Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 160

Petro Symonenko, leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), personifies the Red menace at the presidential elections this fall. Symonenko blames “capitalism” and Ukraine’s independence for the economic and social crisis and promises restoration of the Soviet system. He tries to capitalize on current economic hardships, nostalgia for the Soviet past–a sentiment widespread among the 15 or so million of Ukraine’s impoverished elderly–and the support of ethnic Russian and russified voters in densely populated eastern Ukraine, where support for socialist economics is strong and Ukrainian national awareness weak. This is Symonenko’s native territory,

Born in 1952 in the industrial city of Donetsk, and trained as a mining engineer, Symonenko switched to Communist Party work, serving successively as ideological secretary and “second secretary”–a post requiring cooperation with the KGB–of the Donetsk Region’s CPU organization. In 1991-1993, when the CPU was banned, Symonenko landed a post as deputy director of a mining equipment plant. In 1993, however, the CPU was restored and Symonenko elected its first secretary. In the presidential race of 1994, the fledgling party supported Leonid Kuchma–who ran as the candidate of eastern Ukraine and the center-left–against the incumbent president Leonid Kravchuk. After the elections, when Kuchma reversed course, embracing Ukrainian national interests and promising to accelerate market reforms, the CPU withdrew its support. Since 1994 Symonenko has also been chairman of the communist parliamentary caucus–the single largest in that fragmented chamber.

Calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union and the abolition of the Ukrainian presidency, Symonenko claims that he would use the presidential office merely as a temporary tool “to restore order.” If elected, he says, he would halt market reforms and privatization, and reverse them in “strategic sectors” through full renationalization. Symonenko is opposed to private land ownership, but ostensibly not to private business within certain limitations. His professed economic model is Lenin’s NEP [New Economic Policy], an expedient of the Soviet regime in the 1920s, which permitted the temporary existence of a private sector under state control. Post-Soviet communists argue that the NEP can be resurrected as a combination of state socialism and modern market elements–a scheme they dub “socialism with a human face” and which tries to suggest that communism retains some unexplored historical prospects.

In his official program and in campaign speeches, Symonenko promises, if elected, to:

–promptly repay wage and pension arrears and raise the minimum wage and pension levels; restore state-financed welfare programs and liquidate unemployment by the end of his first presidential term

–restore state planning at the macroeconomic level; “impose state control and, if necessary, state monopolization in the sphere of foreign trade;” “repudiate monetarism” [meaning the government’s anti-inflationary policy]; impose price controls on food staples, other basic consumer goods, apartment rents and transport tariffs

–“restore people’s power in the form of Soviets of people’s deputies”

–resist the recommendations of international financial institutions and oppose Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO

–draw close to Russia and Belarus as “strategic allies” and “partners in a common economic space,” strive to create a “Union of sovereign states” around the core of “fraternal Slavic peoples,” and pool efforts with the Russian Communists in opposing the incumbent presidents of both countries.

The Symonenko campaign features some promises to confer official status on the Russian language in Ukraine. Symonenko has, however, stopped short of pledging to revise the constitutional stipulation that Ukrainian is the state language of Ukraine (see also the Monitor, July 20).

The candidate often emphasizes that his nomination was the CPU’s rather than his decision, and that on major issues he always consults the party leadership. Whether this stance reflects dependence on the party for strategic decisions, or is merely a tactic to avoid being accused of dictatorial ambitions, is an open question. He comes across as a born apparatchik, tongue-tied, with awkward manners, not particularly adept at political maneuvering and sorely lacking in initiative.

Among the fifteen presidential hopefuls in Ukraine, where politics is about individuals rather than parties, Symonenko is virtually the only contender representing a party. Backed by the largest and best organized of them, he has good chances to pass into the second round of the elections. In various polls over recent months, Symonenko has placed third overall, behind incumbent president Leonid Kuchma and another radical Red, Progressive Socialist Party leader Natalya Vitrenko. As Vitrenko’s candidacy is a only a transient soap bubble (see the Monitor, August 6), Symonenko would seem to be the leftist frontrunner in this presidential contest. He has but a slim chance of winning in the runoff unless the other major leftist candidates rally behind him. At the present stage in the campaign, the leftist forces are almost as splintered as their right-of-center and rightist adversaries (The Pik, June 24-30; Kyiv Post, July 15; Den, August 13; UNIAN, August 20; Holos Ukrainy, August 31; and running coverage of the Symonenko campaign in Ukrainian media).