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Ukraine: Communists Prepare For Election

By Katya Gorchinskaya

Kyiv, 27 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Leonid Kuchma this week said that what his country needs is "a less Communist parliament." It appears Kuchma and voters disagree.

Communists appear certain to emerge as the leading party from the March 29 parliamentary election - adding to the 86 seats that already makes them the largest single faction in Parliament. Some analysts say the Communists stand to win at least a third of the seats in the 450-seat Parliament.

"We are not dragging anyone into the past, we are offering a program learning from the world experience," said party leader Petro Symonenko during an appearance at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy last week.

Just as long as that experience is not that on offer from Western advisers. Symonenko wants reforms pushed by multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank ended before they lead to what he called a "national catastrophe."

"So long as a representative of foreign countries sits inside every ministry, so long as the budget cannot be approved until it is confirmed by the IMF and (Harvard economist Jeffrey) Sachs kicks open the door to the president's office to insist that his economic program be implemented in Ukraine, the decline of economy will continue," Symonenko thundered.

The party platform, crafted to appeal to middle-aged workers and retirees nostalgic for the generous pensions and secure jobs that marked Soviet rule, calls for reunification with Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, immediate suspension of privatization, nationalization of previously privatized property and a return to central planning.

Yet the party, reborn after its mighty precursor was banned between 1991 and 1993, now promises to respect private businesses "that do not exploit the labor of others," freedom of worship and multi-party democracy, so long as the latter excludes "neo-fascist" parties.

"They are all pragmatics nowadays, and couldn't help but change," said Oleksandr Stehny, an analyst for the Socis-Gallup polling firm.

Serhy Odarych, director of Ukrainska Perspektyva think tank, calls the tough talk in the Communists' platform "a bluff to win votes." He notes that businessmen occupy prominent slots on the party's nationwide ticket and provide it with campaign cash. "If they do win the elections, nobody is going to let them nationalize everything," Odarych said. The Communists' election platform distances them from former comrades, such as President Leonid Kuchma, who defected once the party lost its monopoly on power.

"The modern Ukrainian Communists are from the party of Lenin, are heirs to his ideas and precepts. We are part and parcel of the working class, and our aims are the desires and hopes of workers," the platform reads. Analysts describe them otherwise.

"The modern Communists are the third- and fourth-rate party secretaries who did not have enough party money to go into business," said Odarych.

Odarych said party leaders who failed to profit from the chaos of Perestroika founded the Ukrainian Communist Party in 1993 in order to lay claim to the Soviet Communist Party's assets. They have raised this issue in Parliament several times, thus far, without success. Party rhetoric and the plausible claim to be the only party representing the dispossessed with a chance to make a difference in politics, has given Communists a sizable lead over the 29 other parties contesting parliamentary elections. Opinion polls give the Communists anywhere from eleven-to-20 percent of the popular vote, roughly double the figures for second-place Rukh.

According to analyst Stehny, the Communists are particularly popular in the industrial regions of eastern Ukraine, which share a border with Russia, and where the proportion of mixed ethnic Russian-Ukrainian marriages is high. They are also doing well in southern Ukraine and Crimea, where 70 percent of the population is ethnic Russian, and sentiment to reunite with Moscow runs high.

"About a third of the Ukrainian population regrets the Soviet Union's collapse, and Communist promises work with these people," said Stehny. In the past, analysts have discounted the Communists. The Communists had fared poorly with the young, relying instead on pensioners who can't accept that they built the Soviet regime in vain, and middle-aged voters disillusioned by the hardships that have followed independence and half-hearted reform efforts. Retirees account for 44 percent of the party's 140,000-strong nationwide membership.

It is, however, precisely those older voters, who are expected to turn out at the polls in greatest numbers March 29. And the Communists claim they have plenty of younger followers as well. "Recently, I have been handing out a lot of party membership cards to people born in the 60s and 70s," Symonenko said last week. He said the party's own surveys show that it will garner 18 percent of the vote among Kyiv students.

According to Kuchma, anti-reform forces regard the coming elections as "the last and decisive battle."

If Symonenko and leftist allies in parliament have their way, Kuchma might be right, after a fashion. Communists seek to abolish the presidency, and Kuchma is expected to seek re-election next year.