Andrew Wilson: “The West did not react adequately to the usurpation of power by Yanukovych”
Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a permanent Reader in Ukrainian Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London. He shared his views with The Ukrainian Week on the prospects for rapid reform in Ukraine, on the inadequate reaction of the West to the usurpation of power by Viktor Yanukovych and the absence of the rule of law, both under the Orange government and under that of Yanukovych.
UW: In 2009, you published a piece titled Ukraine – From Orange Revolution to Failed State? Why such a pessimistic title?
One reason for writing that piece back in 2009 is that Russians were using that phrase a lot. People like Gleb Pavlovsky (Russian political scientist and adviser to the Russian Presidential Administration until early 2011 – Ed.) were calling Ukraine a failed state. There are hardly any real failed states in the world, even Somalia isn’t that bad. So it was more a question of a failing, weak central state – immobile state, I think was the phrase I settled on in that case. This is the Orange period when you had state institutions constantly fighting with each other and weakening each other in the process. You had a degradation of the judiciary, in particular.
UW: Do you think that it was worth having the Orange Revolution?
The story and its disappointment is a complex one. Of course it was worth trying. That’s why we are where we now are, ten years later. It’s not an action replay; it’s not an Orange Revolution 2.0. Clearly, one event follows another and it has been a learning process of what went wrong and how it might be done better this time.
UW: Do you think it can be better this time? Do you think the chances for reform after violent action on both sides can be more efficient than in 2004?
It is now looking very difficult. One thing that Yanukovych was able to do when he came to power in 2010 was to take advantage of Orange fatigue, Ukraine fatigue.
UW: And he did take advantage – to further his own interests!
Well yes! He took too much advantage. A lot of his early power-grab was front-loaded, because he knew that the West would probably forgive too much in the short-term. And we certainly did in the period between February and October 2010. The reversal of the old constitutional change is the key moment when the regime developed into something different. But there were early steps that were also pretty much unconstitutional, breaking the agreement in support of the imperative mandate, removing the Tymoshenko government. There were reforms that were deeply reprehensible, particularly the judicial reform of summer 2010. In October, the regime obviously changed track completely. Yanukovych was a legitimately elected president, but not as a president with that degree of power to be used for such self-interested purpose.
UW: So did he transform into a usurper? Is this possible in a democratic country, for a person who was elected with one set of powers to usurp power and continue to be called a president?
Quite clearly you have a situation where the change is made via the Constitutional Court. And in the Ukrainian system, as in many political systems, ironically, the Constitutional Court is the guardian of the Constitution. It clearly failed in its function with its decision, was reprehensible, shocking and confirmed its non-judicial reputation. In fact, it contradicted its earlier decisions, and of course the basic principle in the Constitution itself whereby changing the Constitution requires a special procedure. Some kind of consultation with a popular referendum was clearly mandatory.
UW: How about the West? It would have been strange if the Russian regime had condemned the violation of the rule of law in Ukraine, but do you think the West reacted as it should have?
No. The West woke up and began to react when the opposition was targeted with bizarre, brazen, selective prosecution. Justice is never selective. In 2011, there was the Yulia Tymoshenko case, which was the consequence of the centralisation of power, changes to the Constitution and the judicial reform of the summer of 2010. The West failed to make sufficient protest when those building blocks were put in place. It protested the consequences, rather than the cause.
UW: Many are blaming the West for almost everything that is going on in Ukraine. But shouldn’t Ukrainians themselves (politicians, political scientists, analysts, human rights activists, journalists and other public authorities and leaders of public opinion), who continued to recognise Yanukovych as the president, in spite of the unconstitutional situation in the country, have stopped legitimising him? Shouldn’t they have been the first to act and provide society with accurate information?
You do have a paradoxical situation whereby Yanukovych won a free and fair election, endorsed by most of the key bodies, including the OSCE ODIHR. And then you have an unconstitutional abrogation of power. He was legitimately elected, but acted illegitimately. In such a case of the conflict of one principle or another, you need a constitutional arbiter. The Constitutional Court abrogated that function. The logical route for Ukrainian citizens might have been able to take the question to the European Court of Human Rights as a substitute constitutional arbiter, but they didn’t.
UW: Instead, Ukraine, the West, and of course, Russia, kept dealing with this situation as if there were legitimate institutions in Ukraine and Yanukovych was a legitimate president?
– We can’t go that far to talk about a total absence of legitimate institutions in Ukraine. As often in the post-Soviet world, in the 2012 parliamentary election, you had elements of façade democracy, manipulation, the use of administrative resources, political technology, – all of that corrupts the process and reduces the quality of democracy and other elements of façade democracy, but it doesn’t completely deny it. In some sense, those 2012 elections were surprisingly competitive, but the authorities had changed the rules, to reintroduce the okruhy (first-past-the-post constituencies where 50% of MPs were elected while the rest of the Parliament was elected through party lists – Ed.) and the Party of Regions actually lost under those old rules. We wouldn’t be where we are today if Ukrainian democracy had been completely destroyed.
UW: Are you sure that this is democracy?
It’s pluralism. You clearly have different parties, different regions. Now you have a situation where there is a disconnection between the various groups on the Maidan, the ordinary folks on the Maidan and the parliamentary opposition – now that’s another question.
UW: Yes, that’s pluralism, but can we have a democracy without the rule of law?
No. Ukraine does not have problems with the rule of law, Ukraine does not have an imperfect rule of law, Ukraine has nothing remotely resembling the rule of law. Serious problems were already accumulating during the period of the Orange government, but after the reform of 2010, the rule of law died. Then there is a problem when you have a pluralistic system, but no arbiter to support the rules of the game, and that was a huge problem, if we’re going to get anywhere near real competition in future elections.
UW: Could the use of violence have been avoided? How could the conflicts have been resolved if the institutions were not working? What could have been done differently?
Well, with the West, the problem was that the EU was turning a blind eye or did not protest strongly enough in 2010, then waking up and focusing on a particular issue in 2011 – the Tymoshenko prosecution. This was important as a symbol of everything else that was going wrong, but not the sum total of everything that was going wrong.
America’s voice was rather soft in this region during the Obama reset period. It seems to have woken up recently and has played a much more constructive role, but very recently.
As to domestic reaction, the Yanukovych regime is not a traditional full-on authoritarian regime. He’s always gaming potential reaction. The government has kept a blurred picture, partly because it is skilled in the art of blurring, but also because the current parliament is not completely legitimate. The rules were changed, there was political technology, there were all sorts of administrative resources applied, which distorted what was otherwise a competitive vote. The key start for the violence on Tuesday (February 18 when the most violent clashes started as protesters tried to march towards the Verkhovna Rada. MPs were expected to vote for the change of the Constitution curbing the President’s powers but failed – Ed.) was the government’s refusal to begin the discussion of key questions and compromise.
UW: Is it possible that Yanukovych never wanted compromise, but used his power for the sake of violence and conflicts between the protesters and law enforcement officers – two opponents to whom he lost at one time, for which he now wants revenge? And for him, such situations as public protests, present the opportunity to embody his own traumatic experience, while official meetings with western representatives are an opportunity to legitimize them as a civil conflict that he tried to regulate?
You are trying to push me to giving radical answers to radical questions.
UW: No. I want to know your position because you raised the idea, and I feel that today, Ukraine is a failed state…
Ukraine can clearly become a stronger state. Yanukovych has been preparing his defences in many ways, stronger security forces in particular, since 2010, for the 2015 election. It clearly suits him if the opposition is radical, in a broader sense. It suits his narrative if the opposition is allegedly, which it isn’t, dominated by radical nationalists. We’ve seen all attempts to slap a false narrative on the opposition in the last three months - nationalists, puppets of the West and anti-Semitism.
UW: “anti-Semitic puppets of the West”…
Yes. He actually campaigned in 2010 with a terrible lie that the 2004 election was stolen from him by the West. Clearly he has always wanted some kind of revenge for the events which he saw then as being unfair. However, people in the Maidan are not the same this time. Clearly his natural instinct is not to compromise.
UW: Does the position of the West in this situation remind you of the Munich Agreement?
Let’s avoid the Munich analogy.
UW: Why did the EU not act? Or did it act, but this was such a sophisticated strategy that we have not yet understood it?
The protests began in support of the EU and European values. But Brussels proved itself incapable of acting decisively. The European Union’s phobia against imposing sanctions manifested itself. Individual members of the organisation should have immediately imposed sanctions against corrupt elites. In truth, this is potentially a disaster for European soft power and reputation.