By Ilya Khineyko
According to a well-known saying, “the wheels of justice turn slowly.” Perhaps, that is what the Constitutional court of Ukraine might want to use in its defense to justify keeping the country in a legal limbo as it is taking time to hand out a verdict on the April 2 decree of the Ukrainian president. While both sides of the conflict have to wait patiently for the court to decide, by no means have they been idle in the past week. Each has accused each other of trying to sway the judges’ opinions. In addition, Suzanna Stanik has been involved in a corruption scandal of her own. However, even if it should turn out to be impossible to change the balance of power on the Ukrainian political scene, the ruling coalition has mounted a spirited and multi-faceted campaign to present its case abroad.
The main thrust of its offensive involved a pilgrimage to Strasbourg by Viktor Yanukovych on April 17 to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The content of his speech was fairly uncontroversial and predictable to the degree that in the Ukrains’ka Pravda coverage of the visit less attention was devoted to what Yanukovych said than to the ostentatiously ritzy ostrich leather shoes he wore. The Strasbourg visit was a scheduled appearance. However, coupled with other parallel developments it is possible to see the patterns of a coordinated campaign. Since the beginning of the crisis, a series of articles promoting the ruling coalition’s stance have appeared in the Western media, such as exclusive interviews with Yanukovych in the Washington Times [not available online] and Sunday Telegraph (London) and an article ostensibly written by Yanukovych himself, published in the Financial Times on April 13. His message is always the same, one that combines skillfully an admonition of Yushchenko’s decision to dissolve the Rada with repeated pledges of commitment to democracy and a pro-Western course for Ukraine; all in an obvious attempt to strike a chord with Western audiences. Speaking to the PACE session in Strasbourg Yanukovych insisted that he and Yushchenko share a common vision of Ukraine’s future and argued that the current disagreements between them are of tactical nature. The Sunday Telegraph piece quoted him as saying that
I support a pro-Western course, which means building a democratic, wealthy and socially healthy society. The difference between my position and that of my opponents is that they are trying to go Western as soon as possible.
In the Financial Times article, entitled “Ukraine’s democracy must rest on the rule of law” [original spelling preserved. I.Kh.] Yanukovych claimed that
Like all Ukrainian politicians, I have learnt a lot since the dramatic events of 2004. I truly believe that our political pluralism, which should be cherished and preserved, is one of the main sources of our national strength and a guarantee of Ukraine’s bright future.
At the same time, he criticized Yushchenko’s decree by pointing out that the latter contains no reference to Article 90 of the Ukrainian Constitution and his call for the dissolution of the parliament met none of the specific conditions under which it may be dismissed.
It appears that Yanukovych’s pro-Western rhetoric is not merely a by-product of the ongoing standoff with the president but rather part of a larger scheme aimed at improving his image in the West, which seemed to have been irreparably tarnished during the Orange revolution. Prior to the outbreak of the current crisis, Ukrains’ka Pravda published a series of investigative articles, examining the role of American political consultants in the Yanukovych camp. It had been rumored that after the defeat in 2004 the Party of Regions became disillusioned with the work of Russian spin doctors and began to seek advice from Western PR firms. According to the March 28 article, an American company, Davis, Manafort&Freeman, Inc, a well known lobbying and PR firm, was first hired by Renat Akhmetov to advise SCM Holdings on a Western stock listing. Later, however, the company extended their work into the political sphere and was put in charge of organizing interviews with Yanukovych in the foreign media.
According to our sources, Manafort prepared a list of talking points for Yanukovych to be used during his visit to the USA at the end of 2006.
Regarding the issue of his relationship with Yushchenko, the American advisors recommended him to repeat the following at every opportunity:
“I am not an opponent of Yushchenko, nor do I compete with him. I am not planning to humiliate or offend Yushchenko, for we do things in a tactful manner. Furthermore, we cannot demand from the President to do what he cannot do. My task is to cover the president’s weak spots. I would like the US government to assure Yushchenko that they are interested in dialogue between the President and Premier of Ukraine. I will take necessary steps to have Our Ukraine join the ruling coalition.”
It is not hard to notice that the message prepared for Yanukovych at the end of 2006 does not differ substantially from what he has been saying in the course of the current crisis, including the line about the absence of any real conflict between the president and premier.
Whether this conciliatory approach is just a ploy solely for Western consumption is difficult to say. It should be noted, however, that some remarks made by Yanukovych in Strasbourg suggest that he did not stay on script on at least on one occasion. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Yanukovych answered a question posed by a Russian journalist regarding the possibility of the impeachment of the Ukrainian president in the following way:
[If the Constitutional Court ruling is not” in the president’s favor, [it], of course, will have negative consequences for President Yushchenko. And one of the possible variants is impeachment.”
It is equally unclear whether these attempts to woo the West have met with any success. The ruling coalition can count in its favor the measured tone of the PACE resolution on the Ukrainian question. Although it did not speak against the possibility of early elections, it did, however, reject the idea of ‘imperative mandate’ as “unacceptable in a democratic state.” Furthermore, in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the General Secretary of the Council of Europe Terry Davis called Yanukovych “a real European politician, just like Viktor Yushchenko.”
There is always room for maneuvering in Ukrainian politics and political declarations, no matter how frequent and boisterous, can be discarded at any moment. Leonid Kuchma’s years of practicing multi-vector foreign policy mattered very little in 2001 when he sought support from the Russian president, having been cornered by the Gongadze affair. It is possible that Yanukovych does not really mean what he says. However, at a time when the rift between the West and Russia seems to be widening, the mere fact that both sides are trying to frame the conflict in terms of European political culture rather than as a geopolitical standoff between East and West may prove to be of lasting importance.