WHOSE CANDIDATE WILL HRACH BE?

Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 93

Having lost his fight for the speakership of Crimea’s parliament, Leonid Hrach has declared that he will run in the next Ukrainian presidential election, scheduled for 2004 (see the Monitor, April 23, May 3).

As a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), which is known for strict discipline among its ranks, Hrach surely must have discussed his ambition with the CPU bosses before speaking about it publicly. But if Adam Martynyuk, the unofficial Number Two in the CPU hierarchy, is to be trusted, the Communists no longer want Hrach. “I must say,” Martynyuk said in a recent unusually outspoken interview with the Segodnya pro-government newspaper, “that Hrach’s presidential candidacy has not been discussed at any level of our party’s leadership. [We] have only one candidate for the top position in the state–[CPU leader] Petro Symonenko.”

Pundits have long predicted that some ambitious Communist would try to unseat Symonenko after two consecutive elections lost by his CPU–the 1999 presidential race and this year’s parliamentary running. Charismatic and energetic Hrach seems to be a perfect candidate for unseating grayish and tongue-tied Symonenko. Unlike Symonenko, Hrach feels at ease with the mass media. He is more eloquent and, at the same time, more pragmatic. His main strength is his good relationship with Russia’s governing elite (Hrach boasts “special” relationship with, among others, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov), which is a serious asset for the leader of a party that draws support mainly from the Russophone eastern and southern areas of Ukraine. This must vex Hrach’s less popular colleagues. “We don’t care whether Russia is going to back him,” Martynyuk snapped in the same interview, asked about the possibility of Russian politicians and businessmen backing Hrach in the upcoming race. “Russia is no authority for the CPU.”

Hrach may have one serious disadvantage. Despite being a master of political intrigue, he has (ruling in Crimea) been far away from the corridors of power in Kyiv for too long. Now he is going to work in the national parliament in Kyiv, to which he was elected from the CPU list on March 31. Conservative Communist apparatchiks are unlikely to accept him, and their support is decisive. Symonenko has, after all, topped the CPU pyramid since its founding in 1993. Hrach may find forging alliances within the CPU against him much more difficult than balancing between President Leonid Kuchma, Kyiv and Crimean business clans, and Tatars in Crimea.

If Hrach is serious about running for presidency, he will bet not on Marxism, the popularity of which is in rapid decline in Ukraine, but instead on pro-Russian sentiment. In this area he will not necessarily have to lean on the CPU for support. He may, in fact, have no competition. No truly popular politician or significant political force has run on the reunification ticket or played the Russian language card since 1994, when Kuchma won the presidential race on the promise of rapprochement with Russia. Currently, both the 10 million-strong Russian ethnic minority and big Ukrainian businesses might want a strong pro-Russian candidate. Ukrainian industry, which has been growing for two years now after a decade of decline, needs foreign markets to expand because domestic demand remains fairly low. Because Ukrainian products cannot compete in the West, the market in neighboring Russia becomes very attractive.

There are signs that Hrach has already chosen the Russian card. After his disqualification from the Crimean parliamentary race in February (see the Monitor, March 1), he threatened Kyiv with a referendum on Crimea’s joining Russia. After his defeat in the Crimean speakership election on April 29, he has become even more outspoken. In a May 1 statement addressed to the Russian nation, he thanked Russian politicians and journalists who “lent” him “a helping hand” during the election campaign. He called himself “a symbol of the Crimean goal of unification with Russia.” Denouncing Kyiv for orchestrating his removal from Crimea, Hrach declared that “they [had] failed to win over the souls of Crimeans who belong to Russia” (Interfax-Ukraine, May 2; Segodnya, May 8).

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