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Summary: Two years ago, Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated as the fourth president of Ukraine. He stated his intention to carry out much needed economic reforms largely neglected by his predecessors and promised to fix dysfunctional state institutions. But Yanukovych has instead accumulated enormous power, making all branches of government de facto subordinate to his office. With parliamentary and presidential elections looming in the fall of 2012 and 2015, he has two options. Either he falsifies the elections and uses his formidable police apparatus to pacify the restive society, or he negotiates a transfer of power and immunity guarantees with the opposition.
Yanukovych’s Two Years in Power
by Mykola Riabchuk
Two years ago, on February 25, Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated as the fourth president of Ukraine, as the nation of 46 million was struggling with both authoritarian and, many believe, colonial legacies. Earlier that month, he had narrowly won the second round of the elections, 49 to 46 percent, against the incumbent prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. In real figures, however, he got almost half a million votes less than in 2004, when he, as the incumbent prime minister himself, ran against the Orange candidate Viktor Yushchenko. A smaller number of votes secured him victory because his Orange rivals did their best to defeat themselves. Within five years, they had lost almost 3 million supporters who felt disappointed with their feeble policies, permanent infighting, and complete failure to deliver on extremely high expectations of the Orange Revolution. Many of their former supporters refused to choose between the bad and worse options. One-third of Ukrainian voters stayed home. Of those who showed up at the polling stations, 5 percent cast their ballots against both candidates. (This option has now been eliminated since such a protest vote is harmful, primarily for the incumbents.) Yanukovych stated his intention to carry out much needed economic
reforms largely neglected by his predecessors. He also promised to fix dysfunctional state institutions that, never strong, had become even weaker because of the squabbles between the Orange party prime minister and president. This turf war, which resulted in a near-collapse of the constitutional order, had been inevitable since the 2004 constitutional amendments, adopted hastily during the revolution as a part of the compromise with the previous regime, institutionalized the split between the presidency and prime ministry. The country became unmanageable because neither the old authoritarian methods nor the new democratic instruments, which required a firm rule of law, i.e., vigorous legal and institutional reforms, were useable. Yanukovych could go ahead with reforms or move back to the authoritarian rule of Leonid Kuchma, aptly described by analysts as a “blackmail state.” Such a state is based on three pillars: pervasive corruption, tight surveillance, and selective application of law. The government keeps everybody on the hook, taking ransom partly in money but primarily in loyalty. Rather predictably, Yanukovych moved back to the system he knew much better since he served under Kuchma as both a governor, in 1997-2002,
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and the prime minister, in 2002-2004. His master plan was apparently to re-establish some Vladamir Putin-style “vertical separations of power” that looked suitable for him and his neo-Soviet Party of Regions and excusable for their purported reformist goals. Within two years, he subjugated the parliament, purged the Constitutional court, manipulated the 2010 local elections, canceled (in a highly dubious way) the 2004 constitutional amendments that restrained president’s power, and staffed all the executive bodies and law-enforcement agencies with his buddies (most of them from his native Donetsk region). He also emasculated the disobedient Supreme Court by creating “branch supreme courts,” authorized the anti-constitutional “Supreme Council of Justice” (bunch of his picked-up loyalists) to supervise and penalize judges, and launched a large-scale offensive on civic freedoms, independent mass media, and political opposition, including criminal persecution of his political rivals. Not that this Gleichschaltung had passed unnoticed. On the contrary, the opposition cried foul from the very first steps of Yanukovych’s team dating back to the de facto parliamentary coup d’etat in March 2010, when the new government was formed in an illegal, anti-constitutional way, and when the local elections scheduled for May were arbitrarily cancelled. But the “Orange fatigue” was too great to mobilize an active resistance and/or to evoke any significant international reaction. Yanukovych and his “anti-Orange” government capitalized substantially on this benefit of doubt. Some people, indeed, expected them to re-establish a sort of order, for better or worse, after the embarrassing disarray of the Orange years. Some had a good reason to believe that after both the populist policies of their quarrelling predecessors and the severe shock of the global crisis that shrank the Ukrainian economy by 15 percent, the new government would have little choice but to reform.
This, however, has not happened. The professed order has instead returned the country to something close to a police state and downgraded it in the international rankings of human rights and civic freedoms. Corruption has become even more rampant, bureaucracy unaccountable, and public trust in the state institutions is at a 20-year low. As to the “reforms,” most of them are simply austerity measures imposed on the general public and not on the government and government-friendly oligarchs. “Tax reform” meant primarily higher taxes for small businesses; “energy reform” meant a hike of utility costs for households; and “pension reform” meant an increase of the retirement age. No single “austerity measure” greatly affected the interests of the wealthiest and most privileged groups like oligarchs, top officials, or members of the parliament. Only a few laws were passed that could be considered genuinely reformist, like the anti-corruption law or the law on access to public information — after pressure from the International Monetary Fund and some other international organizations. But these have been watered down very quickly by amendments, by-laws, and overt sabotage during implementation. Within two years, Yanukovych accumulated enormous power, making all branches of government de facto subordinate to his office. He seems, however, to have neither the skill nor will to use this power for any genuine reforms, beyond providing his friends and relatives with state assets, resources, and governmental positions. With his and his Party of Regions’ public approval ratings approaching one-digit figures, and the parliamentary and presidential elections looming in the fall of 2012 and 2015, respectively, he has only two realistic options. Either he falsifies the elections and uses his formidable police apparatus to pacify the restive society, with the resulting international ramifications, or he negotiates a transfer of power and immunity guarantees with the opposition through some friendly but basically ambiguous oligarchs who also covertly cooperate with the moderate opposition. There are actually two more scenarios for Yanukovych to follow, but both of them are much less plausible. One stipulates that he engage in genuine reforms, eradicate corruption, and become a popular and respected leader. The second envisions the Ukrainian opposition as strong and consolidated enough to win elections without the support of and inevitable compromises with friendly oligarchs, completely removing the regime from power and launching
The “Orange fatigue” was too great to mobilize an active resistance and/or to evoke any significant international reaction.
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the radical institutional reforms that can make Ukraine’s democratization irreversible. So far, societal divisions make any consolidation in Ukraine, either authoritarian or democratic, very difficult. Any political vote in Ukraine acquires a completely transformative meaning, becoming a kind of referendum on identity, geopolitical choice, and East vs. West orientation. As long as the rival forces are more or less equal in strength, any external influence might be decisive. Putin’s Russia perceives international politics as a zero-sum game and pursues much more assertive politics in Ukraine than the reluctant EU, let alone the United States. For the West, Ukraine largely resembles Turkey — a huge country on Europe’s outskirts, with an uncertain, not-quite-European identity, waging a sort of a cold civil war over adoption or rejection of Western values. In both countries, the West is challenged by another spiritual power, Muslim orthodoxy, in one case, and Russian/East Slavonic imperial messianism and anti-Westernism, in the other. The ultimate choice definitely belongs to Ukrainians themselves but, as the experience of the very similar Balkan states reveals, third-party enforcement might be crucial to switch over the developmental paradigm in any society where all major players distrust each other, even though they agree in principle about the need for changes. There are many signs that such a consensus is slowly ripening in both Ukrainian general society and a substantial part of the elite. A Putinor Alexander Lukashenko-style authoritarian consolidation would probably fail in Ukraine because Ukraine’s links to the West are more multi-layered than Belarus’, and the West has much more leverage over Ukraine than over Russia. But the problem of how to transform an authoritarian failure into a democratic success remains.
About the Author
Mykola Riabchuk is a senior research fellow at the Ukrainian Center for Cultural Studies and a co-founder and co-editor of the Kyiv-based monthly Krytyka.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.
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This series is designed to focus in on key intellectual and policy debates regarding Western policy toward Wider Europe that otherwise might receive insufficient attention. The views presented in these papers are the personal views of the authors and not those of the institutions they represent or The German Marshall Fund of the United States.