The September 22 visit of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to New York to make a speech at the United Nations was notable for the lack of high-level meetings with US government leaders as well as for the public refusal of leaders of the Ukrainian community to meet with him.
The community leaders were signaling their displeasure at recent events in Ukraine, including the September 9 arrest of historian Ruslan Zabilyi in L’viv by secret service agents (SBU), for alleged dissemination of classified information, attacks on the Ukrainian media, and Yanukovych’s pact with Russia to maintain the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol until 2042.
In general, the community perceives presidential policy as being more attuned to the interests of Russia than those of Ukraine and sees Yanukovych as a puppet of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Yanukovych made some efforts to avoid a hostile reception. After he took office earlier this year, a section dedicated to the 1933 Famine in Ukraine was quickly removed from the presidential website. In mid-September it reappeared on the Ukrainian and Russian versions of the site (but not the English version), including the decrees adopted in Ukraine and other countries during the administration of his predecessor. A week later some sections were removed.
The website also includes the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, stating that the government is preparing to mark its 25th anniversary on April 26. Special attention is being paid to the construction of a new roof over the destroyed fourth reactor, which is approximately ten years behind schedule and posing a renewed risk of increased radiation to the surrounding area.
In his speeches at the UN and meetings in Europe (particularly the one with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 20), Yanukovych stressed the importance of democratic freedoms and independence of the media. He has appointed commissions on economic reform and to deal with corruption.
The problem is that words have not been matched by deeds by the president and his Regions Party, which leads a majority coalition in the parliament that includes the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Lytvyn Bloc (made up of the People’s Party and the Labor Party).
An example of the restrictions on free expression was provided on September 21, when Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov spoke to the youth wing of the Party of Regions in Kyiv, and announced his initiative to ban lampooning of Ukrainian politicians on television. Azarov, has been described as a boring man who speaks Ukrainian badly and is an ardent Russophile—he was born in Russia and educated in Moscow.
Under Yanukovych as well, Western Ukraine has become alienated from the rest of the country.
Thus Azarov’s underlings consist of a Deputy Prime Minister and five Vice Prime Ministers, all but one of which are from the eastern regions of Ukraine—the exception, Serhii Tihipko who is not a member of the Regions Party, was born in Moldova. In short, the Cabinet comprises essentially a group of men—there are no women—from the heartland of support for the Regions Party. Western Ukrainians are pointedly excluded.
Minister for Education and Science, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who was also a Vice Prime Minister in the later years of the Kuchma presidency, has consistently inflamed public opinion among Western Ukrainians. In the September 17-23 issue of 2000, he published an article entitled “The Spiritual Capitulation of Nationalists.”
The crux of the article is that radical nationalists are trying to use Western Ukraine as an ideological base with the intention of splitting it off from the rest of the country and forming a separate state. However, wrote Tabachnyk, the nationalists destroyed their chances of retaining influence during the five years after the 2004 Orange Revolution. One of his chief targets was 50-year old Ukrainian writer and poet Yuri Andrukhovych, whom Tabachnyk singled out as the ringleader of the separatists.
Reaction to the article—it is the latest in a long list of crude and inflammatory comments by Tabachnyk, who has offered sympathetic comments about Stalin in the past—was surprisingly swift. The leader of the Regions branch in L’viv, Petro Pysarchuk, declared that he would immediately initiate steps to have Tabachnyk removed from office and that the Minister has no mandate to pose as the party’s ideologist.
The critical question perhaps is whether Yanukovych will take any steps to criticize the comments of his divisive subordinates. There has been no indication that he is interested in curbing their more outlandish antics or removing figures like Tabachnyk. As a result, the Regions Party is indeed regionalizing Ukraine. Donbas politicians wield all the power; Galicians are essentially outsiders.
EU leaders seem prepared to ignore the darker aspects of the new presidency. Ukraine’s friendship with Russia has put an end to the gas wars that had periodically interrupted vital supplies to Europe. The EU has been reluctant to make overt criticisms of the Yanukovych presidency so early into its mandate but its concerns are becoming evident. To ignore what is happening in Ukraine today is to stand aside and allow a new authoritarian state to emerge in the center of the continent.
Most residents of Ukraine have grown accustomed to the growth of civil society, freedom to express themselves, and public debate. Some 49% backed Yanukovych as president mainly because they wished to restore some economic stability after the endless wrangling among Orange leaders. However, little attention has been paid to economic reform other than rhetoric and opinion polls suggest that the administration has dropped sharply in popularity since the last presidential election.
Yanukovych has been in office for seven months. To date he has elevated his cronies, allowed the SBU free rein, restricted media freedoms, and failed to make an imprint on corruption. He has paid homage to Russia though he has not turned his back on Europe. He has, however, elevated the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine to the position of leading spiritual authority.
It is not an impressive record and the Ukrainian electorate may live to regret giving this once disgraced politician a position of such eminence.