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Analysis: Ukrainian Oligarchic Parties Back Premier's Presidential Bid

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was proposed as a joint presidential candidate of the pro-government majority in the Verkhovna Rada in mid-April, shortly after this majority failed to pass a constitutional-reform bill intended to limit the prerogatives of the president and expand those of the prime minister and the legislature.

At that time, the appointment of Yanukovych as the main challenger of Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych in the 31 October election was primarily seen as a propaganda move on the part of pro-government parties. Following the abortive vote on the constitutional-reform bill, the pro-government majority was in visible disarray and urgently needed to reassure both itself and its electorate that it still possessed political initiative.

The moment of truth for Yanukovych occurred last week, when most parties constituting the pro-government coalition held their congresses in order to confirm or reject his candidacy. Apart from the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which proposed its leader Anatoliy Kinakh, prime minister from March 2001 to November 2002, as a presidential hopeful, all the other parties threw their support behind Yanukovych. Simultaneously, these congresses significantly reduced the probability that incumbent President Leonid Kuchma will run for the post of president for a third time, an option made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December 2003.

Perhaps, the most crucial of these forums was a congress of the Social Democratic Party-united (SDPU-o) in Kharkiv on 10 July. The SDPU-o is led by presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, so the party's decision on Yanukovych was expected as an important indicator of Kuchma's real intentions in the 2004 presidential campaign. Medvedchuk told the congress that power in Ukraine should remain in the hands of "centrist forces" and stressed that Yanukovych is the only candidate of these forces who can win the presidential election. Five hundred delegates to the congress unanimously endorsed Yanukovych's candidacy.

Medvedchuk also told the delegates that the most important political task in Ukraine is to implement constitutional reform in order to introduce a "parliamentary-presidential model" of government. He stressed that Yanukovych is a staunch supporter of such reform, which was initiated by the SDPU-o in collaboration with the Socialist Party and the Communist Party. Curiously enough, Yanukovych's election manifesto published this week does not highlight the urgent need for a constitutional reform but mentions it almost casually, in the same line with judicial, administrative, and military reforms. However, irrespective of what happens with the constitutional reform in the future, one has to admit that it was a tremendously clever idea on the part of Medvedchuk in particular and the pro-Kuchma camp in general. This idea has driven a big wedge between Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party and, to a large extent, prevented them from striking an election coalition deal.

For Viktor Yushchenko, the most disappointing event last week was apparently a congress of the Popular Democratic Party (NDP), which is led by former Prime Minister Valeriy Pustovoytenko. Pustovoytenko, prime minister from July 1997 to December 1999, signaled earlier this year that he does not like Yanukovych as a joint presidential candidate of the pro-government camp and may run himself. However, the NDP congress on 10 July cast its support behind Yanukovych. The congress was attended by Viktor Pynzenyk, one of the leaders of Our Ukraine. Pynzenyk ardently but unsuccessfully appealed to the congress to back Yushchenko's presidential bid, arguing that the NDP and Our Ukraine are pursuing the same political goals. Pustovoytenko was rewarded for his backing of Yanukovych with the post of coordinator of the bloc called "Together for the Sake of Future," which is intended to be a wider coalition of political parties and other organizations supporting Yanukovych in the election campaign.

Yanukovych's presidential bid was also backed by two other oligarchic parties -- the Popular Agrarian Party headed by parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and the Labor Ukraine Party led by National Bank head Serhiy Tyhypko. Tyhypko became chief of Yanukovych's election staff.

Thus, all major oligarchs of the pro-Kuchma camp, in the face of the "Yushchenko threat," have united behind Yanukovych's presidential bid, even if, from their point of view, he does not seem to be the most suitable candidate for the presidential job. Yanukovych is the leader of the Donetsk-based Party of Regions and the Donetsk-based oligarchic clan. Some fear that his possible victory in the presidential election may considerably upset the current "oligarchic balance" in Ukraine, which is ensured by Leonid Kuchma, and redistribute political and economic clout in favor of one regional oligarchic group.
The three weeks between the first and second rounds of the presidential election could turn out to be one of the most fateful periods in Ukraine's modern history.

All surveys in Ukraine indicate that Yushchenko is backed by some 23-25 percent and Yanukovych by some 16-18 percent of the electorate. This proportion will most likely change in the course of the election campaign, but almost all observers agree that there will be a second election round on 21 November, three weeks after the 31 October ballot, and that Yushchenko and Yanukovych are the most probable contenders in that runoff. Thus, it could turn out that these three weeks in November will become one of the most fateful periods in Ukraine's modern history.

Given that Yanukovych's candidacy will be supported not only by the state-administration machine but also by the united political, financial, and media potential of most Ukrainian oligarchs, Yushchenko's chances to win the election do not look very good. Yushchenko will hardly mobilize the financial and propagandistic potential that could match Yanukovych's campaign resources. But there is still time for Yushchenko to prevent his election chances from becoming slim.