Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 1 Issue: 5

By Vladimir Zviglyanich

[Editor’s Note: The Ukrainian parliament has gone on summer recess, leaving international and domestic observers confused. What really happened during the parliamentary election? Why did the winners lose power? What are the prospects for the opposition in the two years before the next presidential election in October 2004?]

WASHINGTON–The Ukrainian parliamentary election four months ago violated one of the basic precepts of democracy, that the people can change the government through popular election. According to a nationwide poll conducted in June by the Razumkov Center, almost 58 percent of Ukrainian voters voted against the ruling power (margin of error +/- 3 percent). But representatives of For United Ukraine and United Social Democrats (USDP), perhaps the least popular political forces in post-Soviet Ukrainian history, formed the majority in the Rada (some 226-250 of 450 seats).

Before the election, it was widely believed that the opposition had at last found its charismatic leader in Viktor Yushchenko, a Hollywood-handsome pro-Western liberal-minded economist whom the press called “the Ukrainian Messiah.” Yushchenko’s bloc Our Ukraine carried 23 percent of the vote and outpolled all other factions. That helped Yushchenko’s supporters pick up many of the 225 seats apportioned among the parties in accordance with their share of the total vote. But the remaining 225 seats go to the winners of district elections, where Article 118 of the constitution–which gives the president the power to appoint and dismiss local governors–ensures that government-backed candidates generally have a decisive advantage.

President Leonid Kuchma was thus able to engineer the selection of his former chief of administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, as speaker of the parliament. He gave Lytvyn’s old job to Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the United Social Democrats. The United Social Democrats are rightly called the “party of power,” representing the interests of “New Ukrainian” oligarchs with connections in the government. Ukrainian media commentators argued that in exchange for their appointments Lytvyn and Medvedchuk would support a grant of immunity for Kuchma from criminal prosecution, like the one that Vladimir Putin gave to Boris Yeltsin. Some analysts even saw in Medvedchuk a future Putin for Ukraine.

The opposition lost the election partly because it, in the Western understanding of the term, does not really exist. With the exception of Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko (leader of the anti-Kuchma bloc Motherland), and Oleksandr Moroz (leader of the Socialist Party), the opposition is opportunistic and comfortable in co-existence with the regime. Members of parliament receive huge salaries and benefits unheard of in the West. For example, all former MPs are entitled to health and recreation benefits and privileges, and in case of their death, their close relatives may inherit their salary and benefits.

The communists have never shown any desire or ability to take power and responsibility for the situation in the country. Nor have they ever produced a clearly designed alternative to market reforms. Communist leader Petro Symonenko met with Kuchma at his residence more often than the members of Kuchma’s cabinet. In fact the “communist-communists” like Symonenko, and the “reformer-communists” like Kuchma and most other key political figures in Ukraine, are united by common traditions, common friends and relatives, common sins and misdemeanors. No doubt Kuchma knows something compromising about Symonenko and vice versa, since both belonged to the highest party nomenklatura. This common knowledge unites them behind the scenes of the political theatre, where they play the role of irreconcilable adversaries.

What about Yushchenko? Could he could be a challenger to Kuchma and his men, and a pragmatic partner for the United States? Yushchenko has strong appeal among pensioners and workers, to whom he restored pensions and salaries while prime minister. If a presidential election had been held in June, according to a Razumkov poll, Yushchenko would have come in first in every region but the east:

–Western Ukraine: Yushchenko 51.9 percent (Tymoshenko 12.1)