Ukraine’s main opposition force, the Party of Regions (PRU), organized what it called a “congress of people’s deputies of all levels” in the eastern town of Severodonetsk on Saturday, March 1. It discussed topics such as official languages and NATO membership. Almost 3,700 representatives of 28 opposition parties and non-governmental organizations and foreign guests attended.
The forum featured mostly PRU people, while pro-Russian radicals such as Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko, were refused the floor. On the other hand, the liberal wing of the PRU largely ignored the forum. This may be another sign of a split within the party between former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s followers and the pragmatists who are prone to cooperate with President Viktor Yushchenko.
The PRU used the forum to mobilize the electorate in its stronghold of southeast Ukraine ahead of possible early parliamentary elections by focusing on the government’s NATO entry plans and the Russian language issue. Yushchenko may be prompted to dissolve parliament, which has been unable to work because the PRU and its allies have blocked it for more than a month, demanding a referendum on NATO entry. The PRU always trots out the issues of NATO entry and the Russian language ahead of an election, as its mostly Russia-oriented and Russian-speaking electorate opposes the government policy of Ukrainianization, afraid of losing its cultural identity, and the plans to join NATO, fearing that this would badly affect relations with Russia.
The venue was selected to spite the Orange government. The delegates at the previous congress of deputies organized by the PRU, which was held in Severodonetsk at the height of the Orange Revolution in November 2004, threatened to federalize Ukraine if Yushchenko were elected president. When Yushchenko eventually became president, he authorized criminal cases against “separatism,” as the Orange camp believes in a strong unitary state and views federalization as a serious threat to sovereignty.
In order to prevent new “separatist” calls, the Security Service (SBU) had summoned several PRU activists to warn them against undermining the unitary state, SBU spokeswoman Maryna Ostapenko said. This prompted the organizers of the second Severodonetsk forum to cautiously avoid the issue of federalization, although they complained of SBU interference. The latest forum had four issues on the agenda: the powers of regional governments, the rights of Russophones, “falsification of Ukrainian history” regarding the famine of 1932-1933 and the role of nationalist World War II fighters, and NATO entry.
The forum warned the government against “misinformation” regarding the famine and the activities of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War II. Official Ukrainian historiography maintains that the famine was organized by Stalin in order to exterminate Ukrainians, and that the UPA fought for Ukrainian independence against both the Nazis and the Red Army. The PRU and its allies tend to agree with the interpretations of the two phenomena accepted in Russia, namely that the famine affected several ethnic groups and was not confined to Ukraine, and that the UPA were Nazi collaborators.
The forum called on parliament to pass laws to protect Russian and other minority languages in culture, education, sports, and state services. It also decided to compile a “white paper on forcible Ukrainianization and violations of human rights.” Yanukovych told the forum that no single Russian school remains in six out of Ukraine’s 25 regions, and that the number of Russian theaters has shrunk threefold since independence. PRU deputy Dmytro Tabachnyk accused the government of “imposing Russophobia and archaic monolingualism,” and his comrade-in-arms Vadym Kolesnychenko warned of “racism and xenophobia.”
PRU member and industrialist Vyacheslav Bohuslayev estimated a possible economic loss from NATO entry at $22 billion, as the Ukrainian military industry would lose many Russian partners. The forum called on NATO to organize a special discussion on Ukraine ahead of the Bucharest NATO summit in April, and on parliament to start work to organize a referendum on NATO entry. The PRU and its allies are confident that Ukrainians will reject NATO membership in a referendum, so this issue will be dropped from the government agenda. The forum also urged government decentralization so that regional governments could have more authority over local finances.
The liberal wing of the PRU, which recently tended to cooperate with Yushchenko, distanced itself from the Severodonetsk forum. Its informal leader, Ukraine’s richest businessman Renat Akhmetov, preferred to watch a soccer match. Raisa Bohatyryova, former chairwoman of the PRU caucus in parliament and now secretary of the Yushchenko-chaired National Security and Defense Council, also ignored the forum. Akhmetov’s right-hand man and former chairman of the Donetsk Region Council, Borys Kolesnykov, attended but sat among the PRU grassroots membership, rather than with the PRU leadership. The newspaper Segodnya, linked to Akhmetov, covered the Severodonetsk forum in a small item buried between gossip pages.
(Ukrainski novyny, Interfax-Ukraine, March 2; Ukrayinska Pravda, Kommersant, Segodnya, March 3)