The government dismisses the demands of large electoral groups
Laws extending the list of people enjoying privileges and higher pay have been a customary electioneering trick since the first years of Ukraine’s independence. As a result, the state has multibillion commitments it is failing to meet. In January 2011, Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Tihipko announced that the 2011 national budget lacks UAH 160 billion to disburse payments to citizens with privileges. However, as they make complaints of this nature, top officials forget that they were directly involved in spoiling the electorate. For example, before the 2004 presidential election, in addition to war veterans, Chornobyl disaster victims and other categories on the privileged list, the pro-Kuchma parliamentary majority passed the Law “On the Social Protection of Children of War,” which increased the number of privileged persons by over 6 million overnight. As of today, courts have ruled that the state owes them UAH 5.6 billion. Furthermore, over one million suits regarding benefits for other groups, particularly, Chornobyl disaster victims and Afghanistan war veterans, are still pending. So the wrath demonstrated by Tihipko, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and President Viktor Yanukovych, who joined the chorus chastising the “privilegees” who allegedly have “neither fear, nor conscience,” should, in fact, be addressed to their own party.
Perhaps for the first time, the Party of Regions is facing the serious problem of needing to put its money where its mouth is. However, it appears that neither the party itself, nor its leader, the president, is even slightly afraid of this responsibility. The parliamentary elections are a year away, but Yanukovych’s team easily, and sometimes cynically, brushes off the demands called for by the privileged. Though no criminal cases have been opened against Afghanistan war veterans or Chornobyl disaster victims, some sources say the blueprints are ready. The Berkut special task unit has not gone overboard in counteracting protests, but on the other hand neither the Cabinet of Ministers, nor the president has offered any ways to resolve the crisis. The situation is made even more delicate by the fact that both categories are largely supportive of the Party of Regions and Yanukovych. In numerical terms, these are very large groups of active voters: nearly 150,000 Afghanistan war veterans and over 2.3 million Chornobyl disaster victims. Moreover, cutting benefits will also alienate war veterans (around 2.5 million) and children of war (nearly 6 million). It goes against Ukrainian political tradition to dismiss electoral groups that numerous before elections.
This leads one to conclude that the presidential team's Thatcher-style stoicism in ignoring these protests may point to one thing only: even though its popularity rating is low (and would doom it to a fiasco in a normal electoral system), the Party of Regions is absolutely confident of the outcome of the coming elections. It sees no value in “working” with electoral groups that require spending. The draft law on elections sponsored by the ruling coalition would secure complete control over election results. Electoral commissions on different levels will be staffed with representatives of pro-government parties. Moreover, the law will permit disqualifying opposition candidates on grounds as mundane as “that's what we want.” Sources “in the field” suggest that another category – government and municipal employees – is going to be used to greatly boost the Party of Regions in the 2012 elections. Heads of local government administrations and mayors, even in western regions, have already stepped up activities to make their employees join the ranks of the Party of Regions en masse. Remarkably, while refusing to finance the legally fixed benefits to Afghanistan war veterans, Chornobyl disaster victims and other categories of veterans, the government has been steadily increasing budget spending on government agencies. MPs and top officials receive their sky-high salaries and pensions with no delay. Cutting benefits to officials is out of the question.
If protests erupt, the government hopes to hide behind police shields. The new Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, like National Bank President Serhiy Arbuzov and new Tax Service Chief Oleksandr Klymenko, is said to be close to Yanukovych’s eldest son, Oleksandr. If this is true then scattered social protests will fail: the votes of the electorate are no longer needed, and the few protest rallies that may take place will be dispersed by on orders from a man with a personal commitment to the president’s family.