Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: David Kirichenko and Alya Shandra
October 25, 2021
Oligarchs are often regarded as the guardians of corruption within Ukraine’s political system. Over the years, they’ve entrenched themselves in nearly all aspects of the country’s economy and political life.
Hopes for political renewal soared when new grassroots parties formed after the Euromaidan Revolution, yet most have now failed, while oligarchic political projects still persist in Ukraine. Why is this the case, and what needs to happen for the status quo to change?
Ukraine’s current political and economic landscape formed under chaotic conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine rapidly transitioned from a planned economy into a free-market. This created a race to the bottom to strip the country’s assets. Individuals close to power quickly established monopolies and formed the basis of the oligarchic power we observe in today’s Ukraine. Their influence remains pervasive throughout society and includes a shadowy grip on the political landscape, as well.
Therefore, the overwhelming majority of political parties that rose to Ukraine’s parliament during the last 30 years are considered to be projects of the oligarchic establishment. Just a few liberal pro-democratic parties are considered to be free from oligarchic influence. However, even though some of these parties had the support of the business elite, they began to unravel and fell apart even before their parliamentary term ended.
Euromaidan Press interviewed Olha Aivazovska, Chairwoman of the Board at the elections watchdog Civil Network OPORA and, according to the Novoe Vremya media, one of Ukraine’s top-100 most successful women to discuss the political landscape. Aivazovska also spoke about figuring out what prevents Ukraine’s political landscape from becoming non-oligarchic and what has to happen for a strong grassroots party to appear.
Many changes have taken place in Ukraine during the last 20 years: the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions, shifts in the balance between the presidential and parliamentary powers, the way Ukraine conducts elections, and tectonic transformations in Ukraine’s geopolitical trajectory, but the legislation on political parties has remained the same. The country’s current law on political parties was adopted in 2001. And it is one of the bulwarks protecting the oligarchs’ current influence on politics.
This outdated law is holding back the development of democratic parties. But there is good news — it is currently in the process of being updated. MPs in the Ukrainian parliament, as well as the expert community, have contributed to revisions of the law. The Venice Commission has also presented recommendations on revising it.
Aivazovska stresses that it is crucial to pass the bill before Autumn 2022, ahead of Ukraine’s next regular parliamentary elections in 2023, which will be held according to a new election code that finally offers more transparency to Ukraine’s habitually opaque political process.
Updates to the law on political parties are seen as the next step in modernizing and democratizing Ukraine’s political system. The renewed law will coordinate the election process and election cycle with future legislation on political parties. While the parliamentary parties which are created as a vertical power model are not interested in big political reform, Aivazovska believes that the expert community is ready to advocate on behalf of the reform.
Why are the current parliamentary parties not interested in the new legislation?
One of the priority changes in the new bill suggests introducing inner-party democracy. “The main goal of this bill is to create conditions for individuals, party members, to have more influence on decision- making within party structures,” Aivazovska says.
The expert goes on to say that so far if a party is created vertically from top to bottom, the functionaries on the local level only partake in the execution of certain decisions and are not able to influence more strategic decisions of the party. “It creates the risk that big financial-industrial groups through shadow funding or political influence will use party structures for implementation of their current tasks,” Aivazovska says.
Oligarchic as they are, the parliamentary parties are mostly satisfied with the current situation. Therefore, the work on the bill has to include finding a balance between the interests of parliamentary structures and society’s interests. “No one cancels political leadership. Leadership means responsibility. However, if a party is a membership organization, its members have to have a tight grip on influence and decision- making, on the allocation of managing positions, on forming a program, on nominating candidates,” Aivazovska says.
So far, the existing vertical power structure prevents the democratic development of the parties. In contrast, a democratic power structure is when every member contributes to making a decision, and power is more equally shared. However, if implemented in Ukraine, will it mean that parties would receive real control over their power structures, if they are dependent on the money of those who want their interests to be promoted?
Does money really matter in politics?
When observing the reasons why grassroots parties fail and why oligarchs win, money has long been considered as a primary factor, since grassroots movements typically lack funding while oligarchs are willing to splurge vast amounts of money on politics.
Despite the declared goals, the law on de-oligarchization, which was recently passed in parliament, does not really reduce oligarchic influence on party funding. According to the document, oligarchs are forbidden from funding political parties. However, the law likely won’t cut off the oligarchic money flow, since it is mostly provided through third parties and can be hard to track.
“Talking about oligarchic parties, we should understand that even in the current state of affairs their [oligarchs’] influence could be reduced if there is a political will of party leaders themselves,” Aivazovska says. The current legislation already sets a ceiling for contributions to political parties: individuals or companies are prohibited from donating the equivalent of $91,200 or $182,400 per year, respectively. Nevertheless, this legal restriction has done nothing to stop oligarchs from bankrolling pet political projects.
Aivazovska explains that even if only this provision of the current law on political parties were to be implemented, it would drastically cut off oligarchic influence, stating that real expenditures for one political campaign cost millions of dollars, which vastly exceeds the current legal limits.
But the above-mentioned provision is not implemented. This leads to the conclusion that having a good law is not enough to regulate the situation.
Aivazovska stresses that to achieve the desired outcome, it would require a three-part solution: good-quality legislation, inner-party decisions, and the work of anti-corruption and law enforcement agencies.
“If, for example, we find out that some ordinary citizens of Ukraine with no incomes make contributions equal to hundreds of thousands of hryvnias, or even a million to a party account, this is a question for a law enforcement system. Where did these people get the money, who gave it to them, and why did this transaction happen?” Aivazovska says.
Aivazovska underlines that parties can’t operate as private structures because their activities are a question of public interest and because they influence the state and local self-governance.
Why did pro-democratic liberal parties fail?
Ukraine’s history has seen examples of parties with grassroots connections and at least partly composed of representatives from civil society that were not funded by oligarchs. After the Euromaidan Revolution, two such parties appeared. Both were considered non-oligarchic projects. However, due to their funding structures, they could not be called true grassroots projects.
Both lost their influence by the middle of their term. So what was their problem?
Case #1: Self Reliance (Samopomich)
After the Euromaidan Revolution when early parliamentary elections were called in 2014, a number of pro-democratic parties made up of activists aimed to get elected to Ukraine’s parliament. Among these parties were Self Reliance (Samopomich), Democratic Alliance, and Power of People (Syla Narodu).
Samopomich was the most successful of these: it managed to overcome the 5% electoral threshold. Moreover, it came in third, receiving 33 seats out of 450. This result was sensational for the country. It was bolstered by society’s increasing demand for new faces in the government and parliament after the old corrupt regime of the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych had fallen.
Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi became a leading figure within the party and was able to quickly unite it. He put himself in 50th place on the party list, expecting he will not get to parliament but, instead, remain the mayor of Lviv. The party eventually won 33 seats. As expected, Sadovyi did not get a seat in parliament. However, this did not prevent him from controlling the party.
Samopomich’s participation in the formation of the parliament’s composition was promising but eventually did not make much of a difference. As a result, during the 2019 early parliamentary elections, the party got only 0.6% of the vote and only one candidate from a single-mandate constituency managed to get elected.
Back then, Taras Rud, an expert from the OPORA NGO, summarized the reasons for why the Samopomich party failed. He described that during the five-year term the party had in parliament, they did not implement any ideas. After almost two years within the coalition, the party had left and retreated to the opposition. As a result, its influence was greatly diminished.
In an interview with the Ukrainian service of the RFE/RL, political analyst Oleksandr Antoniuk, a political analyst, called Samopomich a leadership project where Sadovyi and his inner circle had a final say in every decision. This greatly harmed the development of the party. Aivazovska agreed and stated: “The party was not formed as a structure. Because the initiator of its creation, the main political face, the heavyweight Andriy Sadovyi in fact was not working in parliament. When people did not enter parliament as a team, but just as a list of not bad people, it also matters. And distance leadership does not work. Being a leader of a political party is everyday work.”
An additional reason for Samopomich’s failure was the Lviv waste crisis in 2016, when three rescuers and one worker of a municipal enterprise died in a fire at the biggest landfill near Lviv. As a consequence, the central government worked tirelessly to help tank the ratings of the Lviv mayor and his party.
Case #2: Voice (Holos)
At the 2019 early parliamentary elections, two parties took the role of having “new faces”: president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party and Voice (Holos), which was considered a grassroots party. Voters from Lviv, who supported Samopomich in 2014, shifted their vote to Voice in 2019. This party was united by the figure of another Lviv representative — the rock star Sviatoslav Vakarchuk. Lviv Oblast was the only region in Ukraine where Voice got first place in parliamentary elections. In the middle of the parliamentary term this year, Voice rapidly lost its influence in the same manner as Samopomich.
Comparing the two parties, journalists of Ukrayinska Pravda note that the party list of Voice resembled that of Samopomich as well. It consisted of compromises – a mix between representatives of different target groups. The first one consisted of those who came to politics from business and civil service. The second comprised activists and experts in different fields — mostly from civil society. Vakarchuk, in turn, served as a balancing power between the two. He was the one who united the party initially, and the one who made it recognizable to voters. After a year, Vakarchuk left the faction. This event upset the balance and the party started falling apart and its inner conflict became more apparent.
As Ukrayinska Pravda describes, those representatives of the business sector and public service were aimed at building the party as a hierarchical structure and “knock out its place in the big game through agreements, alliances, situational partnerships, etc.” While the activists and experts, even getting mandates from the public, continued to influence the processes from the outside, through protests and public pressure.
Kira Rudyk, who came to politics from the IT sector, headed the party after Vakarchuk left. She managed to strengthen her position during preparations for the 2020 local elections as she started to make all the key decisions of the party during that period. However, she did not reject the position of the leading figure for the party after the elections, as well. As Ukrayinska Pravda states, due to the lack of gravitas, colleagues started to blame Rudyk for usurping power. “Instead of collective decision-making, we have a situation where everything is decided by one person — Kira Rudyk. And other deputies, in fact, do not have the opportunity to influence it,” Yulia Klymenko, the #2 of the Voice, told Ukrayinska Pravda.
Sviatoslav Yurchyshyn, a Voice MP who represents the party’s activists and experts, compares the situation in it to what happened in Samopomich. According to Yurchyshyn, a group of MPs within Samopomich disagreed with the line of the party’s management and decided to leave the faction.
In the summer of 2021, the split-up was highlighted by the decision of 7 Voice MPs to leave the party. Later at the party meeting, they were excluded from the party. However, since they did not leave the parliamentary faction, they still retain their seats in parliament.
Lessons learned from the grassroots parties
Aivazovska thinks that the two cases are different, but still finds common reasons for their failures. “The problem of the Voice party is that before elections, it was not formed as a political party. It was mostly a group of strangers who were drawn in by a public figure, the initiator of the party Sviatoslav Vakarchuk,” Aivazovska describes.
The expert did not expect this party to become sustainable due to its fragmented and distributed model. “A party means ‘team.’ If there is no team, self-interests or ambitions will harm the building of a political party. It led to conflicts which decreased the rating of the party to 0.6%. This party has no perspective to get to the new parliamentary convocation,” Aivazovska says.
Further deep-diving into the example of Samopomich, Aivazovska notes that the party had a good start in parliament — half of its convocation as a parliamentary faction was open to wider cooperation with society as it conducted inner-party discussions regarding bills and was open to the expert community. This led to the party having an image of being competent in a wide range of topics. “However, it did not happen as an organization,” concludes Aivazovska.
Aivazovska is confident that Samopomich’s and Voice’s failures do not mean that all parties with no oligarchic support will eventually fail. However, she believes this serves as evidence that parties without teamwork and an aligned group structure will not thrive.
The expert stresses that the lack of money was not an issue for either Voice or Samopomich: both parties had enough resources for their development during most of their term in parliament. This was possible thanks to amendments to legislation on prevention and countering political corruption in July 2016, that foresaw providing state financing for statutory party activity and expenditures on pre-election campaigns. The changes came into force at the beginning of 2017. “This is not a question of resources because political parties which overcome the 5% threshold receive budget funding in Ukraine. These are big amounts,” Aivazovska says.
Aivazovska is confident that all the parties should go through their evolutionary paths, first taking the level of local self-government, win elections in big cities, present themselves as a political force, and then move in the direction of the central government. “Everything else is a temporary thing — a new brand, new visuals, new slogans. The ‘newness’ or ‘oldness’ of faces is of little importance. This is a very vague notion. If you don’t have experience in state or local management, it is very hard to compete. Especially if you don’t have funds,” explains Aivazovska.
Despite the protraction on some issues, Aivazovska is still optimistic about the progression of the political system in general. “From the point of view of the professional background, I think Ukraine made progress during the last 10 years – in terms of the election legislation, protection of political rights, education, representing political interests, and creating institutions that work independently in the system of parties’ finances. At least this cadence of the National Agency on Corruption Prevention works much better and has the political will and ambitions to change the situation. Non-governmental organizations support these initiatives. There are a lot of shifts that can’t be ignored,” concludes Aivazovska.
Olena Makarenko is a journalist at Euromaidan Press. In 2014, Olena started working as a volunteer on public initiatives focusing on building civil society and promoting dialogue between people from different regions of Ukraine.