Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 59

As the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) elections of March 31 loom ever closer, the pressure on the frontrunner, former Premier Viktor Yushchenko, and his bloc Our Ukraine, is mounting. President Leonid Kuchma would like to have a Rada majority based on his For United Ukraine (FUU) bloc and a predictable “Red” opposition consisting of the Communist Party of Ukraine and radical Marxist Natalya Vitrenko’s bloc. Rebel-prone nationalists and liberals from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine do not fit in this scheme. Hectic attempts to spoil the campaign for Our Ukraine have given way to a more systematic action.

When Yushchenko was touring the eastern regions of Ukraine early this month, odd circumstances playing against him seemed all too common. Local authorities, often linked to the FUU and fearful of being accused of collaboration with Our Ukraine, refused on several occasions to provide Yushchenko with places to meet with the local electorate. When they did, lights were prone to go off in the middle of the allotted time. Several times, and under various pretexts, Yushchenko was also refused airtime on local television. While such maneuvers were little more than inconveniences to Our Ukraine’s campaign, attempts to compromise Yushchenko and his team may prove to be more serious.

The prosecution has apparently now begun to focus on the financiers of Our Ukraine’s campaign. This had been predicted. Earlier this month, deputy Oleksandr Yelyashkevych claimed publicly that he was in possession of a secret election-rigging plan (see the Monitor, March 21). On March 21, the police interrupted a press conference by Yevhen Chervonenko, the Orlan beverages company founder, to escort him to the Kyiv prosecutor’s office for questioning. Kyiv Prosecutor Yury Haysynsky has claimed that when Chervonenko chaired the State Committee for Material Reserve under Yushchenko in 2000, he refused to obey the court ruling to sell grain from the reserve to Kyivmlyn company. Chervonenko retorted that he was not able to comply because the government had forbidden him to sell the grain. He then commented that the prosecution’s real target was not his reputation, but that of Yushchenko’s bloc. While Chervonenko was not arrested, he was prohibited from traveling outside Kyiv, which limits his usefulness to the campaign. Chervonenko’s is not the only such case. On March 22, officers of the Anti-Organized Crime Department broke into the main office of Ukrprominvest–a company controlled by the head of Our Ukraine headquarters, “chocolate king” Petro Poroshenko. It was later learned that the police had intended to investigate a different company and the intrusion into Ukrprominvest was “a mistake.”

Dents on Yushchenko’s reputation for honesty have proved more difficult. For more than a year, the media controlled by Yushchenko’s bitter rivals from the United Social Democratic Party (USDP) have been trying to link Yushchenko to the Ukraina bank bankruptcy of July 2001. Yet it seems that the most they have been able to assert is that Yushchenko was Ukraina’s director until 1993, which indeed he was.

Unable to find “kompromat” against Yushchenko personally, his rivals are now targeting his family. Recently, oligarch-controlled media have reported that Yushchenko’s daughter studied at Kyiv University, compliments of Ukraina’s funding. (Even if that were true, however, it would be no crime. It is common practice for Ukrainian companies to pay for the studies of future employees.) Yushchenko denied the reports. On March 21, Serhy Konev, one of the leaders of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh) bloc–a group riding on the popular name of Rukh, whose bulk is in Our Ukraine–told journalists that Yushchenko’s brother had failed to repay a loan of US$35,000 to Ukraina. Konev failed to come up with evidence and Yushchenko flatly denied the allegation.

It is not likely that Our Ukraine’s image will suffer from similar attacks in western Ukraine. Trust in Yushchenko there, according to Kyiv-based Razumkov polling agency, is so high that about half of voters have already said that they will vote for Our Ukraine. But support for Yushchenko is tenuous in the east of the country, where nationalists from Our Ukraine are unpopular. There, the Russian-language Inter TV, which is linked to the USDP, is strong, and petty provocations may do some harm. Yushchenko understands this, but is unable to do much to offset it. On March 21, Our Ukraine’s press service did release a statement to the media that provocations against Yushchenko “have become more frequent in recent weeks.” Most mainstream media, however, have ignored both that statement and Yushchenko’s previous denials of the reports linking him and his family to Ukraina’s collapse (Inter TV, March 18-21; Unian, March 21; Ukrainska Pravda, March 21, 23).