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30 December, 2010  ▪  Rostyslav Pavlenko

USSR Is Back

In 2011, Ukraine will in many ways look like the USSR at the time of stagnation
Sometimes the Zeitgeist manifests itself not so much in milestone events and steps taken by outstanding figures as in small facts of life. And one often gets the feeling of déjà vu. One such small fact is Moscow Square in Kyiv, a place of perennial traffic jams: the road intersection there was opened in a solemn atmosphere and led to a nice PR campaign; the authorities loudly reported that from then on there would be no more traffic jams there. However, construction works resumed immediately after the event. The situation is reminiscent of Soviet times when construction objects were ceremoniously unveiled to mark special dates and anniversaries and then took years to complete. It is this spirit of Soviet stagnation that begins to increasingly come forth from the current leadership of the country.
 
Power has been consolidated, but what for?
 
The Regionals made full use of the year 2010 — they consolidated power in the hands of not just one political force but those of representatives of one region, their relatives, close friends and partners. The 2004 version of the Constitution was used to bring “under one hand” all those who are enticed by the very fetish of power and the associated perks. It was then cancelled so that this hand would not depend on those who had been gathered under it. The so-called administrative reform is being used to get rid of the ballast — the unnecessary companions — and establish a system of “checks and balances” in a complicated conglomerate which the ruling clique is.
 
The government has revived a number of features last seen during the Soviet period of stagnation — authority is concentrated in the hands of one person; offices are distributed based on the principle of nepotism and personal loyalty; the nomenklatura is being formed that enjoys impunity and luxurious life. Other symptoms of Soviet times are being resurrected, such as megaprojects (Olympiad 2022 in the Carpathians, a Formula 1 track near Kyiv, etc.), window dressing, reports containing only abstract figures, disregard for alternative opinions, and persecution of dissenters. Authorities have recently engaged in absurd and yet symbolic arrests, detentions and the opening of criminal cases. They seem to be wanting to create an illusion that putting up resistance is a dangerous activity. Another way to influence society, again, borrowed from the Soviets, is the ostentatious impunity of the authorities. Finally, one more block in a Soviet-type country built by the current authorities is the demonstrative disregard for public opinion and disrespect for journalists. These traits are linked to their conviction that society will ultimately fail to find effective leverage against them, while pressure can be put on journalists, either through the owners of media outlets they work for or even directly.
 
However, this approach makes the authorities self-centered and the pursuit of authority and its conversion into riches an end in itself, which weakens the country, because we may fail to muster sufficient energy, knowledge, resources, and will to adequately react to internal and external threats in 2011.
 
Milestones
 
Several milestones can be singled out which will mark pivotal points in the development of the establishment if not the entire country. Thus, they will largely determine the quality of decision-making and, ultimately, the political future of the current government.
 
Elections
 
First, amendments to the Constitution may be adopted at the Verkhovna Rada session which will begin on the second Tuesday in February. These will not only move the parliamentary election to 2012 but will also introduce a five-year mandate for all elective bodies. The amendments received the necessary 300 votes in the first reading. Both the government and some representatives of other political forces tacitly agreed to put off the election for a year in order to save money, rearrange the ranks, etc. However, a piercing attack on the opposition and efforts to deal with the opponents by employing Russian methods may backfire, in particular by driving up the popularity of the opposition against the backdrop of the government’s plummeting ratings.
 
Therefore, the vote for constitutional amendments may be frustrated, and hence the parliamentary election may be scheduled for either the spring or the fall of 2011. This scenario can be seen even now if one analyzes the statements and actions of the Regionals and government representatives and takes a look at Kyiv: it seems to be doing intensive preparations for the coming election — bridges, road intersections and other objects whose construction lasted for years are now being commissioned one after another. The next day after a pompous opening with TV crews swarming around, construction works resume there, and the Ukrainian capital gets further into debt. No matter, the main thing is to feed the right kind of TV images to the Kyivites. Even if manipulations with the elections law and then in the parliamentary election race permit the government to forge an artificial majority in the Verkhovna Rada, the campaign itself will help society mobilize, while the unfair elections (against the backdrop of a lower standard of living) will spur people to protest.
 
If a constitutional majority is indeed formed, the opposition will have to use the year 2011 for large-scale preparations for the parliamentary race. Until now politicians cared to interact with society only immediately before elections. This approach is doomed to fail once again.
 
Debts
 
The state continues to run up debts. This is a fairly severe test which demands both economic and diplomatic talents from the authorities: collect the money that can be collected and reschedule the payments that cannot realistically be made on time. A straightforward strategy would be for the authorities to force business to buy another batch of securities, sell strategic enterprises to Ukrainian and/or Russian oligarchs, levy taxes in advance, continue to borrow money, and refuse to compensate for the VAT. (Under the new Tax Code, VAT compensation is carried out in an automatic fashion, starting from 1 January 2010 — this is one of the first tests for the government in the new year.) However, these actions will only increase the internal pressure and will make the country dependent on creditors and “investors” who are eyeing our strategic enterprises. This may exacerbate the financial crisis and threaten the government itself.
 
“Reforms”
 
One of the key challenges is the passage of codes, particularly the Housing Code and the Labor Code, and the completion of the announced pension reform. Budget discipline and the revision of some outdated labor and pension rules are not just “demanded by the IMF” — they are a pressing need. However, instead of respective bills, a number of norms were submitted to parliament that will guarantee bureaucrats and employers absolute power. Experts formulated specific requirements for the codes and pension law amendments, but these fell on deaf ears. An attempt to completely ignore these demands will undermine support for the government and will fuel a search for an alternative. Thus, new and newly created political forces and projects will stand a better chance in the election.
 
Energy sector
 
In 2011, the Russian Federation will continue to promote a series of energy projects in the EU. Setting up a joint venture between Gazprom and Naftohaz (essentially an acquisition of the latter by the former) is one of the strategic goals here. Vice Speaker of the Russian Duma Valeriy Yazev admitted that the way to Russia’s goals goes through specific projects and “small” joint ventures, above all, those concerned with the extraction of methane gas from Ukrainian coal mines and developing an oil and gas field in the Black Sea shelf. The first joint venture was set up in 2010; the second one was already announced by the Russians, even though the Ukrainian side has yet to confirm it. This sphere remains closed and non-transparent, which is why it is quite feasible to implement irreversible schemes that will yoke Ukraine’s gas transportation network with Russian projects.
 
If this happens, a heavy blow will be delivered to the image and popularity ratings of the government and, in the worst-case scenario, also to the national economy.
 
Democracy
 
Ukraine will not become another Belarus in the near future. However, the government will amass many more elements of “controlled democracy” in 2011. The business interests that the oligarchs who are close to the government have in the West force the government to work on a semblance of democracy and that by using Soviet patterns. The Regionals appeal to the “dictatorship of law” in an effort to justify criminal cases brought against opposition members, the arrests of protesters, and the persecution of dissenters in the eyes of Western democracies on which the Ukrainian government depends for credit money and access to EU markets. This is precisely the justification employed by Soviet law-enforcement bodies, starting from the NKVD and later.
 
The government tends to ignore the fact that the formal legitimacy of persecutions does not relieve them of the status of repressions if two key conditions are not met. First, law has to be equally binding to all citizens. If charges of corruption are leveled against members of the previous government, the same thing has to be done with regard to representatives of the current one. Second, law has to be legal, i.e., it has to meet the standards of law contained in the respective UN documents and other commitments Ukraine has made to democratize the state. While a discussion is possible about the latter question, Ukrainian authorities have clearly failed in the first one. Simply compare the accusations brought against the opposition and used as grounds for arrests with the ostentatious embezzlement of funds before the eyes of society for which the guilty officials will get, in the worst-case scenario, a telling-off from other bureaucrats. One case in point was when Vice Prime Minister Borys Kolesnikov advised the Kharkiv city authorities to pay for overprices benches for the metro stations out of their own pockets rather than with budget funds.
 
Is there a silver lining?
 
Experts in Eastern mythology say that the Year of the Rabbit, which will begin on 3 February 2011, should be quiet and peaceful, just like the animal that represents it. It is believes that this year is conducive to peaceful resolution of conflict situations. 2011 is like the calm before stormy future events. Due to the national government, Ukraine enters 2011 with unsolved fundamental issues: the situation with small and medium business; pressure on the opposition; lawlessness in the budget policy; pressure from the eastern neighbor; a border conflict with Romania; the condition of the Crimean Tatars; de-Ukrainization; (Ukraine’s ?) Security Service; corruption; puppet judicial system; worsening investment climate; and a large national debt.
 
There is still a chance today that these issues will be resolved in a civilized manner via dialog and with the involvement of experts representing all political forces and by way of protecting national interests against hostile external influences. However, the “dizziness with success,” the experience and special mentality of the current leadership offer grounds for the revival of a Soviet-type stagnant country in which the government has a monopoly on the truth and resources and clamps down on dissention. However, we live in different times, and this model will only weaken the country. Under this scenario, resources are used to maintain “order and stability,” i.e., suppression, rather than facilitation, of initiatives and abuse of office instead free competition that leads to progress. In these conditions, corruption blossoms and the ruling families fill their pockets from the budget, which further provokes public discontent. Efforts to resuscitate stagnation will inevitably lead to contempt on the part of society: both the then government and the current one will simply become laughing stock and will be despised. Chances of ruling in peace and quiet will decrease rather than grow.
 
WHAT IF…

 

The Ukrainian Week has tried to forecast political developments for 2011

Parliamentary election

Without waiting for the decision of the Constitutional Court on the bill that makes amendments to the Constitution, extends the mandate of the current composition of the Verkhovna Rada to five years, and moves the date of the next parliamentary election to October 2012, the president will schedule the election for the fall of 2011. He will substantiate his decision by referring to the norms of the effective Constitution under which the mandate of parliament is four years and by citing recommendations of international community. The president will also appeal to the decision of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) on the repeal of the 2004 constitutional reform which recommends scheduling the next election for 2011. The Regionals will, in fact, try to hold it before their unpopular reforms totally undermine their popular support and the opposition comes to senses after a series of criminal cases opened against its leaders. If Viktor Yanukovych makes this decision, it will be a sign that Chief of Presidential Administration Serhii Liovochkin has increased its influence on the president. Mr. Liovochkin has been pushing for 2011 as the election year. The Verkhovna Rada will made amendments to the elections law: half of the seats will be filled with MPs from the party lists, while the other half will be up for grabs to those who will win in majority constituencies. This division will permit the Party of Regions to employ the scheme already used in the local elections to greatly boost its share of government offices. They will be able to form a majority on their own, without making deals with any allies, and it will vote the needed bills through.

The Fatherland party will give up some of its positions. The criminal cases brought against its leaders will hamper it in the electioneering campaign. The Front of Changes, the Communist Party of Ukraine, and Svoboda will make it to parliament. Some representatives of Our Ukraine and Volodymyr Lytvyn’s People’s Party will win under the majority scheme. The opposition will have virtually no influence on the passage of bills.

Criminal cases against opposition members

The government will complete the case against Yulia Tymoshenko: the court will pronounce her guilty in violating Part 3 of Article 365 of the Criminal Code (abuse of authority or office that led to grave consequences). As a result, she will be handed a conditional sentence and stripped of the right to assume government offices. This will prevent Ms. Tymoshenko from active participation in the election campaign and obtaining a seat in parliament. Yurii Lutsenko will continue to be kept under arrest. Criminal cases will be opened against other colleagues of Ms. Tymoshenko, in particular MP Andrii Shkil and Oleksandr Turchynov. The latter’s status will change from “witness” to “suspect” in the case about RosUkrEnergo’s gas. These two MPs will thus be prevented from making another bid for parliamentary seats.

Uniting the opposition

The opposition parties will try to resume the negotiations launched in 2010 to unite democratic forces: Mykola Katerynchuk’s European Party, Anatolii Hrytsenko’s Civic Position, Svoboda (Freedom), Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), Ukrainian People’s Movement, For Ukraine!, and Ukrainian Platform. However, the ambitions of their political leaders will be an obstacle.

Protests

The Verkhovna Rada will raise the retirement age to 60 for women and 62(65) for men and will pass the new Labor Code which will extend the working day to 9.5 hours. These unpopular measures will spark protests: the social strata affected by the new laws will demand a presidential veto or the resignation of the president and the dismissal of parliament. Their demands will be ignored or partly satisfied. Authorities will try to disperse the rallies in a democratic manner, like they did with the entrepreneurs’ protest in Kyiv. 

Resignation of the government

After new and unpopular rules are implemented, President Yanukovych will fire Prime Minister Mykola Azarov by making him the scapegoat for all the mistakes. Nearly all ministers will keep their offices in the new government. The prime minister’s office will be given to either Yurii Boiko or Andrii Kliuiev.

Multivector policy

The next Ukraine–EU summit will take place in November 2011. Europe is not pleased to see the curtailment of democratic freedoms in Ukraine. The issues of associated membership and visa-free regime will be suspended indefinitely. Ukraine will be forced to continue to walk a tightrope between Europe and Russia, which will press even more for its membership in the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Loss of the gas transportation system (GTS)

Russia and Ukraine are negotiating an agreement to set up a full-fledged joint venture between Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrainy. Gazprom will, in essence, become the monopolist on Ukraine’s gas market and will set its own rules of the game. A certain monitoring mechanism over Ukraine’s GTS will be put in place.

Curtailment of freedom of speech

The Verkhovna Rada will pass the draft Law “On Access to Public Information” in the redaction that meets the interests of the government. The mass media will have limited access to authorities which will try to find legitimate reasons (lawsuits, checks, revocation of licenses, etc.) to shut down the disagreeable media outlets. The Internet may begin to be monitored after the passage of respective laws.

 

 

 

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