By Mykola Riabchuk
It seems neither Ukrainian society nor international observers have come yet to terms with what really happened in the country within the last half a year. Back in February, when Viktor Yanukovych, a notorious villain of the 2004 Orange revolution, scored a narrow victory (49 vs 46 per cent) against the incumbent prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko, no one expected much good from his comeback but very few people considered it as a national catastrophe either.
The predominant experts’ view, including my own, was that the new president would probably pursue a Kuchma-style “multi-vector” policy internationally and a “Kuchma-lite” policy domestically. It seemed to be “lite” not because Yanukovych was any more committed to the rule of law, or had weaker authoritarian inclinations, but because presidential authority became much weaker these days than it used to be under Kuchma – due to the constitutional amendments made in 2004. So, for the time being, the Byzantine intrigues at the top were likely to continue and a dysfunctional Ukrainian democracy was likely to persist.
What virtually no one could have predicted back in February, was the blatant violation of the Constitution, the de-facto parliamentary coup d’etat completed by the new president and his Party of Regions, with the tacit acceptance – ‘benign neglect’ – of Western governments. Alexander Motyl has gone so far as to compare Yanukovych’s “coordinating” government with the Nazi’s 1933 Gleichschaltung. Certainly he did not mean there are any ideological similarities between both leaders and parties or the subsequent developments in Germany and Ukraine. He simply stressed the Bolshevik ‘revolutionary expedience’ that facilitated, in both cases, a swift and bold takeover of state institutions in a very arbitrary, semi-legal, or absolutely illegal way.
The main miscalculation of both Ukrainian and international observers came from the fact that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, even with two minor satellites – the Communists and the Lytvyn Block – did not have a majority in the parliament to create a legitimate government. The Ukrainian constitution stipulates that the government is created not by a simple majority of MPs but also by factions that have a sufficient number of MPs on their list to create such a majority. Such a restriction might look strange from the western point of view but in Ukraine it was enshrined deliberately in the Constitution in 2004 to restrict parliamentary corruption – the retail purchasing of single MPs from other factions. Hence, the only legitimate way to create a new government, for the Party of Regions, was to form a coalition either with Yushchenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ or Tymoshenko’s Bloc. Or, if those negotiations failed, he could announce new parliamentary elections. Yanukovych and his Party of Regions did not bother themselves with undoing the knot but simply cut it.
This resulted not only in the rapid creation of the new government endorsed by a fully obedient parliamentary majority. This was also a highly important symbolic message – both to Yanukovych’s supporters who typically despise democracy with all its boring procedures and who appreciate a ‘strong hand’, and to the opposition, which was in disarray through infighting, demoralized by the electoral defeat, and completely shocked by the unconstitutional move of the ‘Regionals’. Yet, the most important message was sent to the population at large: “We are back, with all our practices tried and tested in Donbas; we are serious guys, no jokes, it’s just the beginning”.
Within a few months, Yanukovych and his team have effectively subordinated all branches of the government, marginalized opposition, and consolidated their authoritarian rule largely based on the mechanisms of a ‘blackmail state’. In this regard, Yanukovych’s regime is not much different from that of Leonid Kuchma. What makes him different, however, is his much stronger and unabashed pro-Moscow orientation (if not subordination) in external policies, and much more divisive (if not overtly Ukrainophobic) stance in domestic issues. Leonid Kuchma pursued the so-called ‘multi-vector’ international politics, flirting with both Moscow and the West, and benefitting personally from such a shuttling. Internal politics was also manipulative: Kuchma assumed a peace-keeping role between east and west, left and right, and Russophones and Ukrainophones, sending mixed messages to different sides and reacting opportunistically to different challenges. This was the essence of post-Soviet ‘pragmatism’ that satisfied both the president and the ruling oligarchy in their need for stability and personal enrichment.
So far, Yanukovych exposes a striking absence of such ‘pragmatism’. He takes a lot of steps that can be deemed irrational in every way. One can list a huge number of dubious deals with Russia that are rightly perceived as one-sided, non-reciprocal concessions. There are also a lot of symbolical gestures, personnel nominations, divisive policies, and provocative decisions that bring no benefits to the nation or to the ruling oligarchy and the president himself. This makes many Ukrainian observers wonder whether Yanukovych is really a mediocre puppet of Ukrainian oligarchs, as many used to believe, or a much more dangerous puppet of the Russian security services and their powerful lobby in today’s Ukrainian government.
Whatever the real role of Russian intelligence in Ukraine might be, Yanukovych’s team is certainly not monolithic. It consists of various groups which can be roughly subsumed under two headings – pro-Moscow hawks connected to the notorious RosUkrEnergo and probably FSB/SVR; and ‘pragmatic’ doves pursuing a Kuchma-style multi-vector, quasi-centrist policy. So far, the hawks’ policies seem to prevail. They strongly alienate not only committed Ukrainophones who feel their identity under pressure, but also civil society at large, which finds civic freedoms under serious threat. The small and medium business sector is also set against the new economic and, in particular, fiscal policies of Yanukovych’s government. And some signs of anxiety emerge even among Ukrainian oligarchs who are increasingly dissatisfied with Russian dominance in all areas. The last straw might be the ultimate disappointment of Yanukovych’s rank-and-file pro-Russian electorate with economic and anti-corruption promises that are very unlikely to be delivered.
A regime change looks rather inevitable – if the next, 2012 parliamentary elections are free and fair, as they have been in Ukraine in the past five years. But here the main question dwells: how far will the incumbent government proceed in curbing media freedom, suppressing the opposition, subjugating the courts, bribing and intimidating civil servants, and using violence against protesters? If allegations of Russian involvement hold true, the puppet government may proceed beyond any limits. Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya might be a graphic example. Western benign neglect in this case would be not only self-deceiving but also self-defeating.
Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian cultural and political analyst. His last collection of essays “Mrs Simpson’s Favorite Gun” (in Ukrainian) was published in 2009 in Kyiv.