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26 November, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

Time for Action

Yanukovych & Co do not hide the fact that their strategic goal is to retain control over the country. Society is ready to resist this with bottom-up consolidation and initiative

The 2012 parliamentary election is officially over in Ukraine. On 10-11 November, Central Election Commission Chairman, Volodymyr Shapoval, announced the official results and the opposition essentially recognized them on November 12. Despite stating that the parliamentary election was rigged and undemocratic, the opposition accepted its newly-won parliamentary mandates and agreed to start working in parliament. Of the 450 MPs, 445 are known. The remaining five will be decided after the reelection in FPTP districts, where major falsifications took place in favour of pro-government candidates, although in actual fact, there were many more such districts. Supported by less than one third of the electorate, the Party of Regions (PR) ended up with 185 seats while three opposition parties currently have 178 seats, plus five more, unless the reelection in the five disputed districts is rigged again. The Communist Party has 32 seats. The remaining 50 seats went to self-nominated candidates and representatives of minor parties. Through bribery and pressure, most of them will probably join the pro-government majority in the new parliament.  

This outcome confirms the major conflict in Ukraine. On the one hand, there is the Yanukovych regime and the PR to which voters never delegated the powers that they have today, and on the other, the majority of Ukrainians who have for years expressed their distrust and resistance to the usurpation of power and anti-Ukrainian policy.

Greater support for the PR in a number of South-Eastern oblasts stems primarily from their ethno-social background, which is postcolonial and post-Soviet in essence. A large share of the population there are the descendants of people who were resettled from other regions of the Russian Empire or the USSR. They never accepted the fact of Ukraine as an independent state, and still look up to Moscow and the path it follows, the most ardent of which are Crimea and Sevastopol. According to polls, the largest share of their population does not identify itself with Ukraine, yet has had Ukrainian citizenship since 1991.   

Moreover, the USSR’s policy of constructing a new historical community called the “Soviet People” and the cultivation of loyalty to despotic rule has crushed initiative and the expression of individuality in most of the Ukrainian population. As a result, these people remain socially and politically inert, ready to unthinkingly bow their heads to the stronger – such as entrepreneurs or state administration officials. This is an acute problem in most of South-Eastern Ukraine, on which Russian and Soviet domination had the greatest impact. Donbas – the homeland of the Yanukovych regime - is the most telling example.

Nicolas Sarkozy awards Viktor Yanukovych with France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, in October 2010

PRETERM OPTIMISM

Despite the cautious optimism showed by the West, after the parliamentary election turned out to be less disastrous for the future of democracy in Ukraine than expected (some experts in the West expected the PR and its allies to gain a constitutional majority in parliament and pave the way for Yanukovych to continue ruling for many years to come) and the opportunity for a change of government after the 2015 presidential election, things are much more complicated. Yanukovych & Co do not hide the fact that their strategic goal is to retain control over the country and are likely to keep telling the West to stay away from Ukraine’s domestic affairs. Meanwhile, the lack of electoral support shown in the October vote will push the regime to seek far more exotic tools to stay in power after 2015.  

Immediately after the election, the pro-presidential majority in parliament passed a law on a nationwide referendum. It creates the threat of a change to the Constitutional order by using controlled plebiscites. The procedure for drawing commissions to count the votes in referendums excludes the opportunity for opposition members to be involved. This opens doors to falsifications on a scale that is far greater than that in the last parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, as it repeats statements about the priority of European integration for Ukraine on a regular basis, without backing them up by taking action, the Yanukovych regime continues to look for other parties to turn to, should it find itself isolated from the West and relations with Russia become strained. So far, China appears to be the most likely alternative. It will not criticize Yanukovych for the violation of democratic standards, threaten the monopolist position of oligarchs close to the government, and at the same time, under certain conditions, can help the government solve urgent financial issues facing Ukraine today. 

Putin’s Russia does not hide its concerns with how most Ukrainians voted against the regime and Yanukovych’s attempts to transfer allegiance to China. This gives the Kremlin good reasons to accelerate its integration plans for the post-Soviet territory. This will entail increasing pressure on the Ukrainian government to join the Customs and Eurasian Unions, and designing of alternative scenarios to destabilize South-Eastern Ukraine, if the current government happens to lose in the 2015 presidential election. Yuriy Meshkov, Crimea’s separatist ex-president, is already claiming from Moscow, that joining the Customs Union – with or without Ukraine – is the only way for Crimea to survive.

The frustration of voters with the social and economic situation in the country is strong and likely to escalate, as the second wave of the crisis reaches Ukraine. As a result, the part of the PR’s core electorate that is discouraged by its failures and the lack of any political alternative in Ukraine for them to support, could turn to Russia. 

Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Carl Bildt cheers at a Shakhtar game alongside oligarch Rinat Akhmetov in November 2011 

THE WEAKNESS OF THE OPPOSITION

Many voted for an opposition party only because of its oppositional stance, and not because they strongly supported it. The government is likely to provoke conflicts within the opposition, discredit and sideline it as incapable and unconstructive. Reports have already surfaced of demands for all FPTP-elected MPs to join the Party of Regions rather than create satellite factions or groups oriented at the president as in the Kuchma years of 2002-2004. Thus, the scenario of reinforcing the role of the president, distancing him from the PR and creating his image as a non-party leader in preparation for the 2015 presidential campaign will be replaced by a campaign to create a stronger image of a unanimous ruling party that is capable of uniting Ukrainian politicians. 

In this situation the opposition’s prospects in the parliament will depend on its ability to achieve transparent agreements on the format of its participation in the 2015 presidential election, which will largely define political life for the next two years. If Tymoshenko remains in prison, both Yatseniuk and Klitschko are likely to run separately in hopes that one of them will make it to the second round and become a joint candidate of all opposition forces automatically. However, this approach risks discrediting opposition parties before the official presidential campaign even kicks off, if they fail to hide their internal tug of war and/or resist the regime effectively due to their lack of coordination and agreement.

First and foremost, society is expecting the opposition to prepare alternative projects for the resolution of key problems in Ukraine. But is it capable of doing so? The numerous declarations of the “united opposition” on the conclusions made from previous mistakes are supposed to convince people that they are, but the election campaign and the composition of the opposition parties, information regarding their connection to oligarchs and the absence of a clearly formulated plan of action in Ukraine, forces people to have reservations as to the ability of the current opposition to meet the expectations. 

THE UKRAINIAN MAJORITY

Such a situation spurs Ukrainian society to greater self-organization and the activation of efforts to find an alternative political power and a project for the development of Ukraine as a democratic European country, based on the principles of true market relations, civil society and a law-governed state.

To achieve this, it is necessary to initiate a self-organization process at the bottom by means of self-financing on the basis of membership dues and mass voluntary donations from small business. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Democratic Initiative Foundation in early October, 6% of the population is already willing to finance a party, providing they are convinced that it is protecting their interests, and a further 10% can potentially join them. At present, this share of the population is ready to contribute an average of UAH 135 (nearly USD 17) in membership dues per month. Simple calculations show that this would be perfectly adequate to form and independently finance a large European-style party, which in their time, lay in the foundation of the modern democratic system.

Thus, the formation of alternative elites on the basis of self-organization in society, and their consolidation around common course is a more complex and prolonged process, than a situational cohesion into technological opposition conglomerates. On the other hand, a consolidation of the Ukrainian majority from the bottom is capable of forming alternative elites. It can also implement a Ukrainian version of a European civilization project.

A necessary condition for this is the formulation of a clear alternative to the existing state of affairs and an algorithm for its achievement, and informing the population about it. This is for people to know what can be done and how, what difficulties can be expected and why it is necessary to overcome them. Alternative forces to the Yanukovych regime do not have to try to win all Ukrainian voters over, since this is impossible. However, they have to be consistent in their vision of changes in Ukraine and realistic, guided by the interests of Ukrainian society. The formation of a civil society from the bottom up, and attaining power, starting on the local, then regional and nationwide level for a broad popular movement can only be possible if the electorate learn to differentiate between cheap populism and promises “to solve all problems on your behalf”, and real programmes.

The social base, formed from people who have rid themselves of superfluous illusions, overstated expectations and consumerist mindset, will be sufficiently stable to create the necessary amount of resilience for such a political force when it initiates the transformations that are necessary for Ukraine. The personnel that have been trained at different levels from the bottom up will be required to change the existing bureaucratic system to a progressive one.

THE WEST’S MISSION

The evaluation of the parliamentary election proves that quite a few people in the West have begun to understand the specifics of Ukraine more clearly, particularly the total domination of the oligarchy, the dependence of numerous institutions which should be independent (for example election commissions and the court) on the party in power, the absence of actual freedom of speech and the monopolization of the leading nationwide media by a narrow circle of people that is connected to the government. Following on from this, the gulf between the ruling elites and the majority of people became clearer, a choice that the former can ignore as a result of various technologies for the distortion of the will of the people. However, the West finds it difficult to understand quite a few specific features of the Ukrainian political, social and economic order, which impacts the approval of their decisions regarding Ukraine.

In order to prevent being the target of the Ukrainian government’s manipulations, the West has to reach its own impression of the processes taking place in Ukraine, based on direct contact with Ukrainian society. It also has to be more critical of grant-guzzling NGOs, which, taking advantage of the lack the knowledge about Ukraine among their Western partners and their exclusive positions, often merely nourish existing stereotypes regarding the situation. More specifically, their expectation for a change in government, based on the Ukrainian parliamentary election, reflects their firm belief that the current regime still possesses a sound element that can launch qualitative improvements, or that the replacement of Azarov with Arbuzov, Kliuyev, with Khoroshkovsky or Tihipko or Yanukovych with Poroshenko can change anything. In truth, these illusions are more like the self-delusion initially seen in Western circles regarding Vladimir Putin and subsequently Dmitry Medvedev. Since the existing Ukrainian elite is of Soviet origin or a product of the colonial past, it is generally impossible to change it – a new once should be created in its place. 

It is important to understand the fundamental reasons for the transformation of Ukraine into a modern European, law-governed and democratic state. Support is required for the formation of a civil society in Ukraine, by establishing thousands of contacts with its provincial and regional centres, as well as those in just several large cities. It is necessary to facilitate interpersonal contacts between Europeans and active Ukrainian citizens (not simply with mostly illegal migrants from Ukraine), learning about the way of life, political and business culture in the EU.

Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council and head of the Party of Regions’ election campaign, Andriy Kliuyev, stays in touch with the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Štefan Füle

Sovietization, which was accompanied by the whipping out of individual initiative and the ownership instinct, has left a deep wound in the mindset of generations. However, the aspiration for self-sufficiency is slowly emerging, as reflected in the growing number of small and medium-sized business. The people, who assert themselves, often do so in spite of the existing post-Soviet state bureaucracy model and the economy dominated by oligarchs and monopolies. They are completely capable of becoming the basis for the future civil society and alternative political forces. 

Finally, it is this “new Ukrainian petty bourgeoisie”, largely comprised of small businessmen, is the social stratum that is most interested in the European transformation of Ukraine, the consolidation in Ukraine of a real market economy, human rights, the protection of property rights, equality before the law, an independent judicial system, and a real representative democracy. The pace of relevant transformations will depend on the ability of the EU and the West as a whole to support the establishment of this class and the activation of its contacts with the EU. To achieve this, discrimination against Ukrainians as regards access to free travel, commodities and capital in Europe, should stop.

This is why it is so important to sign and start the ratification of the Association Agreement and Free Trade Area Agreement with Ukraine. Association, under current conditions, it not so much an incentive for the regime, as it is important support for Ukraine and society on its European route, an instrument which is capable of strengthening pro-European forces in Ukraine and objectively increase the possibility of realistically influencing any regime on the part of the EU. The refusal to sign the agreement will not only push away the Yanukovych regime. A significant part of society will be isolated from the opportunity to develop contacts with the EU, there will be great disenchantment, meanwhile the regime will be trying to convince the vast majority of the population that they are under the influence of the central media, that they don’t want to see us in the EU, so it will be necessary to look for alternative alliances in the East, with Russia or even, for example, with China.

At the same time, in order to promote changes in the Ukrainian government, the West should take previous mistakes into consideration and take the initiative into its own hands, forcing the current Ukrainian elite to react accordingly. It is not looking on the Association and Free Trade Area Agreements with the EU as a tool to put pressure on the Yanukovych regime and influential oligarchs. They have limited interest in its being put into effect, and delaying the signing is not critical for them. After all, the oligarchs have created their own business empires even without Association and FTA with the EU. Such an agreement is beneficial for them from the point of view of increasing the sales volume of their production on the EU market. However, what is much more important to them is that the existing rules of the game in Ukraine remain. This will allow them to maintain their monopoly positions and obtain excess profits, avoiding competition with Western business. For this reason, oligarchs are not really interested in European companies entering the Ukrainian market, nor are they interested in the emergence of real competitive conditions with local Ukrainian medium-sized business. For this reason, although unhappy with the concentration of power in the hands of the “Family”, they have no desire to see the emergence of normal political parties, which would not be under their control and could try to change the rules of the game in Ukraine.

The idea that Ukrainian oligarchs will inevitably resist the swallowing of Ukraine by Russia is a myth, too. In fact, “Ukrainian” oligarchs have never really identified themselves with Ukraine or protected its sovereignty – even if economic – from Russia. By contrast, they have always been – and still are – a part of the Soviet business elite, struggling to expropriate and exploit the region’s economic resources for their own benefit without creating any new potential for them. If the only way for them to do so is to prevent other representatives of the Soviet business elite from entering the market they control, they counteract. But whenever the prospect of personal benefit entails selling a share of their assets, “economic patriotism” vanishes as it did among Ukrainian oligarchs who have been actively selling their plants to Russians over the past two-three years.

Moreover, Ukrainian oligarchs have been watching not only the negative, but also the positive experience of their Russian peers doing business under Putin’s regime, provided that they comply with a set of unspoken rules. They are concerned with the terms of integration in the Eurasian or European space rather than with which of the two they may end up in. In fact, they may view real competition, the rule of law and a political system they cannot control, as a much bigger threat than being under the Kremlin’s influence.

When applying carrot-and-stick strategy to increase pressure on the Yanukovych regime and the oligarchy, the West should keep in mind that none of the above is a sincere follower of European standards. The pressure should primarily target specific Ukrainian top officials who are involved in the violation of human rights and crimes, by means of freezing their bank accounts, launching investigations against people linked to them, and banning them from obtaining EU and US visas. A list of requirements should be compiled for them to comply with, and sanctions should be increased or relaxed as the respective officials comply or fail to meet the requirements. Apart from that, pressure should be exerted on leading oligarchs who support the Yanukovych regime. 

Meanwhile, the current position of “neither war, nor peace” which essentially entails the freezing of contacts with Ukraine on the part of the EU and the US, and avoiding to take more effective steps that could play a decisive role in the change of government, threatens to facilitating the mounting authoritarianism of Yanukovych and the influence of Moscow. After all, Ukraine and its future cannot be viewed as an individual isolated case. It is not so much about Ukraine now, as it is about the line of bifurcation that has emerged in it. Developments in Ukraine indicate the direction in which many post-socialist countries will develop in the near future. The defeat of democratic and pro-European forces in Ukraine will open the door to stronger authoritarian and pro-Russian trends in South-Eastern Europe, South Caucasus and the Baltic States. The victory of the Ukrainian majority and its European choice will set the ground for stronger democracies in the Baltic and Black Sea region, and erode the threat of the new Russian imperialism for Europe. Meanwhile, the emergence of a real market and rule of law in Ukraine will offer the EU good potential for deeper economic cooperation with a potentially large and promising Ukrainian market.  


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