The opposition failed to fulfill the task of society and eliminate the oligarch and lumpen system in the early 2000s. There is still hope for the emergence of a new counter-elite
Concerned about Poland’s future after the left-wing party, essentially one-time communists, came to power in 1995, Adam Michnik labeled their comeback as the “velvet revival.” Despite this, over the past five years, Poland and other Visegrád Group countries have experienced changes that made turning back impossible. By contrast, Ukraine’s new government buckled down to “reviving” a comfortable soviet environment for themselves in 2010 passing new laws, changing its attitude towards journalists, grabbing and exploiting business to squeeze out as much profit as possible, flirting with the Kremlin whose goal is to gain control over Ukraine with the help of the Party of Regions, and trying to build some sort of multi-vector policy to abate the Kremlin’s appetite where it overlaps with the personal business interests of those in power. Such a turn of events was virtually unpredictable at the beginning of the period analyzed below. However, it became the absolutely logical consequence of wasted opportunities by those whom millions of Ukrainians expected to finally turn Ukraine into a civilized country.
HE WHO HAS MUCH WILL HAVE TO GIVE MUCH
In January 2005, it looked as if Ukrainians had finally managed to “get on the train to Europe,” said a Belarusian opposition member. For the first time in the history of Ukraine, people looked into the future with optimism. According to surveys (by the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences hereinafter, unless indicated otherwise) in July 2004, only 17% of Ukrainians saw their social prospects in Ukraine compared to 70% who did not. In February 2005, 36% saw their future in Ukraine compared to 45% who saw it somewhere else. In August 2005, most Ukrainians thought of Ukraine as a truly independent state for the first time since 1991 with 49% vs. 37%.
President Viktor Yushchenko got a never before seen rating of trust. In April 2005, 49% of those polled claimed they fully supported his policy and another 24% supported some of his moves. The cumulative share of his supporters reached 73% breaking all records in independent Ukraine. His team also enjoyed huge social support: 47% of those polled supported Ms. Tymoshenko’s policy in April and another 25% supported some of her moves. Voting in the Verkhovna Rada showed how scared the one-time pro-Kuchma majority was, since virtually any proposal gained more than 300 votes in support. The first six months of the government being in power was the perfect time for virtually any changes. It implemented some, such as increasing maternity benefits and passed legislation on a single tariff network that entailed raising salaries regardless of positions, qualification and so on. The Stop Smuggling campaign increased revenues from customs duty. Also, the government passed a few more decisions that were helpful for the country.
However, the conflict between Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko surfaced in spring. Later, the participants referred to it as “ideological, not personal” but eventually it led to the defeat of the entire Orange political campaign, the opposition of the early 2000s.
THE CONFLICT THAT KILLED THE NATION’S HOPES
The conflict was multifaceted, becoming a reflection of virtually all the problems, leading to the sad conclusion that the Ukrainian elite of the early 2000s was not capable of responding to demands and expectations of the nation.
Firstly, the conflict of the powers of the Premier and the President infiltrated into the 2004 Constitution by Viktor Medvedchuk, the then Chief of Staff to President Kuchma, contributed to the collapse. This version of the Constitution came into effect on 1 January 2006 aggravating political opposition. The Constitution encouraged a premier who had his or her personal political ambition - which both Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yanukovych, another Premier appointed by President Yushchenko, did - to consolidate economic leverage in their hands and de facto, head the executive branch.
Secondly, the entourage of both politicians played their part in the conflict. The President and the Premier blamed one another for business conflicts within their environment and degrading corruption scams. The fact that the conflicts were leaked to the public showed Ukrainians that the newly-elected politicians abided by something quite different from the laws they promised to the nation.
In fact, the way in which the political forces of both leaders were organized gave very little hope of institutional wisdom, i.e. the following of political reason at least, if not the commitment to election promises. The winning over of oligarch to their side, the inclusion of dubious individuals in their teams, the following of a strict hierarchy and the perception of parties exclusively as mechanisms for their own self-assertion – this was the legacy of the Kuchma-era that the Orange leaders were unable to transform. As a result, their circle often pursued their mercenary interests by playing on the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko conflict to get certain privileges. Similarly to the early 1990s, people who were ready to share their energy, efforts and experience to help the government fulfill its Maidan commitments were often unheard and ignored. The leaders’ teams had nothing to offer these people. One example was the “appeal to Ukrainians abroad” who would supposedly be invited to work at Mr. Yushchenko’s Presidential Secretariat. Yet most of them never even got responses to their applications. Another example was BYT’s projects, such as the Perfect Country initiative. It piqued the interest of experts, the middle class and local activists but faded after Ms. Tymoshenko presented yet another brightly-wrapped populist toy, promising to pay back the debt to Savings Bank depositors known as ‘Yulia’s thousand’, a professional army, the immediate annulment of mandatory military service and so on.
The third component of the conflict was the will of both parties to seek compromise with ideological opponents to beat their “cursed partners.” The history of “compromises and betrayals for the sake of comfort” goes back to earlier times, when Ms. Tymoshenko met with Mr. Kuchma for a cup of tea before the ultimate destruction of Mr. Lazarenko, or part of Mr. Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party voted for the action plan of Premier Yanukovych, let alone the ‘letter of the three’ including President Kuchma, Premier Yushchenko and Speaker Pliushch, against the participants of the Ukraine Without Kuchma protest campaign. The post-revolution flirting of Orange leaders with their opponents turned into the stairway leading the Party of Regions and their leader to power. The games included the Memorandum and Universal proposed by President Yushchenko to Mr. Yanukovych, hoping to bind him with promises which the latter broke without any qualms; Ms. Tymoshenko’s party voting together with the Party of Regions to restrict the President’s powers, as well as the preparation of amendments to the Constitution along with Mr. Yanukovych’s team that would distribute power between the Party of Regions and BYT. All this merely reinforced the Party of Regions while weakening both Orange political forces.
The final component showed in the first months of 2005 when bright ideas of the election campaign were over and it was time to switch from PR to hard work that involved changing the economic and political systems. This was when the seamless operation was disrupted. The government embarked on populism, spending cash on things it could show to the voters as its achievement, ranging from social benefits to the reimbursement of Savings Bank deposits. The President got carried away with projects, the deadlines and cost of which raised eyebrows among journalists, politicians and voters, such as the Hospital of the Future, the Art Arsenal and so on.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians wanted the government to take care of social and legal issues. According to the Ukrainian Sociology Service as of October 2005, first and foremost, 50.2% of those polled expected the new government to stop price growth, followed by 28.8% wanting a tougher war on corruption and 25.3% expecting improvements in the quality of life.
The most certain way to guarantee growing prosperity and the elimination of corruption was to break the oligarch model of relations between society and the government and introduce a European system, based on supporting initiatives, investment and human development. Even tiny moves in this direction, similar to the ones Mr. Yushchenko’s government had made back in 2000, including putting things in order in the energy sector and abolishing privileges for big business, and over the first months of 2005, including simplified administrative procedures and cancelled unjustified tax privileges, had a palpable positive effect on the country. This proved that Ukraine was able to develop quickly if cleared of the oligarch-generated strains.
Curiously, on the eve of the establishment of their so-called democratic coalition, BYT and Our Ukraine had approved a specific and realistic action plan to move towards a civilized state that would have to be passed by the Verkhovnna Rada and the Cabinet of Ministers. But they lacked political resolve for its implementation. To put it simply, the leaders lacked responsibility while party activists failed to be consistent and respect their commitments regardless of relations between the leaders’ entourages.
Eventually, politicians lost their connection with society. Our Ukraine and BYT had to exist as environments for cooperation with the public, not as a mechanism to support their leaders. Alas, they failed to do this, since both parties barely differed from oligarch-controlled parties.
The public did not take long to respond. Compared to April 2005 surveys where 52% of Ukrainians thought the new government was better than the previous one, in August the number shrank to 37%. 9% of voters though it was worse compared to the previous government in April increasing to 21% in August 2005. The situation continued to worsen.
THE EAST AND THE WEST ARE TOGETHER
From 2005 until early 2010, the spotlight was on the so-called split of Ukraine into the West and the East, yet another issue that various sources are keeping a tight grip on. The split became one of the stereotypes of the perception of Ukraine although it is of a political rather than a social nature. Major diversities among regions exist in many European nations including Spain, Italy, and less so Germany or Poland. For the most part, skillful government policy, particularly the facilitation of the competition of all regions and their mutual integration, solves the problem.
Moreover, Ukrainians do not see the “splitting issues,” i.e. language, history and so on, as priority problems. According to a survey by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kyiv International Sociology Institute, conducted in April-May 2004, the majority of voters are most concerned about welfare (86%), criminal rate (49%), environment (36%) and morals (22%). The language and geopolitical issues, as the survey shows, are of less concern to people. Only 7% of Ukrainians are concerned about relations between the East and the West, and another 7% are worried about the use of the Russian language. According to the survey conducted by the Ukrainian Sociology Service in September-October 2005, only 10% of those polled were concerned about making Russian the second official language, making this priority 15th out of 19 alternative options.
Even with all the conflicts among politicians and regional stereotypes, Ukrainians would accept and understand the historical compromise formula used, among others, in Spain and Germany. According to the Razumkov Center, 51.6% of those polled, including slight regional variations, agree that they need to “come to terms with each other and think that nobody was right or guilty” (in the wars and clashes that split Ukrianians). Only 29.7% believe that “the guilty should be punished, be it many years later.”
The “splitting issues” were rekindled artificially. In September 2004, Presidential candidate Yanukovych announced his intention to make Russian the second official language, introduce double citizenship with Russia and speculated on other issues which were supposed to increase his popularity due to the Russian-inclined voters. Obviously, this was the idea of his Russian spin doctors, who were involved in the campaign. With this, Mr. Yanukovych broke the long-standing moratorium on speculating on these issues in politics. The Party of Regions continued to speculate on these arguments until it came back to power in 2010. In 2006, when the Party of Regions won the majority in Eastern and Southern local councils, it launched the “parade of regional languages,” with the councils declaring Russian the official language in their territories. The Prosecutor challenged these decisions, yet everyday speculation on the issues distracted both the councils and the public from solving really urgent local problems.
Notably, the “rocking of the boat” stopped almost immediately after Party of Regions came to power. As far as the status of the Russian language is concerned, there are more statements than action, while the provocations of pro-Russian organizations have been halted by law enforcement agencies.
Also, practice debunked yet another myth that brought about the revival of the white’n’blues, i.e. the rumored collapse of relations with Russia. According to the Russian State Statistics Committee, trade flow between Ukraine and Russia grew from USD 20bn in 2005 to more than USD 35bn in 2008. Meanwhile, Ukrainian exports to Russia almost doubled going from nearly USD 7.5bn in 2005 to USD 15.7bn in the pre-crisis 2008. The subsequent fall, exploited by the Party of Regions resulted from the 2008-2009 crisis that hit both Ukraine and Russia, not the “destruction of traditional relations”.
THE REVIVAL AND AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Once in power, the Party of Regions’ team set a goal of consolidating power and taking the country under control. It spent the first six months doing exactly this, including the establishment of a coalition, making the Constitutional Court obedient, returning to the 1996 Constitution that brought the executive branch under the President’s control, opening criminal cases against political opponents and testing mechanisms on local elections, which can be applied to guarantee a parliamentary majority that is loyal to the President after the 2012 parliamentary elections. Notably, the current government managed to present the reform plan in June 2010, within several months of getting its hands on the steering wheel, and this was done on the level of a series of slogans, not finalized documents. In practice, though, the reform slogans cover the mercenary interests of the groups in power. For instance, the so-called administrative reform put their representatives in various offices while the codification of tax laws made small business poorer and big business wealthier.
However, it would be unfair to say that the past five years have been a waste for society. The government has unexpectedly encountered a slew of troubles that would hardly have been there if they had won the 2004 election. Firstly, Ukrainians, being aware of their power, can organize resistance, as proven by the Tax Maidan, student protests and so on. Currently, these protests are individual and few, but they show a trend that is dangerous for the government, proving that the Russian or Belarusian scenario won’t work here. Secondly, reforms will eventually have to be implemented by those in power, not simply foisted onto society, and the logic of their actions will have to be explained. So far, this has been a drag for the government as every reform-oriented law is squeezed through under the victorious promises of the pro-PR blabbers but makes the situation worse for any group of society – this has a negative impact on ratings, bearing in mind the upcoming parliamentary campaign. Thirdly, the Russian Federation has turned out to be less friendly with the Party of Regions in power than in when it was in the opposition. The white’n’blues’, protection of their own interests in foreign arenas has prevented the Kremlin from implementing its integration initiatives on the territory of the former Soviet Union.
2012, the year of parliamentary election and public response to yet another predictable attempt of the Party of Regions to ensure a loyal majority, will be decisive in many aspects. The first 18 months of the Party of Regions being in power have proved that it makes no sense to call on it to change – it will continue to act the way it is used to. Meanwhile, it is completely possible that Ukrainians will have their say and force the government to conduct the reforms that the country needs so badly.