Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 4

By Oleg Varfolomeyev

The favorite in Ukraine’s next presidential election, slated for October 2004, is not likely to change between now and then. Viktor Yushchenko, who served as Central Bank chairman from 1993 to 1999, and now heads the center-right parliamentary bloc Our Ukraine, is an unusual case. For Ukraine and indeed for the CIS as a whole, where democratic transitions of power are thin on the ground, a nonincumbent, non-Communist has rarely looked so poised for victory.

The constitution stipulates that incumbent Leonid Kuchma must step down in 2004. While a chain of scandals has turned Kuchma into an international outcast, Yushchenko is traveling the world. Foreign politicians are familiarizing themselves with the man who many see as the next Ukrainian president, a proponent of free market policies–the “European choice” as it is known in Ukraine–and honesty in business and politics. During a visit to Washington in early February, Yushchenko met with U.S. dignitaries such as Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Even the fiercest domestic opponents of Yushchenko do not deny that he will be presidential contender number one. But in interviews Yushchenko himself dodges the question of whether he will run. His caution and evasiveness make sense: Too much is at stake to risk spoiling what looks like a promising campaign with a hasty start. There is also reason to think that the campaign might not be as easy as it would now appear. The infamous “administrative resources”–ranging from hidden censorship to open electoral fraud–will be one of Yushchenko’s major problems if he fails to reach an agreement with the governing elite. In the course of parliamentary elections in 1998 and 2002, the presidential campaign of 1999, and especially the abortive constitutional referendum of April 2000, Kuchma’s team demonstrated that it can make the most of these “resources” without unduly angering foreign observers.

Developments since Yushchenko’s successful March 2002 parliamentary campaign show that his coalition faces a host of internal problems that could ruin his presidential campaign. Admittedly his popular approval ratings are stable, hovering, according to various polls, between 23-27 percent for a second consecutive year. Communist leader Petro Symonenko cannot boast more than 12-13 percent. But popularity now may not be enough if the governing elite comes up with a really strong rival. Furthermore, however high, it is restricted to western Ukraine and Kyiv, which contributes only some 25 percent of the national vote. Meanwhile, his weaknesses, the same that he faced in the parliamentary race a year ago and failed to overcome, persist.

A strong political coalition, let alone a popular nationwide party, to back Yushchenko’s bid is nowhere to be seen. Our Ukraine, an amorphous bloc of centrist and right-wing parties cemented by Yushchenko’s popularity, sufficed to win last year’s parliamentary election, but it may not be enough for a presidential race. Yushchenko has long pushed for a unification of right-wing parties to support him, primarily the two wings of the moderate nationalist Rukh (Movement), hoping that centrists from his camp would then follow suit. But his plan has apparently fallen through. One of the two Rukh wings–the Ukrainian People’s Movement–changed its name to the Popular Party in January, and its leader, Yury Kostenko, made it clear that there will be no unification, at least until after the 2004 election.

After the breakup last summer of the governing elite’s bloc in parliament–United Ukraine–Yushchenko apparently hoped to boost his ranks by chopping at the remains of United Ukraine. “Already now several factions formed on the debris of United Ukraine are drifting in our direction,” Yushchenko told the newspaper Ukraina Moloda in July. “This process will continue in the autumn.” Last autumn, however, pro-presidential factions formed a majority in parliament, and no matter how cranky this majority seemed, no one from the former United Ukraine joined Our Ukraine. At the same time, a group of businessmen left Yushchenko’s faction. Yushchenko complained that they did so under pressure from Kuchma’s administration.

Yushchenko’s coalition has failed to acquire reliable partners in parliament. The populist Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialists and–often enough–the Communists have allied with it to block Kuchma-backed appointments and oppose the undemocratic practices of the powers-that-be. But when it comes to economic drafts, Our Ukraine tends to work with pro-Kuchma factions, sharing the free market ideology and Western orientation that the governing elite professes. And while radical elements of Our Ukraine have participated in anti-Kuchma campaigns, particularly after the first tape scandal in late 2000 jointly with the Socialists and the Communists, abysmal ideological differences prevent any cooperation with the leftists in the presidential race. “Yushchenko or any pro-government candidate are the same thing,” Communist leader Symonenko told Zerkalo Nedeli in January. “Yushchenko, being an openly pro-Western politician and a convinced liberal, could bring Ukraine a great deal of trouble.” A bloc with Tymoshenko, whom the prosecutors and pro-Kuchma media keep accusing of corruption, would hardly improve Yushchenko’s image as a morally untarnished politician.

Yushchenko remains weak in the Russophone eastern and southern areas. In the parliamentary election, Our Ukraine scored less than 3 percent in Donetsk–the most populous Ukrainian region and home to a large Russian minority. Thus far Yushchenko has failed to assuage the widely spread perception of him as an enemy of the Russophones’ linguistic and cultural identity, a perception fostered by oligarch-controlled and Moscow media. A poll by the Democratic Initiatives and Taylor Nelson Sofres in November-December showed that Yushchenko was trusted by 30 percent of ethnic Ukrainians and 39 percent of Ukrainophones across Ukraine, but by only 7 percent of ethnic Russians.

Another major problem for Yushchenko–the absence of access to television–makes the task of swaying popular opinion in the east and south virtually impossible. During the parliamentary election campaign, popular television channels, all of which are controlled by oligarchs linked to Kuchma, portrayed Yushchenko as a demonic opposition leader. But this did not produce the desired effect, and Our Ukraine fared well. After the elections, the channels changed tactics. Yushchenko has all but disappeared from television screens. A good number of newspapers and radio stations sympathize with Yushchenko, but they are concentrated mostly in the west and in Kyiv, and their audiences are comparatively very small. Yushchenko is a hero of the internet, but no more than 2-3 percent of Ukrainians have regular access to it.

It is certainly too late for Yushchenko to try to fight the media monster. “In theory it is possible to invest money in a television channel and develop it for five years. But there is very little time before the election,” the January 23 issue of Kyiv-based Segodnya quoted Mykola Tomenko of Our Ukraine, who chairs the parliamentary committee for freedom of speech, as saying.

The governing elite does not like Yushchenko, but it is facing a very serious problem–the lack of a popular candidate of their own. Afraid of being outplayed by a smarter ally, and keen to balance rival regional clans against each other, Kuchma has been systematically weakening rising stars in his entourage by shuffles and dismissals. As a result, a strong opponent to Yushchenko is nowhere to be seen. Kuchma’s office chief Viktor Medvedchuk, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and the central bank chairman Serhy Tyhypko are probably the most ambitious people in Kuchma’s team, but Medvedchuk has acquired too many enemies because of his aggressive style, and the other three are virtually unknown to the public.

In this situation, Kuchma’s team may opt for borrowing the Yeltsin-Putin pattern of “inheriting” power. But there is no Chechnya in Ukraine for a “quick victorious war” to quickly raise someone from obscurity. Furthermore, Ukrainian business elites are less homogenous and more dependent on the central power than their Russian counterparts, and are thus hardly likely to accept a not-quite-well-known figure. It is therefore not impossible that Yushchenko might be selected as heir presumptive. Kuchma has said on several occasions that he does not view Our Ukraine as an opposition force. Yushchenko’s ambiguous attitude to the anti-Kuchma protests of the past several years and his reluctance to bind himself to the anti-Kuchma radicals by any kind of agreements are reason to think that Yushchenko does not exclude the “inheritance” option. If Yushchenko does not view such an accord as unacceptable, and if Kuchma believes that this game is worth playing, the 2004 campaign should be easy for Yushchenko.

But if there is no rapprochement with the ruling elite, Yushchenko’s team will face the hurdles and difficulties discussed: the use of “administrative resources,” the amorphous coalition base, the absence of allies outside his coalition, the electorate confined to western areas and Kyiv, and the weak media support.

Oleg Varfolomeyev is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv.