Soft Authoritarianism

14 April 2013, 16:03

The Yanukovych regime is counting on soft authoritarianism as proven by the latest developments in and around political circles prove this. By choosing this tactic it can maintain contact with the West and argue that it is capable of concessions if the West continues to turn a blind eye to the Family model of state being built in Ukraine. Moreover, soft authoritarianism permits the application of “boiling frog” technology regarding the Ukrainian opposition and society in general. If a frog is thrown into boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if it is placed in cool water which is then slowly heated up, the frog will be boiled to death, sooner or later.


On 7 April, Yanukovych issued a decree to pardon the victims of selective justice – Yuriy Lutsenko and Heorhiy Filipchuk, something the West has long demanded. The next day, the Ministry of the Interior reported that it had already met nine conditions on which the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU depends. On the one hand, Lutsenko’s release has been expected since the Ukraine-EU summit in Februrary, when Yanukovych supposedly promised this to the Europeans. On the other, after the court dismissed Lutsenko’s cassation appeal, this kind of rapid development crowned with his release came as quite a surprise. However, it was evident that the authorities were in a hurry:  in Lutsenko’s case, the pardon was announced several days after the cassation appeal.

The likely explanation is the intensification of the political confrontation in early April, which led to the opposition blocking parliament, the start of preparations for a referendum on constitutional amendments and finally, what was essentially an attempted coup by Party of Regions MPs. Add to this the reaction both in Ukraine and in the West. On 4 April, a minority of MPs loyal to the president, headed by Speaker Volodymyr Rybak, barricaded themselves up in a building of parliamentary committees on Bankova Street, i.e., outside the session hall of the Verkhovna Rada, which is on Hrushevsky Street, and started passing laws on behalf of the entire parliament. These “meetings” not only violated the law on parliamentary procedures, according to which, draft laws can only be voted on within the walls of the parliamentary session hall, and a different venue must first be approved by a decision made on the premises of the VR. It was clear that the “separatists” lacked a quorum: they did not let in opposition members who were on the counting commission. Video recordings clearly show that many seats were empty in a room which seats 250 people and which was used for the proceedings. Information has been leaked that a mere 169 MPs were present instead of the required 226 or the 244 declared by the Party of Regions MPs. Furthermore, the organizers flatly refused to give opposition members the signatures of the participating MPs, which would have permitted a real count. It was later confirmed that at least several MPs officially declared as having been present on Bankova Street were, in fact, abroad or in the session hall on Hrushevsky Street.

Under the cover of Lutsenko’s pardon and the possibility of similar concessions in the future, Yanukovych may count on a more subdued build-up of his authoritarianism. For example, he can use a referendum as a totally democratic mechanism to suit his purposes. A plebiscite could be used to strip MPs of their immunity and replace the current election system with one that would let the president form a loyal constitutional majority in parliament. In its turn, this opens the way for fully dependent MPs to make amendments to the Constitution that would otherwise never find support, even with a well-orchestrated national referendum. Such amendments could include presidential elections held in only one round, a president elected by parliament, the retroactive extension of the president’s term in office to seven years, etc.

A number of decisions issued by the Central Election Commission dated 2 April suggest that a national plebiscite is being prepared. Various aspects have already been approved: the procedure for purchasing goods, works and services for its preparation and execution; the procedure for providing buildings and equipment for constituency and district election commissions; the submission procedure for setting up regular, special and foreign electoral districts; transferring ballots to district commissions in districts located abroad and so on. Moreover, the design and description of seals to be used by constituency commissions and various ID forms for participants of the referendum process have been approved. Oblast and regional administrations have received instructions telling them to start preparing for a referendum. According to Oleh Tyahnybok, there is a demand to select “reliable” people to work in commissions of all levels.


The tactic used by the Yanukovych regime since he became president, is to take small but consistent steps to wear out the opposition. After the government failed to push through its candidates in the so-called problematic districts, it stopped twisting the arms of Central Election Commission members in an effort to score victories in those districts where it stood at least a minimal chance of victory. However, repeat elections were not arranged, and the five potential seats that the opposition could have, remain vacant. (This is another question for its leaders: Why don’t they demand repeat elections in these districts?) The issue has been pushed to the back burner, and the result may take a long time; until snap parliamentary elections, held under new regulations. Similarly, the government met the opposition halfway in dividing seats in the committees and the presidium of the Verkhovna Rada, obviously in order to play certain opposition members against one other, which was particularly noticeable in the struggle for committees. However, Party of Regions MPs later initiated a revision of prior agreements as they sought to strengthen their positions in the more important committees and again put up for auction the seat of the “opposition Vice Speaker”, now held by Svoboda MP, Ruslan Koshulynsky. This was a way to instigate conflict in the opposition. An even more vivid example is the new wave of renegades among opposition MPs. The party in power appears keeping loyal MPs in the opposition, then pulling them out when it finds fit. One possible reason for this is to divert public attention away from some of the opposition’s initiatives.

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As long as the government did not sense an urgent need in the work of the Verkhovna Rada, it could allow its permanent blockade for as long as it lasted. In cases when this could pose the threat of early elections in conflict with the scenario it had devised, Party of Regions MPs would “concede” to the opposition, only to disregard the promises or even the documentary obligations shortly after. A vivid example of this was the button pushing at the first sessions of the newly-unblocked VR. While conducting a “session” of the higher legislative body in the committee building at Bankova Street instead of the VR premises at Hrushevsky Street, as designated by the Parliamentary Regulation, the government proved that it is ready to take extreme action against the opposition, in spite of the rules, if necessary.

Notably, just as in the case of the decision not to appoint the Kyiv mayoral election, the government also did not allow the opposition to mobilize people against blatant usurpation in the “parliamentary coup” situation. After the “session”, which lasted several hours, and almost unanimous manual voting, the participants of the gathering dispersed. While the opposition was conducting an anti-usurpation rally in Kyiv announced as a new Maidan almost (a reference to protest actions such as the Orange Revolution – Ed.), Speaker Rybak and the president did not sign a single decision passed at the “alternative session” of the VR. This blurred the cause of the opposition’s protest once again, while the government got a chance to take one step back in order to take two steps forward when necessary.

However, this step back proved unnecessary. As in the case with the protests for mayoral and city council elections on 2 April, it appears that the regime was waiting to see how many people would come out onto the streets on the call of the opposition against the alternative parliamentary session on April 7th , in order to understand whether any concessions are worthwhile. When yet another rally proved to be a poorly attended protest rather than a harbinger of a new Maidan – at least of a scale of 2010 tax protests, the government realized that it is very safe at this stage. Party of Regions spoke openly on national TV that all decisions approved at their alternative session would be signed by the speaker and the president, and would become valid laws of Ukraine. This is how the government actually brought the issue to an end: it can keep bullying the opposition with the prospect of passing decisions it needs at sessions that are closed to the opposition should the latter meddles with them in parliament.


Meanwhile, the sole prospect of a referendum to change the election system to first-past-the-post one and reduce the number of MPs, has in itself already become a powerful instrument of pressure on those numerous opposition MPs who came to parliament to resolve their own issues, or at least to have realistic chances for success in the near future. Clearly, the consolidation of the regime, which the opposition is currently unable (or reluctant) to resist, makes staying in the latter’s ranks futile for such MPs, and compels cooperation with the regime. If the “referendum coup” proves successful, such opposition MPs will have fewer opportunities to benefit from a change of government in 2015. At the same time, they risk losing their mandates and never getting them back, let alone their personal security and that of their businesses, should this parliament be dissolved and a new one elected.

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The government has clearly decided to start the process of excluding the opposition with the biggest, yet the weakest link in the current parliamentary opposition – Batkivshchyna, a conglomerate of different political forces and competing politicians. It emerged thanks to the ambitions of Arseniy Yatseniuk to become the only presidential candidate of the united opposition, the absence of a charismatic leader in the headless Batkivshchyna and the desire of politicians, who did not have a chance to cross the 5% threshold independently, including Hrytsenko, Kyrylenko, Katerynchuk and others. Immediately after the conclusion of the parliamentary campaign, the expanded Batkivshchyna proved unable to become the driving force of the opposition movement, let alone aspire to the role of a mainstream party, capable of radical transformations in Ukraine, should it come to power. Immediately after the election, Arseniy Yatseniuk faced strong resistance in the ranks of his new comrades-in-arms, who actually refused to guarantee him support in the presidential race.

Now, some in Batkivshchyna are increasingly critical about Yatseniuk. This is not without grounds. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, all five of the currently known turncoats (father and son Tabalov, Vitaliy Nemilostiviy, Ihor Skosar and Roman Stadniychuk), got into the parliament under Yatseniuk’s quota. There are also several potential turncoats among Batkivshchyna deputies recommended by him or Mykola Martynenko, the closest allies of Arseniy Yatseniuk. These supposedly include Leonid Serhiyenko, Andriy Pavlenko, Denys Dzendzerskiy and Serhiy Fayermark. In truth, several have already denied suspicion of future betrayal, however potential turncoats have never announced their intentions to leave a party in advance earlier. Notably, turncoats have lately justified their switch by high morals or opposition to Batkivshchyna’s leader. Anatoliy Hrytsenko, be it consciously or not, started the trend, followed by Oleh Kanivets, who left the united opposition faction, saying that he was no longer able to tolerate the voluntarism of the Batkivshchyna leader and the way the opinions of party members were ignored. Soon, others picked up this rhetoric: Andriy Tabalov promised to return to Batkivshchyna if Arseniy Yatseniuk leaves parliament, and Nemilostiviy offered Yatseniuk to quit his MP mandate, and then he would quit his. Both have gotten into the parliament under Yatseniuk’s quota.

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The trolling of Yatseniuk is gaining momentum and is objectively very convenient for the interests of the government. The goal is clear: to provoke his resignation from the post of head of the faction, or to crush any motivation to remain in the Batkivshchyna ranks and give a nudge towards the establishment of his own factions and the reanimation of the Front of Change political project. In this context, it’s worth remembering that last year, when the Front of Change and Batkivshchyna finally united, government representatives did not hide their surprise or their irritation, since until that time, they had considered that Yatseniuk would not take such a step, and that the opposition would once again prove unable to come to an agreement. This is why it is now so important for the government to prove that there are no prospects in any consolidation of the opposition and that it is harmful to their participants – therefore, fragmentation is all but natural, although it makes their exclusion from the political process inevitable.


For the time being, most of the faction’s MPs still support Yatseniuk. He has already asked the faction of confidence for him twice immediately after the turncoats appeared – and the majority gave him a vote of confidence both times. Until now, only Hrytsenko has consistently voted against him. However, it appears that Arseniy Yatseniuk is preparing a backup plan. Numerous Front of Change flags and people, dressed in the green uniforms of his old party brand in the April 2 and 7 protests confirm the assumption. The intrigue is that he himself may have a hard time creating his own faction in parliament (he needs at least 32 MPs for this) if the current crossover trend among MPs who got into parliament under Yatseniuk’s quota evolves. According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko’s group, made up of himself, Oleh Medunytsia, Kseniya Lyapina and Ivan Stoyko, may help Yatseniuk in this.

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Should the Front of Change, Anatoliy Hrytsenko and other minority deputies leave the united opposition, the remaining deputies in Batkivshchyna could decrease to less than 50. Most of them are BYuT faction MPs in the last convocation. According to information provided by The Ukrainian Week’s sources, if this scenario is played out, Andriy Kozhemyakin could become head of BYuT, since Oleksandr Turchynov “is often sick” in recent times. However, rumours have long circulated about his possible ties with the Party of Regions, particularly Andriy Kliuyev. This sheds new light on Arseniy Yatseniuk’s words about Kliuyev’s intrigues, mentioned during the first blocking of parliament when it demanded personal voting. In winter, the very day after Kliuyev visited the VR, parliament was unblocked and he started participating more actively in parliamentary processes.

The problem of the new-old  Batkivshchyna in this case will be that neither Kozhemyakin, nor Turchynov, nor any of its “remaining” members, can claim the role of an independent, recognized and popular leader, which is a natural consequence of the excessive personalization of Tymoshenko’s political project – as well as other parties that lack firm ideology. A leaderless Batkivshchyna will face the threat of collapse or the continuation of squabbles between individual groups of influence, providing crossovers for the pro-government majority. In the best-case scenario, they will cross over to other opposition political forces — Svoboda (Leonid Kanivets has already expressed this intent), UDAR, or Poroshenko’s possible project, which will most likely position itself as a constructive opposition.


This Party of Regions’ tactic suggests that the Yanukovych regime could be counting on further aggravating existing conflicts within the three-headed opposition (Mykhailo Chechetov recently mentioned this) by releasing Yuriy Lutsenko. Indeed, Lutsenko has already announced a new political project – similar in many aspects, to the old People’s Self-Defence. Only this time, Petro Poroshenko, who financed the 2004 Orange team, may act as its main sponsor rather than Davyd Zhvania in 2006-2007. Shortly after his release, Lutsenko and Poroshenko’s wife became godparents to the daughter of Yuriy Stets, a former top manager at Poroshenko’s Channel 5 and current Batkivshchyna MP. If this evolves, the “Third Ukrainian Republic Movement” of Lutsenko and other “field commanders” of the Maidan (see p. 4) may well turn into one of the instruments – or even the key instrument – to reinforce Petro Poroshenko’s position in Ukrainian politics, something he has long strived for.

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New opportunities for splitting Batkivshchyna into groups of crossovers could be the prologue of a campaign to set up a pro-presidential majority that will not depend on Communist 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. However, this solidity is relative. If necessary, the government can make this political party look the way it sees fit. As long as Klitchko’s personal ratings and chances of beating Yanukovych in the second round of a presidential election are higher than those of other opposition leaders, persuading UDAR MPs to cross over will be challenging. But as soon as chances for shifts in government in the next two years decrease for any reasons (such as a change in the constitutional system, based on a referendum), this political project may quickly collapse and lose popularity with the protest-oriented electorate. Experience dictates that just like Batkivshchyna, UDAR has no firm ideology that would unite the majority of Ukrainian voters, and the leader’s influence can be easily ruined in Ukrainian circumstances. 

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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, thus terrorize voters with the prospect of the “brown plague” flooding the country if Tyahnybok wins. Similar tactics tested earlier in Ukraine, Europe and Russia proves that most voters prefer a bad yet moderate government to a radical one. Combined with the government’s potentially stronger position, resulting from the referendum to amend the Constitution and the possible re-election of parliament under the first-past-the-post system, this could boost Yanukovych’s chances of staying in power after 2015 without extreme scenarios, such as a one-round presidential election, large-scale election rigging and the like. Thus, the instruments of soft authoritarianism and the maintenance of a façade of democracy will be enough to maintain his minimal legitimacy in the eyes of the West.


The current opposition has failed to demonstrate its ability to resist the Yanukovych regime – even with its soft authoritarian policy. So why does the latter have to use tough radical scenarios that will further stain its image and aggravate relations with the West which are already tense. Moreover, those in power are reluctant to break completely with the West: they still have accounts in Swiss banks, businesses in Europe, real estate in London, children at European universities, treatment in Western hospitals and other benefits. This is not to say that there will not be any tough scenarios, or that the regime is unprepared for them. The opposition, such as it is, cannot pose a serious enough threat to it to make it play hard because it is weak, so the regime does not need tough usurpation. It might, however, if it faces a strong alternative force, something that society desires, since 70% of Ukrainians hate the current government.  Regardless of whether this alternative force emerges from the current opposition (which is unlikely) or comes as a totally new political force, it should be truly independent from oligarchs, have real rather than a paid-for national network of effective party organizations, and most importantly, a clear programme for dramatic reforms that the majority of voters will view as an action plan.  

Thus, the creeping usurpation by the Yanukovych regime, using soft authoritarian tools, brings forth both threats and opportunities. On the one hand, the complete exclusion of the opposition and the weakening of parliament will further strengthen the Family, remove barriers for socio-economic experiments that are beneficial to the businesses close to the government, wipe out what remains of political and civil freedoms, and more. As a result, Ukraine could continue to walk away from the European model towards that of Russia, Belarus or Central Asia. This may boost the threat of Ukraine being swallowed up by Russia in the future. Even if Yanukovych fails to complete his family model, the struggle for its heritage is likely to involve several groups from the current conglomerate in power that will take shape later, following the Kuchma heritage scenario.

Under this scenario, the remains of the current opposition risks being almost entirely excluded from the new political reality. However, the great demand of Ukrainian voters for profound changes will not disappear. The regime’s anti-Ukrainian policy will only fuel it, particularly as generations change. Therefore, there will still be a chance for the emergence of an entirely new opposition in time. It will be more effective, and mature enough to duly represent the interests of the Ukrainian majority and to implement the crucial transformations the latter expects. This could be the last chance for the Ukrainian nation.

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