Clashes between far-right and pro-Russian activists spoilt the Victory Day ceremonies in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv on May 9. Militants from the far-right Freedom Party beat up pro-Russian activists, who arrived in Lviv from Russophone southern regions, clashed with police, burnt red flags and destroyed a wreath which the Russian consul, Oleg Astakhov, was going to lay at the local cemetery. One member of the Freedom Party was shot in the leg by a local pro-Russian activist (www.zaxid.net, Ukrainska Pravda, May 9). Lviv Region Governor, Mykhaylo Tsymbalyuk, pressed by the Freedom Party (which dominates the regional council) tendered his resignation on the following day (www.zaxid.net, May 10).
The radicals from the Freedom Party in Lviv made use of divide-and-rule tactics, which the ruling Party of Regions (PRU) pursues ahead of the parliamentary election scheduled for October 2012. On April 21, the PRU dominated parliament ruled that red flags would be used along with the national blue-and-yellow flags during the Victory Day celebrations across the country. By doing so, the PRU deliberately provoked tension in Lviv and other Western areas where red flags are associated with communism and the Soviet occupation in the mid-twentieth century rather than with the victory in World War II. On April 28, the Lviv Region council ruled to outlaw red flags in Lviv (www.zaxid.net, April 28). At the same time, pro-Russian activists from the Crimea decided to go to Lviv with red flags evidently to provoke the Freedom Party and other nationalists (www.comments.ua, May 6). Conflict in this context was inevitable.
Despite ideological differences, Freedom and the PRU pursue one common goal ahead of the parliamentary election. This is to weaken the most popular opposition force, the bloc of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (BYT). PRU ideologists want to radicalize society in Western Ukraine where Freedom and BYT share the same nationalist electorate so that the more radical elements of the electorate vote for Freedom rather than BYT. Such tactics worked in the local elections last fall, as a result of which the Freedom Party dominates several regional councils in Western Ukraine. At the same time, support for Freedom is limited to that part of Ukraine while popular support for BYT is geographically much wider so Freedom is seen in PRU as a lesser evil on the national scale.
Opinion polls conducted this year and in 2010 show that Freedom’s popularity has been on the rise but it is far from supplanting BYT as the most popular opposition party. It is currently only the third most popular opposition force. According to opinion polls by the Kyiv-based Razumkov think-tank, the share of Ukrainians who are ready to vote for Freedom increased from 2.8 percent in August 2010 to 4.6 percent in April 2011. Over the same period, support for BYT grew from 13.7 percent to 17.9 percent. The figures for the second most popular opposition party, the Front of Change which is headed by charismatic and young former parliamentary speaker Arseny Yatsenyuk, improved from 5.3 percent to 10.8 percent.
The opposition’s popularity is growing obviously at the expense of PRU and its junior partner in the government, the relatively new party Strong Ukraine, whose leader is the liberal Deputy Prime Minister Serhy Tyhypko. Razumkov’s polling figures for the two parties plunged respectively from 41.2 percent to 22.1 percent and from 11.1 percent to 6.1 percent. Tyhypko has signaled that he may quit the government to focus on the election campaign if the government continued to drag its feet over unpopular market reforms (Ukrainska Pravda, March 18; Inter TV, March 25). As a result, Strong Ukraine’s popularity may grow at the expense of both BYT and PRU as last year’s presidential election showed that Tyhypko drew support from the regional strongholds of both parties.
Tyhypko may well join the ranks of the opposition ahead of the election, further fragmenting the opposition which is disunited even without him. Tymoshenko is wary of alliances with smaller nationalist opposition parties such as former President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine after her squabbles with them when she was prime minister in 2008-2010. She told a recent press conference that she does not talk with Yushchenko as they share different values (UNIAN, May 6). The ambitious Yatsenyuk does not intend to join any alliances either. He said his goal is to overtake BYT in the 2012 polls so as to become the second strongest party in parliament after PRU (Segodnya, February 21).
The Freedom Party is not against forming alliances, its leader Oleg Tyahnybok told his supporters during a recent regional trip. However, Tyahnybok clearly sees Freedom as the dominant force in any opposition alliance (Ukrainska Pravda, April 18). In any case, BYT or Yatsenyuk will hardly join forces with Freedom since their xenophobic slogans are viewed by many as ideological allies to Nazism. An alliance with Freedom at the national scale would only discredit mainstream parties. Alone, Freedom can be neutralized by PRU, which controls parliament, at any time through raising the threshold to parliament from the current 3 percent to 5 percent or more, which Freedom will not overcome. President Viktor Yanukovych indicated the possibility of raising the threshold in his recent address to the nation (Ukrainska Pravda, April 7).