborona.in.ua, Vzglyad (vz.ru), Kommersant Ukraine, July 5; Segodnya, July 6; Zerkalo nedeli, July 7; Channel 5, July 5, 8)