KIEV, Ukraine -- Amid weeks of anti-government street protests, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s ruling party won four of five seats in parliament during a byelection, a defeat for opposition forces seeking his ouster.
The opposition quickly blamed the results of Sunday’s balloting on fraud, while some analysts said the movement’s dependence on protest over political organizing had showed.
“The authorities are offering us a dialogue with one hand and with the other they are arrogantly cheating in elections,” Vitali Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion and lawmaker told the Times Monday. “If we don’t dismantle the entire system, they will be cheating like this in 2015 presidential elections too. This is why our goal is to press for urgent parliament and presidential elections.”
However, Klitschko acknowledged that protests being carried out by thousands of people who have set up a tent camp in Kiev’s Independence Square have become the opposition’s principal means for challenging the government.
The opposition focused so much on mass protests that they neglected the election campaign, said political expert Kost Bondarenko.
“They were carried away with this festive and spectacular show of protest in Kiev that made them think they would win those elections automatically,” Bondarenko, director of Ukrainian Policy Institute, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview to the Times. “Their most active supporters all flocked to Kiev to join the ongoing rally, which resulted in a very low turnout at the polls. That played into Yanukovich’s hand.”
While the byelections only filled five of parliament’s 450 seats, the victories could not have been better timed for the ruling party.
The protests were triggered by Yanukovich’s decision last month to break off talks designed to link Ukraine more closely with the West and instead continue the country’s traditional alliance with Russia, a move that angered those who hoped that association with the European Union would boost the economy.
To add insult to injury, opposition leaders admitted Monday they had no means of preventing Yanukovich, who will be in Moscow on Tuesday, from negotiating credits and economic deals that could draw Ukraine further away from improved ties with the EU and closer to Russia.
“We have information that Yanukovich will be negotiating a $5-billion credit deal and the reduction of the [natural] gas price, “ another opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said at a briefing Monday. Tyagnibok expressed concern that Yanukovich may also strike deals behind close doors which could push Ukraine into the fold of the Russian-sponsored Customs Union, which focuses on nations from the former Soviet Union, further complicating the opposition’s hopes for integration with Europe.
Klitschko said they can only oppose these developments by enlisting more and more people to take part in protests.
“If we lead hundreds of thousands people out into the streets, we will prevent Yanukovich from dragging Ukraine into the Customs Union,” Klitschko said. “He is already making concessions under our pressure.”
As a sign of possible concessions, four top officials were called in for questioning Monday on charges of abuse of power in a police raid that swept an earlier protest camp from Independence Square on Nov. 30, injuring over 40 protesters.
Among those under investigation are Kiev Mayor Olexander Popov, who was suspended from duty over the weekend, and Volodimir Sivkovych, Yanukovich’s close ally and deputy head of government’s Security and Defense Council.
The ruling party’s faction in parliament will demand that 90% of the position on his cabinet be filled with replacements, faction lawmaker Anna German told reporters Monday.
That move, if carried out, would not be enough for the opposition.
“That would be like reshuffling the same deck of marked cards as the new ministers will again be from the same party,” Tyagnibok told the Times. “We need all of them out, including Prime Minister [Mykola] Azarov.”
Meanwhile, protesters in the sprawling tent camp in downtown Kiev prepared Monday for possible new assault by security forces. On the perimeter near the walls made of scrap metal, tires and sacks with ice and snow, ad hoc guards were testing shields made of 3-inch-thick construction insulation boards, light but sturdy, to ward off blows from police clubs. With red crosses painted on the front, they looked somewhat like shields from the Crusades.
Volodimr Simkin,a 27-year-old factory worker from the western town of Sosnovka, tried one of several hundred shields, finding it very easy to use.
“I know the authorities are trying to ignore us and do what they want, but as long as we are here we will remain a bone in their throat,” Simkin said. “More and more people are coming and we intend to stay here forever until our demands are met.”