The situation in Ukraine remains critical, with standoffs and some violence between security forces of the interim government that seized power in Kiev in February and Russian-speaking activists who oppose the new regime and want closer ties to Russia.
On top of all this, the country has a presidential election coming up on May 25.
This election is shaping up to be largely a contest of oligarchs – powerful politically connected business tycoons who made their fortunes out of the breakup of the old Soviet Union and the privatization of state enterprises that followed.
The two leading contenders, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, are themselves oligarchs.
Poroshenko, with 38 percent of the electorate in a recent poll, heads the Rosen Group, with holdings in the domestic chocolates market, auto and bus parts, the Leninska Kuznya shipbuilding and armaments company, and Channel 5, which is based in Kiev and supports the interim government and closer ties with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party is backing Poroshenko.
Klitschko, a former boxing champion, was a participant in the protests in Kiev that resulted in the ousting of the elected Ukrainian government and its replacement by the current interim government.
Yulia Tymoshenko, former president and longtime rival of expelled president Viktor Yanukovych, was a leader of the pro-Western 2004 Orange Revolution. She is an oligarch in her own right in United Energy Systems of Ukraine, the largest importer of Russian natural gas from 1995 to 1997. She represents the interests of the Rivat Group and its head, oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a multibillionaire in primarily export businesses, and the second or third richest man in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko heads the Fatherland Party of interim Prime Minister Arsenyi Yatsenyuk, whom she strongly supports from her base in Dnipropretrovsk. Tymoshenko, like Yatsenyuk, supports the austerity program pushed by the IMF. Tymoshenko was imprisoned for graft while Victor Yanukovych was president.
Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the fascist Svoboda Party based in Lvov, remains popular in Western and central Ukraine, although his party scored only 11.44 percent of the electorate in the 2012 parliamentary elections. He and Dmytro Yarosh, the head of the neo-Nazi right sector, who received 1.6 percent of the popular vote in a recent poll, but controls 10,000 armed militants in the streets, round out the group of candidates that support the interim government.
In opposition, the candidate of deposed president Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Mykhailo Dobkin, has the support of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, head of the SCM Group of mainly import businesses. He is, reputedly, Ukraine’s richest man with assets of $15.4 billion. Akhmetov supposedly purchased the selection of Dobkin and the expulsion of rival candidates. However, Tsaryov remains a serious contender, a popular defender of Yanukovych and his policies and a member of parliament from the Dnipropetrovsk province.
Petro Symonenko, first secretary and presidential candidate of the Communist Party of Ukraine, has the advantage of opposing both the oligarchal rule of Yanukovych and IMF-fostered austerity which threatens to render Ukraine an economic basket case. He is limited by his party’s appeal to 13.2 percent of the electorate in the parliamentary elections of 2012, approximately 14 percent of which vote was obtained in Crimea, now annexed to Russia. However, given his party’s earlier historical claim to more than 25 percent of the electorate, his presence in the second round (runoff in case nobody gets a majority of votes on May 25) cannot be ruled out.
Poroshenko and Tymoshenko can be relied upon to support the current government in Kiev and IMF-mandated austerity. Poroshenko has a larger popular following. Tymoshenko cannot be ruled out because of her Fatherland party’s strong infrastructure. The situation of the Party of Regions, which is strong in the eastern, more populous section of the country, will largely depend on the strength of Dobkin and the challenge of Tsaryov, the latter running under serious financial and organizational handicaps. All four must be regarded as serious contenders. The presidential hopes of Tyahnybok and Yarosh, both of whom are embroiled in a conflict with current interim Interior Minister Arseiny Avakov, may depend on the extent to which they can use their armed presence abetted by security forces for voter intimidation.
That leaves Symonenko, who may present more of a wild card; if his campaign can mobilize the 38.8 percent of the electorate it achieved in the late 1990s, it will be a potent threat to Poroshenko and Tymoshenko.
Symonenko and the Communist Party call for national unity in a federated framework, with the elimination of the post of president and a transition to a parliamentary system of government. They want the future relations of Ukraine with Russia and Western Europe to be determined by a plebiscite, and also call for special actions to rid the country of corruption and oligarchic control.
The corporate-controlled press in the West has been either ignoring Symonenko’s candidacy, or misrepresenting his and his party’s positions as being slavish to Russia. Symonenko and other communist activists have been subjected to physical attacks by the extreme right. On Apr. 8, Symonenko was assaulted on the floor of the Ukrainian parliament for sharply criticizing Svoboda. The Communist Party headquarters in Kiev was severely damaged by arson, and there have been other incidents.
Photo: Ukrainian Army soldiers atop combat vehicle were blocked Wednesday by local residents opposed to the interim government in Kiev. The soldiers were sent by that Kiev government to move into the town of Kramatorsk. Efrem Lukatsky/AP