The Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s team is tightening its grip on power. The opposition, still in disarray after Yanukovych’s victory in the presidential elections last February, has offered no resistance. More defectors from the opposition are joining the ruling coalition, some of them lured by the promises of several recently freed government posts. Meanwhile, the junior partners of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU), the Communists and Parliamentary Speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn’s bloc, are losing influence within the coalition. Recently, the coalition rubberstamped a new local election law which leaves no opportunities for PRU rivals. At this pace, Ukraine may soon receive a de-facto one-party system, similar to neighboring Russia, with the opposition marginalized and the ruling party’s allies dwarfed into irrelevance.
On July 2, the parliament dominated by Yanukovych’s coalition, dismissed Humanitarian Deputy Prime Minister, Volodymyr Semynozhenko, and Environment Minister, Viktor Boyko. Neither Yanukovych nor his Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, explained the dismissals. Newspapers, citing anonymous PRU sources, reported that more ministers will soon be dismissed. Coal Minister, Yury Yashchenko, Health Minister, Zinovy Mytnyk, Transport Minister, Kostyantyn Yefimenko, and Volodymyr Sivkovych, a Deputy Prime Minister in charge of security, were mooted as candidates (Delo, July 5; Kommersant-Ukraine, July 7).
Clouds are gathering over Sehy Tyhypko, the liberal deputy prime minister in charge of economic reform. One newspaper linked to the PRU cited anonymous PRU sources as saying that Yanukovych was upset with Tyhypko for supervising the preparation of a tax code which was recently rejected by both the coalition and the opposition (Segodnya, July 6). The communists openly demanded Tyhypko’s dismissal in parliament over the same issue (Ukrainska Pravda, July 6). Tyhypko might become a scapegoat for the tax code failure, and the PRU may use the communists to deliver a warning to him for being too independently minded. In particular, Tyhypko insists that the recent tender to privatize the Luhansk locomotive plant, conducted by the Azarov cabinet and won by Russia’s Transmashholding, was not transparent (Ukrainski Novyny, July 7). Tyhypko, although he admitted that he has certain problems in interacting with the rest of the cabinet, pledged not to resign (ICTV, July 12).
Tyhypko’s dismissal would not be a major surprise, but the dismissal of Emergencies Minister, Nestor Shufrych, on July 10 surprised observers. Shufrych, a long-standing ally of Yanukovych, said he was asked to free the post for a would-be defector from the opposition, Viktor Baloha, who once headed the administration of former President, Viktor Yushchenko. Moreover, Shufrych said it had been Yanukovych’s decision to free several posts in the government in order to expand the ruling coalition (Interfax-Ukraine, July 10). The previous ministerial dismissals and the rumors about more dismissals fit this scenario.
No defector from the opposition has become a minister, but this may happen when parliament returns after the summer recess, as several posts have been freed in the government. Additionally, Tyhypko may be sacked at any moment. Consequently, the level of influence enjoyed by the PRU’s junior allies, the communists and Lytvyn, will further decline. This has already occurred in the ruling coalition where the opinions of the junior partners are routinely ignored while 30 defectors from the opposition, mostly businessmen, have joined the coalition in the past four months. This number is more than that of either the communists or of Lytvyn’s caucus. As a result, the coalition grew to include 265 members. If the coalition reaches 300, two-thirds in the 450-seat chamber, Yanukovych’s team will be able to amend the constitution at will. There will be no meaningful objections from the constitutional court, which has been chaired by Yanukovych’s ally, Anatoly Holovin, since July 12 (Ukrainska Pravda, July 12).
On July 10, parliament passed a new law on local elections, scheduling them for October 31. The elections conducted under such a law will become another nail in the coffin for the opposition. First, it is now forbidden for blocs of parties to field candidates, which means that the main opposition bloc of former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is ruled out. Second, only parties registered more than one year ago will be allowed to run, so the Front of Change party of former parliament speaker and presidential candidate, Arseny Yatsenyuk, which is the second most popular opposition party according to opinion polls, cannot participate in local elections. Third, only parties are allowed to field candidates in mayoral and town council elections, therefore independent or opposition candidates running as independents are out (Kommersant-Ukraine, July 12).
The PRU is fully in control of both the government and parliament, and after the local elections next fall most local councils would also be dominated by the PRU. Recent public opinion polls show that the public may not mind the PRU’s domination of Ukrainian politics. According to a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 38 percent of Ukrainians would vote for the PRU in parliamentary elections, well ahead of Tymoshenko’s bloc with 11 percent and Tyhypko’s party with 7 percent (Ukrainska Pravda, July 3). A poll by Razumkov and Democratic Initiatives gave the PRU 41 percent, and Tymoshenko’s bloc received only 16 percent (UNIAN, June 18).