Ukraine's parliament to remain a rowdy place
Oct. 28, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Anti-corruption crusaders, paramilitary commanders, radical ultranationalists, remnants of the disgraced former president's entourage.
Ukraine's incoming parliament has this and a whole lot more.
Much is changing, but one thing seems set to stay: a rowdy atmosphere in which punching, kicking, choking and biting are all part of the game.
Sunday's elections produced a new-look legislature packed with pro-Western parties, giving them a mandate to enact a program of reform.
Just don't expect smooth sailing.
Everybody agrees on paper on the need to fix broken courts, overhaul the tax system and rescue health care. But the devil is in the detail — and Ukrainian lawmakers have always found a reason to pick a fight.
Take Afghan-born Mustafa Nayem, a 33-year old reporter-cum-activist. His summons to rally against former President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to freeze ties with the European Union snowballed into a full-blown revolution.
Nayem was elected by running with Poroshenko's bloc, but he still seems intent on being the bane of politicians. Instead of campaigning, Nayem and other activists spent the eve of the election trying to thwart another candidate's run for allegedly buying votes.
Nayem's effort proved unsuccessful — which could make for a rambunctious encounter when parliament convenes later this year.
Combating corruption has been a recurring theme in Ukrainian politics in recent months, but some worry whether rhetoric about cleaning up the justice system and police forces will be followed by action.
Political analyst Vladimir Fesenko said crusading deputies like Nayem would serve as a cleansing force.
"Mustafa and others will haunt parliament," he said. "They will expose things."
Until recently, militia leader Semyon Semenchenko would only appear before cameras wearing a balaclava, saying he feared for the safety of his family. Now he's heading to parliament, although perhaps not in a suit and tie. He has stuck to combat gear in recent TV appearances.
Semenchenko is one of a new crop of politicians who are veterans of the volunteer battalions that emerged to fight alongside the Ukrainian army when pro-Russian rebels launched a separatist insurgency in the east.
Wounded in battle, Semenchenko — leader of the Donbass battalion — has been elected to parliament with a recently formed pro-European party called Samopomich, which came in third with almost 10 percent of the vote.
Semenchenko and other new deputies with combat experience in the east will likely be vocal champions of soldiers' causes.
But there's also a risk military men may be quick to resort to the fist-fighting favored by the last parliament.
As if on cue, Sergei Melnichuk, another battalion leader-turned-politician, accused Semenchenko this week of trying to steal his limelight — warning that he will "bash his mug."
Andriy Biletsky is a potentially far more contentious new lawmaker. He's an avowed ultranationalist who led the Azov battalion, whose emblem bears more than a passing resemblance to the Nazi swastika.
The presence of such people in parliament appears to support the fears of those predicting an ultranationalist surge in Ukraine.
Ever since the Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as president, Russian state media have assiduously tried to weave the narrative of a Ukrainian government in the grip of fascists. The nationalists in Ukraine's new parliament could feed that story line.
But Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on radical parties in Europe, said that the proportion of rightists represented in parliament has, in fact, fallen since the last election. And if Russia frets about nationalists, it may be for less than benevolent reasons.
"The main peculiarity of the Ukrainian far right is that its main enemy is not immigrants or national minorities, as often happens with the EU-based far right," Shekhovstov said, "but the Kremlin."
Against expectations, the Opposition Bloc, a political group that includes figures from Yanukovych's inner circle, won 9 percent of the vote, assuring it several dozen deputies.
Opposition Bloc's unanticipated success has appalled those who see the party as unvarnished reincarnation of the once-ruling Party of Regions, whose critics associated it with cronyism that dragged down the country. The new party's appeal has been strongest in the Russian-speaking industrial east, where enthusiasm for pulling the country toward integration with the EU is weakest.
A leading party figure is Sergei Lyovochkin, a businessman with major media interests who served as head of the presidential administration under Yanukovych. He said Opposition Bloc would strive to hold the authorities to account.
"We will help the government work," he told AP, "so that they ultimately set out into the path of reform and change life in Ukraine for the better."
But his opponents may be tempted to start a fight over that view.