KIEV, Sept. 5 – The Regions Party led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych changed its election campaign radically on Wednesday by pledging to focus on divisive issues that may trigger an open standoff with President Viktor Yushchenko.
The party pledged to work hard to secure a referendum that would declare the Russian language as the second state language in Ukraine and would stop the country’s accession to NATO.
“We will start collecting signatures in the near future,” Boris Kolesnikov, who manages the campaign for the Regions Party, said. “The preparation for the referendum will take 60-75 days.”
The issue is extremely sensitive as it splits Ukraine in half. Western regions of Ukraine, where people mostly speak Ukrainian, support the country’s integration with the West, while eastern regions, where people mostly speak Russian, reject joining NATO.
The constitution allows the president to announce a referendum if a party manages to collect 3 million signatures across Ukraine in support. Kolesnikov said the party plans to collect 9 million signatures.
This is a turnaround for the Regions Party, which pledged a month ago to focus on social issues ahead of the Sept. 30 election, avoiding the sensitive issues. The party’s move was in reaction to Yushchenko’s calls to avoid the divisive issues ahead of the election.
But the latest developments underscore a rift between the party and Yushchenko that has been widening over the past several weeks.
The party challenged Yushchenko on Tuesday by joining a controversial emergency session of Parliament in a bid to approve legislation that would scrap immunity for the president and for lawmakers.
Yushchenko, who said Parliament was “incapable,” condemned the emergency session as a challenge to the constitution. He also said the true intention behind holding the session was to try to summon up the quorum to cancel the election.
The rapidly increasing gap between Yushchenko and Yanukovych comes as the Regions Party has apparently failed to secure a promise from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense to form a coalition after the election, analysts said.
This, coupled with opinion polls showing growing support for pro-Western groups, increased concerns within the Regions Party that Yanukovych may be unseated after the vote.
Oleksandr Turchynov, who manages campaign for the Tymoshenko bloc, a pro-Western group, criticized the change of the campaign as a “dangerous” PR exercise.
“They feel they’re losing ground,” Turchynov said. “They would declare even Mongolian as the state language if this could help them hang on to power for couple more weeks.” (tl/ez)