KIEV, Ukraine -- If former Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych wins the presidency in the Feb. 7 runoff election, the political infighting and shady natural gas deals of President Victor Yushchenko’s years will continue, according to Taras Chornovil, a Ukrainian lawmaker who recently came full circle in political allegiance.
In a Kyiv Post interview, Chornovil provided rare insight into the bitter feuds waged between rival business and political clans inside the Yanukovych-led Party of Regions. Chornovil also explained his political flip-flopping, which has seen him go from being a member of Yushchenko’s political camp to Yanukovych supporter during the 2004 Orange Revolution.Now, however, Chornovil has left Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and is backing presidential contender and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange Revolution heroine."If Yanukovych wins, the country will fall apart," Chornovil said.His shifting alliances are another element of the national chaos that has seen Orange allies Yushchenko and Tymoshenko come to power in 2005 and then fall out bitterly.Tymoshenko was replaced as premier by Yanukovych in 2006, only to reclaim the job again in 2007. Yushchenko is so estranged from Tymoshenko that – while the president criticizes both candidates – he continues to undermine Tymoshenko’s presidential bid.Chornovil, who has over the years consistently been critical of Yushchenko, is no ordinary political figure in this fray. He is the son of Vyacheslav Chornovil, the legendary Rukh Party leader killed in a suspicious automobile accident on March 25, 1999. The late Chornovil led a popular nationalist movement in the 1980s and 1990s.Now his son, Taras, is saying that “a vote for Yanukovych will be tantamount to re-electing Yushchenko.” He says he knows how badly the party is run from the inside, prompting his support for Tymoshenko. But his former allies there, however, dismiss him as a political prostitute.Here is his story:Over the years, Chornovil has rubbed shoulders with the Party of Regions’ billionaire backers, including Rinat Akhmetov, and other faction leaders. One alleged Regions backer, Dmytro Firtash, was co-owner of RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-registered “shady” intermediary that Tymoshenko removed last year as monopoly supplier of natural gas.Tymoshenko claims the interests of Firtash are represented by Serhiy Lyovochkin, former chief of staff to ex-president Leonid Kuchma and now Yanukovych’s top aide, along with former Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko.Chornovil said he’s not suddenly enamored with Tymoshenko. But he has come to believe that Yanukovych cannot control the ambitious politicians and business interests within the Party of Regions. “He [Yanukovych] is a good No. 2 guy, who needs someone to tell him what to do,” Chornovil said. “It’s just not clear yet who that person will be.”In addition, Yanukovych, 59, is growing old and weary of Ukraine’s three-ring political circus, according to Chornovil. “He is ready to turn over power,” and insiders like Lyovochkin are willing to take it, he said.Yanukovych confidant Hanna Herman called Chornovil a political prostitute. “He left us a long time ago and has little idea of what is happening in the party these days,” Herman said. “He left because he decided that he could make more money from our opponents.”Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said that although Chornovil may have an axe to grind against the Regions Party, he knows the party from the inside and was once close to Yanukovych. “Taras [Chornovil] has some resentment. He didn’t like his position in the party, which eventually led to his leaving, but he was once a trusted member of the team,” he said.Besides Akhmetov, Lyovochkin and others have a strong grip over Yanukovych’s ears and action. Also in the mix of this multi-party wrestling match for influence, according to Chornovil, are long-time Regions heavyweights like the Kluyev brothers, Serhiy and Andriy, as well as former tax chief Minister Mykola Azarov. Their dog fights, Chornovil claims, could doom Ukraine to another five years of chaotic executive stalemates as seen under Yushchenko.Herman insists Lyovochkin, as well as the others, are all just faction members with no more influence over Yanukovych than other Regions lawmakers: “You shouldn’t overestimate his [Lyovochkin’s] influence,” she said. She also denied any internal conflicts in the party: “In 2004, everyone said the Party of Regions will split into warring factions. But now, five years later, we are still together, still strong and ready to take the presidency.”Fesenko said that there are internal conflicts brewing in both the Yanukovych and Tymoshenko camps. But he said that Tymoshenko is better adept at containing them. In contrast, Yanukovych relies heavily on his influential backers, according to Fesenko.“If Yanukovych wins, Regions will not fall apart, but it will be like a fight between scorpions in a jar,” Fesenko said. Tymoshenko has more control over her team and faction, the analyst said: “She controls more people, has more influence over individual issues.”“Yanukovych is more of a symbol. He likes to delegate, and in this respect he looks more like Yushchenko,” Fesenko said. He said there are several competing groups within the Regions Party. “Herman and Lyovochkin rub people the wrong way,” Fesenko said. “They are too close to Yanukovych and the decision-making process.”Competing for influence with the Lyovochkin wing are politicians like Borys Kolesnikov, who is considered loyal to Regions moneybag Akhmetov. “Akhmetov still has around a third of the faction loyal to him, plus there are other independent but also significant lawmakers like the Kluyev brothers or Azarov,” Fesenko said.The financial side of the Lyovochkin group is believed to be Firtash and Boyko, the former energy minister. Chornovil said divisions within Regions really took root with the arrival of Firtash in 2006, when Yanukovych returned as premier under Yushchenko.“Before, Yanukovych kept Firtash and Boyko at arm’s length, but just before the vote for the new government after Yanukovych had been nominated as premier, we learned that Boyko’s name was on the list,” Chornovil said. “We didn’t know until the last minute.”Chornovil suspects that Yushchenko had proposed Firtash to Yanukovych. Under Yushchenko, Firtash’s RosUkrEnergo was made the monopolist importer of Russian gas – putting it in the center of a multi-billion-dollar trade. “Firtash and RosUkrEnergo will come back unless [Russian state-controlled gas company] Gazprom takes a principle position against it,” Chornovil said.Yanukovych has promised to review gas agreements made between the Kremlin and the Tymoshenko government, which did away with intermediary importers. Fesenko said the return of intermediary companies is likely, and that Firtash and Co. are likely candidates to fill the position.A Tymoshenko presidency will also entail cronyism, Chornovil said, the difference between her and Yanukovych being that, “Yulia will offer patronage to any oligarch who falls in line, but Yanukovych will pass out perks to his existing team. So, there is slightly more versatility under a Tymoshenko presidency,” he said.But the real danger of a Yanukovych victory, according to Chornovil, is that the Kremlin will be able to continue playing one side off against another. Even if Tymoshenko loses, she will still be a force to reckon with, and Moscow will give her the assistance she needs to keep Yanukovych’s team off balance, he said. “They have such levers at their disposal,” according to Chornovil.