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Medvedchuk emerges from shadows

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Jan. 27, 2005, 1:10 a.m. | Ukraine — by Roman Olearchyk

Roman Olearchyk

Kyiv Post Staff Writer

Feared former Presidential Administration head says he knows nothing of falsification; pledges opposition to Yushchenko inistration spoke out in public, many would have considered Viktor Medvedchuk as the one in control.”

After avoiding the press during his nearly three-year tenure as the head of President Leonid Kuchma’s Presidential Administration, political heavyweight Viktor Medvedchuk met the press on Jan. 26, declaring himself in opposition to Ukraine’s new president.

That the Medvedchuk-led Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united) would fight President Viktor Yushchenko is hardly a surprise. Yushchenko and Medvedchuk have been political foes since Yushchenko, prime minister in 2000-2001, was ousted from government by a parliament vote triggered by Medvedchuk’s supporters.

Their sour relationship turned into a full-fledged political war in the following years.

“We lost the elections...this is a fact,” Medvedchuk said.

“As [political] party we can be either in power, in the opposition, or in the mud. It is not acceptable for our party to be in the mud. The only choice for us now is to go into the opposition,” Medvedchuk added.

“I was wrong, I admit this,” Medvedchuk said, recalling a rare 2004 pre-election interview in which he confidently predicted that Yushchenko would “not win.”

“I was convinced that [Viktor] Yanukovych would win.”

Citing a lack of evidence, Medvedchuk rejected accusations from Yushchenko’s camp that he and his associates were responsible for falsifying the Nov. 21 presidential vote. He denied having knowledge of any attempts to use force to bring an end to the Orange Revolution, adding that opposition blockades of government buildings were, in essence, illegal.

Medvedchuk stressed that during its tenure in power, his party accomplished its main goal: passing political reforms which will reduce presidential powers, shifting them to a prime minister who would essentially be chosen by a parliament majority.

The reforms were adopted late in December by parliament in a compromise package that also involved a repeat presidential vote, which put an end to the Orange Revolution.

“We did everything possible to realize the political reforms,” Medvedchuk said.

“Our goal today is to prevent any attempts to reverse these political reforms,” he added.

Battle wounds

Medvedchuk’s SDPU(u) may have succeeded in pushing political reforms through parliament, but it suffered serious setbacks in recent years, taking the blame for many negative developments in Kuchma’s last years as president.

More than 10 deputies have dumped the SDPU(u) faction in parliament in the past several months. The majority of them jumped ship after the falsification of the Nov. 21 presidential vote. The faction today includes 27 deputies in the 450-seat parliament.

On Jan. 26, acting education minister Vasyl Kremen announced he had quit the party, citing his unwillingness to be oppositionist. So did acting labor minister Mykhailo Papiev, according to the Liga website.

With 407,028 nationwide members as of Jan. 1, the SDPU(u) party remains influential, though it remains to be seen whether the party’s membership dwindles further.

Mykhailo Pohrebinsky, a political analyst who has consulted Medvedchuk, predicts hard times for the SDPU(u).

“They will lose a lot of influence, as they are no longer the party of power,” Pohrebinsky said. “It can be expected that they will lose a portion of their membership, especially the members who joined in order to gain influence.”

“It is hard to say how much of their membership they will lose,” Pohrebinsky said, adding that the SDPU(u)’s diehard core will not dissipate.

Such members, according to Medvedchuk, include deputies Nestor Shufrych, Volodymyr Zayets, Ihor Shurma and Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent Ukraine.

“They have a lot of work to do in the area of improving their image,” Pohrebinsky said, adding that the SDPU(u) will be fighting an uphill battle, as its members do not have a lot of “experience as oppositionists.”

Medvedchuk conceded that his party’s image has been severely damaged by his decision to run the presidential administration for Kuchma.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that Medvedchuk, a skilled orator, shied away from press inquiries while at the administration. As a result, he was viewed by many as a secretive, influential power broker who acted behind closed doors.

It was during his years at the Presidential Administration that he was tainted by many loud accusations from oppositionist forces. They have accused Medvedchuk and his associates of running a corrupt government. The charges against the group include allegations that they, through control of the State Tax Administration and other state bodies, forced businesses to pay bribes and extorted businessmen who support their political opponents.

One well-documented case involves Ukrainian-born Konstantin Grigorishin, a Russian national. In a two-part interview with e-zine Ukrainska Pravda published last December, Grigorishin pledged to resume control through litigation over businesses he claims to have lost through illegal means to Medvedchuk and his associate Hryhory Surkis. Grigorishin alleged that a political-business group headed by Medvedchuk and Surkis used its influence to extort from him businesses valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, mainly in the energy and manufacturing sectors.

Without going into detail, Medvedchuk denied allegations directed at him by Grigorishin, saying “there are many allegations against me.”

“I have no business interests, apart from the real estate in which I live,” Medvedchuk said. “I sold all of my shares in business back in 1997,” he said, adding that some of it was sold to business structures operated by associates. He declined to discuss the issue in further detail.

Medvedchuk insisted that his absence from the public eye was a decision of his own, intended to avoid unnecessary conflicts with Kuchma, his boss.

Pohrebinsky suggested that Medvedchuk’s absence from the public eye was more likely a condition imposed by Kuchma.

“Kuchma wanted to feel himself in control of the situation,” Pohrebinsky said. “If the head of his administration spoke out in public, many would have considered Medvedchuk as the one in control.”

“Ironically, many ultimately believed Medvedchuk was more influential than Kuchma,” Pohrebinsky added.

Counter-attack

Medvedchuk said his party would likely cooperate with other neo-oppositionist forces in Ukraine, including Regions of Ukraine leader Yanukovych, who lost the presidential race to Yushchenko.

One of their main issues will be defending the voice of the Russian-speaking electorate in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Yanukovych posted overwhelming support.

“The language question – namely the issue of the use of the Russian language – is real and cannot be ignored,” Medvedchuk said, adding that he and allies would lobby passage of a law improving the status of official use of Russian.

Ukraine’s constitution recognizes Ukrainian as the official state language while guaranteeing free use of other languages.

“About 20 percent of Ukraine’s population consider themselves Russians,” he added.

The SDPU(u) would also push for closer economic ties with Russia and other former Soviet States, according to Medvedchuk, who argued that Ukraine’s integration into European structures remains a long-term prospect.

These policies are virtually opposite to those declared by Yushchenko in his first days as president. Yushchenko has called for fast European Union integration while maintaining ties with Russia. Yushchenko has pledged support for free trade with Russia, while avoiding closer integration, including establishment of unified customs zones. Yushchenko has also downplayed barriers to the use of Russian in Ukraine.
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