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Ukraine: 'Parties of Power' Compete In Upcoming Election

By Stefan Korshak and Viktor Luhovyk

Kyiv, 18 March 1998 (RFE/RL) - Money, power, party organization, media access and the advantages of incumbency, current or recent: the People's Democratic Party and Hromada, two centrist groups of former Communist politicians who claim to have embraced capitalism, appear to have it all. All except the one thing parties need most just two weeks before the election -- votes.

Despite the name recognition of such top candidates as Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko (the PDP's front-runner) and Hromada shadow cabinet head Yulia Tymoshenko, the two parties rate as Ukraine's sixth and seventh most popular, according to a recent nationwide survey of public opinion conducted by the Socis-Gallup polling firm. The poll suggests the parties are far behind the Communists, Rukh and the Greens.

Popularity has been on the decline ever since erstwhile allies Pustovoytenko and his predecessor as prime minister, Pavlo Lazarenko, began accusing each other of corruption. The latest polling suggests each man was believed by the electorate when he said the other led a bunch of crooks.

Hromada, whose support was estimated by some polling firms at about four percent at the end of last year -- just enough to clear the threshold for proportional representation in parliament -- got just over two percent in last week's Socis-Gallup poll.

A similar decline in popularity was indicated for Pustovoytenko's People's Democrats.

Nearly two-thirds of the voters on the parties' mutual home turf of Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine's heavily ethnic-Russian region, rated government corruption as the most important problem facing the country, according to a poll -- suggesting the combatants hit each other where it hurt most.

"The war of charge-countercharge has not passed unnoticed," said Socis-Gallup analyst Oleksandr Stehny. "Neither of these parties looks like they will pass the four-percent threshold."

And, Hromada and PDP now are out of time to improve the situation, experts on voter preference say.

Odessa police officer Mykola Volomanov put it this way: "I wouldn't vote for them if you paid me. They're all the same Communists they were before the break-up of the Soviet Union."

Communists and Socialists have consistently dominated the polls, with some saying the Communists are certain to emerge as the leading party from the March 29 parliamentary elections.

The People's Democrats is Ukraine's version of Russia's 'party of power.' Its nationwide slate lists such top officials as Minister of the Cabinet Anatoly Tolstoukhov, Vinnytsya Regional Administration boss Anatoly Matvienko, Odessa Regional Administration head Ruslan Bodelan, Ukrainian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Chairman Anatoly Kinakh and several presidential advisers.

Another People's Democrats advantage is ready access to the country's biggest television network, UT-1. Frequent ads for the party interrupt the Spanish and Brazilian soap operas that air in prime time. And People's Democrats' spokesman Vadym Dolganov is not without influence. He is deputy head of the state-owned television company and moderator of the weekly news program "7 Dniv" ("Seven Days").

Observers say incumbency is more a disadvantage than an advantage for the upcoming election, and the burden has weighed particularly heavily on the People's Democrats. Its leadership has spent a lot of energy and money trying to dispel its image as the 'party of power.'

Party spokesmen have asserted that the former Popular Front Movement, Rukh, has as many officials in central and local government.

People's Democrats leaders reject responsibility for the current government's record, while trying to claim that Pustovoytenko has done a better job than his predecessor.

Hromada was jolted out of political obscurity soon after President Leonid Kuchma dismissed Lazarenko as prime minister in July of last year. Lazarenko found a new political home with the centrist organization, which elected him chairman in September. Injected with new leadership and cash from Lazarenko's industrial power base in Dnipropetrovsk, Hromada became very big, very fast.

The party was the first to qualify for the elections, collecting a million signatures, five times the required number. It currently claims that it has 500,000 members, which would make Hromada the largest party in the country.

Hromada set up Ukraine's first shadow cabinet led by Lazarenko associate and former Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine Chairman Yulia Tymoshenko. It has attracted high-profile candidates such as former Soviet soccer superstar Oleh Blokhin, former Kyiv Mayor Ivan Saly, the director of Ukraine's most successful agricultural company Zorya, Volodymyr Plyutynsky, Vinnytsya Mayor Dmytro Dvorkis, and singer Dmytro Hnatyuk.

Hromada's party program includes an effort to try to impeach Kuchma and pass constitutional amendments limiting the power of the presidency. The rhetoric hits apocalyptic notes: Lazarenko says he is running to avert a "national catastrophe" allegedly wrought by Kuchma.

"What we have today is a gradual transition to a dictatorial regime in Ukraine," said Hromada Central Committee Chairman Oleksandr Turchynov.

Government prosecutors have launched a probe into Lazarenko's financial dealings while in office, publicly alleging that Lazarenko presided over a regime of graft, favoritism, and corruption. In reporting the investigation, the national television channel regularly features photos of Lazarenko's face next to a photo of a Swiss dacha he allegedly acquired by redirecting government funds to an illegal foreign bank account.

Lazarenko's allies in parliament have struck back with charges that Pustovoytenko mismanaged the expensive renovation of a Kyiv concert hall that allegedly involved kickbacks, cost overruns and a 15,000-dollar desk for Kuchma's use.

Each party's latest charge has come complete with pleas for voters to withhold support from its corrupt opponents. Come March 29, both groups will likely get their wish.