Separating Ukraine from Yanukovych

24 October 2012, 08:01

The upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine is not only a serious challenge for Ukrainian sovereignty, democracy and its European course, but it could grow into a threat to the interests of the West and the impact the West has gained over the past 25 years on the territory of the former Soviet Union. Ukraine is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the positive changes that have taken place after the Orange Revolution have been fading over the past years. On the other, the critical question arises of whether this adverse trend can be stopped, or will it be aggravate further, leading Ukraine into its own version of the Russian and Belarusian authoritarian model.  


During the 2010 presidential campaign in Ukraine, the Western media buzzed with news about “the new, democratic Yanukovych” who had learned from his earlier mistakes and was interested in Ukraine’s democratic and pro-European course. Obviously, the intense lobbying and promotion funded by the current government’s oligarchic sponsors encouraged this.  

Why was Yanukovych able to lead Western leaders by the nose for such a long time? To a large extent, this was because the West never had any serious strategy concerning Ukraine and has avoided the in-depth study of its internal realities and processes. Instead, it relied on a range of grant-eating NGOs, which were ineffective in the Ukrainian reality, often distorting its view on what was going on in the country, giving grant-givers the information they wanted to hear and feeding the stereotypes established in the West.  

Misled by a powerful disinformation campaign before the 2010 presidential election, Western politicians and media did not bother to take close look at developments in Ukraine, including the recurrence of the authoritarianism and disrespect for democratic mechanisms of the government, which were noted in Yanukovych’s actions as Ukraine’s premier in 2006-2007. After he won the presidential election in 2010, they all rushed to congratulate him, highlighting the democratic nature of the election, and continued to support him in the process of the “stabilization and consolidation” of power (which ultimately turned out to be the first steps towards usurpation). They turned a blind eye to the methods used to achieve this. For a while, they even took his and his team’s declarations about reforms in Ukraine seriously.

Part of Ukrainian voters succumbed to it too, frustrated by the global economic crisis and the conflict within the Ukrainian democratic camp. Thus, many supporters of Ukraine’s pro-European course, disenchanted with Tymoshenko’s government, ignored the 2010 presidential election or voted against both candidates in the second round, while another part of the voters, misled by declarations about Ukraine’s European integration, voted for Yanukovych. In spite of this, he did not gain even 49% of the vote, becoming the first president in Ukrainian history to be supported by a relative rather than an absolute majority.

Lately, however, the Western establishment often interprets Yanukovych’s 2010 victory as proof of the assumption that the Orange Revolution was a mere coincidence and had nothing in common with the surge of similar Central European velvet revolutions that opened democratic and European prospects to the nations where they occurred. This is a dangerous assumption. It encourages EU and US politicians to back down on the proactive support of Ukrainians’ European choice while facilitating pressure from Putin’s neo-imperialistic strategy and opening easier ways for the expansion of authoritarianism and Russian influence both in Ukraine and other post-socialist states, especially in South-Eastern Europe (see The New Challenge of the Kremlin).  


Just like Ukraine, other FSU countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, experienced a backslide on democracy during the post-Communist period. However, this did not keep the EU and NATO from taking efforts to facilitate their integration with international entities, yet the West appears much more reluctant to do this with Ukraine.  

To a great extent, orange elites are the ones to blame for the current situation in Ukraine. They missed the chance they had in 2004-2005 to bring Ukraine closer to Europe, failed the nation’s expectations of profound changes, proved incapable to unite and do their homework to facilitate Ukraine’s European integration.

The 2004 winners had no clear vision of what needed to be done in the country and how to implement the changes. The chaotic efforts of Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s “reformers” often did more harm than good. This revealed a significant soviet element that dominated the Orange establishment just as it did when Kuchma and the Party of Regions were in power: politics and politicians separated themselves from the free citizens who brought them to power, hoping for changes in the country and prepared to work to this end. Instead of solving the key problems of post-soviet Ukraine, the right slogans were heard once more, but there was no action.  

The Orange government failed to de-sovietize all spheres of life, reform the judiciary and law enforcement system, demonopolize the economy, create a favourable investment climate and the middle class as reliable social ground for further transformations, and help Ukrainians define their national identity and readiness to protect their own political and socio-economic accomplishments from external threats.  Lavish forums, a major part of the Yushchenko Administration’s agenda, could not replace day-to-day work. All this affected the attitude of the voters towards the government from which they anticipated the implementation of some crucial changes. What they got instead was yet another version of the soviet system. When the media began to buzz with news about the Orange government’s deals and affairs with big business and willingness to take handouts from oligarchs rather than set firm rules for them, its popularity plummeted. When Yanukovych and his team came to power, they only demonstrated the “restoration” of the worst traits that were inherent in soviet and early post-soviet Ukraine.

The EU, on its part, wasted the time when European prospects opened for Ukraine in 2004-2005. It proved very inert in pushing the Orange elites to essential changes, although it could have done so by offering clearer prospects and demanding that they fulfill its requirements step by step, with firmly set deadlines. The time for conducting a number of irreversible transformations that would have made impossible the backsliding to authoritarianism, which started in 2010, was lost.    

Instead, Ukraine returned to the pre-Orange Revolution state. The new circumstances require a more proactive position of the West. The majority of Ukrainians still support a European course, therefore they should be separated from the Yanukovych regime.


Yanukovych with the current Ukrainian government on the one hand, and Ukraine and most Ukrainians, are worlds apart. And elections, in this case, often do not reflect this situation, because for the most part, Ukraine has not had truly free and fair elections since it gained independence. Every time, one factor or another distorted voters’ preferences in favour of those who had the opportunity to manipulate them. Initially, it was the old communist party elites who preserved power locally after the USSR collapsed. Later, they were replaced by oligarchs. Subsequently, Ukraine ended up with no effective Western-type democratic institutions in spite of the passage of two decades.

The fate of every country with representative democracy undoubtedly depends on the choice made by its citizens during elections. Ukraine’s problem today is that its democratic mechanisms of government rotation have virtually been broken down over the past two and a half years. Even if it cannot be compared to elections in Russia and Belarus, the upcoming parliamentary election in Ukraine will hardly represent public opinion as it is supposed to under Western democratic standards.

The use of manipulation technology during the election campaign, the monopolization of the major media by oligarchs linked to those in power and the majority of loyal election commissions that have been hand-picked, offer if not unlimited, then unprecedented opportunities to rig the election in the history of Ukraine’s independence. This technology will be most effective in first-past-the-post (FPTP) districts, where 50% of MPs will be elected this time, and will still have a huge impact in voting under party lists.

It was massive and brutal falsification that pushed masses of Ukrainians to the Orange Revolution in 2004. This time, however, the rigging is likely to be much more serious. Unlike Leonid Kuchma who was more concerned about the opinion of the West, Yanukovych is more likely to use force to crush any opposition protests and hopes to stay in power until at least 2020. And many in his circle would have chosen force a means to crush the 2004 revolution. Moreover, he now has total control over the Supreme Court and the parliamentary majority.


Two years of the West’s delicate dealing with the Yanukovych regime has shown that the lack of a timely and tough reaction of Western leaders to the Party of Regions’ first moves to grab power has encourage the latter to become more aggressive on this course. Yanukovych started with the breach of the constitutional procedure to establish a pro-government majority in parliament in the spring of 2010. Then came the massive violations in the autumn 2010 local elections, which provided pro-government parties with overwhelming support in a slew of regions where less than 20% were going to vote for them. In October 2010, Yanukovych changed the constitutional order and gained the powers that the voters did not entitle him to in the 2010 presidential election.  

Without due reaction from the West and all leverages to control developments in the country in his hands, Yanukovych activated the necessity to take revenge on the opposition. Winter 2010-summer 2011 saw the initiation of politically motivated processes with the arrest of the most proactive opposition leaders, including Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko. The existence of a political leader who had been hot on his heels in the 2010 presidential election, already posed the threat of the opposition’s inevitable victory in the 2012 parliamentary election, and subsequently put into doubt the legitimacy of changes to the Constitutional order by the Yanukovych Administration back in 2010. The opposition needed to be beheaded – something that to a large extent, the government succeeded in doing.

In the meantime, Yanukovych consistently promised that each succeeding step in crushing democracy in Ukraine would be his last, thus allowing the West to justify its passivity in assessing his actions. His administration kept feeding Europe with promises to release political opponents for almost a year. Once the opposite happened – predictably so – the Western establishment was told that it must have misunderstood something; that Ukraine had an independent judiciary, and the regime that grabbed total control over all branches of power, including the media, had absolutely no influence over them.

It looks as if the Ukrainian government has once more initiated the good cop – bad cop game with the West. It is trying to fool Western politicians once more, using the old scenario and new settings. Given its widespread expectations that the government in Ukraine will change after the election, the West may still hope that the current regime continues to retain a certain element of common sense deep inside that could initiate  some changes. However, the West has already had a chance to see the extent to which this is wishful thinking: first, when Vladimir Putin came to power, followed by Dmitri Medvedev.

In addition, the inert reaction of the West to the attack on democracy in Ukraine has also discouraged the public and pushed many Ukrainians to think that Western countries, tormented by the economic crisis, are unable to resist the expansion of the Kremlin’s authoritarian influence, backed by its oil dollars.  

The Yanukovych regime may not necessarily switch to the Russian geopolitical direction if the West takes tougher action against it, as many Western politicians fear. Quite the contrary, such risk is much higher if authoritarian trends continue to escalate in Ukraine. Traditionally, the authoritarian and Moscow-oriented forces both in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states have largely represented one and the same group. Thus, the more authoritarian a post-Soviet country becomes, the more likely it is to fall under the Kremlin’s control.

By destroying the remaining opposition, independent media and the seeds of civil society in Ukraine, Yanukovych’s authoritarian regime is eliminating the forces that can resist Russian influences. However, the longer the regime exists, the more economically and socially frustrated the voters grow – even those who support authoritarianism and Russia. This discontent is hard to eliminate. As a result, the stronger authoritarianism which comes from abroad in this case may sooner or later squeeze out the weaker one. Thus, Mr. Yanukovych may be clearing the path for Putin even if he does not wish to do so at risk of losing power himself.


The Western establishment has to realize that most Ukrainians have always been and continue to be part of Europe. They have never accepted the Russian and Eurasian social model voluntarily. By contrast, Yanukovych’s political team always relied on the mentally russified and Soviet minority, mostly in South-Eastern Ukraine, as well as numerous tools for the manipulation of public opinion under conditions of a lack of efficient alternative elites and democratic institutions. Forcing Ukraine into a authoritarian Russo-Eurasian world by the Yanukovych regime is a geopolitical threat to the West.

The only way in which Ukraine differs from Central European countries is the strength of Russian pressure, with Bolshevism being just one of its elements. While Central European nations, including the Baltic States, enjoyed relatively democratic independence in the period between the two world wars, Ukraine underwent a disastrous genocide and the virtually total elimination of alternative elites and environments where new elites could establish quickly. When Ukraine gained independence in the early 1990s, the old soviet elite remained in place, although it had undergone selection in the USSR and could not possess the qualities necessary to govern an independent country. No effective government institutions have been established in Ukraine over the past two decades. The ones that exist have been servicing a leader and the oligarchs linked to him rather than performing their roles in the state.

To avoid its further manipulation by the Ukrainian authorities, the West should pay more attention to the processes and developments in Ukraine, in order to form its own opinion, based on direct contact with Ukrainian society. It should also take a more critical stance regarding existing NGOs, since they often create a misleading impression on the situation in Ukraine, the most widespread stereotypes being: “the new democratic Yanukovych in 2010”, “Ukrainian oligarchs being interested in European integration”, “the Party of Regions winning every election”, “developed civil society in Ukraine”, “pluralistic opinions in the Ukrainian media”, “an inevitable split in Yanukovych’s circle between gas lobbyists and the Donetsk-based group”, and many more. The West should seek ways to establish thousands and tens of thousands of contacts between civil societies in Ukraine and the West in order to facilitate the process. This will raise expectations for the emergence of a new elite and the formulation of a strategy for transformations in Ukraine. 

The most widespread stereotypes about Ukraine in the West

  • the new democratic Yanukovych in 2010
  • Ukrainian oligarchs are interested in European integration
  • the Party of Regions wins every election
  • Ukrainehas developed civil society
  • Ukrainian media present pluralistic and diverse opinions
  • Yanukovych’s circle is bound to split into gas lobbyists and the Donetsk-based group

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