Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 9

By Taras Kuzio

Ukraine is in the throes of a profound political crisis: A nascent party system is slowly emerging, but the parties embody several of the deep divisions that so scarred Ukrainian politics in its first and difficult decade of independence. Putting aside the scandals now swirling around President Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s party system as it is today is an unstable foundation for democracy.

Ukraine is unique among the CIS states in that it has a large, pro-Western, reformist lobby–a product of both history and geography. The unofficial leader of that lobby is Viktor Yushchenko (who, polls suggest, would win any free and fair presidential elections). Ukraine has “Europe” and “Eurasia” all rolled into one. The quintessential authoritarian CIS regime is what the executive/oligarchs lean towards, but they are blocked by an opposition emboldened by the allegations that came to light after the content “Kuchmagate” tapes were discovered. It is hard to be either optimistic or pessimistic about Ukraine’s future. The country is a work in progress, with clear battle lines between a Europeanizing reform movement and a Eurasianist, former Soviet elite. A great deal will depend on the outcome of the 2004 presidential elections.


Each of Ukraine’s three parliaments since its independence (1994-1998, 1998-2002, 2002-2006) has been associated with one aspect of the evolution of the country’s multiparty system. A certain degree of clarity in the division of Ukraine’s political forces has become evident only in recent years–thanks in part to the velvet revolution of early 2000, when the left was removed from control of parliament, and, more important, in part to the Kuchmagate crisis in November of the same year.

The 1994 parliament was elected under a full majoritarian law. This benefited the fragmented forces of the former sovereign (national) communists who had not yet created their own parties but who still had clientilistic networks, referred to as the party of power. In Soviet times the Communist Party in Ukraine (KPU) had 3.5 million members and was the largest republican party in the Soviet Union until the Russian republic created its own separate Communist Party in 1990. The extent of the disintegration of belief in communism both during the Leonid Brezhnevite “era of stagnation” and the Mikhail Gorbachev era could be seen in the fact that less than 5 percent of these former members joined the post-Soviet KPU, which has maintained a steady membership of only 150,000.

Besides the amorphous party of power, parliament had three main ideological parties. The Soviet-era KPU was banned in 1991, but allowed to reregister in 1993. They went on to win eighty seats in the 1994 election. The other leftist party was Oleksandr Moroz’s Socialists (SPU), created in 1991 to represent the left wing when the KPU was banned from August 1991-September 1993.

The Rukh, which began as a broad popular coalition in 1989, went into decline after it divided into two wings at its February 1992 congress: the statists (derzhavnyky) who backed President Leonid Kravchuk, and those in “constructive opposition” to the former sovereign (national) communists. The statists created the Congress of National Democratic Forces, that today is represented by the small Christian Republican Party. This division into statist nationalists and reformist national democrats has bedeviled the Rukh and its 2002 incarnation–Our Ukraine–ever since. Those in constructive opposition were led by long-time dissident Viacheslav Chornovil, who was both a more vigorous champion of de-communisation and reform, and Kravchuk’s main challenger in the December 1991 presidential elections.

By the time of the 1998 parliament, the election law had been changed to a mixed (50:50) proportional-majoritarian system, still in force during the 2002 elections. Ukraine’s second parliament saw the first evidence of the institutionalization of the “party of power” into what have been defined as centrist, pragmatic parties. Some of these were newly created–Labor Ukraine [TU], Regions of Ukraine, Agrarians, and Democratic Union. Others were genuine liberal-social democratic parties captured by the “party of power”–Social Democratic united [SDPUo], Greens, and People’s Democrats [NDP]. Ukraine’s first president, Kravchuk, joined the Kyiv clan’s SDPUo rather than the national democrats.

Why had the Soviet-era sovereign communists/post-Soviet party of power felt a need to enter party politics? Primarily because by 1998 they had transformed their Soviet-era political power into economic power through insider privatization, corruption, financial speculation and foreign trade (especially the re-export of Russian energy and arms sales). An alliance had emerged between the executive branch and centrist oligarchs. The executive turned a blind eye to the corruption of centrist oligarchs and gained a percentage of the illicit proceeds. In return, centrist oligarchs gave the Kuchma regime needed political support.

Centrist parties served as mere “krishy” (protective “roofs” in criminal argot) for regional clans and the oligarchs’ economic activity. They are ideologically amorphous and top-heavy, with members recruited forcibly or with bribes. Ideologically committed members willing to work for the good of their party cause are to be found only on the left and right of the political spectrum.

By the middle of the 1998-2002 parliament, it was becoming evident to the oligarchic party of power and the executive that the political system had to be refashioned to defend their gains and continued dominance. The internationally unrecognized April 2000 referendum therefore aimed to transform Ukraine into a presidential republic, a pattern common throughout the CIS (with the exception of Moldova). This strategy collapsed only with the Kuchmagate crisis later in the year, which has since isolated both the party of power and executive.

Prior to 2000, many statist nationalists had been willing to support the center and the executive as long as those remained committed to state building (its commitment to nation building was always weak). Until then the twin external Russian and internal communist threats forced many national democrats to cooperate with the executive and centrists, something clearly seen in the second round of the 1999 presidential elections when Kuchma obtained a large number of negative votes aimed against his opponent, communist leader Pyotr Symomenko. This anti-left alliance endured until Kuchmagate.

Since Kuchmagate, Ukraine’s political landscape has divided into three. Pitted against the oligarchic centrists and executive are the ideologically driven and largely anti-Kuchma/oligarch right and the left. The only bridge between the right and left oppositions and the center is that held out by statists on the center-right. Maintaining this bridge has been the hope of former Prime Minister and Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko. Some centrist groups have been willing to move in that direction (Agrarians, the NDP and TU), either due to popular bases in the same region of west-central Ukraine (Agrarians are the party of power in west Ukraine) as Our Ukraine, or because they have a common dislike for the SDPUo.

The 2002 elections came as a shock to the authorities. The four main opposition blocs–KPU and SPU on the left and Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc on the right–captured nearly 60 percent of the vote on proportional lists, compared to only 18 percent for the pro-Kuchma For a United Ukraine (ZYU) and SDPUo. Kuchma refused to accept these results, which might have meant an opposition-controlled parliament when he steps down as president in 2004.

Through bribery, coercion and intimidation of independents elected in single-member majoritarian districts, ZYU and SDPUo increased their share of parliament to half of the seats (225), and at the end of September announced the creation of a parliamentary majority based on nine factions (the ZYU having disintegrated in May). In May Kuchma successfully pushed Volodymyr Lytvyn through as parliamentary speaker, and replaced him as presidential administration head with the hard man of Ukrainian politics, presidential hopeful and Russian-backed Viktor Medvedchuk, also head of the SDPUo.


Two factors explain why Ukraine has entered the most severe political crisis in its history. First, as mentioned, Ukraine stands apart among the CIS states with its large pro-Western, reformist constituency. This, represented by Our Ukraine and the more populist Tymoshenko bloc, has its stronghold in western-central Ukraine.

The KPU is in decline because of generational factors, an improving economy and the existence of a non-communist alternative to the oligarchs (its 120 seats in the 1998-02 parliament were nearly halved in the 2002 elections). The SPU has moved away from the KPU and is in many ways closer to the moderate right, one reason being its stronghold in central Ukraine and another its well-respected leader, Moroz.

Of the four opposition groups only one–the KPU–has any widespread popularity in Russophone eastern-southern Ukraine. This region is the stronghold of the executive and oligarchic centrists (oligarchs as an organized group do not exist in western Ukraine). During the 2002 elections ZYU only won one oblast–Donetsk–one of two traditional bases of the KPU, the other being the Crimea.

Second, the ramifications of the Kuchmagate crisis. The allegations found on the tapes made in the president’s office by his security guard are enough to impeach Kuchma many times over, if he was president of a state with the rule of law. In late September the United States suspended aid to Ukraine after accusing Kuchma of sanctioning the sale of military technology to Iraq in contravention of the UN embargo. In the same week the European Court of Human Rights opened a case against Ukraine (and, in effect, against Kuchma) over his involvement in the murder of opposition journalist Georgy Gongadze.

Domestic pressure against Kuchma, which culminated in a 50,000-strong popular demonstration on September 16, is now being backed by international pressure that could isolate the country. Washington has said openly that it can no longer work with Kuchma.

Kuchma is in a corner. He and Medvedchuk have hobbled together an unstable “parliamentary majority” and still control the government. No candidate from the executive or oligarchs is anywhere near as popular as Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko, who has remained Ukraine’s most favored since 2000–a cause of some concern to Kuchma as he looks forward to his retirement in 2004. A Russian-style planned succession, in which Kuchma would nominate his successor, is out of the question. A pro-presidential parliamentary majority has burnt Kuchma’s last bridge to the opposition, pushing Our Ukraine into the radical camp.

There are grounds for arguing that any immunity deal struck with Kuchma will not be worth the paper it is written on. On the domestic front, the 2006 elections are likely to be fully proportional, something that would work against non-ideologically driven centrist oligarchs. An opposition-dominated parliament would refuse to abide by any immunity. One can, furthermore, expect international pressure to hold Kuchma accountable for his actions.

Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Centre Russian & East European Studies and an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.