A Monopoly On Power

30 April 2013, 16:49

Viktor Yanukovych continues to lose support in Ukraine. According to the polls, he would barely scrape together 33% in the second round of a presidential election if it took place now. Yanukovych would lose 3:4 to Arseniy Yatseniuk, and 3:5 to Vitali Klitschko, and win a narrow victory over Oleh Tyahnybok.

The parliament barely worked throughout all Q1’ 2013 as the opposition was blocking it to prevent the button-pushing – Party of Regions’ MPs voting for themselves and their absent party fellows – while the pro-presidential majority did not have enough votes to pass the decisions it needed. As the political confrontation intensified, the government had to make concessions to the Communist Party. Otherwise, a temporary majority of the opposition and the Communists could emerge, and parliament could start passing laws that would be dangerous to those in power, including the impeachment of the president, dismissal of the Cabinet of Ministers or a number of top officials and the like. Overall, the latest developments in parliament signal that the Family does not intend to lose the power or the assets it has gained so far as well as those it still anticipates to gain. Therefore, efforts are already being made to eliminate any threats to the Yanukovych regime that the 2015 presidential election may pose, if it is conducted under existing rules. On the one hand, the regime hopes to dilute the opposition and integrate some crossovers to the pro-presidential majority through bribery, intimidation or tax attacks on family business, just to name a few. This should give the Party of Regions (PR) a majority without the Communist Party which is currently using its importance to the PR to blackmail it for having its members appointed to top positions. On the other, preparations are in place for an orchestrated referendum to change the election system and the powers of parliament, and subsequently hold an early parliamentary election under the first-past-the-post system – the previous election proved that it is much more helpful in bringing more convenient MPs to parliament.

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The regime’s tactic is to take small consistent steps to exhaust the opposition. After the government failed to pull through its candidates in the five most disputed districts during the October parliamentary election, it agreed to cancel the results there but has never held a repeat election, as there is a significant risk that opposition candidates will win them. It appears that the current plan is to hold the repeat election in summer – peak vacation time, when many people are out of town and their votes can be used as required, while older voters who tend to support to the party in power because they are nostalgic for Soviet times – and the government plays on these sentiments – and are easier to bribe, stay in town and vote. A similar plan may be used in the local election in Kyiv. The city has had no mayor for over a year now, and the powers of the current city council expire in May. Sources claim that in the face of poor chances to win the election in Kyiv where its rating in the parliamentary election was slightly over 12%, the PR has decided to postpone it until 2015. Meanwhile, it may decide to hold the mayoral election during the summer vacations period, when the current Head of the City Administration, Oleksandr Popov stands a better chance of gaining a controversial victory through rigging mechanisms, unless the opposition nominates a single candidate. When those in power did not need the Verkhovna Rada to pass necessary decisions, they could live with it being blocked for as long as it wanted. When this threatened to evolve into an early parliamentary election under the scenario that the government would not control, the PR made some “concessions” to the opposition – only to renege on the promises or commitments shortly after.

The inability of the opposition to gain massive popular support for a nearly 10,000-strong rally on April 2, demanding that the local election in Kyiv takes place as scheduled by law, gave the government the green light to increase pressure. “We monitor people’s sentiments… There will be no Arab Spring, or Arab Autumn in Ukraine,” PR’s Hanna Herman, ex-Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, commented after the rally. “The government will not allow destabilization in the country.” On April 4, pro-presidential MPs, headed by Speaker Volodymyr Rybak locked themselves for a session in a parliamentary committee building on Bankova Street, outside the parliament’s premises at Hrushevskoho Street. Acting on behalf of the entire parliament, they began to pass laws. However, the session violated the parliamentary procedure that only allows legislative voting within its official premises. The group of renegade MPs had no quorum: members of the counting committee from the opposition were not allowed in to check whether there was one, while the video recording of the session showed many empty seats in the room designated for 250 people at the most, while the quorum to pass a decision is 226 votes. Session orchestrators refused point blank to provide the list of signatures of session participants to the opposition to verify the actual number of those present. Later, sources confirmed that some of the officially listed participants were actually either abroad or at the official parliament during the session. As those in power apparently realized that these illegal actions could be interpreted as an attempted coup, they sped up the pardoning of political prisoners Yuriy Lytsenko and Heorhiy Filipchuk, as a preventive move to avoid possible negative reaction from the public and foreign officials. Both were released on April 7, under a presidential pardon. Apparently, those in power count on using such moves to get a softer reaction from the West to the further, more refined escalation of the authoritarian regime being built by the family.

Dissolving the opposition

Another purpose of Lutsenko’s release was to aggravate existing conflicts within the three-headed opposition – as stated openly by Mykhailo Chechetov, Deputy Head of the PR faction in parliament. Although earlier attempts to split the opposition have not brought the expected result, the government continues to search for ways to fuel conflicts within it. One signal is the collection of signatures to dismiss Svoboda’s Ruslan Koshulynsky from the position of Vice Speaker and recommendations to replace him with someone from UDAR or Batkivshchyna. Another is talk of a one-round presidential election. These are obviously intended to aggravate rivalry among the three opposition leaders who would run for presidency, yet have already declared that they would support any opposition candidate in the second round against Yanukovych. However, it will be much more difficult for them to withdraw from the first round in favour of a single opposition candidate as proven by the 2012 parliamentary election in first-past-the-post constituencies – especially in Kyiv. Meanwhile, the PR’s criticism focuses on Svoboda, and pressure on it is mounting: Ukrainians and the West often hear of the threat of fascism and destabilization that Svoboda may bring, while its activists are frequently summoned for interrogations. In fact, however, the image of its radicalism is seriously inflated as none of its rallies ever ended with blood shedding or open aggression from its members, while its rhetoric or platform have no traces of fascism whatsoever. At the same time, Yatseniuk is being pushed out of the arena. One purpose of this is to make the rating of all opposition leaders more or less equal. This will make it difficult for them to choose the likeliest candidate to win the presidential election and subsequently contribute to a likely internal conflict.

Meanwhile, a new wave of opposition MPs jumped ship in April. So far, only Batkivshchyna has been losing crossovers, but this could just be the beginning. The prospect of the government orchestrating a referendum (see more below) to change the election system to a first-past-the-post one and reduce parliament from the current 450 to 150 MPs, as well as the abolition of MP immunity, has become an effective tool of pressure on the many opposition members who came to parliament with a view to attain real short-term gains. With the regime reinforced through a referendum, and the opposition unable to counter this, they see no point in staying in the opposition and find it more sensible to cooperate with the Yanukovych administration. Otherwise, they risk losing their mandate with little chance of regaining it, not to mention their business and own safety. It looks like the part of Batkivshchyna elected under Yatseniuk’s quota (Batkivshchyna is a union of several political parties – Ed.) is about to disintegrate, and Yatseniuk is preparing the public for this. “They and their families are under attack. A family member of one first-past-the-post candidate is facing criminal charges… MPs who own shares or are involved in businesses face tough pressure from prosecutor bodies and the tax administration,” he explains. Potential crossovers are offered huge sums, he says – “a lump sum of USD 5mn and another USD 100,000 per month.”

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According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, the five Batkivshchyna MPs who have switched to the opposite camp so far, were elected under the quotas of Arseniy Yatseniuk and his close ally Mykola Martynenko, who supervised the funding of the election campaign. The failed no-confidence vote against Mykola Azarov’s Cabinet on April 19, when neither Martynenko nor five other MPs linked to him supported the motion, encouraged Serhiy Sobolev, the leader of the Batkivshchyna shadow government in the previous parliament, and the Kyiv City branch of Batkivshchyna – one of the most influential ones – to demand the expulsion of these MPs from the Batkivshchyna faction.

Another factor playing into the hands of the government is the escalating rivalry within the opposition as the Kyiv mayoral election draws closer. Batkivshchyna’s Mykola Katerynchuk known for being a solo rather than team player within the opposition has announced publicly of his intention to run and has essentially launched his campaign. Political opportunist Petro Poroshenko, a one-time leader of Viktor Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine) and ex-Minister of Economy in Azarov’s Cabinet, currently presenting himself as a representative of “constructive opposition”, is “ready to run if the opposition asks him to”. Batkivshchyna’s Mykola Tomenko rightly criticizes the prospect of “this opportunist” becoming one, is also ready to run as the opposition’s single candidate.  

New potential crossovers from Batkivshchyna could be the prologue of a campaign to set up a pro-presidential majority that will not depend on Communists in the new parliament. If true, this will make all PR allies – both crossovers and the Communists – more flexible. Eventually, those in power will even have the opportunity to crush some groups of influence within the PR that currently dare to dissent. Moreover, a split in Batkivshchyna will open ways to attack Vitaliy Klitchko’s UDAR – which the government has not yet tried to crush or marginalize. Compared to Batkivshchyna, UDAR is a better disciplined political party, from the very beginning designed for a specific leader and his prospect of running in the 2015 presidential election. As long as Klitchko’s personal ratings and chances of beating Yanukovych in the second round of the presidential election are higher than those of other opposition leaders, persuading UDAR MPs to cross over will be challenging. But as soon as prospects for a change in government dim for any reason in the next two years (such as a change in the Constitution based on an orchestrated referendum), this political project may quickly collapse and lose popularity with the protest-oriented electorate as many of UDAR’s MPs are linked to oligarchs or place their stakes on Klitschko to help them in pursuing their business interests exclusively.

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Notably, Vitaliy Klitschko and six other UDAR MPs were absent at the session where parliament voted to dismiss the Cabinet of Ministers. This also fueled doubts in the party’s consistency. The mass media has already kicked off a campaign to discredit UDAR. First, Serhiy Arbuzov, currently First Vice Premier and probable future Premier, said that Klitschko has “matured” politically, hinting at his readiness to cooperate with the government, while online media are spreading rumours of Klitschko’s possible appointment as Vice Premier. UDAR’s press service reported that fake comments on behalf of party members are being sent to the mass media. Although absurd (Klitschko should take note of the experience of Serhiy Tihipko, who lost 2/3 of his supporters after joining the government), this media campaign signals that having discredited Yatseniuk, those in power will now try to disintegrate and oust Klitschko’s party.

If the opposition ends up scattered and fragmented, the government will have much better chances to implement a scenario that could play into its hands – Oleh Tyahnybok as Yanukovych’s sparring partner in the second round of the presidential election. It could then terrorize voters with the prospect of a fascist “brown plague” flooding the country if Tyahnybok wins. Similar tactics tested earlier in Ukraine and Russia proved that most voters prefer a bad yet stable moderate government to a radical one.

Usurpation with the voters’ hands

Meanwhile, the government is preparing to cement its authoritarian rule through an orchestrated referendum as a democratic mechanism to serve its purposes. “If the opposition does not want to work, people will speak their mind in the referendum; parliament has to be reduced in size, and we should switch to the first-past-the-post system,” Hanna Herman clarified the changes expected by those in power. Yet, the first-past-the-post component was the key tool used to rig the parliamentary elections both in 2012, and before 2006 thanks to administrative leverage. After the latest election, the PR has 2/3 of all first-past-the-post MPs as its allies in parliament despite gaining just 30% in proportional representation voting. In addition to this, a referendum could open other avenues to amending the Constitution in a way that parliament would never pass. With MP immunity cancelled, elections switched to the first-past-the-post system – thus boosting chances for business owners vulnerable to pressure to be elected – and the balance in parliament shifted to its benefit, the Yanukovych regime may well end up with a defenceless and obedient group of MPs that will pass any decision he needs. Nearly twenty years ago, a national referendum to amend the Constitution brought Aliaxander Lukashenka unlimited power in a confrontation with parliament, and helped him to become a dictator. He justified this by “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”. This is very similar to the routine rhetoric of Yanukovych and his party members, which also includes the opposition which “only talks” instead of working.

A number of the Central Election Commission’s resolutions dated April 2 signal the launch of preparations for a national referendum. Sources claim that oblast and regional state administrations have already received instructions to prepare for the plebiscite. One of the requirements is to start looking for “reliable” people to work on commissions at all levels. Meanwhile, those in power are purging the media environment. Arranging an intense opposition campaign will be much more difficult without the involvement of free media. Amendments to the Law On Legal Grounds for a State of Emergency listed in a government-sponsored draft law state that “interference in the operation of important state objects (administrative and, defence objects, life support systems and objects that are hazardous to the environment) under the list approved by the Cabinet of Ministers” is enough to impose a state of emergency. Creating an excuse for announcing one will be an easy task for those in power. At the beginning of April, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Ukrainian government has violated a number of European Convention on Human Rights provisions and this case has revealed a structural problem, i.e. the gap in the law concerning the freedom of assembly that has remained in Ukraine since the USSR era. Its recommendation for Ukraine was to urgently reform its legislation and administrative practice in order to implement requirements on how peaceful protests should be arranged and held, and on grounds for restricting them. The government made little effort to defend itself. According to sources, it may try to use the verdict to pull through a law on peaceful assembly that would essentially rule out the constitutional right of citizens to protest. Apparently, it will thus prepare grounds for preventing any mass protests –possibly in response to outright fraud in any future elections – under the guise of meeting European demands. It used a similar scenario with the Language Law promoting it as a campaign to protect languages on the verge of disappearance in Ukraine. In reality, the law ended up further limiting the use of Ukrainian and expanding that of the Russian language that faces no threats in Ukraine whatsoever.  

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According to the State Judiciary Administration, local authorities requested court bans for 358 peaceful assemblies in 2012, 90% of which were banned. The number increased from 2011 when courts banned 237 protests. Obviously, nothing will stand in Yanukovych’s way to using courts to ban peaceful rallies legitimately through loopholes in the draft law. In fact, it will bring forth a inexhaustible list of areas where the government can ban peaceful protests. A recent example occurred in Kharkiv, where the motivation for the ban of the Rise Ukraine!, a series of rallies arranged by the opposition in various cities all over Ukraine, would pose the threat of a “transport collapse”. In fact, it was the local authorities’ attempts to stop it that provoked the collapse.

Meanwhile, those in power continue to consolidate media resources, which will determine what most Ukrainians will see and how they will interpret it. The right dose, coupled with a convenient interpretation of events may have a much bigger impact than the actual events.

At the end of April, Petro Poroshenko sold his share in joint media projects with Boris Lozhkin’s UMH, a pro-government media group. Boris Lozhkin now has them under his total control. This is yet another step towards the monopolization of the market for print publications by UMH. Meanwhile, TVi, a TV channel beyond the regime’s control that continued to operate despite many efforts to remove it, had a scandalous change of its owners and administration. The situation with TVi remains unclear as both parties to the conflict accuse one another of the intent to sell the channel to one of the groups in power. Yet, the fact that the state register changed the owners and administration surprisingly quickly may signal the interests of someone with the power to influence relevant officials at the state property registry. Now, those in power may use the possibility to quickly change records in the state register – based on, say, a court decision instructed by someone at the top – to blackmail both parties to the conflict.

Without a real parliamentary opposition (what those in power call “constructive opposition” actually stands for a loyal one) and free to announce a state of emergency under phony excuses, the Yanukovych regime must be hoping to reinforce its position both domestically and in negotiations with foreign partners. This does not involve real European integration as the Yanukovych regime does not really view this as a priority. His objective is to create a country he controls entirely so that his business empire can continue to expand quickly, following the Belarus scenario in some aspects. Unless the opposition resists this, the next election will take place in a new atmosphere, while Ukraine will face the threat of reliving the Belarusian or Russian scenario. This will lead to further distancing from the EU. The likely isolation from the West will fuel the threat of Ukraine of losing its sovereignty and being swallowed by Russo-centric Eurasian entities, even if this will restrict the unlimited power of the Family in the long run. And it is the latter, rather than the interests of Ukraine or its people that currently motivates the Yanukovych regime.

If this happens, the Family will risk losing its unrestricted power, and this, rather than the interests of the state or the Ukrainian nation, is what drives the Yanukovych regime. The likelihood of Ukraine being dragged into Moscow’s sphere of influence is still fairly high.

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This is being promoted, among others, by numerous pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine, including the Ukrainian Choice, a political platform launched by Viktor Medvedchuk (Vladimir Putin is his daughter’s godfather). In Ukrainian circumstances, the 30% of voters who are currently loyal to Yanukovych mostly have their sights set on the Russian socio-political model, support Ukraine’s integration in the Eurasian union and oppose European integration. This mindset comes from the fact that most of these voters live in Donbas. Its population emerged during the Soviet era, when Russians were massively resettled to Eastern Ukraine. This gradually diluted the Ukrainian identity. In addition, Russian media propaganda has a huge influence on the local residents, as over 50% of Eastern Ukrainians trust the Russian mass media more than Ukrainian ones, and the region is closed to the outer world – the share of the region’s residents who have never travelled abroad is 80%, making it the highest in Ukraine. As a result, their idea of Europe is mostly shaped by the image they see in the Russian media – and that is largely negative. Unsurprisingly, many in the Donbas associate themselves with Russia. Given this unique feature of the PR’s core electorate, the further worsening of life in Ukraine, resulting from the deepening socio-economic crisis, will push the pro-Russian residents of Donbas to seek an alternative to the Yanukovych regime that has failed to meet their expectations of “improvement”. And the Russian side appears to have started preparations for this a long time ago.

In addition to Medvedchuk’s project, the Communist Party that sometimes votes in line with the PR, openly promotes Russian initiatives in Ukraine. The fact that it holds the golden share in parliamentary voting sessions, contributes to Ukraine’s vulnerability to Russian influence. If the Kremlin-orchestrated ochlocratic initiatives presented as direct democracy, i.e. referendums promoted by Medvedchuk’s Ukrainian Choice and the Communist Party, lead to general destabilization in Ukraine, the Yanukovych regime will probably not be capable of resisting the Kremlin for long, especially with further isolation from the West, internal conflicts between groups of influence within the conglomerate in power and the Kremlin’s people in some key law enforcement agencies.

The Kremlin and its fifth column are using the fragmented Ukrainian identity, lack of established and strong statehood institutions, underdeveloped civil society, the low political awareness of many voters, and the strong influence of misleading mass media on public opinion to spread their propaganda in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych’s attempts to build “another Russia” for his Family in Ukraine has no proper foundation or, first and foremost a social basis. The permanent risk of the destabilization of the situation in Ukraine will force key officials in the current government to find a new force, capable of stopping the chaos and guaranteeing the preservation of the assets in Ukraine, that they have “gained by their exceedingly hard work”. Taking these assets out of the country, not to mention those that are currently being prepared for appropriation, is challenging. Under these conditions, the division in the opposition camp and the passive position of the West regarding the processes taking place in Ukraine pose a serious threat of the destabilization of the situation during the 2015 presidential election or at some convenient time after it, orchestrated by Moscow. For this reason, many Western and Ukrainian politicians feel that the expected return of Ukraine to a democratic European course, will fail. A “contemplative approach” will end with the Kremlin stripping the “almost guaranteed victory” of the democratic forces, simply by giving support to Yanukovych. In return, Putin will gain Ukraine’s integration into his neo-imperial projects, through which he will be able to politically influence decisions in Kyiv.

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Ultimately, Ukraine and its subsequent fate, as either an authoritarian or democratic country, cannot be viewed as an isolated case, outside the all-European context. The tightening of Yanukovych’s authoritarian regime in Ukraine will mean that it will be closed to European business and the loss of a market that is already significant and will become more so in the future. Even if the Free Trade Zone Agreement with Ukraine comes into effect, this will not guarantee that European companies will be able to work normally on the Ukrainian market under current conditions, after all, the current Ukrainian government can successfully apply various informal restrictions and provoke threats, which will force the Europeans themselves to reject the advantages offered by the FTZ Agreement.

No formal international agreements will become a panacea without radical changes in Ukraine itself, and the transition to a real market, competitive and economic model. The defeat of democratic pro-European forces will mean a strengthening of authoritarian and pro-Russian trends in the countries of South-Eastern Europe, the Southern Caucasus and possibly the Baltic States and the countries of Central Europe. These regions could once more come under the direct influence of the Kremlin, with relevant security and economic challenges for Europe. The swallowing up of Ukraine by Putin’s neo-imperial project will pose a threat of the return of the European continent to the Cold War-type relations of Soviet times. Conversely – actual European integration of Ukraine can make the Kremlin stop wishing to oppose the West and creating ever-new neo-imperial unions, since they are inferior without Ukraine, which means that they are unnecessary for Russia.

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