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Ukraine: Former Prime Minister Outlines Political Comeback

  • Askold Krushelnycky

When former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was ousted from his position earlier this year, he said that he would remain in politics. Now, with opinion polls showing he is still the most popular politician in the country, Yushchenko has outlined his intention to form a coalition to contest next year's parliamentary elections. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.

Prague, 17 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was ousted from power earlier this year, he vowed he would return to politics.

Shortly after a no-confidence parliamentary vote forced his resignation three months ago, the pro-Western reformist addressed the largest group of demonstrators to gather in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in a decade. He told the crowd of supporters that he was not through with public life:

"I am not going away from politics. I am going to return. I thank you again for your attention and support."

Yesterday (16 July), Yushchenko began his return to political life by publicly outlining his first steps toward forming a coalition of parties to fight for seats in next year's (March) parliamentary elections.

Opinion polls show Yushchenko is still the country's most popular politician, with 30 to 50 percent of the electorate saying they trust him. He is seen as a market reformer with a genuine interest in solidifying Ukraine's shaky democracy. He is also keen to tilt Ukraine toward the West and away from economic dependence on Russia. During his 19-month term as prime minister, Ukraine showed the first signs of economic recovery since a drastic economic downturn began in 1991, when it declared independence.

Much of Ukraine's economic ills are blamed on high-level government corruption. Yushchenko, who has a rare reputation for honesty, tried to fight corruption during his term in office. He was dismissed from his job after an alliance of communists and so-called "oligarchs" representing big-business interests pushed a no-confidence vote against him through parliament.

The communists voted against Yushchenko because they are ideologically opposed to his pro-Western stance. The oligarchs were irritated by the threat Yushchenko posed to their often shady money-making schemes.

Yesterday, Yushchenko released a statement announcing his intention to form the "Our Ukraine" coalition, which would be open to all parties and is due to be completed by September.

In the statement, the former premier said he wanted to build a coalition that would work together to gain control of the new parliament after the elections in March. He said that unifying Ukraine's pro-democracy, pro-reform, and nationally conscious groupings was essential to achieving victory in the elections and for forming a government that Ukraine's citizens would have confidence in.

Ivan Lozowy is the head of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent think tank. He says he believes Yushchenko's declaration is very significant:

"I think that Yushchenko has really demonstrated his intention to return to politics. First, he is talking not just about theory, but also in practical terms about the creation of a coalition to fight parliamentary elections. And I think that he has made the right move by not placing too much dependence on a particular individual or particular circles of people or parties. He has left open the question of who wants to join him. You have to be aware that Yushchenko is the top politician in Ukraine first and foremost because he is popular. Before him, there had never been such a popular politician on Ukraine's political scene, and if someone wants to join him it's up to them to approach Viktor Andreyevich [Yushchenko] and hold talks with him."

Yushchenko did not indicate who specifically he hoped to have join the coalition, saying only that it was open to all like-minded people. Lozowy believes that one of the people likely to join is the influential and politically savvy speaker of the parliament, Ivan Plyusch. Lozowy named some other obvious candidates for coalition membership:

"It's not at all difficult to foresee that center-right groups, the two Rukh [parties] and the Party of Reforms and Order, and possibly the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists [will join]. They always said -- and as far as I know, maintain today -- that they are ready to join a coalition with Yushchenko without setting pre-conditions."

The Fatherland Party headed by Yulia Tymoshenko -- Yushchenko's former deputy and a prominent leader of the opposition to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma -- has in the past also expressed a willingness to join a Yushchenko-led coalition. But Tymoshenko has said one of her aims in joining such a alliance would be unseating Kuchma by impeaching him in the next parliament. It remains unclear whether Yushchenko -- who has been reluctant in the past to confront Kuchma directly -- will be willing to go along with this demand.

Yushchenko is hoping to hold a conference of all groups interested in joining a coalition to hammer out a detailed manifesto. But he has said that the aims of any coalition will include a separation of business from politics in order to quell rampant corruption, and the installation of a transparent government administration that is sensitive to public opinion. He also says he wants to build on the economic stability begun during his time as prime minister to eradicate poverty in Ukraine and to improve social security.

Lozowy thinks that a coalition led by Yushchenko has a good chance of winning a majority during the next parliamentary elections.

"Absolutely. The fact is that Viktor Andreyevich [Yushchenko] said that if the aim was [to win] only 15 to 20 percent of the parliament, then there was no point in proceeding. The goal is a controlling share -- 30 to 40 percent of the parliament -- which is absolutely achievable. Because if we look at the last 10 years of Ukrainian history, then we see that there hasn't been anything comparable to this situation -- where a genuinely popular leader, who has emerged from the highest echelons of government, is making a bid for power by appealing to serious democrats and serious reformers. I think it is something Ukrainians have waited a long time for."

Lozowy is certain that if Yushchenko can form a broad coalition to run in the elections, he may succeed in finally breaking the current mold of Ukrainian politics. He characterizes that mold as anti-democratic and geared to the corrupt needs of a few -- not to the well-being of the general population.