Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 46

The March 26 parliamentary election in Ukraine will be contested by an unprecedented 45 parties and blocs, but this impressive number is misleading. Opinion polls show that over 30 of them have nothing to hope for, while four to six parties will be struggling to clear the 3 percent barrier into parliament, as popular support for them is calculated in single digits. The real race is between the three most popular forces — the Our Ukraine bloc of President Viktor Yushchenko and the bloc of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who shared the triumph of the Orange Revolution in 2004, and the Party of Regions (PRU) headed by Yushchenko’s rival in the 2004 presidential election, Viktor Yanukovych.

A year ago, the PRU, demoralized by Yanukovych’s electoral defeat, plunged into a severe identity crisis, not knowing what to do with its new opposition status. But the mistakes by the Orange team that led to its split in August-September 2005 played into the PRU’s hands. Now it is the undisputable leader of the parliamentary race, with more than 30 percent of Ukrainians ready to vote for it. The PRU should win hands down in the eastern and southern regions, which voted for Yanukovych in 2004, and its strongest base is the Donetsk Region, where most of the top 20 on the PRU’s list have roots. These include Yanukovych, Donetsk Region council head Borys Kolesnykov — who was arrested in spring 2005 on suspicion of extortion but later released (see EDM, April 11, 2005) — and tycoon Renat Akhmetov, who is believed by many to be the real leader of the PRU, the eminence grise behind Yanukovych.

Unlike Our Ukraine, the PRU does not promise integration into the EU or NATO. “I stand for European values, that’s for sure. But if we come to Europe today and knock at the door, will they open? I think they won’t,” novice politician Akhmetov said at his first campaign rally in Donetsk on February 19. The PRU promises equal partnership with Russia, though its opponents in the nationalist camp flatly call it a pro-Russian force. Upgrading the Russian language to official status is one of the key slogans of the PRU, which goes down well with their predominantly Russophone supporters.

Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine offers a different agenda. They do not see why Ukrainian should not remain the only official language, and EU and NATO integration are their international priorities. Our Ukraine is especially strong where the PRU is weak — in nationalist-minded western Ukraine — but unpopular in the east and south. Opinion polls show that at least 16-21% of Ukrainians will vote for Yushchenko’s bloc.

The populist Tymoshenko bloc’s stronghold is the rural center and Kyiv, which decided the outcome of the presidential poll in favor of Yushchenko. The Tymoshenko bloc’s popularity has somehow decreased since Tymoshenko’s dismissal from the post of prime minister last September, but no lower than a comfortable 13-19%, opinion polls show. This may allow the bloc to snatch second place from Our Ukraine under favorable circumstances. Tymoshenko claims that her bloc is the only one that did not betray the Orange Revolution ideals, but she offers little in terms of ideology. Instead, Tymoshenko’s campaign literature underscores her good looks, and the bloc’s emblem is a deliberately non-ideological red heart painted on a white background. Tymoshenko says that once back in the government she would do her utmost to resume reprivatization, which may add to her popularity among ordinary Ukrainians, but the idea definitely scares investors.

Under the constitutional reform in force since January 1, a parliamentary majority, rather than the president, will decide on the appointment of the prime minister. Tymoshenko says this election campaign is a contest for the prime minister’s position, and that the choice will be between her and Yanukovych. The media supporting the Tymoshenko bloc have been claiming that Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions are in talks over a post-election coalition, in which Yanukovych will be prime minister. Our Ukraine and the PRU deny this.

Meanwhile, talks between the Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko blocs on re-establishing the Orange Coalition have stalled. Each side has come up with conditions that the other rejects. Our Ukraine insist that the coalition should include at least five forces and not just the two blocs, that it should pledge loyalty to Yushchenko, and that Tymoshenko should drop her prime ministerial ambitions. The Tymoshenko bloc say they would continue talks only if Yushchenko’s government breaks the natural gas agreements with Russia, which were reached earlier this year and are widely believed to be disadvantageous. Kommersant-Ukraine has reported that Our Ukraine has secretly accepted this condition, but this has not been confirmed by either of the two parties. Meanwhile, Our Ukraine campaign manager Roman Bezsmertny insists that, should coalition talks fail and should no majority be formed in parliament, Yushchenko would resort to the right to disband a new parliament, which constitutional reform has granted him.

(Ukrayinska pravda, Kanal 5, February 20; Ukraina TV, February 27; UNIAN, February 28, March 4; UT1, March 1; NTN TV, March 5; Kommersant-Ukraine, March 6; Svoboda, March 7)