How to Build a Real Political Party in Ukraine

Oleksandr Solontay is trying to accomplish the political equivalent of pushing Ukraine’s winter snow uphill. In a country that still struggles to shake its addiction to oligarchs and other figureheads despite multiple attempts at revolution, the thirty-seven-year old is aiming to construct a political party from the ground up.

Solontay, an educator and former city and regional council deputy, is betting that a new generation of Ukrainians—and more than a few of their elders—are ready for a party built on the democratic principles of grassroots activism, long-term vision, transparency, and true independence.

“We have a lot of parties in Ukraine officially. In reality, we have practically none,” Solontay said, describing them instead as virtual “fan clubs” with little ideology or internal debate about party platforms.

His group, Syla Liuday, or Power of the People, first organized in January 2013. After joining the Maidan revolution in late 2013, it registered officially as a party in 2014. It has since grown to more than 3,200 members with representation in all of Ukraine’s regions except Russian-occupied Crimea, including fifteen oblasts at the regional level, as well as in cities and villages.

The party aims to expand membership to 10,000 within two years, Solontay said in an interview. During a recent visit to Washington, he was drumming up support for the kind of international aid and pressure for reform that will be needed to move Ukraine forward and help grassroots efforts like his gain more traction.

Unlike other political parties in Ukraine, Power of the People isn’t controlled by or centered on a permanent figurehead. Mayor Yuriy Bova of Trostyanets in northern Ukraine’s Sumy Oblast served as party leader previously, and Solontay, from Uzhhorod in Ukraine’s southwestern Zakarpattia Oblast, took over only six weeks ago.

Power of the People has won at least five mayoral posts and 220 deputy seats at local levels. It only polls 1 to 2 percent nationally, however, though it recently applied to join the pan-European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party, solidifying its bigger aspirations and its European connections.

But 80 percent of Power of the People’s members are relatively young and most of them are teachers, lawyers, journalists, or civic activists involved in politics for the first time, Solontay said. While they bring important perspective and energy that is refreshing in Ukraine’s jaded political scene, they lack some of the professional skills needed for organizing and campaigning.

“The Maidan revolution opened a huge window of opportunity—one of the things people wanted was different government and different politics,” Solontay said. “My challenge is to create a professional team.”

Solontay himself is youthful and serious. He works as a program manager at Kyiv’s Institute for Political Education and is a longtime consultant, expert, and trainer in governance and politics for Western organizations such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.

A priority for Power of the People is economic reform—measures that will break the control of oligarchs, reduce corruption, and begin to create a solid middle class. That includes putting private enterprise on an equal regulatory footing with state-controlled enterprises.

Solontay cites efforts such as one that Power of the People spearheaded in Kherson Oblast to develop the economies of four villages in Crimea that remain outside the Russian-occupied zone and could set an example of better conditions in Ukraine. Local officials have reopened an airport that hadn’t operated in thirteen years, modernized the ambulance service, and revived tourism to attract one million visitors last year.

Further economic reform—and the political changes it could help spur—will require help from the United States and the European Union, Solontay said.

Ukraine needs outside political pressure to adopt more reforms such as the relatively successful National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), he said. Now is a good time to exert that pressure because political leaders feel the need to demonstrate action and results in advance of next year’s elections, he said.

Solontay’s methodical, grassroots approach is unlikely to yield any results in Ukraine’s 2019 national elections, since Ukraine has a five percent threshold for representation in parliament. But outside observers are impressed with what they see in Power of the People.

The focus on recruiting mayors and locally elected officials “is one of the soundest strategies for building a new party in today’s Ukraine,” said Michael Druckman, resident program director in Ukraine for the International Republican Institute. Local authorities tend to enjoy a significantly higher level of trust than national-level politicians.

John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine who directs the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said Solontay’s concept of a political party without a strong hierarchical structure or reliance on big funders is worth watching.

“It is not clear that such a concept can work,” Herbst said. “But it is a concept designed to appeal to Ukraine’s active civil society. That will give it, initially, some energy and even some success.”

Miriam Kosmehl, a senior expert on Eastern Europe at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Berlin, has watched Solontay since 2012, when the party was just an idea he was mulling, and said he is a strategic thinker. He and his party colleagues have built their structures with deliberation and transparency, she explained. They travel Ukraine extensively to listen to voters and develop the party’s values. He understood early on that, to have influence, he needs a party base.

“In a society where elites still mostly dominate political power structures, he stands out,” Kosmehl said. “He is, on the one hand, unusually experienced and smart, but still open and sincere.” The approach may be incremental, but Power of the People helped improve transparency and reduced corruption at the city council in Mariupol, she said.

In general, the party remains in the minority and its obstacles are formidable. They include a lack of the kind of money that oligarchs provide, a shortage of media attention, and a still-paternalistic society where many citizens look to authority figures for solutions.

The latter was clearly the case in Mariupol. “That was a huge success, on the one hand,” Kosmehl said. “On the other hand, people are asking why [the council] did not solve their other problems.”

Viola Gienger is a freelance journalist who has covered foreign affairs, defense, and international security for Bloomberg News and led programs and training for independent media in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. She most recently was senior editor/writer at the US Institute of Peace.

Editor’s note: As Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections near, UkraineAlert has launched a series of articles to examine the country’s political forces.

Image: Oleksandr Solontay is the leader of Syla Liuday, or Power of the People, a political party. Credit: Courtesy Photo.