Ukrainian Leader puts Economic Recovery Ahead of Democracy


David Marples

Anti-national measures and attacks on democracy have become a feature of the new presidency of Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine.

In July 2010, in an article entitled “The New Political Regime in Ukraine: Toward Sultanism Yanukovych-Style?” American political scientist Alexander J. Motyl predicts the imminent collapse of the Yanukovych presidency in Ukraine. The new leader, he writes, is a figure of ridicule and will either fail to initiate reforms, leading to a new economic crisis, or else he might initiate them but undermine his own power base in the Sovietized Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Motyl’s conclusions appear premature. Indeed what is happening in Ukraine currently is less “Sultanism” than a gradual takeover by a determined, if not ruthless political force—the Regions Party—combined with perceptible economic recovery and increasing popularity of the Yanukovych leadership. This popularity has been generated in part by the introduction of a semblance of order into a situation that appeared earlier to be one of total chaos.

How has this occurred and what does it mean for the future of Ukraine?

In the first place, the Yanukovych team has extricated itself from many of the commitments of the president’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine no longer seeks to join NATO and has declared itself to be neutral and non-aligned.

It has blatantly favored the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, which has 9 million members, far less than the Kyiv Patriarchate.

In other areas, it has improved relations with Russia and ended the “gas war,” but without committing itself to the CSTO or Russian ambitions for the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Conversely, Ukraine in the long-term remains hopeful of attaining membership of the European Union, a move that has the support of Donetsk steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and a key member of the Regions team.

The Yanukovych Cabinet, heavily weighted in favor of his home region, Donetsk, contains its share of Neanderthals. Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov (nee Pakhlo), a native of Kaluga, Russia, who moved to Donetsk in 1984, elected not to appoint a single woman to his Cabinet. Minister of the Interior, Anatoly Mohylyov, has boosted the powers of the police and abolished the Department for the Monitoring of Human Rights. Education Minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, a historian, is an advocate of Russian-language rights in Ukraine.

The opposition meanwhile is subdued and divided. The Regions Party has the support of about 265 deputies in the 450-member parliament, based on its alliance with the bloc of Speaker, Volodymyr Lytvyn. It engineered this majority by a combination of bribery and persuasion to entice individual MPs and former members of other factions to join with Regions.

The government has largely taken over the media and only a handful of outlets now offer serious criticism of the new leadership. It has revamped Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, which has begun to monitor real and potential oppositionists at a level not seen since the days of Leonid Kuchma (president from 1994 to 2004).

Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader, is badly discredited, largely a result of the economic implosion that occurred during her tenure as Prime Minister. Although she came close to winning the presidency earlier this year, her political eclipse seems complete. But no other leader has emerged to replace her in what was once believed to be a potentially strong opposition. Instead, the Regions team is rapidly entrenching itself for a lengthy period in power.

That is evident from preparations for the October 2010 municipal elections. Once again the government has introduced new rules, disenfranchising political blocs and parties in operation for less than one year. In one stroke, therefore, some of the main opposition forces have been disbarred, including the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and Ukraine’s newest political party, For Fairness and Prosperity, founded only in July.

Yanukovych and his team have undermined democracy, flouted the Constitution at will, and imperiled national development. Some analysts have described the situation as the “Putinization” of Ukraine.

And yet Motyl’s prediction of an imminent collapse—at least by 2012—is far-fetched. Opinion polls suggest at least 45% of the electorate believes Ukraine is heading in the right direction. GDP will rise between 3 and 5% in 2010 following a fall of over 15% last year. Standard and Poor raised Ukraine’s long-term sovereign foreign currency rating from B to B+ on July 30. Austerity measures, including higher prices for gas, paved the way for the $15.15 billion stand-by loan from the IMF, with $1.89 billion available immediately to allow Ukraine to meet its current payments.

The economic reform program is in the hands of a non-member of the Regions team, Serhiy Tyhypko, who placed third in the 2010 presidential election and was appointed one of six deputy Prime Ministers. However, he is far too independent-minded for the government and his departure will likely soon follow now that the IMF loan has been secured.

That the president is an awkward public speaker, clownish, prone to mixing up events and places, and has a checkered past is well known. But his personal foibles and his government’s assault on democracy and Ukrainian national interests appear to be less important to the population than economic recovery.

This attitude, which may reverse the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution, is undoubtedly shortsighted but it is borne of difficult—even desperate—economic times.

This article was published in the EDMONTON JOURNAL on 9 August 2010.

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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