Ukraine's 'pitchfork' populist could be wild card in new line-up

KIEV (Reuters) - He's not averse to taking a dizzying punch to the head if he can score a point. Rights groups accuse him of using armed squads to abduct suspected separatists. His party's program, somewhat improbably, calls for nuclear rearmament of Ukraine.

But no matter how outrageous his antics and program seem, firebrand politician Oleh Lyashko strikes a chord among many in a population pushed to extremes by war. Polls suggest he will be a political wild card whose support President Petro Poroshenko may reluctantly have to seek after next Sunday's election

In an interview in Kiev, Lyashko, a wiry figure with a voice like a foghorn, saw his party gaining a big enough share of the vote to make him a power broker in a new-look assembly.

"I am the kingmaker," the 41-year-old former journalist declared to Reuters, predicting a vote of 15-20 percent for his party - although opinion polls put it at up to 12 percent.

Next Sunday's election - the first to parliament since the "Euromaidan" winter protests overthrew the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich and set in train a geopolitical crisis around Ukraine - takes place amid confrontation with Russia and a separatist war that has killed more than 3,700 people.

Many Ukrainians have become radicalized by a conflict that has brought death and hardship to homes across the country.

The opportunity has not been lost on Lyashko who, until a year ago, was a lone eccentric in parliament largely ignored as he defended the rights of small businesses, spoke up for higher pensions and social benefits and fulminated against big industrial 'oligarch' money.

Tapping into voter anger over hardship from the war, the fast-talking Lyashko has morphed into a fierce defender of volunteer fighters and their bereaved families, and a critic of Ukraine's super-rich who he suggests are playing their own political games while others die.

His party emblem is a three-pronged pitchfork - the Ukrainian peasant's traditional tool of protest and defense, and symbol of his declared determination to jab his enemies. He says he wants to clear the oligarchs out of politics.


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Ukraine's super-wealthy come only second to Russia's Vladimir Putin on Lyashko's 'anger list' as he speaks up for the fighters at the front and preaches a bellicose agenda of confrontation with Russia and no loss of territory to the separatists.

"Putin cannot be trusted. It is a catastrophic mistake and miscalculation to count on what Putin promises. Today he speaks and tomorrow he forgets," he said in the interview, slipping into the hectoring tone he uses when out on the stump.

"We have to be strong so that Putin won't come at us because he will know that he will lose," Lyashko said.

In the past, he has been a fighter for the rights of small business in Ukraine. But a constituency he is eyeing now for support are the volunteer militia groups - "the real patriots", he calls them - who are fighting with government forces against the separatists.

Last week he announced establishment of a help center for invalided fighters and bereaved families, oversaw presentation of a free apartment to a war widow and children and named a volunteer battalion commander as No. 3 on his party list.

He is not afraid of pulling the odd risky stunt to gain attention - something which has brought him comparison with Russia's political showman Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

In August - under the glare of TV cameras - he took a punch in the face that left him groggy after he called a fellow parliamentary deputy a "pot-bellied fatty" and accused him of ignoring the plight of soldiers on the front.

Promotional video clips, though, which show him berating and humiliating separatist suspects who are bound and held by his men, show a darker side and have brought him condemnation by human rights groups.

One notorious video shows him interrogating a bound and semi-naked man who admits to being a former 'minister of defense' of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk. He is dressed only in underwear with visible cuts on his body.