Victor Baloha, President Victor Yushchenko’s chief of staff for nearly three years until May 19, switched overnight from top presidential confidant to bitter rival. In resigning, Baloha cited his opposition to his former boss’ plan to run for re-election as one of the many reasons for their breakup.
In his parting shot, the man long seen as the Presidential Secretariat’s “grey cardinal,” said Yushchenko had “no moral right” to run for re-election. He also accused Ukraine’s leader of “corruption and nepotism,” a hint that political pundits said was meant to broadcast his possible knowledge of compromising material that opponents may want to get their hands on.
“When I informed you of outrageous facts, you pretended not to hear me,” Baloha said in a written statement, slamming Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution hero. “Millions saw in every line of your inauguration speech the hope that with a new president, there would be a new Ukraine. None of those hopes has been realized.”
Yushchenko confirmed that he had accepted Baloha’s resignation on May 19.
Since his appointment in September 2006, Baloha has been seen as wielding enormous power and moving in the shadows at Bankova Street in a similar way to Victor Medvedchuk, the chief of staff of Yushchenko’s predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.
Baloha’s critics have long accused him of corruption and backtracking on the democratic achievements of the Orange Revolution. He denied any wrongdoing.
The relationship between the president and his right-hand man was widely seen as close. In March 2008, Yushchenko memorably scolded supporters who sought Baloha’s ouster, saying: “Baloha is me.” But analysts say that Baloha’s resignation and subsequent swipes at his former boss reflect disagreements over strategy.
“The major reason Baloha left was because of Yushchenko’s refusal to accept his strategy to dissolve parliament and call elections,” said Serhiy Taran, director of the International Democracy Institute. “Yushchenko doesn’t have a political strategy, and he never really had one.”
Frequently demonized by Yushchenko’s opponents, Baloha laid the blame on Yushchenko for relentless conflict with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and a Victor Yanukovych premiership before her. “It wasn’t the initiative of the head of the secretariat to create conflicts with other branches of power,” he said. Baloha also criticized the president for failing to establish political unity and consensus.
“You’ve never been seen as a partner by any authorities or political force. The snap Verkhovna Rada election in 2007 gave a chance to reach a political compromise and stabilize the authorities. You didn’t use the chance. You nominated Tymoshenko for prime minister for the second time after her candidacy was a failure. The country won’t recover soon from the consequences of your decision,” Baloha added.
Analysts said that these comments stem from frustration at Yushchenko’s refusal last year not to go along with Baloha’s attempts to build an alliance in support of the president between the United Center Party, in which he is a key figure, and Yanukovych’s Regions Party.
The future for both men is now unclear. Both are deeply unpopular with former allies and voters, according to polls.
Baloha’s accusations of “corruption and nepotism” underlined the ace that he may hold – kompromat, or compromising materials – on Yushchenko’s administration. At a press conference on May 21, he declined to publicly release what arsenal he may hold. But some political pundits say his knowledge could prove valuable in the upcoming presidential elections, possibly enough to form political alliances.
“I am not a kompromat-releasing machine,” Baloha said. A small group of protestors gathered outside the building where the press conference was being held, holding placards demanding that Baloha be sent to jail.
He added that he didn’t intend to head the staff of any of the presidential candidates, but also didn’t rule out working with any political force in the future, including Tymoshenko’s bloc, the Party of Regions, Our Ukraine or any other party. One of Party of Regions’ influential lawmakers Borys Kolesnykov said his party “will consider” cooperation.
While some political analysts saw his departure as a blow that left the president isolated, Vadym Karasyov, who has advised both Yushchenko and Baloha in recent years, said Baloha’s exit could reinvigorate Yushchenko’s political career.
Yushchenko announced on May 19 that Baloha’s replacement would be the governor of Kyiv oblast and longtime ally and personal friend Vira Ulyanchenko. Widely seen as a bureaucrat with a more conciliatory approach to Baloha, her appointment has been welcomed, even among Yushchenko’s foes.
Kost Bondarenko, director of the Horshenin Institute think tank, suspects that Yushchenko wanted to part with Baloha. “Baloha keeps emphasizing that it was his decision, but Yushchenko wanted a more conciliatory figure with the elections approaching,” he said.
Karasyov agreed, adding that Ulyanchenko will help to build his relations with big business. “It’s not clear that Yanukovych and Tymoshenko can offer a guarantee to big business,” he said, referring to pledges of security or favors influential billionaires might seek in return for supporting presidential candidacies. “But Yushchenko can,” he added.
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