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In Ukraine,
however, rather than being viewed through the lens of left vs. right,
politicians and parties have generally been classified as either “pro-Russian”
or “pro-Western.” This dichotomy was especially prevalent in the years leading
up to and following 2004’s Orange Revolution. However, it should have been
obvious that in order for Ukraine to mature as a democracy, a modicum of “left”
and “right” parties (as defined by Western principles) would eventually have to
appear.

Today, with
the narrative of President Viktor Yanukovych as a “pro-Russian” politician
having collapsed, and with the Victor Yushchenko-Yulia Tymoshenko duopoly of
2005-09 having been unsuccessful in achieving deep integration with the West,
the “pro-Western, pro-Russian” template has lost much of its relevance in
explaining the “who’s” and “why’s” of Ukrainian politics.

While there
has been ad infinitum discussion of the personal animosity between Yushchenko
and Tymoshenko that led to the paralysis of the “Orange years,” another
important reason for the dysfunction of the Orange government has been largely
overlooked. Tymoshenko is a politician with left-leaning, interventionist views
on economic and social policy, while Yushchenko was anchored in center-right
principles of individual responsibility and laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs
was therefore a political cohabitation that was problematic from the start.

Ukraine’s
political system finally appears to be naturally producing a left-right
dichotomy resembling that seen in more mature democracies. The trouble is that
Yanukovych’s Party of Regions is pretending to be the left via its association
with the European Socialists, while Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna (which, due to
her imprisonment, is now led by Arseniy Yatseniuk) receives foreign backing
from the center-right European People’s Party – a relationship based on
personal connections rather than shared ideology.

In Ukraine’s
parliamentary election on Oct. 28, the Party of Regions will, just as in the
2006 and 2007 elections, get the lion’s share of its votes from the former
Soviet heartland of south and east Ukraine. This demographic is still ruled by
left-wing voters who expect the government to take a primary role in solving
their problems. The Party of Regions has duly extended handouts and other
perks, such as the recent law to upgrade the status of the Russian language, to
these voters to maintain their loyalty.

Yet, paradoxically,
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov of the Party of Regions has spent the past two
years preaching tirelessly about the need for budgetary discipline in
government. The party continues to move toward legalizing the privatization of
land – a primal sin against the ideals of Soviet communism. And, most
significantly, the party represents the interests of big private businesses, a
flagship characteristic of mainstream right-wing politics in mature
democracies.

No doubt
helped by years of tutelage from U.S. Republican consultant Paul Manafort,
President Yanukovych has learned to effectively talk the talk, if not walk the
walk, of market liberalization and free enterprise. The Party of Regions’ point
man on economic reform, Sergiy Tigipko, recently spoke of “avoiding the
mentality of class warfare” when asked on Savik Shuster’s talk show about
Ukraine’s wide gap between rich and poor – an answer that could have come
straight out of the playbook of David Cameron or Mitt Romney.

Meanwhile,
with the breakup of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc in recent years, “Orange”
members of Ukraine’s mainstream right have been stranded in a political
no-man’s land, with nowhere to turn but the ruling party.

This
probably explains why key center-right, staunchly pro-European former
Yushchenko allies – including ex-Foreign Ministers Volodymyr Ogryzhko and Petro
Poroshenko, former deputy presidential chief of staff Marina Stavniychuk,
ex-Deputy Foreign Minister Valeriy Chaliy, and political
analyst-turned-candidate for Parliament Vadym Karasiov – have conspicuously
kept their distance from the Tymoshenko-led opposition, or even, in the case of
Poroshenko and Stavniychuk, accepted appointments in the Yanukovych government.

The primary
short-term beneficiary of this center-right vacuum looks be to newly minted
politician Vitali Klitschko. His Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party is
campaigning on basic promises to reduce administrative and tax burdens on small
business and put an end to corrupt land and property deals – one of the main
ways by which government officials enrich themselves while in office.

Although it
is too early to say definitively that UDAR has a center-right orientation, by
running a simple but competent campaign, the new party is set to scoop up a
swathe of former Our Ukraine voters (the party won 14 percent in the last
election in 2007). The latest polls suggest that UDAR will win about 20 percent
of the national party list vote on Oct. 28, and may end up taking second place
ahead of Batkivschyna.

As for the
Ukrainian left, the merger earlier this year between Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna
and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Front for Change was a positive development in that it
brought together two forces that are natural ideological allies. A new
Batkivschyna television advertisement in which Yatseniuk promises to roll back
last year’s pension reform and provide guaranteed jobs to high school graduates
evokes bread-and-butter themes of the modern European left.  

However,
the merger appears to have been disastrous in the short term, as the rating of
the combined Batkivschyna-Front for Change party among likely voters has
plummeted from 35 percent at the time of the merger to only about 20 percent
today. The obvious conclusion is that most of Yatseniuk’s previous supporters
were unwilling to follow him to Batkivschyna, instead defecting to Klitschko’s
UDAR.

A second
major problem for the Ukrainian left is that it is divided along linguistic
lines. The intentions of the approximately two million Russian-speaking
Ukrainians who will cast an anti-Party of Regions protest vote for the
Communists on Oct. 28 would probably be better served by support for
Batkivschyna, which, unlike the Communists, is a left-wing party that is
actually in opposition to the Party of Regions. Yet Batkivschyna, a
predominantly Ukrainophone party, has made little effort to expand its reach
and win over these disgruntled voters.

Of course,
the categorization of political parties into ideologies of “left” and “right”
is an imperfect science – and not only in Ukraine, given the exorbitant
spending habits demonstrated by governments of all stripes in Europe and the
United States over the past decade.

Ideological
absurdities like the Party of Regions’ alliance with the Communists and
Batkivschyna’s non-aggression pact with the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Union can
still be found in Ukrainian politics. And the imprisonment of Tymoshenko cannot
be explained by any other ideology than a desire by the president’s political
camp to ensure its hold on power. Perhaps it didn’t occur to Yanukovych that
inflicting a resounding electoral defeat on a Tymoshenko-led Batkivschyna would
have been a far crueler punishment than putting her in jail.

But,
despite the contradictions and ongoing concerns about democratic backsliding,
Ukraine is coming closer to the day when analysts should be able to speak about
the country’s political spectrum in reasonably definitive terms – even if it
might still be quite a while before we see Batkivschyna and Party of Regions
lawmakers getting together for an annual left vs. right friendly football match
and non-partisan picnic.

 

Will Ritter
is a Kyiv-based freelance writer who can be reached at writter404@yahoo.com.

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