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20 October, 2011  ▪  Andriy Skumin

Saving Ukraine Together

The West has essentially facilitated Viktor Yanukovych & Co. in coming to power by ignoring their violations of law in the first year of Yanukovych’s presidency. Now the consequences of these errors must be fixed

Ukrainian authorities and President Yanukovych personally have heard a number of statements and warnings from democratic countries. After the verdict in the Yulia Tymoshenko case was delivered, top Western officials and diplomats voiced – perhaps for the first time – something similar to threats to the Yanukovych administration, at least concerning the prospects of signing the association and free trade agreements with Europe. Thus, the verdict in the ex-prime minister's case is less a legal than psychological move. The president and his lieutenants were told for a long time not to let Tymoshenko be convicted, but they did not listen. And now they are waiting to see what will come of it. If there is no meaningful and tough response on this issue, the Yanukovych administration will conclude that no one can set a limit for it either inside or outside the country. The sense of impunity will push the government to new actions that will make Ukraine increasingly isolated in the world, involved in the “Russian world” and dissolved into the “Eurasian union.” In order to thwart this scenario and preserve European prospects for Ukraine, the West must take tough and resolute action.


Responsibility for the state of affairs in our country rests, of course, primarily with Ukrainian society. The defeat of the opposition after Yanukovych became president is, of course, the fault of the opposition itself. After all, Tymoshenko remained the prime minister and formally had the support of the majority. Why and how it all fell apart is a question for Tymoshenko and those in her inner circle who were responsible for organization and staffing policies.

In all fairness, we need to recognize the combination of factors which lifted Yanukovych to the presidency. An unbiased view of events in 2009 and early 2010 shows that the West greatly helped Yanukovych and the Party of Regions come to power. Europe is deeply mistaken when it says that Yanukovych was elected by Ukrainians so now they have to live with him. In the 2010 election, he gained the support of essentially one-third of the population. In this respect, he is different from Aleksander Lukashenko who has so far always received the votes of the majority of Belarusians. Yanukovych did not win a majority among those who cast their ballots. Therefore, from day one he was able to rely on the support of a minority only. The actions of his team and Yanukovych personally have alienated even the supporters they had. Beating a rival presidential candidate by 3% is not a convincing win. It can easily be secured through targeted measures to influence society.

This influence was realized via various technologies employed by the parties involved: certain groups in the West were either influenced by lobbyists (including those hired by the Party of Regions, see The Ukrainian Week, Is. 8, 2011) or pursued their own interests in betting on Yanukovych. Another key player, the Party of Regions itself, used Western experts either as spin doctors (Paul Manafort is a case in point) or as mouthpieces of their views in the West (and in Ukraine “on behalf of the West”). President Viktor Yushchenko and his inner circle turned their fight against Tymoshenko into open facilitation of Yanukovych and those Western politicians who bet on him. Party of Regions representatives managed to link even the current Tymoshenko case to Yushchenko, claiming that it grew out of an investigation launched by the National Security and Defense Council in 2009 under his presidency. The result of the concurrent (and sometimes coordinated) actions of these groups was chaos in Ukraine’s economy and politics and hence the distrust of the people. This sentiment led many to either vote against all presidential candidates in the election or abstain from voting altogether.


Yanukovych benefited greatly from becoming civilized, both personally and in terms of his image, in the eyes of the highest-level Western establishment. Bohdan Hawrylyshyn, noted economist and businessman, introduced Yanukovych to the circle of top world economic and political players and instructed him in what to say and how to speak in the West. He found time to train him for hours. He “read to him as to a school student and underlined [words],” he said in an interview. Thus, he put European shine on Soviet essence. Experts who for years “fought for democracy,” such as Adrian Karatnytsky, promoted a “pragmatic” and “efficient” Yanukovych.

This myth, strongly supported by both the Party of Regions and its sympathizers in the West, was more than a PR campaign. As a case of viral advertising, it was picked up by respectable mass media, as it often happens when there is a version which you want to believe and lobbyists regularly supply evidence to back it. And so an article in the influential Financial Times analyzed in earnest how Yanukovych had changed since 2004 and another one even cautioned Vladimir Putin that the Ukrainian president would defend his country’s interests. A number of Ukrainian experts who received Western grants for their activities seized the moment: it was fashionable in Europe to speak about “pragmatic” Party of Regions functionaries and a transformed Yanukovych. And they began to disseminate these ideas in numerous comments given to the mass media, in talk shows and in round table discussions. The victory of the current president was presented as something just short of a guarantee that democracy would win and “competition in politics” would prevail.

The way the West reacted to the 2010 presidential election in Ukraine deserves special attention. Western politicians did not put much emphasis on preventing falsification. The total number of international observers during the runoff was nearly 3,000. (Compare this figure with over 30,000 polling stations). These included a mere 60 experienced OSCE representatives in Kyiv and nearly 600 elsewhere in Ukraine. To compare, the 2004 re-election attracted nearly 12,000 foreign observers, including a record 1,300-strong OSCE mission. Unlike in 2004, observers largely ignored “places of natural concentration” of Yanukovych’s electorate (where the vote count was, quite possibly, inflated): enterprises, small industrial settlements in eastern and southern Ukraine, etc.

Tellingly, Western leaders rushed to congratulate Yanukovych on his victory after the vote even without waiting for his opponents’ complaints to be considered. For example, greetings from Barack Obama came on February 11, 2010, even though the Central Election Commission announced the official results only three days later, on February 14. This hurried wave of recognition made an impression on both the Central Election Commission and Ukrainian courts.


The cliché “Yanukovych will bring a stable government that will carry out reforms,” which the West accepted as a result of self-hypnosis, proved to be so resilient that in Yanukovych’s first year of presidency, Europe forgave him almost everything. His administration reformatted the parliamentary majority to suit its purposes in defiance of the Constitution and a decision of the Constitutional Court? No problem. It will establish a strong vertical of power. The Constitutional Court passed a decision on the procedure for forming a coalition which contradicted one of its previous decisions? Well, this is a side effect of an immature democracy. The Ukrainian government let Russia keep its fleet in Sevastopol until the middle of the century in violation of constitutional procedures? Well, they must be pushing hard for that gas discount. They amended the Constitution through a Constitutional Court decision? A shame, but the old Constitution is so flawed… Give Yanukovych a chance! They mangled election legislation so that local elections turned into “elections with no alternative”? Not good, but… They put opposition representatives in prison? Selective application of legislation – that’s what it is. All of these reactions give food for thought.

Yanukovych found himself in favorable situations on both sides of the Atlantic. Many Europeans believed that he was able to “stabilize” Ukraine and force through “reforms.” The USA could also see a geopolitical aspect here. In the context of resetting its relations with Russia, a number of political groups in Washington preferred to overlook events in Ukraine and refrain from interference in order not to vex Moscow with American attention to its allegedly “natural” sphere of influence. Contrary to common practice, the United States was nearly the last country to add its voice to the condemnation of the Ukrainian government's lawless practices, even as a wave of resentment was rising in the West.

Virtually the entire year of 2010 was marked by Europe's essential disregard for events in Ukraine. In early 2011, we heard a chorus of voices calling for an end to the “selective application of justice.” Only when a politician whose popularity rating is only a few percentage points below that of the president was thrown behind bars, could more urgency be heard in Western statements. However, this is proving to be not enough to make Yanukovych change his ways, and the West seems to be unprepared to face such brazen conduct.


A key to understanding the Ukrainian situation is that Yanukovych himself and the approaches to management and social relations he is imposing on the country are foreign to most citizens. This is confirmed by election results, poll figures and a wave of protests, especially involving people whose rights are being violated by the government. However, society in general remains fragmented and discouraged, largely due to the use of manipulative political technology by circles in Ukraine, Russia and the West which wanted Yanukovych to come to power. Furthermore, 2010 saw one political force – the Party of Regions – and its leader essentially accumulate, if not usurp, all power in their hands, which further complicates political struggles carried out in “traditional” ways. The aligned forces are too skewed. The government has too many ways to pressure its opponents.

If the Yanukovych administration continues to act with a feeling that there is no restraint, it will lead to either an economic collapse or mass protests and inevitable violence, because this is what this government uses in response to protests. This would essentially strip the country of any choice – it would force it to slide into Russia’s space where authoritarian methods would only be encouraged. Russia wants the Ukrainian government to follow the example of Belarus, which found itself in a dead end and turned into a supplier of resources for the Kremlin's ambitious plans. Thus, Ukrainian society needs help from democratic countries to remove artificial obstacles in its European path being put there by the current government.

First, Yanukovych and his lieutenants have to understand that there is a limit beyond which their actions will have direct consequences for them personally. The movement of money in the contemporary financial system is absolutely traceable. Therefore, freezing several accounts (even temporarily), investigating the activities of a few “joint” ventures and exposing a few especially careless schemes seem to be quite feasible technically. When the European Commission ordered a search of the offices of Gazprom’s subsidiaries in Europe, it proved it had enough political will to at least flex its muscles. Moreover, most active Ukrainian builders of the “new country,” which looks increasingly similar to Belarus, can face travel restrictions abroad.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the language most of the current top Ukrainian officials can understand. Threats are not working anymore – the West has to do something to make them respect its position.

Second, look at the previous two decades of Ukraine-EU relations. Attempts to spur the country to reform from the outside have fallen short of the mark. In contrast, the EU’s expansion in Western and Eastern Europe has proved that “reform through inclusion” does work. This means involving candidate countries in a maximum possible number of structures and joint projects at a time and then using specific procedures and relying on specific commitments within that framework to demand that a country lift its standards to meet the criteria for subsequent stages of integration.

Even the formal inclusion of a country in EU structures with their procedures and rules influences a government by setting limits within which it can act but which it cannot exceed.

Third, no resetting of relations with Russia can guarantee a reversal of its expansionist policy on the continent. The reasons can be analyzed in a separate discussion, but the consequences are plain to see. Vladimir Putin is yet to be elected president, but he has already extended an invitation to join the “Eurasian union.” If Ukraine is dragged into it, instability and conflicts will ensue, so thwarting this scenario is in the interests of all players. This will require Ukraine to engage in large-scale everyday cooperation with the EU and the USA.

Fourth, organizations use Western grants should be evaluated with different criteria for efficiency. Replicating theses that are fashionable in some circles or favored by lobbyists is not “capacity building for civil society,” which is what the grant givers are directed to do by their statutes.

These kinds of changes in the relations between Ukraine and the West must take place very soon. The Ukrainian government is waiting to see how the latter reacts to its moves. There is a possibility for surprise. If this opportunity is again wasted, Europe will have acknowledged its impotence on the issue.

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