Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 165

Ukraine’s charismatic former Premier Viktor Yushchenko, dismissed in April by a coalition of Communists and oligarchs in the Verkhovna Rada, remains one of the country’s most popular politicians. His popular approval ratings have not dropped below 20 percent, far higher than any other Ukrainian political leader can boast. But Yushchenko, who has announced his intention to run in the 2002 parliamentary elections, faces one serious problem: He has no party affiliation. He has so far failed to create a party of his own, and none of the existing ones that might like to do so–the right-wing coalition of the Rukh and Reforms and Order Party (ROP) and the pro-Kuchma bloc of Labor Ukraine, the Party of Regions, the Agrarian Party and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)–can call him their own.

On July 15, Yushchenko declared that he would form a bloc of democratic forces. Its name: Our Ukraine. It is unclear, however, precisely which parties Our Ukraine would consist of. Yushchenko chose to make his announcement during a meeting with representatives of the right-wing opposition, but at the same time expressed his reluctance to join it. “Opposition means denial, but the future lies with a positive program,” he said. “If a bloc aims at only 15 or 20 percent of the vote, it is simply not worth the trouble.” Ukrainian right-wingers, whose electoral base is confined to Ukraine’s western regions, have never gained more than 20 percent of the vote. Yushchenko’s vision was wider than this. He spoke of “a broad union of democratic and patriotic forces”–most likely meaning a coalition comprising, perforce, representatives of the pro-Kuchma political center, perhaps even some of the oligarchs.

The right-wing opposition, however, reluctant to share him with the center, chose a narrower interpretation. On July 20, the core of a nascent right-wing coalition, the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Hennady Udovenko’s Rukh) issued a statement welcoming Yushchenko’s potential leading role in a bloc with the Ukrainian People’s Movement (Yury Kostenko’s Rukh), Reforms and Order, and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists. Yulia Tymoshenko, former deputy premier in Yushchenko’s cabinet and current leader of the National Salvation Forum, also wanted to join forces with Yushchenko. But while Yushchenko did not rule out negotiating with the right, he remained evasive about the composition of Our Ukraine.

Meanwhile, there were also indications that he might reconcile matters with Kuchma and the oligarchs. The leader of the Party of Regions, Mykola Azarov, invited Yushchenko to join the centrist bloc in late August. The media also changed its tone. Yushchenko appeared live several times on the air of the state-controlled First National TV channel, which was one of the primary tools in the anti-Yushchenko campaign early this year.

Finally, on August 29, Yushchenko said that he did not consider himself a leader of the Ukrainian opposition, which excluded the possibility of his allying himself with Tymoshenko, an ardent oppositionist. And, on August 31, Yushchenko confirmed that he would not negotiate with the National Salvation Forum. Further, he revealed that he had not yet discussed any political cooperation with several potential allies, pro-Kuchma PDP among them. The same day, Viktor Pynzenyk, the leader of Reforms and Order, said that the composition of Our Ukraine had not yet been discussed with Yushchenko.

Similar controversial reports prompted observers to suspect that Yushchenko had begun drifting toward Kuchma’s camp. Russia’s Izvestia and Vesti.ru went so far as to report that Kuchma had appointed Yushchenko his successor. Both presidential spokesman Oleksandr Martynenko and Yushchenko himself denied this, though–strangely–Kuchma himself said nothing.

Yushchenko apparently would like to be on the right, but political necessity is pushing him toward the center, which is financially and organizationally better prepared for the elections. In an interview with Ukrainska Pravda on August 29, which passed unnoticed by mainstream media, Yushchenko confessed what are possibly his true beliefs, denying that he was coordinating the formation of Our Ukraine with Kuchma, deploring the lack of unity in the right-wing camp and revealing that his “heart [had been] with the people in the tents” during the anti-Kuchma protests late last year.

Yushchenko’s balancing act between the right and the center is a clear-enough indication of his ambition to become a national leader. He seems to want to unite the two for the elections, but most probably will have to choose between them. Their alliance in 1999-2000 was based, after all, on a short-lived mutual need–the strong Red forces in the 1999 presidential election–and expired on the Red losses in that vote and the eruption of political scandals after the disappearance of journalist Georgy Gongadze a year ago (Ukrainska Pravda, July 16, August 29; UNIAN, July 16, September 1, 4; STB TV, July 20; Korrespondent.net, August 31; Vesti.ru, September 1; see the Monitor, April 27, August 31).