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War Heroes, Activists to Shape New-look Ukraine Parliament

  • Reuters

Activists throw tomatoes at portraits of parliamentary deputies, who were absent at the voting on the anti-corruption laws, outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Oct. 7, 2014.

Activists throw tomatoes at portraits of parliamentary deputies, who were absent at the voting on the anti-corruption laws, outside the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Oct. 7, 2014.

Out will go the bodyguards and mistresses, in are likely to come the street activists and war veterans: Ukraine's next parliament will be pro-Western and strongly nationalist, and it won't be to Russia's liking.

Candidate lists for the October 26 elections show how personal favorites backed by old school powerbrokers in the outgoing parliament are set to make way for people who made their names in Kyiv's “Maidan” revolution last winter, or in resisting Russian encroachment in eastern Ukraine.

Army pilot Nadia Savchenko is top candidate for one of Ukraine's biggest parties - even though she is being held in a Moscow psychiatric clinic, accused of involvement in the deaths of Russian journalists.

Airforce colonel Yuly Mamchur - who became an instant hero in March when he defied pro-Russian forces by refusing to leave his post in Crimea - is running for the bloc of President Petro Poroshenko and is set to win a seat on Sunday.

The battered face of Tetyana Chornovil, an activist beaten by thugs of the ousted ruling elite, made her a Maidan icon. Already a war widow at 35, she is a candidate for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's party.

With many outgoing deputies in the pay of business oligarchs, the old 450-seat parliament was a market place for deals to be cut rather than voters' interests to be defended. This may be about to change.

“We shan't be seeing any more bodyguards and mistresses in the new parliament. We will see people with a military background, though they will not have political and juridical knowledge,” said political analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky.

The make-up of the new assembly will reflect months of war and a confrontation with Russia that has created a Cold War-style crisis between Moscow and the West around Ukraine and redrawn its political landscape.

The Maidan revolution drove out Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in February. Kremlin alarm at his ousting and the prospect of a pronounced shift westwards by Kyiv led to Russia annexing Crimea in March and provoked pro-Moscow separatist rebellions in Ukraine's east.

The loss of Crimea and prevention of normal voting in the east, where violence persists despite a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and the rebels, will mean the number of seats occupied in the new parliament will shrink to 424, according to central election authorities. The others - and Savchenko's if as expected she is elected - will remain vacant.

Pro-Europe majority expected

Commentators expect a strong pro-Europe majority to emerge. “At least half of parliament, at the very least, will be changed now. There will be [an] utterly different party structure in parliament,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank. “The absolute majority will be with those political forces linked to European integration and the 'Maidan.'”

Even in the new-look assembly, Poroshenko will have to work hard to win support for his plan to bring peace in the east as several other pro-Europe parties fear a sell-out to Russia and the separatists.

Fighting in the east has killed more than 3,700 people, displaced tens of thousands from their homes and brought economic ruin to Ukraine's main industrial regions.

The crisis has highlighted the ex-Soviet republic's geo-political fault line dividing the mainly Russian-speaking east which feels kinship with Moscow and the west where people yearn for a place in mainstream Europe.

Pro-Western Poroshenko called the election to secure further legitimacy after the revolution, which Russia denounced as a fascist coup to justify its backing of the separatists.

But there is little sign of national reconciliation, with the rebels threatening to hold their own elections in early November, people still dying every day in the east despite the ceasefire and anti-Russian feeling high in the capital.

Ukrainians are also expressing increasing disenchantment with the slow pace of reforms to improve living standards.

“There is a risk of a protest mood springing up again if there is no reform. Time is not on Poroshenko's side. I hope he understands this and will undertake steps towards reform,” said Mustafa Nayem, a journalist and Maidan activist who is running for the Poroshenko bloc.

The Maidan vote

Pro-Russian forces, including Yanukovych's Regions Party, are certain to go from the assembly. The Communists, who usually backed him, might lose all representation for the first time since independence in 1991.

All other parties are seeking the vote of the Maidan - the local name for Kyiv's Independence Square where tens of thousands protested against Yanukovych and which commands moral authority in political life.

With the parties enlisting war veterans, volunteer battalion leaders and heroes such as Savchenko, Chornovil, Mamchur, the new assembly is likely to be hostile to Moscow.

“There might be no opposition at all in this parliament. But there might be competition to see who can be the best nationalist and the biggest enemy of Russia,” Pohrebinsky said.

Poroshenko is hoping for a mandate to pursue the peace plan for the east which he reluctantly accepted after battlefield defeats in which hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers may have died.

But even with a strong pro-European majority, Poroshenko, a 49-year-old confectionery tycoon, may not find it easy to win support for his plan and his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Anti-Kremlin feeling runs high in the capital. On the Maidan, stalls are selling toilet paper printed with Putin's image. At international football matches an obscene chant about Putin is now as much a fixture as the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem.

Some supporters of the old elite have come under attack while out campaigning. Several have been seized, pelted with eggs and dumped in trash bins.

Poroshenko's plan

Opinion polls suggest Poroshenko's bloc, which includes the Udar party of retired heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, could take up to 30 percent of the party list vote which decides 225 of parliament's seats.

He is assured of the support of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party if the latter - a favorite of the West because of his role in negotiating a $17 billion bailout from the IMF - manages to reach the five percent threshold for representation in parliament.

But he could still find himself in need of support from two potentially crucial players - former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an old adversary who heads the Fatherland party, and populist firebrand Oleh Lyashko who leads the Radical Party.

Both have sharply criticized parts of Poroshenko's peace plan and say his proposal for giving limited self-rule to the separatists for a provisional period will only encourage the rebels to press ahead with plans to form a breakaway entity.

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