Odessa Votes

“Orange” is Back And Ukraine Hopes For More Stability

The Ukrainian general election of Sept. 30 is set to end a political crisis between the Western-oriented President Viktor Yushchenko, elected after the so-called Orange Revolution of November 2004, and the Parliament, where a pro-Russian government has taken power, led by Yushchenko’s former presidential rival, Viktor Yanukovich.

Although the initial predictions suggested a lead of pro-Western party Bloc Yulia Timoshenko (BYuT), the current result of 98% votes counted indicates that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions (Partia Regionyi) will again be the strongest party in the Verkhovna Rada in Kiev with just over 34%, while Timoshenko’s party follows closely with 30% (22% in 2006), and President Yushchenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ Party (Narodnyi Soyuz Nasha Ukrayina, NSNU) remains at 14%.

Among the smaller parties, only the Communists (5.3%) and the leftist  party of former speaker of parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn (3.9%),  passed the 3% threshold. This gives the western-oriented Orange Revolution parties have now a slim majority, and talks to form a new government have already begun.

Mid campaign, Odessa became the center of political attention on Sept. 22, when President Viktor Yushchenko paid an official visit to the city for the opening ceremony of the now fully restored Opera House. Yushchenko is a very prominent figure, and although not running for election, his portrait is everywhere on leaflets and posters.

A Party of the Region supporter trying to disrupt an Orange Party rally in front of the Opera House | Photo: Mattias Wurz

In the predominately Russian city of Odessa, however, Yushchenko and his party are very unpopular. And while supporters gathered around the Opera House to get a glimpse of their hero, supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich gathered at nearby Grecheskaya Square, only a few blocks away, for one of the largest party rallies of the Party of Regions, the Odessites favorite.

Yanukovich arrived at 14:40 in an armoured car and was greeted like a pop star by a large crowd on the square.  There is a strong sense among the party supporters that the Orange Revolution and its massive protests on Independence Square in Kiev in 2004 were only staged.

His main message: The revolutionary parties cannot be trusted, as they are responsible for the country’s economic decay. They were corrupt when they were in power, so how could they be different now?

The crowd cheered appreciatively, shouting out Yanukovich’s name, and waving the blue flags with the party’s emblem. A young volunteer, dressed in a blue party coverall, captured the spirit:

“The mood is very good; we will be stronger when the elections are over,” he declared smiling, while eating his sandwich. They had been busy all morning preparing, he explained, so there had been no time for food. “It was a mistake to abolish the Soviet Union back a decade ago,” he went on seriously. “The Ukraine cannot exist on its own. We depend on Russia, so that’s where we belong.”

On that occasion, one senses a strong enthusiasm for Yanukovich, particularly among the younger Ukrainians present. His informal appearance at party rallies, an open shirt and no tie, brings the Prime Minster closer to the people, say his supporters. Following the speech, Yanukovich left the stage shaking hands and giving autographs and, in a corridor of flags and policemen, was led to his car before being rushed off.

His supporters, meanwhile, moved across the city to the Opera House hoping to disrupt the opposition rally, that had, of course, come with a similar intention. Accompanied by only a handful of policemen, the security forces did not even attempt to separate the crowds. And while smaller groups got into heated arguments, in the end, the crowds mixed peacefully, alternating orange and blue flags,.

At 17:00, when the official proceedings in the Opera House began, televised live and transmitted on large screens in front of the building, the Party of Regions supporters left and Yushchenko supporters watched attentively.

“I know that Odessa wants and believes in changes in its heart,” the president told the audience, adding that Odessites should go to the polls on Sept. 30 to support ”those (political) forces you trust.”

Yushchenko’s supporters blame the current political crisis on Yanukovich’s attempt to increase the political support in parliament by winning over – “Berlusconi fashion” – the opposition MPs. A two-thirds majority would allow Yanukovich’s Party of the Region to overrule presidential vetoes in parliament, a majority he was getting close to in the spring.

According to the Ukrainian constitution, only a complete parliamentary fraction can shift its political support, not individual MPs. In a dramatic public appeal, President Yushchenko dissolved the parliament on Apr. 2, a step he justified in a televised speech and an extensive commentary published in the Financial Times two days later.

“Ukraine’s young democracy faces a new and dangerous challenge, one that requires a firm and immediate response,” he said.

“It comes from a ruling coalition that has exceeded its mandate and attempted to monopolise political power, even at the cost of violating the constitution and ignoring the democratically expressed wishes of the Ukrainian people.”

In a dangerous stand-off between president and government, as well as protests on both sides in the Kiev streets, the country seemed on the brink of civil war. However, a compromise was reached at the end of May, and the agreement to hold elections on Sept. 30 brought a temporary suspension of the crisis.

With the last week of campaigning under way, the Partia Regionyi seemed to be everywhere along the closed-off Deribasovskays Street as well as at important intersections and squares, orange tents and orange T-shirts, people waiving orange flags on the end of a fishing pole. At a busy road near the City Gardens we met two young students, lost inside their headphones, listening to music. It takes a minute before they notice us.

“We are agitators, but in the end, it is like a job,” one of them confided. “We get 10 Grievna per hour (€1.50) for standing here and handing out leaflets.” She reaches into a plastic bag and gives me a sheet full with election promises.

A second child brings a family twice the income support, according to the text, to 15,000 Grievna a year (about €2,500), a lot of money for a Ukrainian whose average annual income is about €5,500, according to 2006 estimates. This doesn’t seem realistic, and I express my doubts.

“Of course it is,” the girl replied enthusiastically, and then put her headphones back on.

Looking over her shoulder at the orange Yushchenko tent, a young woman in the mid-30s exclaimed her disgust at the two students. “Students who did not want to study and are homeless supported the so-called Orange Revolution,” she said. Of course, it was Viktor Yanokovich who should have won the presidency three years ago.

One keeps wondering, while walking across the streets in Odessa what might change after the election. Not much, it seems. Most Ukrainians seem simply to be hoping for a more stable future.

Before returning home, I get one more flyer from a Party of Regions supporter:

“Maybe the Orange. Maybe the Blue. We do not need a Third party!” it says.

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