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19 January, 2012

Time to Act

Ukraine's place in the world and the quality of life in the country will hinge on whether a critical mass of people intent on making changes forms in 2012

The political year of 2011 can justly be called a year of losers and losership. The government’s popularity rating plummeted as it lost nearly half of its support base and failed to carry out any systemic reform. (The new pension and tax legislation which creates as many problems as it solves is not reform). In the international arena, we saw once again that foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy. The phobias and the irrational motivation of  Ukraine's leaders outweighed all the pragmatic advantages in their efforts, and the Association Agreement with the EU fell through.

At the same time, Ukrainian leaders failed to reach any strategic understanding with Russia, primarily in terms of a lower gas price. To the contrary, the gap is widening. The Ukrainian negotiators resorted to their usual strategy: negotiations behind closed doors with the content, participants and the very fact of the dialog kept secret. They should not have been surprised when the Russians — who are traditionally strong in covert diplomacy — forked them like in chess: whatever move you make, you will have to sacrifice one of your pieces – either surrender your gas transportation system (GTS) or join in the Customs Union.

THE LOGICAL OUTCOME — FAILURE

However, the Ukrainian government was doomed to failure. Top government officials spend a lot of time and energy on infighting. More than half of the government members come from one region (where the president was also born) and this proportion is becoming apparent in the entire vertical of executive power. But even this closely knit group has internal feuds over spheres of influence, offices and the associated benefits. The president recently noted, as he spoke to journalists, that he did not have time to sit back and relax: indeed, putting even more of “his people” among those that are already there without unduly provoking an open conflict is not an easy task.

Officials unfit for their offices make the leaders want to fire them. But this requires having an opposition, especially one in parliament and which has at least some leverage and capable of meaningfully challenging the government. But the current opposition has degraded over the past few years. Putting people on party election lists based on their “contributions” to the party (or even someone’s personal) budget, indiscriminate engagement of sponsors and lobbyists with dubious reputations and redistributing power instead of reforms — all these things only work to undermine people's trust in such political forces and also degrade their own structure from the inside. It was no accident that the opposition failed to thwart the Kharkiv Agreements in 2010 or protect the freedom of their leaders in 2011. The mass media frequently quoted various ranking police officials who allegedly said that if there were 100,000 protesters, the police would even side with them. So far, that is something about which we can only dream.

People are currently venting their anger largely in intimate kitchen talks and on social networks. The problem is not only with the opposition, which has been unable to mobilize, organize and guide people. With the political bankruptcy of politicians in both the government and the opposition, hopes can only be pinned on civil society. Medium business is able, despite pressure, to support a “counterculture.” Intellectuals could create an environment that would spread “sense and messages” about how much we need Ukraine and what we must do to make improve life. Social activists who are able to rise themselves and mobilize their neighbors could set up “focal protest points” and urge caring individuals to join them.

We have not seen this happening so far. Politicians and various social groups live each in their own world. Thus, the scattered social protests in 2011 have not produced the desired results, even when it came to seizure of administrative buildings. The government promised to make payments to some groups, but, more likely than that, cases will be opened against the most active protesters from their number.

POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE

Nevertheless, 2011 was like a glass that can be seen as either half empty or half full. The past year made it evident that Ukraine has enough people who are prepared to energetically work to create a new standard of living – without a lawless government, administrative and fiscal traps, political repression and humiliating corruption. At one point, immediately after the Orange Revolution, the energy of these citizens and their ability and desire to do work were neglected.

Officially, the election campaign in Ukraine begins on July 29, 2012, and the vote is scheduled to take place on October 28, but electioneering de facto kicked off after parliament passed the election law. Ukraine's development in the next couple of years will depend on what will happen during these three months and immediately after them. Will the incumbent government resort to massive falsification? Considering the current popularity rating of the Party of Regions and its satellites, the communists and Strong Ukraine, that appears likely. Will the opposition be able to confront them? How will the public react? Certain technical aspects have indeed been modified in the election law to meet the demands of the opposition, but plenty of room is still left for cheating. Here are some vulnerabilities: the law revives the first-past-the-post voting method, which to a large extent depends on administrative and financial resources. The government will have an unfair bias in the way election commissions will be formed and will operate. Participants will face artificial limitations – no blocs, a higher election threshold (5%), and so on. Most importantly, the government is intent on holding the election under a their scenario. The local elections in 2010 and other various elections throughout 2011 offer no reason to believe that the current leaders can change their old habits which boil down to getting what they want by hook or by crook. However, against the backdrop of a social economic crisis, despair in the population and increasingly organized protest movements, an attempt to “steal” a parliamentary election may lead to mass protests and even replacement of the government.

The brazen conduct of the current leadership increases the chance for change in Ukraine next year. The government has adopted a national budget skewed in favor of punitive bodies and with embedded cuts in social benefits and opportunities to embezzle money in majority districts. They passed an election law that may become the foundation for rigging the election. The supporting votes from the parliamentary opposition legitimized the law in the eyes of Europe. Officials on various levels are boasting of their possessions, while small and medium businesses report that corruption-related pressure has doubled.

However, a classic author once said that a revolutionary climate is not yet a revolution. If society remains indifferent to what the government is doing, and the opposition forces continue to fight windmills and each other, the current status quo can persist several years more. But every such year will mean that the country will be running a higher risk of systemic losses. Top officials that are afraid of easing pressure on businesses instead of fostering economic development (rather than replacing it with government support for their own enterprises) see that they need to fill holes in the national budget. In order to solve tactical tasks, they can sell something they deem unnecessary, as was the case with the military base in Sevastopol. Is Ukraine’s gas pipeline next? To prevent this, people need to drive home to officials that the state is not just them. And this is something that can be done only by active citizens, men and women of action. There will be no shortage of opportunities in the election year.


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