Yanukovych could try to usurp power using the Belarus scenario to offset his plummeting popularity and growing pressure from abroad
The situation is getting worse for Viktor Yanukovych, both domestically and abroad. To prove this, the opposition keeps blocking parliament, the Family is failing to push through the decisions it needs, and legislators are reluctant to attend sessions even when the parliament is not blocked. Meanwhile, Yanukovych keeps losing the support of his core electorate (see survey results).
Simultaneously, both Russia and the EU are pressing Yanukovych to finally decide on Ukraine’s integration vector this year. Blackmailing is not bringing the desired effect for Yanukovych & Co. Meanwhile, capitulation to Moscow will bring much more difficult consequences for Yanukovych today than in 2010. And, should Yanukovych make the first concession, it will definitely be treated as the sign of a thaw, triggering increased pressure on him to immediately enter the Customs Union. This pressure can already be seen. The Russian media has unfolded a wide-scale campaign to discredit Yanukovych in the eyes of his pro-Russian voters. One telling example was the recent Week News on Russia 1 TV channel: its main message was that Ukraine’s economy will “collapse; the aviation and space sectors will disappear, while agriculture will be killed” if Ukraine signs the Association Agreement with the EU.
Given the recent developments, Putin’s is not only counting on Viktor Medvedchuk, but also on the Communists, who have much more influence than Medvedchuk does, since they are part of the parliamentary majority. Before the Ukraine-EU Summit, members of the Communist Party (CPU) started talking about a motion of non-confidence against Premier Azarov, and they would certainly find enough votes in the current parliament to succeed in this. As a result, the country would destabilize further, as the government crisis would add to the one in parliament, where Yanukovych would have no majority without CPU support. However, after Yanukovych visited Putin and the likelihood of the signing of the deal to rent out Ukraine’s gas transit system to Russia increased, the CPU has changed its stance: it is now talking more of the negative impact of destabilization and opposes the dissolution of parliament.
As a result, Yanukovych finds himself at a stalemate. On the one hand, with no support from the CPU he has no majority, even if temporary, to pass the decisions he needs. And he has no chance to get it from the opposition, unless it is about European integration. Nor does he have sufficient support to ratify the capitulation agreements with Russia on the gas transit system and the Customs Union in particular, because many self-nominated Party of Regions’ MPs, and a number of its party-nominated members will not support this decision.
All that’s left for Yanukovych in this situation is to watch further destabilization, intensified by the opposition as the presidential election draws closer, in order to show that the government has lost control of the situation and the support of the voters, or to sideline or dissolve parliament. Former Vice Speaker Mykola Tomenko has suggested a possible scenario to kick parliament out of the game, referring to sources within the government. According to Tomenko, the scheme is for the president to dissolve the effective parliament and postpone the decision to hold an early parliamentary election using phony excuses, such as the lack of funding or the like. This is probably why some pro-government media promote the idea that Ukraine does not need “such” a parliament, or the trouble it is causing to the country’s development.
This may be yet another instrument of psychological pressure on the opposition to make it stop the blocking of parliament without waiting until its requirements are fulfilled. However, a similar precedent already exists in Kyiv, as the prospect of the mayor and city council chairman election remains obscure. In theory, some of the president’s spin doctors may indeed see this scenario as an effective way to remove the “parliament factor” until it becomes entirely loyal.
AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW
Thus, Yanukovych may use dissolution of parliament as a forced step, blaming it entirely on the opposition which “did not allow the legislative body to work properly”, to call on people to amend the Constitution, in order to prevent similar situations in the future. One scenario for this is to have the public vote for amendments to the Constitution, drafted by the Constitutional Assembly and finalized by the Presidential Administration, in a referendum. Another option is to draft a brand new Constitution, also advertising it as “public initiative”.
At this point, it is worth mentioning events from nearly twenty years ago, preceding the unlimited dictatorship of Aliaxander Lukashenka established in his fight against parliament by means of a national referendum. Moreover, they had much in common with what is currently happening in Ukraine. Elected in a completely free election in July 1994, Aliaxander Lukashenko, already prone to authoritarianism, quickly entered into a conflict with the parliament elected in the following year. It was then that the opposition had won a majority in the parliament, and the leader of the Agrarian Party, Semen Sharetskiy was elected speaker and began to support scenarios of Belarus’ development that ran counter to those of the president: continued market reform, rejection of closer ties with Russia and the consolidation of society around a national idea. One of the key issues that caused conflict was integration with Russia.
Lukashenka then relied on a referendum to amend the Constitution and change Belarus from a parliamentary-presidential republic into a presidential one. He justified this by “the unsuccessful efforts to mend constructive cooperation with parliament”, the need to put an end to “never-ending pointless political battles at the top and focus on the problems which are of the greatest concern among the population”. Is this not reminiscent of the rhetoric of Yanukovych and other representatives of “the party and the leadership” in modern-day Ukraine?
Identical appeals dominated issues regarding the correlation between Belorussian politics and economy: “The salvation for our country and the economy today, lies in a strong authority… Under a weak president, although talking about everyone’s general wellbeing, our home-grown liberals and shitocrats (a play on words – dermocrats as opposed to democrats – Ed.), will actually leave us with nothing in our own country”. Needless to say, opposition MPs attempted to react. They began to collect the required number of signatures to initiate impeachment procedures, but ultimately, the deepening confrontation was resolved by means of agreements with the help of mediators - MPs of the Russian State Duma, headed by the then speaker. The amicable agreement ensured that Belarusian MPs would not initiate an impeachment procedure before the referendum result is counted. According to a decision of the Constitutional Court, the latter was supposed to be of advisory nature.
The referendum predictably brought 70% for Lukashenka’s proposals. However, this result was attained through gross violations. 10 days prior to voting, the Head of the Central Election Commission (CEC) was removed from office by presidential decree. Virtually all the air time for the referendum was the propaganda for Lukashenka. The latter expanded even to voting stations. Voting ballots were printed by the president’s Administrative Department and were delivered to polling stations, bypassing the CEC and Oblast Commissions which could not thus control their actual amount. On the day of the referendum, observers were simply not allowed into polling stations, and their requests for necessary information were refused. Finally, only 10 out of 18 elected CEC members without the Head of the Commission who had been relieved of duties shortly beforehand conducted the summing up and publication of the results. As a result, attendance was miraculous: only 59.5% had voted by 18:00, but by 22:00 — the figure had risen to 84.2%. In addition, more than 6% of the ballots were recognized invalid.
Naturally, Western countries and international organizations, including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the EU did not recognize the results of this referendum, but Lukashenka merely expanded on his success. In spite of deals with the opposition and the Constitutional Court’s decision on advisory nature of the referendum results, he immediately decreed that they were mandatory, saying that the Constitutional Court “restricts the constitutional rights of citizens for participation in a referendum”. As a result, instead of the parliament elected a year earlier, a new parliament, comprised of two houses was established. Lukashenka appointed all lower house MPs, opting only for his supporters. As a result, only 110 of the 385 MPs elected in 1995 retained their mandates.
It appears that Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration has planned to further usurp power using the Belorussian model. The main risk here, though, is that Ukraine is not Belarus, and Yanukovych does not have the support that Lukashenka had in the mid-1990s. Despite a widespread opinion that referendum is a much easier way to pull through a necessary decision, the attempt to get the voters’ approval of making the current President even stronger is hardly promising. However, a referendum could prove more fruitful for Yanukovych if he includes some populist points on the list, such as restricting the immunity of MPs.
The slew of the latest initiatives is designed to reinforce authoritarianism. Most of them have been prepared with the participation of Andriy Portnov or a group of Party of Regions MPs close to him. Valeriy Pysarenko submitted a resolution to the VR to speed up the work on draft amendments to the Constitution regarding the stripping of MPs of their immunity.
According to this amendment, “without the approval of the Verkhovna Rada, a Ukrainian MP cannot be detained or arrested until a court decision against him has come into effect”. In light of the Vlasenko case, there are no doubts that if necessary, such decisions can be hastily approved and applied against any representative of the opposition or any MP disloyal to the regime. Obviously, the current parliament will not pass this draft law, since everyone is aware of the risk it entails – from pro-regime and CPU MPs to representatives of oligarchic groups in the PR itself. Therefore, Yanukovych may raise the issue of MPs reluctant to pass the immunity amendment in a referendum as this may be the only way for him to amend the Constitution.
By contrast, the Draft Law “On Amending Some Laws of Ukraine on National Security” proposed by the Cabinet of Ministers could well get the support of the PR’s allies.
Under the amendments to the Draft Law “On the Legal Procedure During a State of Emergency”, all that it takes to declare a state of emergency is a regular “violation in the functioning of important state facilities”. The list of these is approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. This makes it easy for the authorities to create the necessary pretext for a state of emergency.
Government representatives are more often showing irritation with the incorrect focus of even national television media that are completely loyal to them. Azarov recently complained that instead of highlighting the 150th birthday of Academician Vernadsky, the mass media was focusing on current problems, and instead of popularizing the “improvement”, their focus is on “scandal, scepticism and trivialities”. “We all need to reflect on how to bring to an end the artificial escalation of negative frames of mind, which significantly holds back the development of the country and the development of individuality,” he concluded. Should the independent mass media expect increased censorship and pressure?
If it manages to get rid of the parliamentary opposition and gets the opportunity to declare a state of emergency under any excuse it sees fit, the Yanukovych regime is clearly expecting to strengthen its positions not only domestically, but also in negotiations with its foreign partners. Of course, the issue will not be about European integration, but as The Ukrainian Week has written on many occasions, this is not the Yanukovych regime’s goal. Instead, a similar scenario will create favourable conditions for the further development of the Family model in Ukraine, with the partial use of the Belorussian mould. If so, the next presidential election will be conducted in a completely new atmosphere. However, the very attempt to implement such a scenario will be proof of the objective drawing of Ukraine into the Kremlin’s orbit, as was the case with Lukashenka’s Belarus. Like Yanukovych, he also tried a balancing act between the EU and Russia, blackmailing them with his geopolitical orientation. However, he ultimately fell into Putin’s clutches.
This does not mean that the opposition has to capitulate under the threat of the usurpation of power, should parliament be dissolved. Its key objective now is to select the most effective strategy to resist the scenario of the Belorussification of Ukraine.
Ukraine's memorandum in the case of the seizure of Ukrainian sailors and ships in the Black Sea in November 2018 has been signed and will be submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on Friday, May 22