On the Importance of Being Candid

Mykola Riabchuk

Dmytro Potekhin, an activist of the youth movement that played an important role during the Orange Revolution, has recently circulated a number of questions that may look rhetorical at first glance but, like the childish questions of Voltaire’s Candide, they deserve serious consideration.

“Isn’t it strange”, he wrote, “that in a country where
1) the government is not legitimate since it was formed by unconstitutional majority;
2) the parliament is not legitimate since the majority did not result from a revote nor was it dissolved and reelected;
3) the court system is not legitimate since it operates under the new ‘law’ passed by the ‘parliament’;
4) the ‘president’ is not legitimate since he has done nothing either with the ‘parliament’ or with the ‘government’ to reestablish constitutional rule,
– the key human rights activists are complaining that the ‘minister’ of interior is not gathering the public council to hear about human rights abuses, while saying nothing about the unconstitutional nature of the whole situation;
– the key freedom movement is ‘against censorship’, while its activists – journalists keep calling all these people who took over the institutions ‘president’, ‘prime minister’, ‘minister’ projecting their legitimacy;
– the bloggers wonder why the security service is removing posts from their blogs, but still call it Security Service of Ukraine, not Security Service of Usurpers;
– the businesses are complaining that the taxes are too high, while they are taken by a bunch of organized people who in the early 90s were called racketeers;
– the opposition is going to take part in the elections under the ‘law’ passed by a bunch of MPs still calling themselves deputies, none of whom get out of this fake Verhovna Rada […]
People, what are we talking about?!”*

To put it simply, why has a de-facto parliamentary coup d’etat and eventual usurpation of power by a minority clique been tacitly accepted by both the political opposition and society at large?

There are many answers that largely explain, albeit not justify, the odd situation.

First, the dubious takeover of power was approved by the Constitutional Court – even though the same Court a year and a half ago passed the opposite decision on a similar issue. Actually, the credibility of the Court was undermined long ago, in 2003, when the constitutional pundits recognized that Leonid Kuchma could run for presidency for the third time because his first term did not count – he had served it arguably under the old constitution. The Orange leaders put much more efforts into subduing the Court than making it really efficient and independent. Society never voiced strong concerns about this – and now we all are duly punished for our passivity and opportunism.

Secondly, the coup d’etat was accepted by Western governments with a benign neglect that placed the Ukrainian opposition in an odd situation: they had to deny the legitimacy of the government whose validity, in fact, was recognized (or at least not questioned) internationally.

And thirdly, the misrule of the Orange leaders has discredited not only them – as today’s opposition, but democracy in general. This boosted the attractiveness of the authoritarian alternative within one part of the society, and frustrated, demoralized, and alienated the other part, hindering its ability to resist. In such a situation, a minority party with sufficient resources and determination can easily capture the state – as happened in Italy or Germany long ago, and more recently in Russia.

So, I would say that the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government is recognized by default – simply because there is no other government (since Tymoshenko unexpectedly easily stepped down in March, passing authority to the usurpers), nor is there any viable alternative (since the opposition is still in disarray, and society either frustrated with everything or still trustful in the new duce).

In this regard, David Marples is probably right when questioning Alexander Motyl’s prediction of the imminent collapse of the Yanukovych presidency in Ukraine – probably by the year 2012 (Edmonton Journal, Aug. 9, 2010). It looks really overoptimistic – but not because of “perceptible economic recovery and increasing popularity of the Yanukovych leadership”, as Dr. Marples suggests. Neither “recovery” nor “popularity” are actually viable. The former is mostly connected to the post-crisis recovery of the entire world economy and to a very low base for comparison. The latter is related to the ‘honeymoon’ period of Yanukovych’s presidency and still high expectations of his electorate (actually, Yushchenko’s popularity at the time was even higher but has since fallen dramatically). So far, there are no economic reforms in sight to secure sustainable growth. And austerity measures designed to support this growth do not target officials or friendly oligarchs, so would hardly sustain the president’s popularity in the near future.

Motyl might be wrong for another reason. He expects that the 2012 parliamentary and 2015 presidential elections will be free and fair – as they used to be within the past five years. Not necessarily. Given the pace and direction of political and legal “reforms” introduced by the new regime, we may have Russia-style ‘managed democracy’ in Ukraine very soon. Actually, the local elections this Fall will provide a good litmus test for Ukraine’s democratic procedures and institutions. So far, the changes of the electoral law rubber-stamped by the parliament to advantage the ruling party a few months before the elections do not evoke much optimism. They introduced a number of retroactive requirements that should have been abolished by any impartial court if it happened to exist in Ukraine. And they confirmed once again the strong intention of the government to play with rules rather than play by rules.

So now might be a proper time to come back to the candid questions raised by Dmytro Potekhin and to remind the king and his court that they are naked. They got some carte-blanche, however dubious, to introduce law and order and much needed reforms. But instead, they bring even more lawlessness and disorder, and introduced very peculiar “reforms” that satisfy mostly their oligarchic friends and Moscow patrons. For the beginning, I suggest to mention, wherever possible, their titles and positions within the quotation marks or with the words “so called”.

Potekhin is right – we do not have a legitimate government, legitimate parliament, legitimate Court. We have people who call themselves “ministers”, “deputies”, and “judges”. Let them do it. But we should not accept their claims at face value.

*Potekhin’s text has been modified slightly for grammatical reasons. DRM



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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