Viktor Baloha, the head of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s staff, has left Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine–People’s Union party (NSNU). Baloha apparently gave up on making NSNU a reliable, strong political party capable of winning national elections. It is widely expected that Baloha will launch a new political project designed to help Yushchenko win the next presidential election and possibly to help his team win an early parliamentary election.
Baloha declared his departure on February 15. He explained that this move should stop “speculations” about his interference in the activities of NSNU while serving as chief of the presidential office. Baloha said that he is not going to leave party politics, and that he has “specific political plans” to implement “that will always be connected with Viktor Yushchenko.” Baloha added, “The democratic forces should be strengthened so that political parties of the democratic camp should defeat the parties that are trying to impose political slogans from the distant past on society.”
Many commentators interpreted this statement as the start of work to launch a new party for Yushchenko, who will most probably run for re-election in January 2010. Vladyslav Kaskiv, leader of the radical party Pora, which played an important role in the Orange Revolution that brought Yushchenko to power at the end of 2004, said that Baloha’s departure was due to the failure to create a big party based on Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS).
NSNU is the biggest among the several tiny right-of-center parties that make up NUNS. Yushchenko launched a plan to establish a large party to unite all “national democratic forces” on the basis of NSNU in 2005. When the plan failed and NSNU lost the parliamentary election in 2006, Yushchenko invited Baloha to chair NSNU in order to steer it out of crisis. Baloha purged NSNU ranks of the unpopular “dear friends,” the business moguls who contributed media and other resources to Yushchenko’s 2004 election victory but were later disgraced by accusations of corruption. This, however, did not help either NUNS or NSNU in the early parliamentary election in 2007. It polled only 14%, far behind the Party of Regions (PRU) and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc.
Kaskiv suggested that Baloha will try to set up a new party that should be influential in both western and eastern Ukraine. NSNU, quite popular in the national-minded western Ukraine, has been rejected in the mainly Russophone eastern Ukraine, mainly because it is associated with ultra-nationalism there.
Another Yushchenko ally, former foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk, was more specific about Baloha’s plans. Tarasyuk, who chairs Rukh, a junior partner of NSNU in NUNS, told Channel 5 that Baloha is going to set up a new party based on the pro-Yushchenko non-governmental organization “Hart” (Ukrainian for “hardiness”). Tarasyuk said that Hart local cells were being formed across Ukraine from the top down. “I do not rule out that this party will be presented as a new political base of the president,” said Tarasyuk.
NSNU and NUNS chairman Vyacheslav Kyrylenko told a press conference on February 16 that he would not like to comment on Baloha’s departure. Kyrylenko stressed that irrespective of Baloha’s decision, NSNU will remain Yushchenko’s party.
The chairman of Hart and NUNS deputy Ihor Kril, who is close to Baloha, issued a statement on February 18 saying that there are no plans to set up a party on the basis of Hart to back Yushchenko. However, the leader of the NSNU Volyn Region cell, Volodymyr Karpuk, told the newspaper Volynska pravda about a proposal to have several local NSNU activists join Hart, but he said they had refused. Karpuk suggested that a party based on Hart would be established on the basis of NSNU regional election headquarters where Baloha’s people control majorities.
If Baloha is serious about building a new party for the Yushchenko team, he should act quickly. Another early parliamentary election is possible, as the opposition continues to block the work of parliament to protest NATO membership plans (see EDM, February 14). NUNS, meanwhile, is losing popular trust if the figures of a recent survey by the Kyiv-based Research and Branding Group are correct. The poll showed that only 6.7% of Ukrainians would vote for Yushchenko’s NUNS bloc in an election in February, compared with 31% supporting the Tymoshenko bloc and 23.5% supporting the PRU. Popular trust in Yushchenko as an individual politician is much higher at 34%, but still trails Tymoshenko’s 45%.
The most recent opinion poll by the Razumkov think tank was a bit more optimistic, but still bad for NUNS. It showed that 10% of Ukrainians are ready to vote for NUNS, 30% for the Tymoshenko bloc, and 23% for the PRU.
(Obkom.net.ua, February 15; Ukrayinska pravda, Channel 5, February 16; Razom.org.ua, Volynska pravda, February 18; For-ua.com, Ukrainski novyny, February 19)