Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 16

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Yesterday, January 23, opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as president of Ukraine. The tables have been turned in Kyiv, and those who ruled yesterday are coming to grips with the new reality and learning to be in the opposition. For the moment, for those former power wielders who either do not want to jump on the bandwagon or are not welcome in Yushchenko’s camp could join one of three groups. These are the Donetsk team of election loser Viktor Yanukovych, a new party with former Kharkiv governor Yevhen Kushnaryov, and the United Social Democratic Party (USDP). The new opposition will co-exist with the “old” firebrands: the Communists and Nataliya Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialists.

The Progressive Socialist Party (PSPU) has been the first to capitalize on Yanukovych’s defeat. Vitrenko, a fierce critic of American “imperialism,” was among the very few losers of the crowded first (October 31) round of the presidential elections who backed Yanukovych in the runoff. Vitrenko’s interpretation of Yanukovych’s eventual defeat was rather original: “President [Leonid] Kuchma has once again knelt down before the Americans,” she said on January 4 in Sevastopol, where she announced the creation of a coalition of “leftist patriotic forces” together with the obscure Russian Bloc and the Russian Community of Crimea. The PSPU organized a tent city of Yanukovych supporters on Donetsk’s central Lenin Square, which grew to more than 50 tents by mid-January. Smaller tent camps were set up in several other eastern cities.

Yanukovych has rejected the PSPU’s support. Ihor Shkirya, a member of parliament and a prominent member of Yanukovych’s team, was quite open about Vitrenko in a recent interview with Korrespondent: “I did not invite Vitrenko. She took our side of the barricades on her own initiative and contributed to Yanukovych’s result,” he said. “But, knowing her earlier politics, we do not want to be in the same camp with her.” Vitrenko had been in the opposition to all Ukrainian prime ministers, suspecting them of “capitalist” and pro-Western orientations, and Yanukovych was no exception. The PSPU lost the 2002 parliamentary elections, and after Vitrenko’s October 31 defeat, it may altogether disappear. Efforts to organize the pro-Yanukovych’s protests were aimed at raising the party’s profile with an eye to the 2006 parliamentary polls, and people like Shkirya and Yanukovych perfectly understand this.

Addressing the nation on television on January 20, after the Supreme Court rejected his last appeal against the December 26 repeat runoff results, Yanukovych effectively proclaimed Yushchenko president. “I ask you to dismantle the tents and start to prepare for a new stage of political struggle,” he said. But Yanukovych failed to explain to his supporters what to do next. Addressing a rally in Donetsk on the same day, he confessed that his defeat in the elections was like a bolt from the blue, and that he does not know how to behave in the opposition. He, however, promised to win the 2006 elections and to fight in parliament “for expanding ties with Russia,” “attaining a higher status for the Russian language, and significantly expanding the regions’ rights.” It is not clear whether Yanukovych will be brave enough to head the opposition to Yushchenko. On January 23, Raisa Bohatyreva, the leader of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions faction in parliament, said that her faction might cooperate with Yushchenko under certain conditions. She repeated Yanukovych’s demand for more rights “to the regions.”

Yevhen Kushnaryov, who has recently resigned as Kharkiv governor and was elected chairman of the Kharkiv regional council, intends to run for parliament on the same pro-Russian and autonomist ticket. An old apparatchik and a former head of Kuchma’s administration, he earned a reputation as a “separatist” during the Orange Revolution by promising at a rally in Kharkiv that “neither Kyiv nor Donetsk” would rule there and recalling that the Russian border was nearby. Now he denies having harbored separatist plans and says that his aim is a federal Ukraine with a bicameral parliament. Unlike Yanukovych, Kushnaryov unequivocally declared that his new party, called New Democracy, would stand in opposition to Yushchenko. New Democracy reportedly includes Kharkiv-based secessionists from a former “party of power,” the People’s Democratic Party of former prime minister Valery Pustovoitenko.

Another former “party of power,” former presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk’s USDP, has been less unequivocal about its attitude toward Yushchenko’s government. One of its leading members, parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych, who defended Yanukovych to the end of his appeals before the Supreme Court, has said that the USDP would form an opposition coalition with the Party of Regions and the Communists. But reputed oligarch Hryhory Surkis, who stands higher that Shufrych in USDP’s hierarchy, said on January 23 that his party would not be in the opposition to Yushchenko if his election promises “lead to improving our people’s life.”

(Ukraina TV, January 4, 14, 18; Channel 5, January 15; Obkom.net.ua, January 17; UNIAN, January 20; Korrespondent, January 22; Interfax-Ukraine, January 23).