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Ukraine: Fractured Democratic Opposition Reunifies For Greater Political Power

For years, Ukraine's democratic opposition has been a weak and ineffective link in the country's political framework. The situation hit bottom two years ago, when the country's largest democratic opposition party, Rukh, split over internal differences. But at a conference on 9 June, the two rival factions signed a declaration agreeing to rejoin forces. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports there are signs that Ukraine's popular ex-prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, could become the reunited party's leader.

Prague, 12 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The divided factions of Rukh, once Ukraine's most powerful democratic party, have announced that they will reunite. The move has raised hopes in Ukraine that the country's other democratic parties will also join in creating a united oppositionist front ahead of parliamentary and local elections due next year.

The leaders of the two rival factions, Yuriy Kostenko and Hennady Udovenko, announced their agreement to rejoin forces at a conference held in Kyiv on 9 June. Some 1,000 delegates were in attendance.

Kostenko told RFE/RL yesterday (12 June) that the reunification would make Rukh a force to be reckoned with:

"Rukh, in demonstrating its desire to unite into a single political force, has created a great chance in the parliamentary elections -- if not to achieve victory, then to fundamentally strengthen the influence of national democratic [parties] on all the processes in our country."

Before its split two years ago over internal differences, Rukh had been Ukraine's most influential democratic force. It began as a broad-based movement in the late 1980s, spearheading the country's drive for independence. Later, as a full-fledged political party, it grew to become the third-largest parliamentary faction after Ukraine's 1998 elections.

But in 1999, Rukh -- then under the leadership of Vyacheslav Chornovil, a former political prisoner -- was divided by bitter internal arguments. It split into two separate parties, each calling themselves Rukh. The larger faction, holding 22 of the original party's 36 parliamentary seats, was led by Kostenko.

Chornovil, who led the smaller faction, was killed in a car accident later that year, and was replaced by Udovenko, a former foreign minister. Udovenko and Kostenko then ran as their parties' respective candidates in that year's presidential race, each receiving a negligible percentage (1 percent and 2 percent respectively) of the ballot. Many Rukh supporters drifted away from the divided party in disgust over the rift.

But at Saturday's conference, speakers said they were hopeful that the new union would help turn Rukh into a leading force in Ukrainian politics. Udovenko called the move "the first step" toward creating "a powerful nationalist-democratic and government-oriented party." Kostenko, in his remarks, echoed that goal:

"The party has set as its goal the creation of a powerful center-right political force which will set the political agenda in our country and will be able to fight for power. All the events which have taken place in Ukraine over the last 10 years have graphically demonstrated that reforms and democracy in Ukraine can only be achieved by politicians of the new generation. And this was very clearly shown by the government of Viktor Yushchenko, which approached issues by using nontraditional methods to tackle the problems accumulated by those nurtured in the communist school of thought."

Mention of former Prime Minister Yushchenko -- who was ousted from government earlier this year (April) following a no-confidence vote in the Ukrainian parliament -- sparked the loudest cheers of the conference. Many attendees, including Kostenko, said they would like him to eventually head the reunited Rukh.

Opinion polls indicate that Yushchenko remains Ukraine's most trusted and well-liked politician. As prime minister, he pursued pro-market and pro-Western reforms -- policies that made him unpopular among the alliance of Communists and parties loyal to the country's so-called "oligarchs" that was responsible for his ouster.

Speaking at the conference, Yushchenko hailed the Rukh reunification as something that millions of Ukrainians had been waiting for. He added: "We have won the argument in favor of consolidating the democratic forces in Ukraine. I'm sure that this will be very important for the future process of consolidating political forces, and the beginning of a long and happy path."

The two Rukh factions said they would merge into a single bloc and agree on joint candidates, before Ukraine's parliamentary and local elections in March of next year. Faction spokespeople said they have decided not to formally unite before then because they fear the complicated legal process involved could be deliberately prolonged in order to prevent their participation in the elections.

Representatives of other democratic and nationalist parties attending the meeting -- including Reforms and Order (PRP) and the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN) -- also indicated they might join in an electoral bloc with Rukh.

Ilko Kucheriv is a political analyst and head of the Democratic Initiatives think tank. He told RFE/RL that opinion polls indicate that if other center and right-leaning parties join the Rukh bloc, Rukh could garner support from at least 20 percent of voters. That percentage, Kucheriv says, could put them roughly equal to the Communists, who currently hold the largest bloc in parliament:

"This bloc that we're talking about -- of the two Rukhs and possibly the PRP and KUN -- is the obvious counterforce to the communist idea."

Over the past nine months, a broad range of opposition parties have joined ranks to call for the resignation of President Leonid Kuchma, whom they accuse of corruption and involvement in the murder of an opposition journalist who disappeared last year. But despite their united opposition to Kuchma, the parties have yet to forge a joint political platform.

Conference attendees said they hoped that Rukh's reunification will prove the start of broader party cooperation and improved chances in upcoming elections.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Yushchenko's former deputy and another well-known opposition figure, did not attend the conference. But in an interview with RFE/RL, she said she hoped her Fatherland Party, which commands widespread support, will also join a united democratic front before next year's elections.

Tymoshenko would not say whether she would join the emerging Rukh bloc. But she voiced her support of Yushchenko, whom she has in the past promoted as an eventual presidential candidate. Tymoshenko also praised the Rukh reunification:

"I believe that these unification processes that have been started by Rukh are the beginning of a wider unification of democratic forces. I have said more than once that as leader of the Fatherland Party, I dream of the kind of unification which will bring to parliament not an artificially created majority, but forces which are truly able to fight for their country and their people."

When Yushchenko resigned as prime minister, he promised to remain in politics and fight for a parliamentary seat at the next elections. Now, with the leadership of a united democratic bloc virtually his for the asking, it remains to be seen whether Yushchenko will accept the offer.