A new party for Ukraine’s euro-optimists?

If it is to succeed in a turbulent political environment, the ambitious DemAlliance project must overcome Ukraine's tradition of centering political movements on personalities rather than ideologies.

Mikhail Minakov Isaac Webb
15 August 2016

A public talk held by DemAlliance in Kyiv this summer, with Vasyl Hatsko (left), Yevheniya Kuleba (centre left), Viktor Chumak (centre right) and Serhiy Leshchenko (far right). Image: DemAlliance.Ukraine has never been a land for liberals. In 25 years of independence, the country’s liberal, European integrationists have never had a legitimate political party to represent them. Numerous parties claiming to do so have operated as fronts for oligarchic interests or been too weak to affect national politics.  

Now, two-and-a-half years after the EuroMaidan Revolution, a new political party is taking up the mantle of Ukrainian liberalism. At the end of June, news broke that Ukrainian MPs Svitlana Zalishchuk, Serhiy Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem — the core of the Verkhovna Rada’s “Euro-Optimist” caucus — were planning on joining Democratic Alliance, positioning the Kyiv-based party to appeal to a supposedly expanding constituency: Ukraine’s liberal, pro-European voters. Less than two weeks later, a rejuvenated DemAlliance held its first party congress in Kyiv, outlining a platform that emphasised “transforming Ukraine into a modern European country.”

Many of DemAlliance’s new, high-profile members defected from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP), the Ukrainian president’s eponymous parliamentary faction that, like other blocs in the Rada, is facing renewed criticism for its cozy relationship with the country’s oligarchs.

Nayyem and DemAlliance’s other new members are clearly frustrated with the increasingly vertical power structure of Poroshenko’s government

Indeed, Nayyem and DemAlliance’s other new members are clearly frustrated with the increasingly vertical power structure of Poroshenko’s government, the deferential parliamentary majority he commands and the pace of reform. In a recent article for Open Democracy, Serhiy Leshchenko criticised Poroshenko for laying the groundwork for “a ruling clan centred on the president himself.” When asked about further cooperation with BPP, Leshchenko responded: “It’s up to them.”

Competition for liberal votes

DemAlliance is certainly trying to chart a new course. As party leader Vasyl Hatsko said at the congress, “We need a complete reboot of Ukrainian politics.” And party’s leaders have lofty ambitions: they hope DemAlliance, which since its founding in 2010 has had a negligible national presence, will win 12-15% of the Ukrainian electorate in the next parliamentary elections.

Getting there won’t be easy, in part because they’ll likely have to compete for liberal votes with Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who is now governor of the Odesa region. Saakashvili is said to be working with ex-deputy general prosecutors Vitaly Kasko and David Sakvarelidze, MP Viktor Chumak, and others to create another liberal party.


DemAlliance could face competition from Mikheil Saakashvili, pictured here. (c) Sergei Chuzavkov / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Like the new members of DemAlliance, Saakashvili hopes his new “Wave” party will upend Ukraine’s political establishment when it launches this fall. “I predict this fall will be a hot one,” Saakashavili said in an interview on 2 August.

Although the parties may work together, Chumak has indicated that they will be distinct factions: “They decided to base their party on Democratic Alliance, we’re starting a party from scratch.”

In the absence of an oligarchic patron, DemAlliance’s leaders are trying to fundraise from small and medium-sized businesses

Financing may also be an issue. In the absence of an oligarchic patron, DemAlliance’s leaders are trying to fundraise from small and medium-sized businesses, including those in Ukraine’s growing IT sector. And indeed, according to the party’s database of donors, IT businessman Oleksandr Kardakov is the DemAlliance’s leading backer, having donated more than 500,000 UAH ($20,000) in January and February.

Still, DemAlliance’s opponents have attacked the party for allegedly receiving funding from gas oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, though his name does not appear in the party’s donor database. One such attack came from BPP MP Ivan Vinnik, who claimed that DemAlliance was being “financed by money stolen from the country during the Yanukovych regime”.

Such allegations seem to be fabricated and are certainly politically motivated. Perhaps most importantly, they speak to the the way Poroshenko and his subordinates treat the liberals who were once the president’s allies.

Party on, Ukraine style

In Ukraine, as in many other post-Soviet countries, parties are driven by leaders, not ideologies. This is in part because the ideology-based parties that formed in the early 1990s did not play an essential role in Ukrainian politics. Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) did not belong to a political party during his entire term in office, nor did many ministers in his government.

The history of independent Ukraine’s party system can be broken up into three periods. In the early 1990s, when perestroika and demokratizatsiia were still powerful ideas, Ukrainian parties did their best to mimic western ideologies. Republicans, democrats, liberals, socialists and social democrats presented their party platforms to citizens of the new Ukraine in the hopes of coming to power on the strength of their ideas.

This effort failed. Power and wealth quickly became consolidated in hands of several regional clans. Traumatised by a socio-economic crisis and a wave of criminal activity in the mid-1990s, the Ukrainian population fell prey to the country’s power parties (e.g. president Leonid Kuchma’s National Democratic Party; the Social Democratic Party; president Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine; and Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions from 2010 to 2014), oligarchic parties (Hromada; the Labour Party; and the Party of Regions from 2001 to 2010) or parties benefiting from secret cooperation with oligarchs and the authorities (the Communist Party of Ukraine from 1998 until it was banned in 2015; the Green Party from 1998 to 2002; and the nationalist Svoboda party from 2010 to 2013).

During this second period, Ukrainian parties abandoned ideological pretense and concentrated on “selling” their leaders, who were largely figureheads for oligarchic interests. Between the mid-1990s and 2013, there were 192 parties registered in Ukraine according to the Ministry of Justice. Some, like former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had a huge number of official members and engaged extensive networks of local elites, but remained very much dependent on their leaders and oligarchic backers.

Ideology gave way to “political technologies” and “political marketing”. This turned parties into short-lived brands

As a result, party ideologies and platforms lost all meaning. Ideology gave way to “political technologies” and “political marketing”. This turned parties into short-lived brands rather than lasting political institutions able to represent voters in parliament.

A third period started after the Euromaidan Revolution, as part of a renewed attempt to establish a democratic Ukraine. Yanukovych’s fall from power was such a shock that most of the old parties were unable to run their candidates in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Only Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party was able to retain seats in the Rada after the 2014 elections. Other factions disappeared or reformed as new parties, including Poroshenko’s BPP, former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s National Front, MP Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party, Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi’s Samopomich, and Opposition Bloc, which inherited what was left of the Party of Regions.

Revolution and war brought new cadres into the political arena. Established oligarchs (like Poroshenko, Igor Kolomoisky and Vitalii Khomutynnik) and long-time figureheads (like Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Alexander Turchynov) were suddenly practicing politics alongside a new generation of political showmen like Lyashko, Maidan activists like the leaders of DemAlliance, and volunteer battalions’ commanders like Semen Semenchenko.

Plus ça change...

But fresh blood hasn’t changed the essence of Ukraine’s political parties: they remain unable to represent and advocate the interests and rights of their constituencies, or oppose the authoritarianism that is creeping back into Ukrainian politics.

Since 2014, 156 parties have registered in Ukraine. As ever, parties form and re-form around leaders without ever articulating a coherent ideology. They don’t so much have platforms as they are platforms — for personalities. These personalities are frequently oligarchs or their proxies.


22 March: Nadiya Savchenko is sentenced to 22 years in prison prior to her release in May. (c) Evgeny Biyatov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Ukraine’s personality politics was put on display when Nadiya Savchenko was placed first on the party list of Batkivshchyna and elected in absentia to the Rada in 2014 while imprisoned in Moscow. Although Savchenko had no political experience, her value to Batkivshchyna was clear: her celebrity helped boost the party’s national popularity.

It will be difficult for Nayyem, Zalishchuk and Leshchenko to give Democratic Alliance a Batkivshchyna-style PR boost

It will be difficult for Nayyem, Zalishchuk and Leshchenko to give Democratic Alliance a Batkivshchyna-style PR boost. Despite their popularity in the west, their voices were muted as members of the Poroshenko Bloc, and they don’t have the national name recognition necessary to garner widespread support. A recent International Republican Institute (IRI) survey found that 81% of people surveyed had never heard of Zalishchuk, the EuroMaidan activist who is the new co-chair of DemAlliance.

The results were not much better for Zalishchuk’s co-chair, Hatsko, who was the leader of the party when IRI conducted its poll in May and June. Seventy-four percent of people surveyed had never heard of Hatsko. More surprisingly, more than 58% of respondents had never heard of Leshchenko, who, like Zalishchuk and Nayyem, rose to prominence in the west during the EuroMaidan Revolution. Nayyem is the most well-known of the Democratic Alliance leaders, though his favorables stand at 20%, and 30% of Ukrainians still say they haven’t heard of him.

Compare these numbers to Saakashvili’s: of the Ukrainian politicians and members of government IRI polled respondents about, Saakashvili had the percent highest favorables (26%), and 99% of Ukrainians had heard of him (nonetheless, 62% of Ukrainians had a negative opinion of him).

Ukrainian liberals

Over the last 25 years, a number of parties have championed liberal ideas, including the Liberal Party (launched in 1991), the Liberal Democratic Party (1992) and the Christian liberal party (1995). None of these parties, however, was ever particularly attractive to Ukrainian voters.

One bright spot was the nationalist-liberal “Reforms and Order” party. The party, which launched in 1997 and merged with Batkivshchyna in 2013, managed to become a springboard for several prominent politicians, including former minister of finance Victor Pynzenyk and MP Sergii Terekhin. But Reforms and Order proposed only economic liberalism, taking a nationalist-democratic approach to civil rights and the rights of minorities. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, this party was slowly devoured by Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna.

There have always been distinct pro-European elements in Ukrainian politics

There have always been distinct pro-European elements in Ukrainian politics. For many years, Ukrainians associated Europe with the rule of law, access to justice, and stability. Certainly, this liberal vision was used (and abused) by political parties in the post-Orange Revolution period.

Recently, Poroshenko and his bloc have co-opted liberal, European integrationist rhetoric from Maidan activists in order to broaden their constituency and bolster their mandate to govern.

An anti-corruption party

DemAlliance will have to rely on the strength of its liberal ideas, not its personalities, to inspire voters and win their support. DemAlliance’s platform outlines one core strategic goal (“transforming Ukraine into a modern European country”) and three core principles: openness and accountability to society, financial transparency and collective leadership.

This last principle is particularly important because of the absence of big names headlining the party: on the day DemAlliance launched, Nayyem wrote on Facebook that “for systemic and irreversible change, the effort and zeal of one man are not enough. For that we need a team — partners and allies, united by one goal.”


21 June 2016: president Petro Poroshenko gives a press conference after a meeting with France's President Francois Hollande. (c) Thibault Camus / AP / Press Association Images.Above all, however, DemAlliance seems to be positioning itself as the transparency and anti-corruption party. Zalishchuk is one of the founders of Chesno, an organisation that pushes for transparency and fairness in elections; Nayyem and Leshchenko are journalists who crusaded against corruption in the Yanukovych era and have been critical of Poroshenko’s anti-corruption efforts since the EuroMaidan Revolution.

This platform is appealing but certainly not novel. Corruption has been at the center of international and domestic debates about Ukrainian politics for more than 25 years, and Ukrainians consistently rank corruption as one of the most important issue facing their country. Indeed, anti-corruption promises lie at the center of nearly every Ukrainian political party’s platform — including that of the current president.

The roots of corruption, which lie at the foundation of Ukraine’s political economy, have never been properly addressed

The fight against corruption per se has become a surrogate for ideology: parties promise to punish “corruptioners” in order to win votes. However, the roots of corruption, which lie at the foundation of Ukraine’s political economy, have never been properly addressed.

What’s more, if and when Saakashvili’s new Wave party launches, it is likely to usurp the anti-corruption mantle from DemAlliance. Dating back to his days as Georgian president, Saakashvili has made his name fighting corruption. Recently, he’s been travelling around Ukraine on an “anti-corruption roadshow” in an effort to drum up support for reforms (and himself). 

Early elections?

 The leaders of DemAlliance and those who are preparing to launch Wave — as well as the leaders of Opposition Bloc — seem to have their sights set on early elections, which many predicted would be held in the fall. Most prominently, in June, Savchenko called for early parliamentary elections, saying that they are necessary to “infuse new blood” into Ukrainian politics.

But the push for early elections has not been widely supported. Parliamentary speaker Andriy Parubiy has said that he sees “no reason” for a snap election, implying that Russian influence — a “scenario imposed from outside” — is behind attempts to organise them. Furthermore, the vice-chairman of Ukraine’s Central Election Commission stated recently that the legal conditions necessary for snap elections to be held according to Ukraine’s constitution have not been met. At least for now, early elections are on hold.

Where does this leave DemAlliance? With a laundry list of issues to address: How can Ukraine diminish the social, economic and political power of the oligarchic class while boosting the middle class? How can it reform its super-centralist government and its dangerous post-Soviet-variety presidentialism? How can Kyiv begin to talk to populations on both banks of the Dnieper? How can Ukrainian politics become a forum for ideologies rather than personalities?

Despite a host of challenges that lay before it, DemAlliance, more than any other contemporary party, seems eager to answer these questions.

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