Oleh Lyashko - the erratic, buffoonish, far-right radical is quickly becoming Ukraine's populist power broker
This is a condensed version of a profile on Lyashko which appeared in the highly influential US foreign policy journal: Foreign Policy Magazine.
Oleh Lyashko, the 41-year-old leader of the nationalist Radical Party, is perhaps Ukraine's most contentious deputy. In its election manifesto, Lyashko's Radical Party emphasizes the need to root out Ukraine's "internal enemies" - separatists and corrupt officials- and to rearm the country with nuclear weapons.
Although his campaign has attracted little attention on the part of western governments and media, Lyashko could soon be Ukraine's man in charge.
On Oct. 26, Ukrainians will again vote, this time in a parliamentary poll designed to further legitimize the country's Maidan Revolution. Lyashko's party remains a steady second in a number of recent polls, behind Poroshenko's Solidarity. The Radical Party could emerge as a coalition partner for Poroshenko or as one of the strongest opposition factions in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament. This means that Lyashko, once a bizarre side character of the Ukrainian political fringe, is now poised to become a serious if unlikely power broker in Kiev.
The Radical Party's rise suggests that the country's politics are becoming more and more populist. Months of war and hardship have radicalized many Ukrainians. And populists like Lyashko are now benefiting from that voter anger.
Lyashko’s life includes shades of the Dickensian and the grandiose. He claims to have grown up in an orphanage before earning three university degrees, but did not respond to requests for a copy of his qualifications. He has been active in Ukrainian politics since 2006, when he left a career in journalism for a successful run for parliament on the party list of former-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
In 2011, he split with Tymoshenko and was elected leader of the new Radical Party. He was once best known for campaign ads that insulted his fellow parliamentarians for eating French, not Ukrainian, cheese.
Like his electoral competitors, Lyashko thinks Ukraine ought to enter the European Union and NATO. So to separate himself from the pack, he has branded himself Ukraine's anti-oligarchic leader, promising credits for small and medium-sized enterprises and vowing to push rich businessmen out of Ukrainian politics.
Unlike the oligarchs, who fund their electoral campaigns through their private earnings, Lyashko claims to have received most of his electoral funding from small donations on online platforms like Facebook.
He is variously disliked and mocked by other Ukrainian lawmakers. He says this is because he opposes the power of the oligarchs.
Lyashko insists that he represents small-businesses owners and blue collar workers, who, he says, are against big business and the oligarchs. But challenging oligarchs is apparently becoming dangerous for Lyashko.
Lyashko favors nationalizing Ukrnafta, an oil and gas business owned by banking, media, and minerals mogul Igor Kolomoisky, an influential, staunchly pro-government oligarch in eastern Ukraine. "Ukrainian oligarchs have ordered my killing," Lyashko says, accusing Kolomoisky and an associate of plotting his demise. "And separatists have put a bounty of a million dollars on my head."
Kolomoisky's deputy, Borys Filatov, regularly rages against Lyashko on Facebook and calls him "the fighting faggot" (due to rumors about Lyashko's private life dating back to his journalist days). "It's clear that the loathsome nobody Lyashko ALWAYS AND SYSTEMATICALLY lies about everything," Filatov wrote on his Facebook page on Aug. 7.
Lyashko claims to have set up two of the volunteer brigades that fought against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine: Shakhtar and Azov, the latter of which was involved in heavy fighting near Mariupol during the most recent active phase of the conflict.
Lyashko's brigades dispute his claims that he set them up. One commander with the Azov Battalion says he is "grateful" for Lyashko's help in arming his troops, but, he points out, the nationalist organizations that provided recruits to the brigade already existed under Yanukovych. "He is just one of many who helped us," Oleg Odnorozhenko, the first deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, said in an interview from the front line in southeastern Ukraine. "And he has also taken part in our operations arresting separatists. But we view those as police ... operations."
Those arrests of pro-Russians - or kidnappings, as human rights activists describe them - have become a prominent weapon in Lyashko's political arsenal. He even posts videos of them online.
In one video that has garnered particular notoriety, he interrogates a flabby man tied up and wearing only his underwear. A cut is visible on his right arm and leg as he identifies himself as former Donetsk People's Republic Defense Minister Igor Kakidzyanov. Lyashko accuses Kakidzyanov and an associate of betraying their country, helping occupiers, and engaging in terrorism. "How much did you get for killing people?" Lyashko yells.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have decried such promotional videos. Amnesty wants Lyashko investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors, but says there is little hope of this happening. Lyashko dismisses the charges by Amnesty International as a plot by opponents.
While Lyashko's antics haven't endeared him to his political opponents, they have won him increasing public support. In a beleaguered country at war, playing tough with separatists and asserting that oligarchs are plotting your death apparently make a successful campaign strategy