In a political arena dramatically reshaped by the Yanukovych victory, old and new faces are jostling to lead the opposition
Since Viktor Yushchenko rode to power on the back of the Orange Revolution five years ago, Ukrainian politics has revolved around three power bases controlled by Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and Viktor Yanukovych.
These forces – sometimes cooperating, sometimes competing in a complex dance of interests – left no room for competition. Most other political parties and leaders were compelled to join forces with one or another of the triad. And those who tried to play an independent game, such as parliamentary speaker Vladimir Litvin and the ever-less popular Communist Party, had no effect on the big picture. These independents had to be content with a marginal role.
This winter, the alignment of political forces was transformed beyond recognition. Yushchenko’s influence, long on the wane, withered completely after his devastating defeat in the first round of the presidential election when he won just 5.5 percent of the vote, setting what may be a world record for worst performance by a sitting head of state.
Temporarily, at least, new President Yanukovych and his Party of Regions have all the power in their hands. A loyal follower, Mykola Azarov, has replaced Tymoshenko as prime minister and the party dominates the new governing coalition in parliament.
Of the other two in the triad, the outlook for Tymoshenko is far more promising than that of her former partner Yushchenko. She competed strongly against Yanukovych, winning more than 45 percent of the vote, and Yushchenko’s collapse has removed him as a potential competitor for the time being. Tymoshenko and her parliamentary bloc, the largest opposition faction in the new parliament, have excellent prospects to win the parliamentary elections planned for 2012. But first she needs to solve a problem. “For Tymoshenko to win, the status of official leader of the opposition is necessary. This is crucial. It is important to create an image of the main opponent of those in power. It would also allow her to involve the entire protest electorate and to concentrate the financial resources needed to carry out a campaign,” said Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kyiv think tank.
To win formal status as official opposition leader, the votes of more than 50 percent of parliamentarians unaffiliated with governing parties are required, and Tymoshenko now has this support and the legal right to name a shadow cabinet, as she is expected to do by 26 March. But the jostling for position goes on as politicians who had been in the shadows for years take advantage of the new opportunities to compete at the highest levels of politics. In this holy cause young and ambitious politicians are ready to go head to head, even against Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko made the first move in the coming struggle to claim the flag of chief opposition leader. Days after her parliamentary coalition collapsed and she was forced to resign, she called a 9 March meeting in Kyiv where she and her supporters declared the formation of a “joint opposition” embracing “all political forces that defend the national interest.”
Six parliamentary parties regarded as Tymoshenko's satellites joined her.
The next day, leading Kyiv newspapers reported that the meeting had been packed with students and jobless people who were paid to wave flags and chant pro-Tymoshenko slogans. Ukrainians have become used to such “rent-a-meetings” and little was made of the reports. Nevertheless, other potential opposition leaders accused Tymoshenko of trying to usurp the role of opposition leader.
The political milieu where this competition is taking place is the welter of small right-wing parties represented in parliament. They are grouped into two main factions, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense (NU-NS), but while the three parties in Tymoshenko’s bloc tend to act as one, the dozen members of the generally pro-Western NU-NS grouping include supporters of Tymoshenko, Yushchenko loyalists, and some who have fallen out with the ex-president, such as faction leader Mykola Martynenko.
One upstart NU-NS member, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, announced his own “joint opposition.” Yatsenyuk, 35, a former foreign minister and parliamentary speaker who came in fourth in the first round of presidential voting with about 7 percent of the vote, insists that he is better placed than Tymoshenko to take the reins of the opposition. Noting that he is a member of parliament while Tymoshenko resigned her seat on becoming prime minister in 2007, Yatsenyuk said at a press briefing, "She is not a deputy. How can there be a parliamentary opposition when the leader is out of parliament?"
"Yatsenyuk needs the same status as Tymoshenko. In this case he can compete with Tymoshenko, despite her [poll] rating being several times higher,” Karasev said. Others also stand ready to take part in the struggle for the open political niche. "We will not permit the appropriation” of the position of opposition leader, said Martynenko, one of those who believe Tymoshenko does not deserve to be the sole leader of the opposition.
Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, leader of one of the NU-NS parties, For Ukraine, also announced the formation of a parliamentary opposition grouping. He promised it would be an independent force connected neither to Tymoshenko’s nor Yatsenyuk’s formations.
TYMOSHENKO’S FRIENDS AND FOES
Tymoshenko is fighting back with charges that those who would challenge her for primacy in the anti-Yanukovych camp are in effect working against the democratization of the country. On 16 March, with confrontational words flying among oppositionists, she published an “urgent appeal to the nation,” pleading with her rivals to start negotiating with her on a new opposition alliance.
“In order to defend democratic values from Yanukovych's team, we need an opposition without internal mutual struggles,” the appeal said.
“The opposition should be united. I am sure that we will find a common language with Yatsenyuk, with Kyrylenko, and with all the others who do not support the course of the Party of Regions,” former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, a member of Tymoshenko's "joint opposition,” said at a recent press conference.
Beyond the ranks of professional politicians, skepticism is rife about the potential for the opposition forces to join ranks.
"It's absolutely unrealistic to create a uniform opposition," said political analyst Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies. "Tymoshenko arouses extreme aversion in many opposition leaders and they will not work under her management.”
Doubts over the ability of opposition leaders to work with the former prime minister are also heard from Tymoshenko’s side. In the words of Tymoshenko Bloc lawmaker Sergey Sobolev on the bloc’s website, “President Yanukovych has appointed Yatsenyuk as the 'favored opposition,' constructive and loyal, soft and fluffy. Most likely, Yatsenyuk will perform to Yanukovych's command," Sobolev, the freshly named shadow prime minister, said. Yatsenyuk has rejected a number of similar statements.
The would-be chiefs of the new opposition are also maneuvering for ideological advantage, both among themselves and with the Party of Regions. The presidential election, like the 2004-2005 contest, has shown that Yanukovych’s opponents are concentrated in the western regions of the country, the stronghold of the “national-patriotic” electorate.
Tymoshenko, not known for such sentiments earlier in her career, now positions herself as the master of this electoral niche, to the indignation of some on the right.
“When Tymoshenko was prime minister she conducted anti-Ukrainian activity, negotiating with Russia and Putin…Considering the history of her activity, Tymoshenko cannot be the only representative of the national opposition,” the Ukrainian People’s Party, an NU-NS member, charged in a statement published on its website.
Observers do not rule out an ideological challenge to Tymoshenko from Yushchenko, who has long adhered to a nationalist policy. Even following his devastating defeat, the former president and figurehead of the popular movement that reversed Yanukovych’s tainted win in the 2004 presidential election could make a return, Karasev believes.
Yushchenko on 23 March confirmed in an interview that he plans to return to politics and lead his Our Ukraine party at the next parliamentary election. That vote is set to take place in 2012 although there is talk of early elections, perhaps as soon as this autumn.
Confrontation among the “patriotic” forces primarily based in the west and center of the country is nothing new for Ukraine. Indeed, it is becoming a regular feature of politics here. Tymoshenko herself blamed her defeat to Yanukovych largely on infighting among the right-wing parties. Martynenko also admits that rivalries on the right are weakening the opposition, although he does not rule out independent opposition activity by the NU-NS faction.
Continued discord among the rightist forces could have long-term consequences for Ukrainian political life, some analysts believe.
"If there is no powerful opposition to President Yanukovych, Ukraine risks becoming like Belarus," said political analyst Kost Bondarenko, the head of the Gorshenin Institute of Management Issues.
Fesenko of the Penta Center speculates that the new opposition may not stop fighting among themselves until faced with a real threat from Yanukovych’s party. “Coordinated action by the opposition is possible if Regions puts forward fundamentally anti-Ukrainian policies, for example, if they initiate constitutional reform to give Russian the status of state language,” he said. “Although the creation of a ‘joint opposition’ is not very realistic even in that case.”