Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 146

Hryhory Surkis, the energy and media oligarch, sponsor of the United Social-Democrat Party (USDP) and a presidential loyalist, has suffered a major public defeat in the dispute over the May 30 Kyiv mayoral election (see the Monitor, June 2). The presidentially appointed head of the state administration of Kyiv, Oleksandr Omelchenko, had won the mayoral election with more than 76 percent of the vote, to Surkis’ 16 percent. But Surkis claimed that the election had been unfair and appealed in court against the Kyiv city electoral commission, hoping to win a repeat election in the autumn. On July 22, the local court in Vyshhorod, Kyiv Region, declared the election of Omelchenko void. According to the verdict, the city electoral commission was set up earlier than envisaged by law, and Omelchenko had abused his position as head of the Kyiv state administration to obtain access to state-run media during the campaign.

The verdict triggered protests from national-democrats and leftists alike. The influential bloc of the Rukh and the Reform and Order Party accused the government and Kuchma–prematurely, as it soon turned out–of interference in the court process. Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz and Parliament Chairman Oleksandr Tkachenko also publicly defended the election results. Omelchenko appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the local court’s verdict.

Kuchma looked as if he had to choose between two of his loyalists: Surkis, whose USDP actively backs him in the current presidential election campaign, and Omelchenko, who has served the president since 1996 as head of the Kyiv administration. In fact, Kuchma had little choice in the matter: The Kyiv mayoral election had been recognized as free and fair by international observers, including those from the Council of Europe, which has long demanded free mayoral elections in Ukraine’s cities. Cancellation of the election result by court order could have given rise to charges of government interference in both the judicial and the electoral processes. In the event, Kuchma–as cited by the presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko–chastised the Vyshhorod court for “trampling the Kyiv voters’ will” and for failing to properly understand the concept of an independent judiciary; this court’s conduct, Martynenko added, “confirmed the president’s assessment of the work of many courts.” Indeed, the court system in Ukraine remains unreformed and judges often do not act independently.

Surkis, visibly humiliated, announced on July 26 that he would not run in repeat mayoral elections. But several hours later, it became obvious that a repeat election would not take place: The Supreme Court suspended the local court’s verdict (STB, UNIAN, July 22-26; see also the Monitor, July 7).

This setback dims Surkis’ and the USDP’s political prospects. The post of Kyiv mayor offers opportunities for lining up business interests behind the mayor and the party, as well as good launching grounds for future electoral campaigns. The defeat of Surkis, along with the ouster of Vadym Rabinovych last month and the flight from justice of the former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, also illustrates the limits of even the top Ukrainian oligarchs’ power in two ways. First, they have not managed to translate economic clout into electoral strength. And, second, they remain inherently weak vis-a-vis the president, to whose attitude they ultimately owe both their successes and their setbacks–or downfalls.