The growing pains of self-reliance:
How Samopomich survives in the role of the democratic opposition
Samopomich or Self-Reliance, a party founded by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadoviy, broke into the top league of Ukrainian politics unexpectedly. It had only about 60 real members and a few partners when it picked up 11% of the vote in the 2014 Verkhovna Rada election and found itself with 34 seats in the new legislature. The result was a surprise even for the party itself, which had expected at most to simply pass the 5% threshold for gaining entry to the Rada. Certainly the polls were not suggesting a better result, let alone its rivals, who immediately saw the victory as an unfortunate “misunderstanding” that would somehow have to be dealt with.
Although Samopomich actually fit into the overall postMaidan coalition at the time, no one was prepared to say with confidence what might be expected from the freshman MPs. After all, the faction was really more than merely very colorful. In contrast to other, equally newly established factions but mostly constituted by old political forces and diluted by a few new faces, this was a real hodge-podge of four different groups—Samopomich, the Volia Party, the Donbas Battalion, and experts from the Reanimation Package of Reforms—, some of whom did not even know each other. Because no one had anticipated such a result, most of them really only became acquainted in the legislature, not even during the election campaign.
And so the process of pulling the faction together and getting used to each other proved incredibly difficult. This was something the neophytes had certainly not counted on, many of whom at that point were still driven by the romantic dream of changing the country. Fortunately, their senior colleagues decided to help them and immediately took the novices under their wing, making the maturation process go very quickly—though not necessarily the way their mentors might have hoped. Instead of the expected submission or, better yet, a split in the faction, it ended with the faction leaving the coalition altogether.
As Deputy Speaker Oksana Syroid explains, there were a few points where it became clear that coalition agreements don’t actually work and no one was interested in consensus when something had to be pushed through. “When you arrive here for the first time and begin to realize what a gap there is between what people say from the podium and what they actually do here, it’s very embarrassing,” she recalls. “We began to work based on the presumption that everyone was just like us, that what they say is what they think and do. But very quickly, within the first few months, we understood that there is a fundamental divergence. This was a very harsh experience and people didn’t know what to do with the shame that they felt. I think that people simply break when they feel unable to speak about the shame and simply became a part of it. What helped each of us and, I think, saved us was the connection with the people. When you begin to tell them all about this, you become aware that there’s no reason to be afraid to speak the truth. People are ready to hear it and to understand.”
During the two-year period that the faction has matured in the Verkhovna Rada, it has lost seven members. The remaining members say that this has been for the better. At a minimum, they were able to get rid of moles whose assignment had been to establish control over the faction or to break it up from within. The Ukrainian Week’s sources in Samopomich say that problems emerged from the start when portfolios were being handed out and top positions elected.
For instance, the #1 person on the party’s list, Hanna Hopko, had expected to be the faction leader but a large group of her colleagues were against this. Supposedly she was being promoted by Viktor Kryvenko, #5 on the list and a one-time member of the Board of Directors of Bionic University, whose main donor was a former Party of the Regions member, Vasyl Khmelnytskiy, and the notorious
Vladyslav Kaskiv, who was in charge of the Technopolis and National Parks of Ukraine projects under the scandalous State Investment and National Project Management Agency. Kryvenko planned to establish himself as a kind of grey cardinal and word was that this was all on orders from political rivals, not on his own initiative.
When it became obvious that the faction would not let itself be taken in hand in this manner, Plan B kicked in and efforts began in earnest to break up the faction altogether. Members of Samopomich point out that Kryvenko did not even hide his intentions. For instance, on Independence Day 2015 he supposedly told PM Volodymyr Groisman that, unfortunately, he was unable to completely break up the faction. The effort continued for a very long time and naturally ended in scandal during a vote over amendments to the Constitution related to the status of occupied Donbas. At that point, the faction expelled another five MPs.
But it would be a lie to say that Samopomich’s problems were all over at this point. On the contrary, they grew worse. Pressure on individual deputies was increased and on the party as a whole. Then tragedy struck: four of the firefighters who arrived at the massive Hrybovychi dump outside of Lviv to extinguish a fire died in the blaze. This considerably damaged the reputation of the party’s leader and Lviv Mayor, Andriy Sadoviy, which also affected Samopomich itself.
When Samopomich actually left the coalition, a serious but open conflict with the country’s leadership began and peaked with the launch of the activist blockade of the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, which Samopomich supported. The party was immediately accused of actually organizing the blockade to divert attention from the growing garbage scandal in Lviv and was accused of working for the enemy. President Poroshenko actually threatened to present Samopomich and others who helped organize and promote the blockade with a bill for damages once those were calculated.
Attempts to get individual deputies and sometimes entire organizations to leave at the local level are also unlikely to stop. The latest rumor is that Natalia Veselova is preparing to leave the VR faction, who is being accused of collaborating closely with the Presidential Administration. But these kinds of methods aren’t working very well: the party’s strong opposition to other political forces and the degree of tension around it often led to the opposite result. What’s more, all the notions that Samopomich was some suspicious entity that dragged a slew of mystery people to the Rada, that it was unclear which way the party would go and whom it would serve, are slowly being dispelled through the very efforts of the party’s rivals.
Were they less cynical and more thoughtful, possibly they would have reached their goal, because distrust is a basic assumption in Ukrainian politics. No matter who does what, there is always plenty of suspicion attached to it. The same happened with Samopomich, especially at the point when the faction parted with five of its members at the same time. As time went on, the presumption of distrust has slowly transformed into a presumption of trust, faction members state confidently. Today, Samopomich remains very colorful but it’s far more monolithic than at the beginning.
There’s a joke going around in Samopomich that efforts to find influential groups within it that are competing among themselves are useless because there are only two wings to the party: the revolutionary and the conservative. The problem is that members drift back and forth between these two wings, depending on the issue under discussion. Today you might be a radical, tomorrow a conservative.
Even its decision-making process is an unusual multilevel system. Whether it actually works the way people say is hard to know. But in addition to the party’s eight-person political council, which meets regularly, alternating between Kyiv and Lviv, to talk things over, there is also a regional political council that consists of representatives from all oblast branches. So far, the latter has not been very actively engaged, but in order to approve, say, a decision to leave the coalition, after initial debates in the central council, the issue was brought to a broader circle of members because it was necessary to see how people would accept the move at the local level. In addition, there is the VR faction, oblast factions, county and local factions, local branches and civic organization that Samopomich officials insist work almost autonomously. Apparently, no one from the upper leadership gets personally involved in their affairs.
The party’s annual convention on March 12 was also anything but conventional for Ukrainian politics. Lasting a day and a half, most of the time was dedicated to public interviews and panel discussions, with the leader of the party speaking at the very end, not first, as is standard practice. In this way, Samopomich attempted to engage as many people as possible to party work and to build an effective system of communicating and approving to decisions.
BY LEAVING THE COALITION, SAMOPOMICH DECLARED AN OPEN CONFRONTATION WITH THE CURRENT ADMINISTRATION. BUT IT HAS NO INTENTION OF RETURNING, EVEN THOUGH ITS MEMBERS COMPLAIN THAT IT IS GETTING HARDER AND HARDER TO GET ANYTHING DONE IN THE RADA
By leaving the coalition, Samopomich declared an open confrontation with the current Administration, but it has no intention of returning, even though its members complain that it is getting harder and harder to get anything done in the Rada because any and all propositions from members of the faction are being bounced. Worse, the party does not see any potential partners in the Rada with whom it might effectively join forces, even without merging. Nor does it see such potential partners outside the legislature, either. Experts disagree, saying that there are actually both other political forces and individuals with whom Samopomich might find common ground, including in the SME community. Demand for a new approach and vision in politics is growing in Ukraine.
In any case, Samopomich right now is possibly the only political party whom the president continually criticizes publicly and persistently. Even under these conditions, the party never tires of reiterating its pro-Ukraine position, continues to vote for Cabinet-initiate bills, speaks out against early elections for either president or Rada, and is prepared to support Poroshenko’s initiatives—as long as they don’t go counter to its own vision. This all looks somewhat strange and there are those who see deceit and cunning in it, but others like this approach very much.
Yet, both the exit from the coalition and the fight to the death were inevitable. After all, other than the shuffling of pieces on the chessboard, little of essence has changed in the country. Just as the current system did not accept foreign bodies, it still does not, rejecting them in every way possible.
Taking a different path. In order to approve, say, a decision to leave the coalition, after initial debates in the central council, the issue was brought to a broader circle of members because it was necessary to see how people would accept the move at...