The grow­ing pains of self-re­liance:

How Samopomich sur­vives in the role of the demo­cratic op­po­si­tion

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ro­man Malko

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 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...

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