Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 232

On December 13, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) dismissed its first deputy speaker, Viktor Medvedchuk, in a vote of 234-50 with 112 abstentions. It was more than a simple ouster. It was in fact a major defeat for Ukraine’s strongest oligarchic party–the United Social Democrats (USDP)–and an indication of a major power shift in the pro-presidential camp.

The vote was preceded by the requisite collection of signatures of people’s deputies for the motion–not the first against Medvedchuk since his election as deputy speaker in February 2000. Some 242 signatures were collected, many more than the 150 needed to put Medvedchuk’s dismissal on the agenda. In initiating the move, Ukraine’s right-wing factions, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Motherland and Kyiv Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko’s Unity were supported by the Communists. Eventually, all but the pro-presidential factions–the USDP, Greens, the Democratic Union, Ukrainian Regions, People’s Democrats and Labor Ukraine–voted for Medvedchuk’s dismissal. On two or three previous occasions, President Leonid Kuchma saw fit to intervene, but this time he did not.

It would be inaccurate, however, to interpret the dismissal as the emergence of a new majority, as certain media seemed to do. Each faction voting against had different reasons to do so. Medvedchuk and his party had stepped on too many political toes. The nationalists wanted to prevent him from pushing a new language law giving official status to minority languages. The USDP had launched such an initiative to step up its popularity in densely populated eastern and southern Russophone areas for the Rada elections. The nationalists also could not forgive Medvedchuk for ousting their leader, Viktor Yushchenko, from the post of prime minister in April, in which ouster the USDP played a primary role. The Communists and the Socialists voted against, by way of revenge on Medvedchuk both for ousting their leaders from the Rada presidium in February 2000 and for introducing private ownership of land. Tymoshenko’s Motherland was only happy to dethrone its leader’s bitter political and business rival.

Kuchma’s role in Medvedchuk’s departure is unclear. On the one hand, he did nothing to prevent it. On the other, he chided the Rada for it during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kharkiv on December 14. Kuchma was also quoted by none other than Medvedchuk as saying that he [Kuchma] had known nothing about it–which is hard to believe, given that it took more than a single day to collect the signatures.

Kuchma quite likely had his own reasons for wanting Medvedchuk off the political stage. One was Medvedchuk’s rumored presidential ambitions. Another was the growth of the USDP media empire, which of late has given Medvedchuk a disproportionate share of air time. Yet another centered on rumors about a connection between the USDP leaders and Kuchma’s former bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, who ignited the audiotape scandal late last year. On this, however, it is worth noting that the conversations allegedly recorded in Kuchma’s office so far made public contained neither voice nor mention of Medvedchuk. In this respect, the USDP leader was a conspicuous exception.

In other circumstances, Medvedchuk’s ouster might have harmed the governing elite, whose faithful servant he has been, pushing through the Rada virtually every piece of legislation that Kuchma requested over the past year or so. But this parliament will soon be replaced. There are indications that the second reading of the draft 2002 budget was a factor in the timing of the dismissal. Both rightists and leftists had stubbornly refused to vote for it. But, immediately after Medvedchuk’s dismissal on December 13, the reading was taken and the budget passed without a dissenting murmur.

Medvedchuk’s ouster is the most significant in a series of recent USDP defeats. Over the past several months, several people with strong USDP ties were either dismissed or demoted, including director of Ukrainian National Television director Vadym Dolhanov and Kherson Governor Oleksandr Verbytsky. After Premier Anatoly Kinakh and presidential office chief Volodymyr Lytvyn joined the For United Ukraine (FUU) electoral bloc–the USDP’s most formidable rival in the upcoming Rada elections, competing for the same pro-Kuchma electorate–it has become clear that Kuchma is betting on the FUU. Medvedchuk’s defeat in the Rada may be a clear signal to those who have not yet decided which bloc to back (Ukrainska Pravda, December 13; Inter, New Channel, Forum, December 14; Zerkalo Nedeli, December 15; see the Monitor, November 19, 29).