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Ukraine: Former PM Announces Formation Of 'Our Ukraine' Opposition Bloc

In Ukraine this week, 10 opposition parties rallied around the country's popular former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, to form a united bloc to run in parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of March. The so-called "Yushchenko Bloc" hopes to finally break the power-balance deadlock that has paralyzed the Ukrainian parliament since the country gained independent a decade ago.

Kyiv, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders and delegates from 10 Ukrainian opposition parties met in the capital, Kyiv, on 16 January to form a united bloc to participate in parliamentary and local elections due to take place on 31 March.

The parties, ranging from the right to the center-left of the political spectrum, hope to use the popularity of Ukraine's former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, to win both a dominant position in the new parliament and a large share of local posts.

Yushchenko is the mastermind behind the new Our Ukraine (Nasha Ukrajina) alliance, which is also known as the "Yushchenko Bloc." The former prime minister is consistently rated among Ukraine's best-regarded politicians, and it is that popularity the new bloc hopes to parlay into victory at the ballot box.

Yushchenko earned his reputation during his tenure as premier from 1999 to April 2001. During that time, he reformed the pension and welfare systems, introduced effective market reforms, and pushed ahead privatization efforts, leading to dramatic improvements in Ukraine's crippled economy.

But at the same time, Yushchenko made powerful political enemies. The Communists, who make up the largest parliamentary group, were ideologically opposed to his pro-Western stance and capitalist market reforms. The country's powerful business elite, many of whom had ties to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, were angered by Yushchenko's attempts to crack down on murky back-room deals that had allowed many of the so-called "oligarchs" to amass considerable fortunes.

Yushchenko's term as prime minister was cut short in April, when a parliamentary alliance of Communists and deputies with ties to the oligarchs passed through a vote of no confidence, forcing Yushchenko out of office. Yushchenko pledged to his supporters that it would not mark the end of his political career, saying: "I am leaving politics only in order to return."

That return began in the summer, when Yushchenko announced plans to form a coalition. Months of discussions among the opposition parties came to fruition on 16 January when they announced a joint list of candidates for the 450 seats in parliament.

The 10 parties in Our Ukraine include the Popular Rukh of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Popular Rukh -- the two parties formed after the split of Ukraine's largest opposition party, Rukh. It also includes the conservative Party of Reform and Order; the Liberal Party; the nationalist Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists; the Youth Party of Ukraine; Solidarity; the People's Christian Union; Forward Ukraine; and the Republican Christian Party. Ukrainian election law demands that all parliamentary candidates belong to a political party, and Yushchenko is running on the Youth Party of Ukraine ticket.

The star of the 16 January conference was Yushchenko himself, who received enthusiastic applause from the approximately 1,000 delegates, parliament deputies, and political activists in attendance. Although past efforts to form similar electoral alliances have failed, Yushchenko said his bloc represented a unique opportunity for Ukrainians to elect a parliament whose members would put the interests of the people first.

"For the first time after many years of deterioration, Ukraine has a chance to lift herself up. It's hard to believe, but today that really depends on you -- the citizens of Ukraine -- [and] with us working together with you, and on our desire to say forcefully and with one voice that we cannot live this way any longer," Yushchenko said. "Ukrainians long for a better life, and they will win that for themselves in their own land."

Yushchenko said that, should Our Ukraine come to power, it would work to make government more transparent and responsive to people's needs. He said Ukraine had vast economic potential but that it continued to go unrealized because of political mismanagement -- something he said he was determined to change.

"A year ago I left government. I left in order to return, and I have always been open about my intention," Yushchenko said. "Today I've returned in order to work. I don't have any other goal, no other desire. We know what to do and we know who to do it with."

Yushchenko outlined some of the main points of the bloc's joint manifesto. He said a parliament led by Our Ukraine would give priority to creating jobs and restoring dignity and control to the lives of average Ukrainians. He also pledged to focus on health, education, and support for the disadvantaged and elderly, and said that an Our Ukraine government would be distinguished by what he called the traditional Ukrainian trait of "humanism."

"For a person to feel good about themselves in our country, we have to give them the opportunity to work and to realize their ambitions," Yushchenko said. "Only a nation that does that serves its people. In such a nation, the government defends the interests of its citizens based on the principles of morality, honesty, humanity."

The leader of one of the bloc's most prominent parties, Viktor Pinzenyk of the Party of Reform and Order, said Ukrainian politics have passed into a new phase -- one in which individual democratic parties that have always shared common ground have finally come together into a powerful united bloc.

"I don't want to discuss the manifesto of the bloc. I don't want to dwell on that, because one of the most valuable qualities of our bloc is the unity of our outlook. That's what has united us now," Pinzenyk said. "It's an ideology that all of us have individually promoted over the last 10 years, but unfortunately we worked in our separate little dwellings and thus didn't get the results that our countrymen desired so much. Now we're all in the same beehive."

Yushchenko said the bloc planned to consolidate itself into a single party after the elections, opening the way for more parties to join the alliance. But not everyone took such an optimistic view of the future. One of the candidates on the joint list, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL he was worried that bloc members would go their different ways once elections are held.