A comparison of "parties of power" in Russia and Ukraine

by Nigel Pemberton
RFE/RL Newsline

In mid-1999 the Russian authorities were concerned that Our Home is Russia had a popularity rating of only several percent and thus set about creating a completely new "party of power" - the Interregional Movement of Yedinstvo (Unity). In the Russian parliamentary elections on December 19, 1999, Yedintsvo captured 23.3 percent of the vote and 82 seats, only 1 percent and eight seats fewer than the Communist Party.

Similarly, the Ukrainian "party of power" - the For a United Ukraine election bloc - was created four months prior to the March 31, parliamentary elections. President Leonid Kuchma ordered all state officials from the raion level upward to ensure that For a United Ukraine (FUU) obtain 30 percent in the elections. In sharp contrast to its Russian equivalent, For a United Ukraine has only received an average of only 4 percent popularity ratings in most opinion polls. Its main base of support is the Donbas, the same as that of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), while it is unpopular in western and central Ukraine, including Kyiv.

Why did Unity do well in Russia in 1999, while Ukraine's FUU appears to be faring badly today?

Unity was created as a completely new political formation backed by then-acting President Vladimir Putin as his vehicle to help him secure an election win in March 2000. Yedintsvo was a completely new political formation, whereas For a United Ukraine is a union of five regionally based mini-parties of power, some of which had to be cajoled into supporting the bloc. Both Unity and For a United Ukraine aim to create pro-presidential majorities in the newly elected Parliaments. FUU aims to implement President Kuchma's long-term goal of changing Ukraine into a Russian-style presidential republic by implementing the results of the flawed April 2000 referendum.

Unity carefully chose leaders such as then-acting Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was constantly on television due to his ministry's involvement in the Chechen conflict, and Aleksandr Karelin, a Greco-Roman wrestler of international fame. The two Unity leaders both stressed their abilities to act decisively. Mr. Putin, who endorsed Unity, was seen in a similar light. In contrast, FUU's leader is the uncharismatic head of the presidential administration, Volodymyr Lytvyn, who is not a confident public speaker and is seen as an academic rather than a "man of action." While Yedintsvo's image helped it attract young voters, FUU struggles to do so.

Another difference between Unity and FUU is the high popularity of President Putin and the low popularity of President Kuchma. Some 43.5 percent of Ukrainians have a negative impression of Mr. Kuchma, according to a February poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Mr. Kuchma has attempted to revive FUU's fortunes by issuing a presidential decree on January 28 ordering 300,000 state officials to back FUU, and by proposing that he would be prepared to head For a United Ukraine after it is transformed into a party. But while Mr. Kuchma's presidency will come to an end in two years' time, Mr. Putin was seen as an up-and-coming candidate to fill the political vacuum left by the retirement of President Boris Yeltsin. In addition, President Putin never stated his intention to lead Unity.

According to Article 103 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the president cannot head any party, and President Kuchma's suggestion that he would head FUU flew in the face of the president's well-known negative attitude toward the role of parties. This trial balloon, therefore, was more a product of internal problems and panic in the presidential administration than of the low popularity of FUU. This became clear after a January poll by the Center for Economic and Political Studies gave it only 3.9 percent, meaning it would not get through the 4 percent barrier in the half of seats elected proportionately. Mr. Lytvyn explained away these low ratings for FUU by saying that "sociology, just like academia, prostitutes itself (in Ukraine)."

Another major difference between the situations of Russia in 1999 and Ukraine today is that in Ukraine there is a strong alternative to the "party of power." Our Ukraine occupies the same space on the political spectrum as both Russia's liberal Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces - which includes Russia's Choice, the country's first "party of power." Our Ukraine is different also because it can be more clearly understood as "Rukh-2" with an economic platform and a charismatic and popular leader, Viktor Yushchenko.

The combination of national and democratic ideologies within one program was peculiar to the non-Russian republics of the former USSR, but not to Russia. The Winter Crop Generation bloc, a Ukrainian attempt to emulate Russia's Union of Rightist Forces funded by oligarch Viktor Pinchuk, Mr. Kuchma's son-in-law, has failed to attract popularity. Pure reformist blocs (in contrast to those combining national and democratic agendas, such as Our Ukraine) have little public support.

Unity and FUU both had or have unrivalled access to "administrative resources," privileged access to the media and the support of regional state administrations controlled by the executive. Both aim to transform their election blocs into political parties after the elections, and both had vague "centrist" programs that emphasized "stability" and stood for a corporatist status quo.

The similarity in ideology ends there. Appealing to Russia as a "great power," Unity lamented the demise of the Soviet Union, something FUU or any Ukrainian oligarch group would never do. The largest group of voters to switch to Yedintsvo, therefore, was from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), a party whose ideology links Russian nationalism and Marxism. The CPU is hostile to Ukrainian independence and any defectors would go to other left-wing parties, not to FUU. Yedintsvo manipulated Russian state and ethnic nationalism at a time when Russia felt affronted by NATO's unilateral military action in Kosovo and a new Chechen conflict had begun. It is impossible for FUU to manipulate state nationalism in Ukraine.

For a United Ukraine, therefore, more closely resembles an earlier Russian "party of power," Our Home is Russia, rather than Russia's Choice, which preceded it, or Unity, which succeeded it. Our Home is Russia received only 10.3 percent of the vote in the 1995 elections. Polls commissioned by FUU have given it an inflated popularity of 10 percent, although its true popularity is only some 4 percent, according to other polls. For a United Ukraine may obtain as much as Our Home is Russia did in 1995 because of President Kuchma's backing and election malpractice, but this would still be far less than the 30 percent that FUU leaders optimistically predicted the bloc would obtain when it was formed.

Nigel Pemberton is a Toronto-based specialist on post-Soviet affairs.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 31, 2002, No. 13, Vol. LXX

| Home Page |