HAVING THE CAKE AND EATING IT TOO


Mykola Riabchuk

On the eve of President Vikto Yanukovych’s visit to Moscow on December 19, many Ukrainian experts were confident that the game was over and the beleaguered Ukrainian president would accept Putin’s invitation to the Customs Union as a sine qua non condition for the much-needed lowering of gas prices. The visit was postponed, however, because the agreement on energy cooperation had not been yet finalized http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2012/12/21/6980243/.

There are also some unofficial explanations of the canceled event, ranging from Putin’s whim to a miraculous call from Brussels and promise to soften the EU’s stance on the association agreement. The most feasible argument was discussed in detail in Ekonomichna pravda: some Ukrainian oligarchs have raised a new rescue idea, very similar to the old one realized by the unforgettable RosUkrEnergo http://www.epravda.com.ua/publications/2012/12/19/351560/.

Since his accession to power, Viktor Yanukovych has seemed to be musing over the classical question: how to have one’s cake and eat it too? In other words, how can one exploit the economy for the benefit of cronies and kinsmen, yet keep it alive? How to imitate a democracy and retain authoritarian power? How to befriend the West but avoid the burden of incorporating Western values and the rule of law in particular? How to gain concessions from Moscow without conceding one’s own and one’s clan’s sovereignty?

So far, the process of eating has gone much more smoothly than that of keeping the country afloat. Those perusing Ukrainska Pravda or other independent news sites regularly, would find, every day, a whole series of new facts about some government schemes: misuse of funds, tax evasion, dubious purchases at exorbitant prices from murky off-shore intermediaries, raider attacks, scandalous court rulings, and various examples of lawlessness that make up a fabric of Ukrainian social reality. Remarkably, all these facts that would cause scandals in a normal country and lead to dismissal of corrupt officials and a court investigation, evoke typically no official reaction in Ukraine. If something does not exist on TV (fully controlled by the government), it does not exist at all. Actually, only 20 per cent of the population obtains information from the Internet, whereas 80 per cent receives it primarily or exclusively from TV.

The government seems to believe in the virtual TV world it created for the gullible population. Nothing the government did within the past two months signals any desire to change course, tame the appetites of the “Family,” and carry out comprehensive reforms that may be the only way to save the country. Neither the clear popular vote against the incumbents, nor international condemnation of the rigged elections, nor the dire state of the Ukrainian economy and the even bleaker prospects for the future have compelled the president and his team to revise a single item of their impending disastrous policies.

First, the 2013 national budget was rubber-stamped by the parliament in the best traditions of the ruling Party of Regions: without any discussion but with numerous loopholes and tasty morsels for the “Family” insiders and associates.

Secondly, the new parliamentary majority was formed through the familiar pattern of bribery, blackmail, and intimidation of independent MPs. Many of the latter are connected to various businesses, either personally or via close relatives, and are therefore highly vulnerable to government influence. Opposition MPs are also subjected to pressure. So far, only two of them, from Yatseniuk’s party, have switched sides openly, but reports suggest that many more are being “persuaded” by various means to make the “right” choice http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2012/12/13/6979494/.

Thirdly, even though the new government has not yet been formed, the approved return of Mykola Azarov to the position of the prime minister does not bode any significant changes to the previous stagnant and corrupt policies. The election of 66-year Volodymyr Rybak, Yanukovych’s close friend from Donetsk, as chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, also confirms the desire to preserve the status quo and keep away any strong figures from top governmental positions that might provide them a good platform in the future to threaten Yanukovych http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2012/12/14/6979768/.

And fourthly, the outgoing parliament has rubber-stamped one more document that might pose grim consequences not only for Ukraine but also for Yanukovych himself. This was the law on national referendums that is widely believed to be a vehicle for his re-election for a second or even third term but might also become a tricky instrument in the hands of pro-Moscow forces to undermine the sovereignty of both Yanukovych and Ukraine in general.

The controversial law was passed at the first reading two years ago and seemed to have been forgotten until last November when the de-facto electoral defeat of the Party of Regions buried the “Family’s” hopes of mustering a qualified majority of two-thirds of MPs in the new parliament to amend the constitution at Yanukovych’s convenience, as has occurred in several post-Soviet states to satiate local dictators. Now, the anti-constitutional law on referendums means that the authorities can bypass the last remnants of constitutionalism in Ukraine by transforming the results of any plebiscite directly into law, without the need for parliamentary approval.

The referendum can be initiated either by Verkhovna Rada or the “people.” That latter make take such an initiative is very unlikely, however. Even if the “people” collect the required 3 million signatures to support a proposal, there is no independent judiciary in Ukraine to protect these signatures from being dismissed as “fake” by authorities, as happens on a daily basis in Putin’s Russia http://zakon1.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/1286-12.

It is a ticking bomb that is much more dangerous for Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty than any other of Yanukovych’s initiatives, including joining the ominous Customs Union. So far, all the Moscow-led “integration” projects have brought unimpressive results. All Russia’s neighbors are well aware what that kind of “integration” means. Few of them dare, however, to utter a definite “no” to those tricky initiatives (Georgia might be the very graphic exception). Therefore, they typically say “yes, but…” And that “but” stands for various forms of lip service and sabotage that undermines effectively “integration” projects without a direct and potentially dangerous confrontation with Moscow.

There is no reason to believe that Yanukovych’s “Family” is eager to give up Ukrainian customs to any “union” and deprive themselves of such a powerful source of income. The greed of these people might be the best if not the only guardian of Ukraine’s sovereignty–at least as long as their personal security in Ukraine is not under threat. But their incompetence and provincial naivety can make them (and all the nation, alas) an easy prey of the seasoned KGB hunters. Neither the 2010 “Kharkiv agreements” nor the recent scandal with LNG terminal (when the government signed an agreement with a bogus representative of a Spanish company) give much credibility to the alleged “professionalism” of the ruling team.

In October 2012, a leaked conversation of a Russian “political technologist” Semen Uralov, who worked in Odesa for the leader of the “Rodina” party Igor Markov, referred to the eventual victory of the unambiguously pro-Russian forces in Ukraine supposedly led by Viktor Medvedchuk. They implied also an honorable exile for Mr. Yanukovych in his opulent Mezhyhirya mansion, with a private zoo among other luxury possessions. The interlocutors joked about him being “locked in with his kangaroos”: “Ігор днями зустрічався з ВВМ [Віктором Володимирoвичeм Медведчуком]. Той підтвердив загальну концепцію. Не пізніше 15 року все зміниться, а цього пiдoра заженемо до його кенгуру у Межигір’я, а поки що – збираємо групу у Раді” (http://pr-portal.com.ua/peredovitsa/15895.php?sphrase_id=5446311).

It might be a good time to ponder whether a Putin-sponsored and Medvedchuk-led referendum, with a properly formulated question, would not be a much quicker way to push Ukraine into the Russian orbit than the awkward, barely functioning, and a priori unworkable Customs Union.

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About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Hey! it’s great that I can find here lots of useful information about Ukraine in English! Keep it going!

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