The SPDU(u), like many similar projects in the CIS countries, was a travesty of all aspects of social democracy.
‘You can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’
Over hundred years ago the ‘founding fathers’ of Ukrainian social democracy, Dragomanov and Franko, propounded social-democratic ideas that were adapted to the particular circumstances of the Ukrainian nation, and various social-democratic movements have subsequently existed on Ukrainian territory, within both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. By the late 1990s – after independence in 1991 – three new social-democratic parties had appeared in Ukraine, of which the Social Democratic (United) Party of Ukraine (SDPU(u)) was the largest: it was one of the most influential parties in the country. In 1998 its former leader, Vasyl Onopenko, was ‘crowded out’ by the ‘Kiev Clan’, and they went on to dominate the party for most of the next ten years. Onopenko was eventually dismissed as leader, however, because of poor electoral results, and he then founded another social-democratic project – the USDP. Then in 1999 Evgen Marchuk also left the SDPU(u), and founded the Social Democratic Union. In fact the SDPU(u) is typical of similar political projects in the political systems of many CIS states.
But to what degree was the SDPU(u) a social-democratic party? Did its principles, internal structures and policies pass the social-democratic test?
The SDPU(u) has been pithily described as being social-democratic to about the same extent as a guinea pig is a pig (M. Tomenko). It has also been described as a ‘bandit party’ (V. Malynkovich) and ‘oligarch’s club’ that has privatised the state (Y. Durkot). The party has made use of its staffing of public offices and state functions for the self-enrichment of its members; and it has promoted their business interests though the ‘privatisation’ of most of the lucrative state-owned enterprises, and the preferential allocation of the land in national parks for building private real estate.
This was made possible because it became a party of power, characterised by its dependence on the state rather than by any formal ideology, with strong links to specific interest groups, and little of the practices of a democratic political party. The SDPU(u) could only develop in this way in a situation of unconsolidated democracy, within the limited pluralism of the Kuchma era; it was driven by the ruling elite’s desire to control the state by means of a selective application of its administrative resources.
By 1998 the SDPU(u) had been captured by the Kiev Clan (which included people such as rich lawyer-businessman Viktor Medvedchuk and Hrihory Surkis, owner of the Dynamo-Kiev football club) and subsequently misused for personal gains. Within the Kuchma regime this party served the aim of upholding a network of patronage relationships with major socio-political, economic and administrative actors. Thus the SDPU(u)’s role as an autonomous political force was restricted to that of catapulting its few leaders to high political positions and entrenching the party in the legislative and executive state structures.
Indeed there are very few ideological parties in Ukraine, as many of them have simply served as cover, and as umbrella organisations, for the business projects of the former Soviet elite – with the same Soviet aims, people and methods. For its part the SDPU(u) adopted an absolutist, top-down approach; it was accountable only to a small number of people, not to the electorate, and its main focus was on property and cronyism, and business promotion through party links; though it also maintained strong discipline – and the logic of ‘any means are right for the right result’. Unsurprisingly, after the 2002 Parliamentary Elections SDPU(u) members headed 18(!) Parliamentary Committees, thus having access to all the most lucrative state assets.
In general, political parties in Ukraine represent networks of economic client-patron relations, and do not express any viable social and economic strategies for ruling the country. The SDPU(u) was no exception. Thus, for example, as chair of the President’s Administration Office from 2002 to early 2005, Viktor Medvedchuk is known to have been one of the organisers of secret directives known as temniki. These were secret instructional memoranda that were prepared and distributed by the Presidential Administration to the top managers and editors of national television stations and newspapers, providing guidelines for the ‘advised’ content and nature of news reporting.
The SDPU as a ‘power of party project’ collapsed after the ‘Orange Revolution’, because the party leaders lost their connection to state resources. Medvedchuk became a frequent visitor to prosecutor’s offices around the country, as various investigations were made into his and his colleagues’ activities. Many SDPU(u) members – former state executives and politicians – were wanted by the police, usually for the large-scale embezzlement of public funds, electoral fraud, document falsification and extortion.
But, given a lack of political will on the part of the new ‘post-Orange Revolution’ political elite, very few of the criminal cases investigated against SDPU(u) members finally reached the courts, and the leading perpetrators have largely gone unpunished. In March 2006 the SDPU(u) failed to pass the 3 per cent barrier for the National Parliament, and though it won a number of seats in some of the regional parliaments in Eastern and South Ukraine, this was not enough to save the party from further marginalisation. By 2008 Medvedchuk had left his post as party leader and this ‘social-democratic project’ effectively ceased to exist. But the party still exists on paper, and is registered, together with some other 140 political parties, with the Ministry of Justice – waiting for reincarnation by a new charismatic leader with strong links to the Executive.