Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has replaced the leadership of his party, People’s Union-Our Ukraine (NSNU). The NSNU’s business wing, the “dear friends” who controlled the party since its foundation in spring 2005, have been banished from the leadership. Yushchenko apparently holds them responsible for the party’s defeat in the March 2006 parliamentary election. Now the party will be steered directly from Yushchenko’s office, as its new chairman, Viktor Baloha, also heads the presidential secretariat. Many local observers believe that Yushchenko plans radical changes at the NSNU to beef it up for an early parliamentary election.
At the party’s third congress on November 11, “the dear friends” ignored Yushchenko’s call for change. Yushchenko did not attend then, and the party rejected his nomination for new party council chairman (see EDM, November 15). At the meeting of the NSNU’s 150-member council on December 7, Yushchenko, who is NSNU’s honorary chairman, chose radically different tactics, showing that he can rule with an iron fist.
It had been expected that Roman Bezsmertny’s bid for re-election as NSNU council chairman would be challenged by former prime minister Yuriy Yekhanurov and Petro Poroshenko, who is the most prominent of the “dear friends.” Yushchenko, however, fielded Baloha, surprising many observers. Instead of an anticipated secret ballot, Yushchenko insisted on an open election for council chairman, and the knowledgeable weekly Zerkalo nedeli reported that Yushchenko had even threatened to leave the meeting if his proposal were rejected. Nobody in the party dared to challenge the moral authority of its founder.
Baloha was elected chairman after three consecutive ballots, as internal party opposition to him was apparently quite strong, despite Yushchenko’s backing. Yushchenko’s side eventually won: 112 members of the council voted in Baloha’s favor, with three votes against, and 24 abstained. Yushchenko said that Baloha would chair the council temporarily, until the NSNU’s next congress, scheduled for February. In the interim, Baloha will apparently have to purge the top of the party of internal opposition and prepare it for a new leader.
Purges began the same day. Simultaneously with Baloha’s election, Bezsmertny was elected head of the party’s executive committee, which is the third-most important position after honorary chairman and council chairman. The council also elected a new 14-member presidium. For the first time, the presidium did not include any of the dear friends. Along with Baloha and Bezsmertny, it included Yekhanurov, Baloha’s deputy at the presidential secretariat Viktor Bondar, Yushchenko aides Ivan Vasyunyk and Yuriy Pavlenko, Kyiv Region governor Vira Ulyanchenko (Yushchenko’s close aide for many years), Kharkiv Region governor Arsen Avakov, and several senior parliamentarians.
Zerkalo nedeli deplored Yushchenko’s “tough” style at the meeting. It also wondered who will finance the party now that the dear friends — who have so far apparently been the party’s main sponsors — have fallen out with Yushchenko and may be drifting toward the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc. Segodnya, a daily traditionally critical of Yushchenko, quoted its sources at the NSNU as saying that the Donetsk-based Industrial Union of Donbas (ISD) may start pumping money into the party. The ISD is viewed a rival to Renat Akhmetov’s System Capital Management, the main force behind Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The current secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, Vitaly Hayduk, is a co-founder of the ISD.
Speaking to Den, another critic of Yushchenko, analyst Volodymyr Malynkovych, warned, “The [presidential] secretariat is losing the role that it should play in a democratic state. This is the secretariat of the head of state, not of a party leader.” Volodymyr Zastava of the Kyiv-based Gorshenin think tank opined that the NSNU is being transformed into the Ukrainian analogue of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Next year, the charismatic Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, may replace Baloha at the helm of the NSNU. On December 1 the Yanukovych-led coalition dismissed Lutsenko from the post of interior minister (see EDM, December 6). Yanukovych did not deny that one of the reasons for the firing was Lutsenko’s intention to become the leader of a pro-Yushchenko party next spring, a move that Lutsenko had declared at the NSNU congress in October.
Ukraine’s mainstream media almost unanimously suggest that Yushchenko is strengthening the NSNU in order to win an early parliamentary election next year. According to Zerkalo nedeli, Yushchenko has started consultations with his allies, including Tymoshenko, on the possibility of calling an early election. Yushchenko is exhausted by the continuing war with Yanukovych over his powers, a fight that he has been losing, while his loyalists have been ejected from the cabinet one by one. He may see an early election as the easiest way to bring his team back to power. For the moment, however, there appear to be no legal grounds for Yushchenko to dissolve parliament and call an early election.
(1 + 1 TV, Razom.org.ua, December 7; Segodnya, December 8; Den, Zerkalo nedeli, December 9)