What chance for Ukraine's ‘united opposition’?

As the Ukrainian government steadies itself following the violent surge of protest in Kyiv, the opposition must now present a united face if it wants to achieve anything. Realistic? Annabelle Chapman wonders

Annabelle Chapman
5 December 2013

What do you get if you put together a lawyer, a trained urological surgeon and a heavyweight boxing champion (with a PhD)? Answer: Ukraine’s opposition.

Since the parliamentary elections of October 2012 Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Batkivshchyna, ‘Fatherland’, the party of Yuliya Tymoshenko), Oleh Tyahnybok (Svoboda, 'Freedom', the right-wing nationalist party), and Vitali Klitschko (UDAR or ‘Punch’) have constituted the ‘United Opposition’ to President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. They have been out in force during the Kyiv protests, wielding loudspeakers and calling repeatedly for the government to resign. They are also becoming better-known abroad. But where do they stand, and how united are they?

I was able to get an interesting snapshot of the dynamics between them during a panel discussion held in the week of the Vilnius Summit, when Ukraine was supposed to sign a major deal with the EU. I skipped the main press conference for this side-event. I wanted to see them together close up, rather than demonstrating outside the Central Electoral Commission in Kyiv or campaigning on a distant stage in Lviv (western Ukraine).

Left to right: the men who dare to challenge Yanukovych - Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko, Petro Poroshenko, Oleh Tyahnybok. Photo (c) Annabelle Chapman.

By the time everyone arrived in Vilnius, the EU had forgotten its condition that Tymoshenko be permitted abroad for medical treatment.

By the time the panel opened, we all knew that Yanukovych had decided against signing the deal. The organisers of the panel had actually already anticipated this, billing the event as 'Ukraine as EU's (non)associated country: possibilities and challenges.'

Someone had put a great deal of thought into the seating on the podium too. Klitschko was right in the middle, facing straight down the aisle, flanked by Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko, a Ukrainian businessman and MP. The far-right Tyahnybok was placed out on the far right, which meant that he was always the last of the leaders to speak. The four were joined by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former president of Poland and one of the leaders of the European Parliament's observation mission to Ukraine; a representative of the Ukrainian diaspora; and a Lithuanian MP, who was chairing the event. 

Anger and disappointment

Yatsenyuk said he was angry. He was angry with Yanukovych; a man, he said, who thought he could ‘just turn the tide, make a U-turn, sell the country and join the [Russian] Customs Union.’ Not Yulia Tymoshenko, he said, who had 'sacrificed herself to allow the deal to be signed’ (she went on hunger strike in protest at Yanukovych’s refusal to sign). This was the only time Tymoshenko came up during the panel. By the time everyone arrived in Vilnius, the EU had just about forgotten its condition that she be permitted to go abroad for medical treatment. Some commentators regard this as a triumph for Yanukovych.

Klitschko spoke in English. ’I wish you good afternoon,’ he said. ‘I don't know if it's a good afternoon or not – I am very disappointed.’ The boxer-turned-politician was wearing a navy-blue suit, very similar to the one he wore when I interviewed him in Kyiv last month, but he looked tired. He said that he and the other opposition leaders had stayed up late into the night, talking and hoping until the last minute that Yanukovych would sign. ‘Yanukovych is here. Had he not come to Vilnius, it would have been a very bad sign.’ 

Suddenly the non-Ukrainian-speaking minority in the audience made a dive for their headphones. It was finally Oleh Tyahnybok's turn to speak. The politician from Lviv, whom the New York Times has described as having ‘beefy good looks’, was the only one speaking Ukrainian. Language – Ukrainian versus Russian –  is a major issue for his party Svoboda. Until recently, Tyahnybok's website had a little note where the language menu usually is: 'Tilky ridna mova' (only the native language). Now both his website and Svoboda's have an English version.

Around me, I heard mutters of 'taka bezporadnist' (such helplessness).

Tyahnybok spoke about Russian pressure on Ukraine. ‘Russia has launched a meat war, a milk war, a chocolate war’  and was also waging ‘an information war, an energy war and even a religious war against Ukraine’ (a reference to the Russian Patriarch Kirill and the idea of a ‘Ruskiy mir’ or Russian World). This is not just a threat to Ukraine, Tyahnybok added. 'I think it is also very important for Europe, whether its border with the Kremlin empire is on Ukraine's eastern border, or the western one.’

The discussion lasted an hour or so. Then the audience filed out of the room, since a panel on Georgia was about to begin. Around me, I heard mutters of 'taka bezporadnist' (such helplessness). 

On the barricades

I’m reliably informed by TV journalist who was on the same incoming flight as all three politicians that Yatsenyuk had arrived into Vilnius in economy class; the other two flew business. A few hours later, the same source informed me that the three had chartered a return flight together, and were back in Kyiv already. Not even Yatsenyuk had time to fly economy this time.

Sure enough, Kyiv had turned angry in protest. And during the night, riot police cracked down heavily on peaceful protesters on the central square, the ‘Maidan.’ Svoboda’s Tyahnybok had predicted this at the panel in Vilnius, saying that ‘the Yanukovych regime will not forgive those who were involved in the protests.’ A Ukrainian friend I spoke to the next day was not so impressed: the words are typical of Svoboda's pugnacious attitude, she said.

Out on the streets of Kyiv, each of the leaders is continuing to forge his brand, with varying degrees of success. A few weeks before the protests began, Ukrainian magazine Korrespondent ran revealing feature stories on the leaders’ property. Readers got a tour of Yatsenyuk's country house, complete with orchard and swimming pool; his wife even invites the reporter to take off his shoes and feel the underfloor heating. In later features, they are offered a glimpse of Klitschko's smooth apartment near the Kyiv opera house and Tyahnybok's folksy flat in Lviv.

Tough guy Klitschko is making a big deal out of keeping the demonstrations in order. A video of him warning the crowd against ‘provocateurs’ on Bankova Street on December 1st (where the worst clashes took place) has received almost 150,000 views on YouTube. He got extra bonus points when, on December 4th, he went out to speak to a gathering of ruling Party of Regions activists – where he was asked for his autograph.

An imposing 198cm in height, boxer/politician Vitali Klitscko has made a point of 'maintaining order' at the Euromaidan protests. 

Yatsenyuk, on the other hand, is the one politician most often overlooked by foreign journalists – though this may change as the political situation develops. His video appearances have not been particularly charismatic or successful: he recently was seen discussing the economic benefits of European integration at someone's home in Cherkassy, central Ukraine – against a backdrop of some rather battered fluffy toys.

The three opposition leaders are often seen being photographed as a triumvirate. They have emphasised the need for unity among themselves – and with the protesters. This was the point they were keen to make in Vilnius. Missing the irony that much of his own party’s views are divisive, Tyahnybok picked up the theme: ‘Yanukovych's regime wants to divide Ukrainian society; every day in parliament they try to drive a wedge in between us three opposition leaders.’ 

While Tyahnybok was speaking, the others on the podium turned their heads towards him politely. Meanwhile, Klitschko became very interested in something on his smartphone.

‘Each of them is trying to mobilise supporters by dividing society, but these things are not what matters most to the young generation on the Maidan.’ Mustafa Nayem, Journalist

Stranded in Vilnius, the opposition leaders placed their hope in what was happening 600 km away in Kyiv. Yatsenyuk decided to paraphrase the words of Ukraine’s former president Leonid Kuchma. ‘A president once said Ukraine is not Russia, and I would add that Kyiv is not Minsk’, he said. 

Despite support for the opposition in the polls, the demonstrations have also pointed to a divide between the opposition leaders and the protesters. From the very start, some activists were concerned that opposition leaders were politicising the protests, hoping to use them to their own political advantage. This split was visible during the early days of the protests, as political parties gathered on Kyiv's European Square, while non-partisan protesters stuck to the nearby Maidan.

Mustafa Nayem, a prominent political journalist, believes the opposition politicians have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the protests. ‘Each of them is trying to mobilise supporters by dividing society’, he told me after the panel in Vilnius. ‘For Tyahnybok, the faultline is the old east-west divide, including language issues. For Yatsenyuk, the line is between supporters and opponents of Tymoshenko, while for Klitschko it is the difference between long-standing politicians and newcomers like himself. But these things are not what matters most to the young generation on the Maidan.’

Looking ahead to 2015

The three opposition leaders have long had their eyes on the 2015 presidential elections. The boxer-politician Klitschko may be emerging as the favourite. Recent polls suggest that he would have the best chance of beating Yanukovych - if he runs at all. In October, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that appears to disqualify him because he spent many years outside the country. Later that day, he officially announced that he would run.

‘This is not about personalities and who is to run in the presidential race,’ said Yatsenyuk. ‘Frankly speaking, I don't care.’

As far as 2015 is concerned, however, that is the big question. Will each of the three big opposition parties put forward their own candidate? This would split their combined vote and increase Yanukovych's chances of winning. Or will they agree on a single candidate, ideally one who stands the best chance of beating Yanukovych? Yatsenyuk favours multiple candidates, while Klitschko wants just one, presumably himself.

And finally, what was Petro Poroshenko doing on the panel? Poroshenko, the sixth-richest person in Ukraine according to Forbes, is the owner of Roshen, one of the country's biggest confectionery brands. (Po-roshen-ko – get it?)  Now an MP, he has political experience as a former foreign minister and in other positions. In the Ukrainian media, there has been speculation about him preparing to run for president in 2015. But how does Ukraine's ‘chocolate king’ stand a chance alongside some combination of Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and Tyahnybok? Not to mention Yanukovych himself?

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