Last week Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko appealed to the nation in an effort to reverse the dwindling popular trust in his government and to save the parliamentary election campaign for his party. Over four days Yushchenko gave an extensive interview to four TV channels, addressed an open-air rally in Lviv, and gave a two-hour press conference in Kyiv. Yushchenko’s message was that power-hungry former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had undermined stability and slowed economic growth, is no longer with him, and that his new team is pragmatic and goal-oriented.
Less than six months ahead of the parliamentary election, pollsters are registering disturbing trends for Yushchenko and his People’s Union-Our Ukraine (NDNU) party. A public opinion poll conducted on September 15-25 by Ukrainian Barometer showed that popular trust in Yushchenko had dropped from 57% in June to 38% in September. And a poll conducted at the same time jointly by Democratic Initiative and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology revealed that were the parliamentary vote held today, NDNU would come in third with 14% of the popular ballots, behind the opposition Party of Regions and Tymoshenko’s bloc, with each around 20%. If this trend is not reversed and the constitutional reforms shifting some presidential powers to the parliament come into effect on January 1 as planned, Yushchenko’s team may be elbowed out from the government after the polls by the likes of Tymoshenko and former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who remains leader of the opposition Regions party.
While post-revolution enthusiasm has been waning, economic growth has slowed and investors have steered clear of Ukraine. In August, for the first time since 1999, GDP fell by 1.6%, and the inflow of foreign investment dropped some fourfold compared to 2004. This inevitably damaged popular trust in Yushchenko. Tymoshenko’s dismissal by Yushchenko, and the subsequent signing of a reconciliation memorandum with presidential election rival Yanukovych badly affected Yushchenko’s popularity among the most radical of the Orange Revolution’s supporters. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko threatens to hijack potential NDNU voters, accusing the party’s top figures, like former National Security and Defense Council secretary Petro Poroshenko and NDNU parliamentary faction leader Mykola Martynenko, of corruption. In this situation, the nation was expecting Yushchenko to speak up, and he did so.
Ukraine’s four major TV channels – UT1, Channel 5, Inter, and 1+1 – broadcast a 35-minute interview with Yushchenko during prime time on October 4. Yushchenko said that restoring stability in the country was the main task for his government now, and he admitted, “Many are deeply disappointed with the government team, which has failed to reach an accord that could have helped to form a single political force.” Yushchenko, however, made it clear that restoration of his alliance with Tymoshenko is unlikely: “If Ms. Tymoshenko seeks power for the sake of power, I am not her partner.” Yushchenko accused Tymoshenko of scaring away investors with the re-privatization campaign and promised that the new cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov would be pragmatic: “They do not bear the burden of political promises.” However, the massive re-privatization campaign spearheaded by Tymoshenko was actually triggered by Yushchenko’s own election promise to take illegally privatized facilities back from owners linked to the previous [Yanukovych] government.
On October 6, addressing a crowd of roughly 100,000 people in the central square of western Lviv, Yushchenko explained why he had banished Tymoshenko from the government. He accused her of preparing articles of impeachment against him when she was still prime minister and of deliberately undermining the state budget. Yushchenko again accused Tymoshenko of launching indiscriminate re-privatization, and said that the attempted takeover of Nikopol Ferroalloys Plant in August was the last straw (Tymoshenko has been accused of collusion with tycoon Ihor Kolomoysky, see EDM, July 7). However, speaking in a city where Tymoshenko’s popularity threatens to eclipse his own, Yushchenko tried to give the impression that bridges have not been burned: “There is still time, and perhaps they will be on the same side with the healthy forces.”
On October 7, Yushchenko, fending off questions from journalists at a press conference in Kyiv, pledged no more squabbles between the cabinet, his secretariat, and the National Security and Defense Council. Yushchenko’s main argument was that his new team is “apolitical,” which might also be interpreted as meaning that his team is no longer bound by the populist promises of the Orange Revolution. The news conference was broadcast live by three national TV channels.
During his PR marathon, Yushchenko avoided comment on the recent allegations that Russian émigré tycoon Boris Berezovsky contributed to funding his victorious presidential campaign (see EDM, September 19). Earlier he had flatly denied the allegation. This controversy remains another serious potential threat to Yushchenko’s popularity. On October 7, the Communist Party issued a statement urging Yushchenko to resign and the Prosecutor-General’s Office to open a criminal case over “the betrayal of national interests and the violation of electoral legislation.”
(UNIAN, October 3; Ukrayinska pravda, September 28, October 6; Obkom.net.ua, October 7; Channel 5, October 4, 6, 7)