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19 June, 2012  ▪  Oles Oleksiyenko,  Milan Lielich

Untied Opposition: Incompetence or Betrayal?

The June 5th protests that accompanied the passing of a bill that aims to Russify Ukraine showed that while society is ready for radical resistance to the government’s anti-Ukrainian policies, opposition leaders are sitting on their hands.

June 5th 2012 will go down in history as the day the political opposition—in particular within the parliament—was put to the test and utterly failed. The government and the opposition had more than 10 days to prepare for the second review of the draft bill on languages sponsored by Kolesnichenko and Kivalov, both Party of Regions MPs, that would clear the way for the renewed Russification of Ukraine on a national scale. Those in power scored a clear victory in this battle: 234 MPs voted for the bill in the first reading with a minimum of 226 needed for it to pass. Meanwhile, police held back crowds of protesters outside the Verkhovna Rada, and groups of counter-protesters with no actual interest in the language confrontation were hired and driven to the parliament to counterbalance those supporting the Ukrainian language. Yet the parliamentary opposition opted not to stand up for their native tongue.

ALARMINGLY CARELESS

According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the ruling party employed a wide range of tools—including intimidation, threats of criminal liability, tax raids on businesses and other instruments of coercion—to remind the most resistant crossovers (who refused to support the bill) of the conditions they accepted when switching to the majority. Almost thirty ex-opposition MPs supported the bill, some of whom had been staunch patriots when the orange government was in power.

Surprisingly, Andriy Kozhemiakin, the newly appointed leader of the BYuT-Batkivshchyna faction in the parliament and former general in the SBU, the special service of Ukraine, played into the hands of the current government. As Party of Regions MPs took over the parliamentary podium, the opposition was busy decorating the session room with two Ukrainian flags, a banner demanding “Freedom for Yulia!” and a banner depicting a three-headed dragon with the faces of Dmytro Tabachnyk, Mykola Azarov and Viktor Yanukovych exhaling flames corresponding to the colours of the Russian flag. Meanwhile, no one attempted to prevent Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn from starting the session. When he put the Party of Regions-sponsored bill to a vote and 234 MPs supported it within just 10 seconds, journalists observing the proceedings had the impression that the parliament had just passed something trivial, not a fateful decision constituting a massive attack on the Ukrainian language.

Once the vote was finished, Mr. Lytvyn (who was registered as absent on the display of the voting outcome despite actually moderating the session and putting the bill to vote) announced a break, leaving opposition MPs in a panic as they searched for excuses to justify their failure to affect the outcome. In turn, they used Lytvyn as a scapegoat. According to one BYuT MP, “that political prostitute changed the order in which we were supposed to consider the bills. We had agreed that the language bill would be third and Lytvyn put it up second.” Thus, they portrayed the event as “a tragic coincidence.” In fact, however, the bill was initially listed first on the agenda board, and a secretary replaced it with a new one at 9:20 am with the bill listed second in the vote agenda.

DOUBLE-DEALING?

Following the vote, annoyed opposition MPs buzzed about a conspiracy, stating, “we had no idea what was happening, but Kozhemiakin sure did,” and “The Party of Regions has got Kozhemiakin in their pocket.” Indeed, if the rank-and-file opposition MPs are, like their opponents, thoughtless soldiers incapable of independent decision-making at a critical moment for the country, why did their “general” fail to react properly? Just before the vote on the bill was announced, many opposition MPs were near the speaker’s seat and could have disrupted the vote in a matter of seconds. After all, why did independent MP Andriy Parubiy realize which bill was being put to vote, while Kozhemiakin didn’t?

Moreover, comments of some MPs in the media suggest that the opposition could have prevented the vote using their ex-party fellows’ cards. According to independent MP Taras Chornovil, “there were about 18 cards belonging to independent MPs or those who never show up at parliamentary sessions in a section right next to where the opposition sits…plus, about twenty more ex-BYuT members sit in the middle of the BYuT section with their cards. They now belong to no parliamentary faction and haven’t attended sessions lately. There were several Party of Regions MPs there pushing the buttons. Opposition MPs could have easily pulled out those cards, but they had made a deal before to sabotage the vote.”

Why did the opposition stand there obediently rather than spring into action, especially after having previously agreed to attack the section of crossover MPs and pull their cards out of the voting slots to disrupt the vote (as stated by sources in the opposition and later confirmed by Arseniy Yatseniuk)? A group of 30 people was supposed to follow this plan, while in fact only the independent MP Andriy Parubiy acted. The same scenario actually occurred during the ratification of the Kharkiv Deals. Back then, seven MPs from what is now the united opposition were supposed to throw smoke bombs in the parliamentary room to disrupt the session, but betrayed the country instead.

A “coordination council” held prior to the vote behind closed doors without journalists or the heads of parliamentary committees raises more doubts. This “council” ended up being a meeting of parliamentary faction leaders, i.e. Kozhemiakin and representatives of the majority. Were they negotiating a new game plan? The key question in this context is whom does ex-SBU General Andriy Kozhemiakin actually serve? Could he be in the government’s pocket because some of his family members currently face prosecution? Or is it just that there is no such thing as an ex-KGB agent?

IMITATORS

Backstage, the parliament is buzzing with another scenario: the extremely sensitive language issue is as a bone in the opposition’s throat because it forces them to place emphasis on top priority issues as clearly as possible. If the bill is eventually passed, however, the opposition will have a chance to mobilize their electorate by appealing to a declarative struggle against the government’s anti-Ukrainian policy, even if not supported by any real actions. BYuT-Batkivshchyna MPs are already trying to play on the naïve electorate using the same message as the Party of Regions: “vote for us because we can solve the language issue in your favor only with a convincing majority in the parliament.”

Meanwhile, those who failed to protect the Ukrainian language in the parliament continue to make heroic speeches in public. Andriy Kozhemiakin promised cynically that “our faction met after this notorious vote and decided on a firm position: this bill will never be passed in the Ukrainian parliament, under no circumstances.” Arseniy Yatseniuk, leader of the united opposition, appealed to a future promise to disrupt voting during the bill’s second reading, admitting that “the opposition should have fought that day but failed to do so and that was definitely a lesson learned.” “There will be no law on Russian as the second language in Ukraine!” he added. “We have lost this battle but we will win the war!”

However, the embarrassing defeats of the united opposition led by Andriy Kozhemiakin in the parliament during both sessions on May 24th and June 5th raise doubts about whether Yatseniuk and his team will take responsibility if the parliament happens to pass the bill on the third attempt. Will they have enough courage and discretion to admit their incompetence and resign as opposition leaders? If not, the task lies on the rank and file members of the parties in the united opposition. Yet, will they be able to offer voters an alternative that can meet society’s demand for radical and crucial change?

Unlike the previous vote of May 24th, June 5th showed Vitaliy Klitschko’s UDAR to be more proactive, as many protesters gathered outside the Verkhovna Rada carrying the party’s symbols. The party leader was present as well. However, eyewitnesses were annoyed that at the critical moment when special “Berkut” riot police began attacking the protesters, Mr. Klitschko’s bodyguards pushed them aside making a corridor through which their boss fled the hot spot. Based on the comments of civil activists present at the scene, most were shocked by the boxer-politician’s behavior in that situation.

Viltaliy Klitschko says openly that he supports Ukrainian as a language of formal rituals in a multi-lingual environment

The Svoboda (Freedom) party acted just as absurdly on June 5th as they had on May 24th. At a meeting of its local deputies, the party approved a declarative and barely implementable appeal to Mr. Yanukovych whereby they had to “… throw our decision in his face; unite all our forces and work out a boycott system,” according to Iryna Farion, one of its leaders.

Svoboda’s rhetoric seemed aggressive indeed, yet it was not backed by any real actions. Last year, in contrast, they protested outside the Verkhovna Rada along with Chornobyl and Afghanistan veterans in order to solve issues that were less important for the country than the current language issue. Some Svoboda members also behaved radically at a recent gay pride parade. Does this mean that the party views such issues as top priorities, while the struggle against national Russification remains merely an element of the election campaign? Or could it also have made deals with the Presidential Administration? One way or another, the ultra-radicalism imitated by Svoboda on an ongoing basis works only to discredit Ukraine abroad and plays into the hands of both the Ukrainian and Russian governments who aim to paint such patriots as a perfect illustration of “the dangers of Ukrainian Nazism.”

SOCIETY IS GROWING MORE RADICAL, BUT LACKS LEADERSHIP

Regardless of the circumstances, Ukrainian politicians ignore the Ukrainian language even though they frequently invoke it as a technique to maintain their hold on the Ukrainian-oriented electorate. How long will the latter continue to turn a blind eye to this? June 5th proved that ever more people are refusing to be treated like a “primitive electorate.” Civil activists tried their best to distance themselves from the united opposition, whose leaders were reluctant to mobilize the masses to protect the Ukrainian language, opting eventually to do it on their own. The citizens outside the parliament proved much more willing and ready to protect the foundation of Ukrainian identity than the potential national leaders within the parliament. Other cities, including Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhhorod, Kharkiv, Odesa, Kirovohrad, Poltava and Sumy also staged protests against Russification arranged by common citizens.

Evidently, the key problem is that, unlike common people, Turchynov, Kozhemiakin and Yatseniuk do not see the Ukrainian language as their firm principle. Notably, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Oleksandr Turchynov spoke Russian to each other during the anti-language bill protests. Hence the question: is Mr. Yatseniuk embarrassed to speak Ukrainian even at a rally to protect it, or is he worried that someone he is addressing may not understand him? Vitaliy Klitschko also assigns the Ukrainian language purely formal and ritual functions.

AT A CROSSROADS

Ukraine is moving in a dangerous direction. Recent developments signal that Russian nationalists have seized full control of the government and will play a lead role in the immediate future. While the big bosses were busy privatizing and re-privatizing government owned assets from their political opponents, they kept the political “clowns” at a distance. As soon as there was a need for ideological positioning on the eve of the parliamentary elections, the Party of Regions showed its true anti-Ukrainian face. The president’s dynasty and tycoons clearly do not want Russians to get hold of their business, yet they are still willing to build an autonomous version of the Russian World for themselves. Only later will they realize that it was never meant to be autonomous to begin with.

The behavior of the opposition does not answer the question of whether it is capable of properly responding to the challenges Ukraine faces or leading the public to respond to them. The opposition leaders’ abilities to withstand external influences, both from other political camps and other countries, are particularly inadequate. The focus is now on the role of double agents among the leaders of the Ukrainian opposition. Unless stopped by the opposition or a motion of no confidence from society, they could eventually bring the country to a loss of sovereignty.

June 5th signaled that Ukrainian society is ready for resistance and is looking forward to crucial changes. Most people are aware of their national identity and want to shed the ruinous soviet heritage and its post-soviet mutations. Yet, they have no one to look up to in the struggle against the current regime. They fear disenchantment with opposition leaders who could betray their hopes yet again and use society’s potential for their own purposes. This is one of the reasons for the relative inertness of Ukrainians protesting the language bill and attempts by the civil activists outside the Verkhovna Rada to distance themselves from political forces whose inability to withstand the government’s pressure is becoming ever more obvious.

Ukrainians are facing an unprecedented dilemma: they can allow anti-Ukrainian forces to take over completely, losing the little self-respect that they still have and becoming a speechless biomass in a tycoon-controlled model imposed on Ukraine along with the “Russian World,” or resist and fight for their right to be themselves and continue along the path to a European future. The first step is to rid the opposition of leaders who do not share the national interests of Ukrainians. 


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