Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 50

Ukraine’s two strongest nationalist parties have refused to merge with President Viktor Yushchenko’s new People’s Union Our Ukraine party (NSNY). Addressing the party’s founding congress on March 4, Yushchenko made it clear that he was unhappy about this development (see EDM, March 9). But staying apart may be a blessing in disguise for both sides — the nationalists will preserve their electorate in the west of the country, while Yushchenko will need to try to win more hearts and minds farther to the east.

The former leading nationalist party, Rukh, split in the late 1990s. Its two wings, the Ukrainian People’s Movement (NRU), headed by Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, and the Ukrainian People’s Party (UNP), headed by legislator Yuriy Kostenko, were two of the three pillars of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc when it was founded in 2002. The third pillar — Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk’s liberal Reforms and Order Party, which was renamed Our Ukraine last year, is hesitating about joining the new party. Local commentators believe that Pynzenyk’s party, whose 70 prominent members attended the NSNY’s first congress, will eventually merge with Yushchenko’s new party.

The situation with the heirs to Rukh is more complicated. Several prominent members of both the NRU and the UNP, including Justice Minister Roman Zvarych and the governors of Lviv and Ternopil, have joined the NSNY. This may be the beginning of a large-scale migration to Yushchenko’s new party by members of the two parties who have become government officials after Yushchenko’s victory. This recalls the situation in the mid-1990s, when ministers and governors were en masse joining that year’s party of power — the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Deputy Prime Minister Roman Bezsmertny, who spearheaded the NSNY’s organization process, views Yushchenko as the main unifying force for all the parties that helped him come to power. Apparently he sees no choice for parties like the Ukrainian People’s Movement and the Ukrainian People’s Party but to merge with the NSNY.

But the nationalists have decided to go it alone, and there is speculation that the NRU and the UNP may go as far as splitting from the Our Ukraine bloc’s faction in parliament to set up factions of their own. At the same time, they want to continue to be allied with Yushchenko. “Rukh members do not understand why separate members of the NRU have joined the newly created party,” the NRU said in a special statement last week. “At the same time the Rukh remains an independent political force, and its congress has called on all the patriotic-democratic parties to start building up a bloc for the 2006 [parliamentary] elections.”

The nationalists’ staying out of the new party may be good for both sides. In a loose alliance with the NSNY the nationalists can preserve their traditionalist electorate in western Ukraine, thereby contributing right-wing votes to the wider voter base of the broader pro-Yushchenko coalition in the elections. But the NRU’s and UNP’s merging with the liberals from Yushchenko’s new party may be unacceptable for many nationalist voters in the west of the country, prompting them to support far-right groups. This divergence has been illustrated by NRU deputy chairman Vasyl Kuybida’s unequivocally negative reaction to a recent pledge by National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko to stop closing down Russian-language schools and to set up a Russian-speaking television channel and a Russian-speaking radio station. By doing so, the government may complicate matters for the new opposition, which makes no secret of its plans to play the language card in next year’s elections. But linguistic liberalism is unacceptable for the nationalists. “Poroshenko is going to protect the national interests of what state?” Kuybida wondered.

Excluding the romantic nationalist element from the NSNY brings the new party closer to the political center, which in Ukrainian conditions also means moving to the geographic center from the west. Without the Ukrainian People’s Movement and the Ukrainian People’s Party, Yushchenko’s party may lose some popularity in the nationalist west, but acquire votes in the densely populated and largely Russian-speaking east-center. “It is good that the NSNY has both in its program and in its personal composition declared itself as a liberal-democratic force, so it has good chances in the south and the east, where the traditional national democrats have weaker positions,” Anatoly Matvienko, leader of the nationalist Sobor party — which is not going to join the NSNY either — has said in an interview with Ukraina Moloda. Matvienko speaks from experience — he chaired the People’s Democratic Party. Yushchenko’s party should target the majority of voters if it wants to be in the majority in the next parliament, but the majority of Ukrainians is anti-NATO and pro-Russian, Matvienko noted. The nationalist electorate, however, is largely pro-NATO and anti-Russian.

(UNIAN, February 25;, March 4; Zerkalo nedeli, March 5; Ukrayinska pravda, March 9, 10; Ukraina moloda, 2000, Kievsky Telegraf, March 11)