Though defeated in the Orange Revolution, regional elites scored a strong performance in Ukraine’s March 26 general election, strengthening the position of their main party — the Party of Regions (PRU) of former presidential contender Viktor Yanukovych. President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc emerged very weak in the east and south of Ukraine, where PRU people dominate the local councils. Yushchenko is grudgingly accepting the status quo and starting to withdraw his appointees from those regions. The opposition, in the meantime, is displaying its strength in its strongholds, challenging Yushchenko on a highly sensitive issue — language. Several regional councils have decided to officially equate Russian to Ukrainian, and Yushchenko seems to be helpless to stop them.
Yushchenko-appointed governors in the eastern-most regions, including Henady Moskal of Luhansk and Vadym Chuprun of Donetsk, resigned in April. Yushchenko dismissed Kirovohrad governor Eduard Zeynalov of Our Ukraine and Odessa governor Vasyl Tsushko of the Socialist Party on May 3, and on May 12 he dismissed another Socialist governor, Stepan Bulba, in Poltava region. More dismissals apparently loom.
So far the government has found a replacement only for Chuprun — Volodymyr Lohvynenko. Unlike Chuprun, essentially an outsider who had spent many years abroad as a diplomat before coming home in 2005, Lohvynenko is firmly entrenched in Donetsk. He was deputy governor in 2002-2005, and prior to that that he had managed Energo — one of the major local business conglomerates controlling companies in the metals and mining sector and several banks. The PRU has no objections to Lohvynenko, who “is a person with extensive life experience,” according to one of the PRU’s leaders, Volodymyr Rybak. The business daily Delo, which published the comment by Rybak, led its article on Lohvynenko with a telling headline: “The end of Orange experiments in Donbas.”
Following the March elections, Yanukovych’s people became the dominant force in the Crimean parliament. The “For Yanukovych” bloc — essentially the local PRU branch — secured 44 of the legislature’s 100 seats. Allied locally with the radical anti-West Progressive Socialists and several smaller pro-Russian groups, the PRU secured the election of its own Anatoly Hrytsenko as local parliament speaker to replace the politically neutral Borys Deych. Hrytsenko was elected on May 12 with 71 votes. He is hardly a political novice — Hrytsenko occupied the same position in 1997-98.
In the regions where it dominates, the PRU began to challenge Yushchenko almost immediately after the election on a matter of principle for him — language. Giving Russian an official status equal to Ukrainian was one of the PRU’s main election promises. Russian de facto dominates in Kyiv and other major cities except Lviv, and public opinion polls over the past several years have shown that most Ukrainians are in favor of raising the status of Russian. De jure, however, Russian is just another minority language, on par with Hungarian or Greek. It will be hard to raise the language issue at the national level, as the PRU has no dedicated allies on this issue in the national parliament in Kyiv. In the east and south, however, the PRU quickly got down to business.
Even before the election, on March 6, northeastern Kharkiv’s regional council voted, 53-22, to give Russian “regional language” status. This should mean that official correspondence and bookkeeping may be conducted in Russian. Yushchenko’s secretariat reacted on the same day, saying the decision was outside the legal field, as the constitution does not provide for such a status. The PRU-dominated city councils in Luhansk and Sevastopol, however, followed Kharkiv’s suit on April 25-26. Yushchenko on April 28 asked the Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor-General’s Office to look into the legal side of the three councils’ decisions.
The councils argued that they were inspired by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, adopted by Ukraine. But Justice Minister Serhy Holovaty argues that the charter referred to languages on the verge of extinction — a threat Russian definitely is not facing. Yushchenko has laid the blame for the language dispute on parliament, which has failed to swear in Constitutional Court judges. Language is a constitutional matter, so a decision on the Russian language status by the Constitutional Court should have — in theory — settled the dispute. But the court cannot resume it work, as it does not have a quorum. The outgoing parliament blocked the appointment of new judges to replace those whose tenure expired.
The language dispute has revealed how difficult it will be for Yushchenko to steer the country after the election in the absence of an Orange coalition, and with an opposition that dominates half of the country. The language discussion has been a convenient occasion for the PRU to demonstrate its strengths and probe Yushchenko’s weaknesses.
(UT1, March 6; Korrespondent.net, April 14; Interfax-Ukraine, April 21, May 3, 12; Channel 5, April 28, May 10; Delo, May 12; Delovaya stolitsa, May 15)