Defections reflect growing divisions in ruling elite
by Taras Kuzio
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report
The defection late last month of Ivan Pliusch from the pro-presidential Democratic Initiatives faction to former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine is a reflection of the growing disunity within the ranks of the ruling elite in the last year of Leonid Kuchma's presidency. Mr. Pliusch was twice chairman of the Verkhovna Rada during the presidency of Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) and from 2000 to 2002, when the non-left parliamentary factions took control of the Verkhovna Rada.
Earlier in the summer, the Rada's First Chairman Oleksander Zinchenko also fell out of favor with the leadership of the Kyiv clan's Social Democratic Party-United (SDPU). Mr. Zinchenko had attempted to reform the Inter television channel, headed by him but controlled by the SDPU, ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. He failed in the face of obstacles put forward by SDPU Chairman Viktor Medvedchuk, who wished to continue to use Inter as a politically biased television station hostile to the opposition and working on behalf of the presidential administration he heads.
In September, Mr. Zinchenko was expelled from the SDPU for opposing Ukraine's membership in the Single Economic Space (SES) with Russia, Belarus and Kazakstan. Mr. Pliusch has said his opposition to the agreement was one of his two reasons for defecting to Our Ukraine. Justice Minister Oleksander Lavrynovych, Economy and European Integration Minister Valerii Khoroshkovskyi, and Foreign Affairs Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko also opposed the Single Economic Space on the eve of its signing at the Yalta CIS summit.
The second reason for Mr. Pliusch's defection is his disgust at Democratic Initiatives faction leader Stepan Havrysh's agreement to be coordinator and de facto head of the pro-Kuchma parliamentary majority. Pliusch has said he always believed that the role of Democratic Initiatives was to act as a bridge between the pro-Kuchma majority and Our Ukraine.
The real reason for Mr. Zinchenko's removal was his attempt at reforming the SDPU and Inter into a normal political party and television station ready for the post-Kuchma era. Mr. Zinchenko remains an independent deputy and has not yet moved to the opposition camp. The SDPU have not yet attempted to recall him from his position as the Rada's first vice-chairman, a position he obtained as part of the SDPU "quota." This is because of two factors. Firstly, such a step would require a re-opening of the vote on all the top Verkhovna Rada positions. Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn was only elected into his position by one vote. Secondly, Mr. Zinchenko must know a lot of inner SDPU details, which he might release if he was removed.
Another casualty for the authorities was Anton Buteiko, Ukraine's ambassador to Romania, who resigned in protest at the signing of the Single Economic Space accord. Mr. Buteiko is a seasoned Ukrainian diplomat who had already fallen foul of President Kuchma. In 1999 he was removed as ambassador to the United States after failing to "organize a sufficiently high vote for Kuchma in the 1999 elections within Ukrainian diplomatic missions in the U.S."
Mr. Buteiko was a centrist member of the 1994-1998 Verkhovna Rada. Our Ukraine is assiduously courting him as another recruit if he manages to enter the Verkhovna Rada in any forthcoming by-election. Mr. Yushchenko reportedly said that "what Buteiko has done should be undertaken by every minister, if his opposition is not influential or it is received in a negative manner."
These three defections are only the beginning of what is likely to be a growing number closer to the elections. Up to 10 deputies do not formally belong to Our Ukraine but they attend faction meetings and give their voting cards to Our Ukraine deputies when they are absent. (That practice is illegal). One of them, Serhii Ratushniak, formally joined Our Ukraine last week.
Prof. Oleksii Haran, director of the School for Policy Analysis at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, points out that, "Pliusch is a very careful and experienced politician. The fact that he has decided to criticize Kuchma and his allies shows he believes that Yushchenko has a serious possibility of being elected president."
By the end of 2002, the executive had forcibly created a parliamentary majority without Our Ukraine which, in Mr. Pliusch's eyes, had won the election and, therefore, should have been given the right to create the government. Mr. Pliusch began to then declare himself in various interviews as being in opposition to "the president's line."
Already prior to the signing of the Single Economic Space accord, Mr. Pliusch told Ukrainska Pravda on March 26 that Ukraine needs "Ukrainian authorities." Coming from his "centrist statist" position, Mr. Pliusch described the Verkhovna Rada majority in an interview in Ukrainska Pravda on February 3 as "non-Ukrainian." What he had in mind on both occasions is the lack of patriotism within their ranks and on the part of President Kuchma himself, and their hostility to the patriotic Our Ukraine bloc. This view of an "un-Ukrainian" (i.e., unpatriotic) Kuchma has grown after the signing of the Single Economic Space.
Like Mr. Yushchenko, Mr. Pliusch blames Mr. Medvedchuk for breaking up the non-left alliance that existed in 2000-2001 during the Yushchenko government. In Mr. Pliusch's view, the real aim of the tapes made in President Kuchma's office, which led to the Kuchmagate scandal in November 2000, was to remove the Yushchenko government.
Mr. Pliusch himself claimed in December 2002 that there were up to 20 deputies who would join him if he went ahead and created a faction. Although Mr. Pliusch does not bring any financial resources to Our Ukraine, his action, Prof. Haran believes, is "symbolically important for different regional leaders in the Verkhovna Rada. It shows that elements in the current ruling elite are ready to support Yushchenko."
Rumors have circulated in Kyiv for over a year that Donetsk oligarch Renat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest, is unofficially approaching Mr. Yushchenko to work out a deal for the post-Kuchma era if he is elected president. As president, Mr. Yushchenko would inherit a government led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Akhmetov when he was Donetsk governor between 1997 and 2002.
Members of Our Ukraine, such as Petro Poroshenko, have long-standing ties to Donetsk figures like First Vice Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Our Ukraine and Mr. Yushchenko are weak in the Donbas, Ukraine's coal-mining region, where the bloc failed to cross the 4 percent threshold in the 2002 elections. A deal between both sides could amount to neutrality by the Donbas clan during the elections in return for non-interference in their region after the elections by a newly elected President Yushchenko.
The growing disunity within pro-Kuchma ranks and their inability to come forward with a united candidate is deeply worrying to the executive. The duo of Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Akhmetov, and Mr. Yushchenko, both detest Mr. Medvedchuk, the oligarch who will lose most in the event of a Yushchenko victory.
These recent defections, and the ones likely to follow them, will make it impossible for the pro-presidential majority to adopt constitutional changes. Even with 60 Communist deputies, who may still pull out over their failure to obtain a fully proportional election law, 300-plus votes will be impossible to achieve, Parliament Chairman Lytvyn admitted during a recent visit to Washington. President Kuchma is increasingly caught in a conundrum of his own making.
Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 9, 2003, No. 45, Vol. LXXI
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