However, in other important respects, Yanukovich hasdisappointed: in his first few months in power, thenew president has shown a worrying authoritarianstreak, which has alarmed many of his liberal-mindedcompatriots. He has begun suppressing alternativeviews: journalists at TV stations in Ukraine complainthat stories critical of the government are beingwithdrawn. Two outspoken TV stations have had theirallocated frequencies revoked on a technicality.Yanukovich’s Party of Regions forced key legislation –such as the 2010 budget or the deal extending theRussian fleet’s lease – through the parliament withoutallowing for a debate. The country’s secret police hasharassed foreign foundations (which it suspects of supporting the opposition) and universities (becausemost students do support the opposition). Theauthorities have opened criminal proceedings againstseven senior figures from the previous administrationincluding Yulia Tymoshenko. Yanukovich is right tosuspect corruption in the highest circles of government– but corrupt figures close to the president appear toenjoy protection. The president seems to be using theanti-corruption drive as cover for a political witch hunt.Even more worryingly, in July 2010 the parliamentpassed a new law on local elections, which effectivelyprevents Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT), Ukraine’slargest opposition entity, from fielding candidatesunder the BYuT label. And in October 2010 theConstitutional Court, which Yanukovich has stackedwith allies since coming to power, ruled to changeUkraine’s constitution towards a presidential-stylesystem; this means that the current president and hissuccessors, rather than the Rada, will have sole right toappoint the government in the future. Yanukovichargues that the change is needed to bring politicalstability to Ukraine. But sceptics rightly point out thatthe concentration of power in the president’s office,along with the disenfranchisement of BYuT, attacks onindependent media, universities and Tymoshenko andher associates, look suspiciously like a concertedcampaign to turn Ukraine into a one-party state.Ukraine’s polarised nature – with many oligarchs andpolitical parties competing for power – used to serve asa barrier to authoritarianism: no single clique hadenough influence to usurp power. That is now changing.Virtually all major Ukrainian oligarchs have lined upbehind Viktor Yanukovich. And their influence onpolitics is as strong as ever: one person, ValeriyKhoroshkovsky, chairs the country’s spy service, ownsone of the largest media groups and sits on the councilthat nominates judges to Ukraine’s courts. The presidentfaces no substantive opposition, formal or informal.He also seems determined to make sure that it remainsthat way. People familiar with Yanukovich’s thinkingsay that he talks about “power” fondly and frequently.Other senior government officials such as ForeignMinister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko speak admiringly of “China’s ability to think and actstrategically”.
The overallimpression is that the Kyivgovernment seems to equate‘order’, of which, it rightly believes, Ukraine needsmore, with ‘power’, in its political, total and almostSoviet sense. While Yanukovich says he believes indemocracy, the president’s understanding of it “isshallow and commitment to itquestionable”, James Sherr of theLondon-based Chatham Houseobserves.
Foreign policy as an afterthought
Foreign policy has been a second-order priority toYanukovich in his first half year in power. TheUkrainians in general, including the elites, spend littletime contemplating their country’s place in the world. Asone country expert, Anders Aslund, notes, Ukrainianseven have a saying – “moia khata z kraju” (“my cottageis to the side”) – meaning they prefer to stay out of world affairs.
Those few whothink about foreign policy disagreeon what it should be. Ukrainiansfrom the Russophone east andsouth, like Yanukovich, generallywant to stay on good terms withRussia, while those from the west of the country prefera close relationship with the West.This makes it difficult for Ukrainian leaders to buildbroad support for anything but the most minimalistforeign policy. Most governments since independencehave had limited diplomatic ambitions. With a fewexceptions, they focused on getting along withneighbours and opening new markets for Ukrainiansteel or cereals. Yanukovich’s predecessor, VictorYushchenko, went against the grain when he called forUkraine to join NATO and sided with Georgia in itswar against Russia in 2008. The east of the countrydisagreed strongly, and even those in the centre andwest, who are not particularly pro-Russian, feltuncomfortable with the abrasiveness of Yushchenko’sRussia policy.Yanukovich capitalised on this anxiety: his decision toabandon the pursuit of NATO accession and to cosyup to Russia was popular. But he is not bidding to turnUkraine into a satellite of Russia – he is seeking torestore Ukraine’s long-standing policy of quasi-neutrality. There is no doubt that he has a specialrelationship with Russia: Yanukovich is a nativeRussian speaker and, like Vladimir Putin, theUkrainian president seems to recall fondly the
4Presentation at ChathamHouse, London,September 6
2010.5 James Sherr, ‘Themortgaging of Ukraine’sindependence’, ChathamHouse, August 2010.6Anders Aslund, ‘HowUkraine became a market economy and democracy’,Petersen Institute forInternational Economics,February 2009.