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07/30/2002 | Serhiy Hrysch
<b>Reformers in Ukraine face limited choices </b>

<i>Kyiv Post, 2 July 2002 </i>

Liberal and social-democratic parties began to emerge in Ukraine in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras. They tended to attract supporters who were anticommunist but did not wish to join the national democratic Rukh or Ukrainian Republican Party. Centrist parties, therefore, had a potentially respectable niche between the left and the center-right.

But by the late 1990s this niche had been hijacked by oligarchs eager to convert their ill-gotten economic riches into political power. Since then Ukraine¹s centrist parties have been reduced to ideological emptiness.

One of the first centrist parties grew out of the reformist Democratic Platform of the Communist Party of Ukraine, which was heavily dominated by the Komsomol youth organization and young members of the CPU. This grew into the Party of Democratic Revival of Ukraine. Among the other centrist parties established early on were the Liberal Party in Donbas and the Party of Economic Revival of Crimea.

The PDVU created the New Ukraine bloc, which was in opposition to Leonid Kravchuk during his presidency from 1991 to 1994. Leonid Kuchma was elected in 1994 through the alliance of New Ukraine and the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which he headed.

The PDVU merged with other small centrist parties and grew into the People¹s Democatic Party. By the mid to late 1990s, after the former Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko became leader, the party had been almost wholly taken over by oligarchs. Most of the genuine reformers joined either Viktor Pynzenyk¹s Reform and Order Party (now a member of Our Ukraine) or the Sobor party (now a member of the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc).

During the 1990s, centrist parties faced three difficulties when they attempted to grow into serious and respectable liberal and social-democratic parties.

Although Ukraine has a history of social democratic and liberal political thought under the tsarist and Austro-Hungarian empires, this tradition was completely destroyed by the Soviet regime. This was also the case in western Ukraine, where the liberal tradition was overtaken by the radical nationalist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in the 1930s and 1940s. This meant that unlike other post-communist Central European and Baltic states, Ukraine was not able to simply revive former liberal parties that had been banned by the Soviet regime.

The single attempt to do this was made by the Constitutional Democrats, who attempted to build on the tsarist-era Kadets. [The problem with reviving the old Kadets was that, although they were genuinely liberal, they had formed the backbone of the 1917 Provisional Government and the White army. Both the Provisional Government and the Whites were hostile to Ukraine as even a federal component of a democratic, Russian state, let alone independent from it.]

In the 1998 elections, the Kadets joined forces with the Inter-Regional Bloc of Reforms to create the Social-Liberal alliance. In an attempt to gain votes among the numerous Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, SLON adopted a policy in defence of Russian language and culture. This strategy failed miserably, and SLON only obtained 0.91 percent of the vote.

The constituents of SLON went their own way and were gradually subsumed by oligarch parties. MRBR was swallowed up by Pustovoitenko¹s NDP. At the last election in March, the Kadets joined another abortive centrist project Winter Crop Generation, which was created by President Leonid Kuchma¹s son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk. This gained only 2.01 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, SLON¹s think tank, the Center for Political and Conflict Studies, eventually teamed up with Viktor Medvedchuk¹s Social Democratic Party (united}.

Also, genuine centrist parties found it difficult to compete for the votes of Ukrainian speakers with the national democrats united in Rukh or Our Ukraine. It has always been easier to mobilize Ukrainians by appealing to both national and democratic issues. This was as true for Our Ukraine in the March elections as it was for Rukh in the late Soviet era. It has proved far more difficult to mobilize Russian speakers on purely democratic, non-national issues.

Our Ukraine, however, was more successful than Rukh in expanding its base beyond western Ukraine because it moderated its program and attracted some centrist parties, such as Solidarity and the Donbas Liberals. While some Russian-speakers are still turned off by certain aspects of Our Ukraine¹s blend of patriotism and business, they would probably be better off trying to change Our Ukraine from within by supporting its liberal, centrist constituency.

By their very nature, centrist parties require the existence of an established middle class, which supports the rule of law, private business and property, civil society and an independent media. These aspects of Ukrainian society are now only in the slow process of being created. Meanwhile, the authorities are not particularly interested in allowing the emergence of a political-economic system with these attributes. They are undoubtedly aware that their control over society would be threatened by the creation of genuine centrist parties who would join with Our Ukraine in promoting reform.

When Kuchma first came to power in 1994, he argued that the shadow economy needed to be reduced. As we approach the end of his second term in office, the shadow economy continues to produce approximately half of Ukraine¹s GDP just as it did in 1994. It is clearly in the interests of the current elite to maintain this situation, which prevents business from operating in a more transparent arena. In addition, the authorities are able to use blackmail to force businessmen elected as independents in majoritarian districts to support them (as was seen recently in the vote for speaker in the Rada).

In the first half of the 1990s, the former communist nomenklatura generally did not create parties. They preferred to remain informally linked through the ³party of power.² In the second half of the 1990s, the ³party of power² began to disintegrate into regional clans, the strongest of which were based in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. In their attempt to defend their new-found economic wealth within the political system, the nomenklatura-turned- oligarchs could not join the reformists or national democrats. Nor could they go back to the Communist Party. Instead, they seized the liberal and social democratic center ground. This they did by taking over all the genuine centrist parties (PDVU/NDP, SDPU(u) and Greens), or by allowing them to be taken over by organized crime (Party of Economic Revival Crimea), or by creating new ones with names that bore no resemblance to their true nature (Labor Ukraine, Agrarians, Democratic Union).

After a decade of independence, Ukraine has a political system composed of three groups Communists, anti-presidential opposition or semi-opposition (Socialists, Yulia Tymo-shenko bloc, Our Ukraine) and oligarch centrists. This leaves the country¹s Russian speakers and businessmen in a quandary. They have to choose between supporting one of the myriad of centrist parties controlled by oligarchs or supporting the centrist national-democratic parties that make up the opposition blocs.

After the take-over of the political center by oligarchs and pro-presidential forces, Our Ukraine is left as the only serious political force opposed to both a Communist restoration on the one hand, and oligarchic authoritarianism on the other. Our Ukraine also has the most developed program of democratic and market reforms of any faction in the Rada. Those with a centrist and reformist persuasion who do not like oligarchs or the president therefore have little choice but to work within Our Ukraine or possibly, the Tymoshenko bloc.

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