As was to be expected, the opponents of Ukraine’s European course are getting increasingly active now that the date of the Vilnius summit and signing of the Association Agreement is getting closer. Whether coincidentally or not, this upsurge in the pro-Russian lobby became evident right after Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyiv and Sevastopol toward the end of July.
Not surprisingly, the communists, being long-term proponents of Ukraine’s Customs Union membership, planned to launch a campaign demanding a referendum in early September. The Red leader, Petro Symonenko, declared during a meeting of the media club “Na vlasny pohliad”: “Come September 8, we will gather citizens of Ukraine in Kyiv to form an initiative group to collect signatures for a referendum on the accession to the Customs Union. The Communist Party of Ukraine will make the necessary arrangements. There will be two referendum issues: (a) support of Ukraine’s Customs Union membership and (b) support of EU membership.”
Symonenko is in a hurry and well he should, considering that there is an increasing number of opponents of the European choice. These people aren’t twiddling their thumbs. Viktor Medvedchuk, with his billboards, roundtables, conferences, and newspaper articles, has long been looking forward to heading the campaign against the signing of the Association Agreement in Vilnius this November.
During the summer dead political season, Party of Regions MP Oleh Tsariov launched an anti-Association information campaign. In an interview with Forbes he made several comments on the signing of the Agreement and said a group of MPs might challenge it at the Constitutional Court because he believed that a number of clauses ran counter to the Constitution of Ukraine. This interview with an MP of the ruling party caused quite some interest and numerous comments in the Ukrainian, Russian, and world press.
Tsariov made a number of statements during the interview that would sound ambiguous to his Parteigenossen. He may have been surprised by the reverberations – or counted on them. He told this author: “I headed the Dnipropetrovsk regional [oblast] organization of the Party of Regions on the eve of the third round of presidential elections in 2004. I remained at the head of it throughout the period of opposition of our Party. My stand in the matter of Ukraine’s Customs Union membership is determined by my persuasions shared by my fellow party members and by the expectations of the voters who cast their ballots in favor of the Party of Regions and our president. It would be strange if none of the 450 members of the Ukrainian parliament assumed responsibility for supporting this stand. I wholeheartedly support this stand and my views haven’t changed over the past decade and I have repeatedly made my stand public.”
Tsariov overdramatizes the situation, considering that his communist allies and like-minded MPs have repeatedly made anti-Association statements. What makes the whole thing look close to sensation is the fact that a Regionnaire MP opposes the Agreement.
The whole thing could be portrayed as proof of Party democracy and freedom of expression. No party bodies have made a formal decision in favor of signing [the Association Agreement], so everybody can voice his views and debate the matter. But only in theory. In actuality, it is common knowledge that there is no party democracy when it comes to really important issues – and there can be none, given the existing Party structure. Discipline, including in the information sphere, is rigid and [potential] transgressors are fully aware of possible consequences.
Says Tsariov: “Today I can see that our party faces quite serious tests. Blaise Pascal and Stendhal said that one cannot rely only on those who do not resist, do not have their own opinions and beliefs. My comrades could always rely on me in time of ordeal. I remain with the president and will comply with the decisions of the party and the president.”
Considering the course events are taking, the faction’s support of signing the Agreement is secured. A true soldier of his party, Tsariov will vote for it. This train is picking up speed and it is impossible to stop it, even less so turn it back. There are more than enough votes in parliament for setting the European integration course, even with communist opposition. Therefore, it was totally unnecessary to voice and repeat the good old allegations of the Association opponents, yet the Regionnaire MP did just that.
There are no reasons for associating [Tsariov’s statements] with Putin’s visit. More likely, it was a way to get into the information mainstream. The reasons lie both on the surface and more deeply.
Number one. Although Medvedchuk’s information activities have a miserable efficiency rate, there is a threat of rift within the traditional Regionnaire electorate, particularly in the east of Ukraine and in the Crimea. In an acute presidential campaign each percent of votes will be quite significant, and the possibility of manipulation, ballot box stuffing and fraud will be reduced to an absolute possible minimum. The European Union will closely watch the presidential race and any scandal will call the winner’s legitimacy into question. Those in power and the obvious candidate do not want any of this. And so there is a degree of threat. Russia is not likely to openly interfere in the presidential campaign, but nor will it support Yanukovych in any way. The trade wars that have begun will gain momentum and this will have a negative effect on the economic and financial situation, even if not for long. Medvedchuk and others like him are planning to turn this to their advantage, and Putin will do the same through Medvedchuk.
The task is to put some pressure on the leader and financial sponsor of the Ukrainian Choice in the pro-Russian field. Who but a Regionnaire MP could have done this better? Tsariov makes no secret of his presence at the international conference “Slavic-Orthodox Values: the Basis of Civilized Choice of Ukraine” organized by Viktor Medvedchuk’s social movement Ukrainian Choice, or that it was there he received findings on the constitutional problems relating to the signing of the Association Agreement. So he joined the chorus of legal inconsistencies and the interview with Forbes was a convenient excuse for shifting attention from Medvedchuk on the Party of Regions, rather on some dissenting party members. Many found the situation to be very interesting.
Pressure should also be put on the Red allies. Although kept on a short leash, they are capable of pulling off dirty tricks. This is especially true of some electoral districts where the Reds often get out of line, so it is high time they were shown their place and made to keep a low profile.
Number two. Both within and without the Party of Regions there are enough individuals who are interested in joining the Customs Union. First and foremost, these are people involved in or with the military-industrial complex. Also, the ongoing military-technological cooperation with Russia in the aircraft and other industries. These people stand to lose much in case this cooperation stops, because they will be hard put to adjust their facilities to the production of components for European and other aircraft manufacturers. They have long complained about possible negative consequences, but to little avail. For them such statements by a Parteigenosse came in very handy.
Number three. The point is not so much whether Tsariov acted at the behest of his pro-Russian soul or in compliance with senior Party members’ directives. As November is getting closer, the Fronde of signing the Association Agreement is kept in suspense. There had to be a Regionnaire MP who would put this stuffing in the information space, the more so that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interesting themes there. Judging by the rather sluggish reaction of higher party bodies, it was not only his initiative.
Number four. With some probability one can assume that a decision on signing the Association Agreement in Vilnius has been made on the highest level. Also, that the tactic is being haggled over by various groups in the president’s circle. The point is not only the act of signing, but also medium-term political positioning, including in the direction of Russia.
Moscowhas big problems in Ukraine in the absence of a serious pro-Russian organization. Instead, there is a burning desire to somehow fill the vacuum that has formed and receive some dividends. Hence some jostling in the information space around opposition to the signing of the Agreement. Some arrangements are being made for the future, even if in such an exotic manner.
Fitting into Europe is easier said than done. There will be lots of problems at the beginning, with mounting popular discontent and someone will be tempted to lead it on an I-told-you-so basis. Such moods and movements have taken place in all newly admitted EU member countries. It is absolutely safe to assume that a similar situation will develop in Ukraine. How can a smart politician pass up such an opportunity?
Last but not least. Now is the best time to show Brussels that the president is faced with opposition in his own ranks. Pro-Russian moods are strong, so Kyiv should be treated with kid’s gloves when working on the final text of the Agreement. Tsariov’s interview fits into this strategy perfectly and that’s probably what it was all about. Whether this tactic is effective will become clear in the near future.