Baloha Blamed For Brouhaha

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko himself signaled that Viktor Baloha is no ordinary chief of staff when he once scolded supporters: “You should listen to what Viktor Baloha says. Baloha is me.”

Viktor Baloha

If that is true, then understanding Baloha is an essential part of understanding the paralysis, infighting and rivalries among Ukraine’s political elite.

Who is BalĂ®ha, and what is his end game? Destroying Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko politically? Ensuring his boss’ re­election in 2010? Bringing peace to all warring factions? Or simply mucking everything up in a selfish power grab?

Baloha, a long­time bureaucrat and former governor of Zakarpattya Oblast, wouldn’t talk to the Kyiv Post for this story. But allies of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and parties splintering away from the Yushchenko camp are not as reticent.

To many of them, Baloha is a demon.

They accuse the erstwhile ally of businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, the onetime chief of staff for former President Leonid Kuchma, of sabotaging Yushchenko’s chances for re-­election. They accuse him of plotting an alliance with Viktor Yanukovych, the Orange Revolution villain from Donetsk and former prime minister.

“Today there is a struggle for power that's key to deciding who Ukraine’s next president will be: Tymoshenko or Yushchenko. Baloha is right in the middle of this conflict, masterminding a scenario for a Yushchenko victory in the next presidential elections,” said Oles Doniy, a lawmaker from the People's Self ­Defense Party that has in recent months turned against the president, but formally remains within Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine political bloc.

Eager to establish a new base of support for Yushchenko, whose approval rating has sunk below 10 percent, Baloha has spear headed the formation of a new political party, Yedyny Tsentr, or United Center Party. Political pundits believe the goal of the party, which now claims allegiance from a half­ dozen lawmakers, is to unite politically disparate voters from the east and west in backing Yushchenko’s re-­election bid.

According to Doniy, the most likely scenario in this strategy would be for Yushchenko to team up with his Orange Revolution foe, the Moscow­ friendly Yanukovych, or at least gain the backing of the business elite from eastern Ukraine that supports Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

“This is an administrative ­oligarchial grouping that doesn’t have any program, any strategic plan except the desire to stay in power,” said Andriy Pavlovskiy, a lawmaker from the Tymoshenko bloc.

What Baloha’s critics and supporters agree on is his ability to successfully manage in times of crisis, sometimes using cut throat methods. Yushchenko’s resolve last year in pushing ahead with snap parliamentary elections and overcoming boycott threats by Yanukovych’s Regions Party has largely been attributed to Baloha’s Machiavellian maneuvering.

“He is a very responsible and high ­skilled manager,” said Vadym Karasyov, a political analyst who advises Baloha. Karasyov refuted claims that Baloha was plotting a coalition composed of Yushchenko and Yanukovych supporters. Instead, he, like Baloha, pointed the blame for the shaky status of the current coalition on Tymoshenko, accusing her of trying to monopolize power within the coalition rather than working in constructive tandem with the president.

According to Yushchenko, Baloha, as head of the Presidential Secretariat, is the main planner and manager of the president’s staff and support team. Yet most political insiders give this ex­emergency minister a much bigger role, suggesting he is the country’s shadow leader, pulling much of the presidential strings against political opponents. Yushchenko suggested as much on March 20 in response to calls from supporters for Baloha’s ouster, when he made his “Baloha is me” comment. Members of the increasingly anti ­Yushchenko People's Self ­Defense Party accuse Baloha of initiating, with a conspiring General Prosecutor official, criminal cases against two party leaders, Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and businessman David Zhvania.

Serhiy Taran, director of Kyiv’s Sotsiovymir Center for Sociology and Political Research, said Baloha’s demonized reputation is largely deserved, adding that he is, indeed, a “grey cardinal” at the top. Baloha’s supporters say the only goal of the chief of staff is to defend Yushchenko’s interests.

But sometimes it is difficult to know whether Baloha’s chessboard political moves benefit the president, or Baloha’s own political career, said Kost Bondarenko, a political analyst. The newly formed United Center Party, formally led by Baloha’s close associates, Ihor Kril and Vasyl Petyovka, is still mostly unknown by the Ukrainian public. Yet if leading businessmen such as billionaire Rinat Akhmetov join its ranks, as some suspect Baloha wants, the party could establish itself as a united front against a popular Tymoshenko.

Whether such an alliance can muster enough popular support to re­elect Yushchenko is unclear, Bondarenko said, adding that the party’s success will depend on whether they will be able to find a bright party leader. Today the United Center Party is slowly, but gradually growing, and simultaneously eating away at the Our Ukraine bloc. It also set up party branch offices in 16 regions of the country and plans to establish offices country-wide by the end of June.

United Center’s aim is to get Yushchenko re-­elected and possibly to have early parliamentary elections, said Viktor Chumak, the political analyst at International Centre for Policy Studies.

Yet Yushchenko’s second presidential term isn’t the only goal of Baloha, some former colleagues say. They say he thinks mainly about advancing his personal interests. When Baloha needed a political force to support his business in Zakarpattya, he used the Social Democratic Party United (SDPU), Medvedchuk’s former party of power, to advance his interests.

Then he left the party when he understood that he couldn’t gain anything more from the alliance, said Ihor Shurma, a former Baloha ally. Yushchenko is indifferent to Baloha, Shurma said, adding that Baloha will betray the president as he betrayed the Social Democratic Party United and continue to build his own career.

“If you take into consideration Baloha’s conflict with Tymoshenko, he doesn’t care about Yushchenko, he stakes everything to fight the prime minister,” Shurma said. “He will struggle for the premier’s post.”

Baloha has purely selfish aims, said Oleh Podebriy, the press secretary of Serhiy Ratushnyak, Uzhgorod mayor and Baloha’s former ally. And with or without Yushchenko in power, Taran said the United Center Party could become the main platform for Baloha’s personal political interests.

If Yushchenko doesn’t win the next presidential elections, Baloha will become the United Center leader and will have “a small, but proud” faction, which could, at times, play the role as king-maker in a divided parliament, Taran added.

Source: Kyiv Post