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"The formal demise of the Soviet Union marked the end of empire and the beginning of a new [Ukraine] that is still being defined," stated William Green Miller, Senior Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine at a 31 March 2003 meeting at the Kennan Institute. "The politically active students who in 1991 helped bring down the divided and weakened government of the communist party…did not, however, change the basic structure of the system of governance, nor did they remove the Ukrainian nomenklatura that ran the system."

The new common bond among the nationalists, dissident leaders, and former apparatchiks in the new government and parliament was an acceptance of separation from Moscow. Meanwhile, explained Miller, the political center in Ukraine consisted of a "great swamp" of neutrals that had not decided where they would stand politically. According to Miller, for the next ten years Ukrainian politics could be briefly described as one-third Communist; one-third Rukh nationalist; and one-third "great swamp" factions ranging from nationalists to socialists to the new businessmen.

Miller noted that despite the differences between the political factions, there was a national consensus on the issue of sovereignty. He stated that President Kuchma and his predecessor President Kravchuk enjoyed substantial electoral support because they were perceived as nationalists and "they were thought to offer the best way to consolidate the newly given opportunity of independence." Miller listed international agreements, economic assistance, domestic priorities, and budgets as "being premised, at that time, on the necessity to protect and enhance the new independence."

According to Miller, it was not until the constitutional debates, culminating in the approval on June 28, 1996 of Ukraine's new constitution, that concepts defining what kind of nation Ukraine would become emerged as central issues. In spite of the achievement of the 1996 constitution, the most important questions for the president and the governmental leaders in Ukraine for the past ten years have focused on how power is acquired, won, and maintained.

Miller argued that in the Ukrainian system, "the ruling party of power was and is a structure based on the model of Soviet nomenklatura practice." He noted that while the "party of power" in present day Ukraine cannot exert the same discipline as the Communist party did in the Soviet era, it has followed the same tactics in governing and in using "administrative resources," such as media, police, and a pliant court system, to protect its power.

The effectiveness of the party of power's use of Soviet methodology in protecting its political power is visible in the plight of the opposition parties. Parties representing the new oligarch businessmen enjoy tremendous financial resources and, when adhering to government positions, access to administrative resources such as state media. Still, Miller noted, most of these parties have been unable to attract more than 6 percent of popular support.

Opposition coalition parties, on the other hand, have little organizational structure, no significant media presence, no money, and no communications. Nonetheless, Miller continued, the opposition coalition parties of Nasha Ukraina received an overwhelming majority of popular support in the 2002 parliamentary elections. One explanation for this success, said Miller, was that when Viktor Yushchenko, the current leader of the opposition coalition, was Prime Minister he delivered on campaign promises to hold the government more accountable and pay back wages and pensions. Miller noted that Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko, his former chief minister and a current opposition member, insisted on government responsibility during their short tenure in power, and that in part defines their national popularity.

One key figure in the party of power told Miller after the 2002 election that it represented a sea change in the electoral base of Ukraine: "The Ukrainian people have by two-thirds rejected the party of power. The so-called democrats had, for the first time, the chance to take over the government and rule the country." That did not happen, Miller said. Instead, the party of power retained control over the Rada through a combination of skillful use of parliamentary procedure and resources to entice or intimidate deputies, together with a great deal of factionalism among the opposition coalition. While the Rada remains divided on many domestic issues, according to Miller, it manages to come together to prevent Yushenko from coming to power either in the Rada or in the government.

Miller stated that most political watchers in Ukraine understand that popular sentiment has changed profoundly, and that the 2004 presidential election will be the first in which the people as a whole will vote with greater independence. "Most now know they can safely vote in their interests, since they know that their livelihood is not dependent any longer on the state…but rather on those that can best help them survive and prosper," said Miller. In spite of all the resources available to the party of power and the oligarchic parties, argued Miller, "meeting the needs of the popular majority may very well be the key to victory in the 2004 presidential elections."

About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more