In a New Ukraine, the Sun Rises in the West

Why a media baron's new political party may hold the key to the country's future.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

KIEV, Ukraine — After church, Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, stopped by a local polling station on Oct. 26 to vote in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections, accompanied by his wife and two of their sons. On their way back from liturgy at St. George’s, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic cathedral overlooking the city, they embodied the stereotype of the perfect western Ukrainian family: pious, patriotic, and civically engaged. (The Lviv region had the highest voter turnout in Ukraine: 70 percent, compared to the national average of 52 percent.)

The 46-year-old mayor, his traditional embroidered Ukrainian vyshyvanka shirt just visible under his padded jacket, did not spend long inside the blue-and-yellow voting booth. When local journalists asked why, he replied: "I think for a very long time, but make decisions quickly." By evening, Sadovyi’s pro-reform Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party had finished a strong third, and appeared set to play a pivotal role in the new coalition government now being formed in Kiev.

Just weeks before, these elections were heralded as merely a "dress rehearsal" for Samopomich, with political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko saying the party would not win more than 2 percent of the vote. Instead, it took nearly 11 percent, behind Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front and the presidential Poroshenko Bloc, which won 22.14 percent and 21.81 percent, respectively. Sadovyi, who leads the Self-Reliance party and has a reputation as an effective manager that extends far beyond his hometown, is now building a name throughout Ukraine as an adept politician with national allure.

Once the results came in, Self-Reliance was quickly hailed as the "ideas" party for Ukraine’s middle classes — not least by foreign observers. Analysts including Balazs Jarabik have written of the party’s appeal to the middle class, drawn in part from Sadovyi’s reputation as a competent mayor of Lviv. Having won over 1.7 million votes on promises of deep reform, the party’s chance to prove its credentials has arrived — and with the conflict in the Donbass threatening to warm up again and a gaggle of parties in the new parliament, it won’t be easy.

Expectations are high: Samopomich successfully pitched itself as a group of professionals capable of reforming Ukraine’s political and economic system. Its platform pledges to deprive MPs of immunity from criminal prosecution, decentralize power and taxation in order to empower citizens, screen new government officials for ties to the previous regime (a practice known as lustration), and set up an independent body to investigate high-level corruption.

Samopomich also calls for a policy of "National Economic Pragmatism" to transform Ukraine from an "economic colony" (of whom, specifically, it doesn’t say) into a state with a high-tech economy. "Our only ambition is to create a maximally professional government, where the members will think about work rather than their ratings," Sadovyi wrote on his Facebook page a few days after the elections.

Although Sadovyi’s base is Lviv, Samopomich’s electoral success stretches much further. This is strikingly visible in Kiev, where Samopomich won a bigger share of the vote than in the Lviv region (21 percent compared to 19 percent). Ukrainian analysts have been discussing the party’s appeal in the capital, prompting suggestions from political scientists like Anatoliy Romanyuk that it is "a myth that has been embraced by Kiev’s residents" who, disillusioned with Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a force during the Maidan revolution, have sought to place their support in the rising political power from the west. The party already did relatively well in the Kiev city council election in May, coming in third with 6.87 percent.

Residents of other cities may have been won over by Sadovyi’s television appearances, in which he eloquently makes the case for reforms, closer political and economic connections with the European Union, and the importance of Christian values, with the colorful facades of Lviv’s Habsburg buildings in the background. "This image is a greeting from European civilization, which most Ukrainians dream of," Mariana Pietsukh, a journalist from Lviv, observed in Ukrainska Pravda. The party’s name is a reference to the credit cooperatives in Habsburg Galicia in the early 20th century, when Lviv was known as Lemberg in German.

Behind the scenes, Samopomich owes its success to people like Andriy Shevtsiv, the 25-year-old mastermind behind its campaign in Lviv. The vyshyvanka shirt he sports in his Facebook profile picture is embroidered in a green that matches Samopomich’s logo in the background. "We didn’t use any spin doctors in the election campaign — neither in Lviv nor in Kiev. We didn’t need to," he claimed in an interview with Zaxid.net, a western Ukrainian news site. The average age at the party’s campaign headquarters was 27, he said, adding that its activists were unpaid. "We felt pleased that we are building a new civil society — one that is open and honest."

The party’s 33 lawmakers in the new parliament include activists like 32-year-old Hanna Hopko, coordinator of the Reanimation Package of Reforms initiative (and a 2014 Foreign Policy Global Thinker), who headed the party’s list. But there were also fighters from the war in Ukraine’s east, like Semen Semenchenko and Pavlo Kyshkar from the "Donbass" battalion (second and seventh on the list). "If we become lawmakers, parliament will be completely different," Hopko said at a party congress in September. Her words are about to be put to the test.

Amid the post-election glow of Samopomich’s success, doubts remain. Viktor Nebozhenko, head of the Ukrainian Barometer Sociological Service, identifies the party’s main weaknesses as its "lack of ideologues, single leader, and regional character." And in contrast to its carefully cultivated image as a team of reform-minded technocrats, the party’s program "reads like a manifesto," rather than a target-focused plan for reforming Ukraine’s economy and political system, says Ievgen Vorobiov, a Ukraine analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Ukrainians engaged in last year’s Maidan protests whom I spoke to in Kiev preferred not to voice this skepticism too openly.

Sadovyi is, himself, a successful businessman: His media empire, officially handed over to his wife once he became mayor, includes radio stations, a television station, and many websites. His business success has helped fuel speculation in the Ukrainian media about who funds Samopomich, and the party has denied alleged links to oligarchs like Igor Kolomoisky, the governor of the eastern Ukrainian region of Dnipropetrovsk and a billionaire with his hands in industries ranging from mining to the media. Pressed in an interview on whether Samopomich has ties to the oligarchs, he replied: "If bin Laden were alive, you would be writing that he, too, has links to us."

Still, rumors persist in Ukrainian media about the power behind the Samopomich throne. "We don’t want to have any dealings with the ancien regime, including via the oligarchs," Viktoriya Voytsitska, a member of the party, told a TV station a few days after the vote, referring to Kolomoisky and others.

Meanwhile, the first cracks in the party’s firmament began to appear a week after the elections, when a handful of candidates from the Volya party, which joined with Samopomich in the elections, announced plans to set up its own group in parliament. This has prompted concerns that Samopomich could become a victim of its own success, which would have been less likely had it underperformed in the elections.

Samopomich’s post-election fate will be determined by its place in the new coalition in Ukraine, as a broad pro-Western coalition agreement was signed in Kiev on Nov. 21, one year after the start of last year’s Euromaidan protests. Earlier, Vorobiov suggested that a tripartite coalition with Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s parties would give Samopomich "the chance to play arbiter between the two." In the new coalition, which includes five parties, it is more likely to play a modest role.

Still, on election night, Hopko was quick to call for a "pro-Ukrainian" rather than "pro-presidential" coalition — a thinly veiled warning to Poroshenko’s party not to try to dominate the new government. Poroshenko, in other words, will have to share the pie.

Sadovyi himself has said it is up to Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk to reach a deal between themselves. "A repeat of 2005 would be a tragedy," he said in reference to the infighting between former President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that paralyzed the Ukrainian government after the Orange Revolution of 2004, which was supposed to bring a dramatic change to Kiev politics.

Sadovyi’s own political fate is unclear. He won’t be seated in parliament. He ran as a distant 50th place on the party’s list and intends to keep his job as mayor of Lviv. But with Sadovyi based out west, it is unclear how he will retain influence in Kiev, prompting suggestions that the party may need to find a new leader in the capital. In the meantime, the Ukrainian media is already speculating that Sadovyi is eyeing the presidency — in which case it may make more sense for him to stay on as the mayor of a flourishing city than to head up a smallish faction of lawmakers in parliament. And it’s unclear if Samopomich will even survive until the next presidential election.

It wouldn’t be the first time for a party with its roots in western Ukraine to see a spectacular rise and fall in Ukrainian politics. The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, like Samopomich, came from Lviv and was once regarded by some Ukrainian voters as force for new ideas — its far-right rhetoric and intolerant views notwithstanding.

In 2012, Svoboda made it into parliament with 10.44 percent of the vote, almost the same result as Samopomich last month. But support for Svoboda declined after its 2012 success: In these elections, it finished just below the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. With the object of their ire — former president Viktor Yanukovych — gone and with mainstream parties appealing to patriotic sentiment amid the fighting in the east, Svoboda found itself deprived of its apparent monopoly on patriotism, as Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Ukraine’s far-right, wrote recently.

But in contrast to Svoboda, Samopomich has steered clear of nationalist discourse. "We, Ukrainians, irrespective of our ethnic background, are a single national body," begins its party platform. Instead, it emphasizes civic engagement, which is seen as the "guarantor of irreversible changes."

"Samopomich emerged very rapidly, and what emerges rapidly has a tendency to disappear rapidly," warns the Barometer’s Nebozhenko. The next months will show whether the appeal of Lviv’s mayor and his team will survive the tough times ahead in parliament, as well as the ongoing fighting in the east and uncertainty with Russia.

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