Yushchenko's Choice Will Answer Crucial Questions

KIEV, Ukraine -- It was a difficult week for Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. Following a far worse showing than he expected for his Our Ukraine bloc in the parliamentary election, he began weighing the pros and cons of his two possible coalition partners – both apparently unpalatable to him personally.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

His response so far has been to do nothing. But soon, he will need to make a choice, and that choice will be informed by three fundamental questions.

Does Yushchenko want to continue moving Ukraine westward, or does he want to turn back to Russia? Does he want to continue to represent the goals of Maidan, or does he want to maintain the status-quo and the natural stability that comes with it? Does he want to serve a second term, or would he be content with one? The president’s choice of partners will tell much about his answers to those questions.

On one side, there is Viktor Yanukovych, Rinat Akhmetov and the Party of Regions. The party has gotten good press recently, announcing that it supports Yushchenko’s Europe-oriented goals for Ukraine. But the party’s votes in the Rada don’t support this contention.

PR voted with great fanfare in October 2005 against enacting the NATO action plan, opposed WTO-related bills introduced last year, opposed synchronizing Ukraine’s customs standards with the EU and fought against free-market measures that would have increased competition in certain industries. All of these measures were supported by the president, but many failed to pass because of opposition from the Party of Regions.

Given the platform of Regions, and judging from years of votes cast, a coalition with this party would likely mean closer ties with Russia, looser ties with EU countries and the United States, and an end to attempts to create an independent energy policy.

It could also mean the official closure of criminal cases surrounding the deaths of journalists and the 2004 vote rigging, and a drastic slowdown of EU-modeled economic and democratic reforms.

On the other side of the coalition equation is the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (Byut). Tymoshenko and her deputies joined with Yushchenko and Our Ukraine to vote in favor of the NATO action plan last year. Her bloc either supported or initiated most WTO-related legislation, new customs regulations and anti-monopoly measures also supported by Our Ukraine. On just about every major EU-related bill, Tymoshenko’s bloc voted loudly in favor, alongside Our Ukraine and in opposition to the Party of Regions.

A coalition with Byut would keep Ukraine enthusiastically on the road to Europe, with a possibly greater chance than last year to pass needed reforms. It would also mean a recommitment to promises made on Maidan – in particular, further investigation into who organized the murder of Georgy Gongadze and other journalists and the possibility of undoing certain murky privatization deals, although it is notable that Tymoshenko has implied she may be willing to forgo re-privatizations if “her team” is allowed to ensure the completion of investigations, such as the Gongadze case.

Finally, a union between Our Ukraine and Byut would accomplish something important in a democracy: It would respond to the apparent will of the people.

Byut placed first in 13 of 24 regions, and accomplished the best ever showing in eastern Ukraine of any West-oriented party. These votes, when added to Our Ukraine and the partner Socialists, show that a plurality of Ukrainians support Ukraine’s movement westward and that support for the Party of Regions has decreased in the last year.

It seems then that if the president wishes to maintain a trajectory toward Europe, continue reforms promised on Maidan and bolster his political career by responding to the voters, the natural union would be between Our Ukraine and Byut. But here is where personalities and politics intrude.

The blunt fact is that President Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko don’t seem to like each other very much. Their personalities and work habits are worlds apart. Therefore, a coalition between Our Ukraine and the Party of Regions appears to be a real possibility.

Such a coalition may mean that Yushchenko must be content with one term, since it would signify a final break with Tymoshenko and contradict the reform-oriented will of his supporters. The fact is that in any democracy, elections are messages to the incumbent. Incumbents who respond to those messages survive. Those who do not, don’t.

Source: Kyiv Post