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27 October, 2011  ▪  Ivan Halaichenko

Quasi-Opposition

Despite faking intense activity, the political opposition in Ukraine has failed to do anything significant to win back public trust

While current opposition leaders Yuriy Lutsenko and Yulia Tymoshenko are awaiting or have already faced a sentence; the government is doing everything possible to lose the remaining bits of support in society; while leading nations are demanding that at the very least, Ukraine guarantees compliance with basic human rights, the political opposition remains incapable of making any effective moves. As a result, many voters fail to support it. The popularity rating of political forces is evidence of this. The support of the party in power virtually correlates to the size of its electorate nucleus – 20%. However, at the same time, the popularity of opposition forces, even if it grows, it does so within the limits of a statistical error. All of them, at least those positioning themselves together and each individually, appear paltry in view of the issues raised by the public. In practice, the current opposition has proved incapable of either being an efficient firewall against the abuse by the government or at least working out a comprehensive alternative scenario to the government’s program. Paradoxically, Western politicians are campaigning more actively for the release of opposition leaders than are their compatriots.   

THE FEAR IS GONE

The patronizing and arrogant tone of the government’s comments on the ongoing court processes is permeated with the daring “What can you do to us?” and a possible tough scenario for Ms. Tymoshenko, Mr. Lutsenko and other people under arrest. Unless the West comes up with efficient tools to put pressure on Ukrainian politicians for political persecution, such as banning their travel to the EU, freezing their bank accounts etc., the EU-Ukraine agreements that serve as a bargaining chip for the EU and the US can ultimately turn out to be wasted.  The psychological shock of those in power to the unexpectedly tough reaction of the West is passing and it appears that their Russian friends could have said something comforting to Kyiv. In Ukraine, though, neither BYuT-Batkivshchyna, which not only could have, but should have responded to developments through the mass media and protests, nor other members of the Committee for Resistance Against Dictatorship, a political union established in August 2011 with opposition political parties, were able to find the words, messages and resources to convince people to support them in pursuit of a specific goal.

A RUTHLESS, BUT EMPTY REVOLT

In fact, the two-meter high fences surrounding the Verkhovna Rada, hastily slapped together cases against protest organizers, and deputies quickly taking off their MP badges to hide from the veterans of the Chornobyl disaster and the Afghan war protesting in front of the parliament, are all signs that the 2004 Orange Revolution was not in vain. Those in power are still afraid of people, particularly, of course, when sitting in Kyiv, a city that is “foreign” to them. It’s true of course, that this fear does not keep them from deliberately or unconsciously provoking the public to act, with their anti-social decisions, even if they are necessary, that are passed without any explanation to the electorate, as well as the ostentatious impunity of officials and their offspring. Looking at the ever-growing number of those ready to protest, one after another, experts talk of the possibility of a social explosion. Ironically, though, this scenario would play into the hands of the current government. Spontaneous violence is much easier to crush with force than a peaceful Velvet Revolution. Having said this, it was violence that resulted in the defeat of the Ukraine Without Kuchma protest campaign in 2001 and the worsening of the international reputation of Ukraine as a result of the government’s measures. Russia was the first one to take advantage of this, demanding significant concessions from Kyiv, which at that time found itself on the brink of international isolation.  Obviously, the Kremlin will applaud this scenario again today.

Organized “civilized” pressure on the government should have been an alternative to the empty revolt. However, it is impossible without a force that would organize it, such as a party, an NGO or a network. Only institutions of this sort are well-coordinated enough to prevent the protests from tumbling to violence. Therefore, they must see their goal clearly; have the sources of support (particularly financial), which would not be afraid of the government’s response; picture the potential course of events; maintain constant contact with social activists; and have extensive local representation …  But can any of the current opposition leaders boast of having a structure which could meet most of these criteria?

A SANDBOX NEXT TO THE GAMING TABLE

Those at the top of the ratings and the leaders of parties, movements, fronts and positions are all concerned with issues that have little to do with what the pubic really needs. The unpleasant feeling emerges that they are messing around in a sandbox, while a big game is being played right next to them, with the whole country being at stake. BYuT-Batkivshchyna is facing serious organizational and personnel problems which continue to remain unsolved. It looks as if without Tymoshenko, her Deputy, Oleksandr Turchynov can “merely do his best”. Meanwhile, even though no verdict has been declared yet, Arseniy Yatseniuk, for example, is already trying on the mantle of the main opposition leader in interviews for the mass media. Bearing in mind Mr. Yatseniuk’s tendency to be nice to everyone and never take any bold moves, as well as his complaisance to the influence of “important people” such as the Russian spin doctors who appeared in his team and ruined his campaign back in 2009, it is difficult to believe in the adherence to principles and firmness of the position of the leader of the Front of Changes. Those in favor of intelligence and good looks should keep in mind the experience of Mssrs. Tihipko and Lytvyn, current satellites of the government. Both have virtually lost their political power while their popularity has dropped below 3%. Having said this, the latter unsuccessfully tries to convince everyone that he has nothing to worry about in ex-General Puckach’s testimony in the Gongadze case, where he is actually mentioned as one of the instigators of the murder.

The parties and projects emerging on the wreckage of Our Ukraine were unable to gain enough courage to make a bold move, i.e. dissolve the party and reunite in a single entity. This is how the opposition lives, leaving whole electoral niches free and dooming the voters to disenchantment, ignoring elections and voting against all candidates, thus playing into the hands of those in power.

AUDITIONS FOR OPPOSITION LEADERS

Eventually, the seat of efficient opposition remains vacant in Ukraine. To be fair, though, it must be said that society is capable of pushing opposition leaders to both the correct interpretation of the situation as well as to adequate action. If the number of campaigns to protect people’s rights continues to grow, the public will persist in demanding that the government fulfills their requirements.  Another important aspect is to ensure legal, media and organizational protection of those who initiate and actively participate in the campaigns, since they are the first ones to face payback from those in power. With the high probability of protests, members of the opposition who will serve the government well in exchange for seats and privileges in the future will run across public resentment. This will make them think twice before becoming “crossovers”.   

In the coming months, networks concerned with the “self-protection of society”, comprised of people who either belong to a certain group, such as people entitled to subsidies, businessmen or students, or live in a certain place and struggle against the violation of a specific right, such as illegal construction, corrupt local authorities and the like, will face the need to unite and coordinate efforts, also act in solidarity to protect each other. This approach has led European countries to having powerful associations, trade unions, human rights and lobbying organizations, which remain influential until the present, and force even large corporations to take their opinion into account.

Ukraine, however, is only just starting out on this course. To traverse it more quickly with the least possible losses, such as waste of efforts, time and nerves, will only be possible for society if one of the political forces is able to win back the trust of proactive citizens. This means giving their voters constant support, not just during protest campaigns, and ensuring continuous cooperation with them, rather than simply clinging to them or using them to increase their own popularity.  

To win such trust, Ukrainian opposition politicians will have to move away from many “traditional” models of behavior. They will have to learn to communicate with people not only within the framework of PR campaigns with “loyal” journalists; focus local organizations on effective assistance to the public rather than the distribution of election lists; and talk to people in the language that they understand. Without this, the opposition will remain as provincial and good-for-nothing as the government. 


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