It was a bad week for democracy in Ukraine with formal democratic processes as close to the real thing as canned laughter on a TV show to genuine mirth.
The door to Europe, and specifically the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was all but slammed shut by the rejection on Wednesday of former Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko’s cassation appeal. Ukraine’s High Specialized Court upheld the outcome of a trial, which, as repeatedly pointed out by the EU and the democratic community, “did not respect international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal processes.”
Rule of law was just as removed from a courtroom in Zaporizhzhya, which on 2 April convicted two former sacristans of the Svyatopokrovsk Church and the brother of one of them to 15 and 14-year prison sentences over the bomb blast in the Church on 28 July 2010. Judge Minasov ignored the fact that there was no evidence in the case aside from multiple “confessions” made without proper defence, and almost certainly under physical and psychological pressure. The confirmation of this by two forensic psychologists was ignored, while a third report which interpreted smiles, gestures etc during the night interrogations as evidence of an “inclination to crime” was quoted in detail in the judgement. Minasov had rejected applications to have all forensic psychologists summoned to give evidence. The list of irregularities in this case is as long as that in the trial of Lutsenko, and widely believed to be linked with the fact that President Yanukovych at the time demanded arrests within the week.
In both these cases, as well as the ongoing attempt to charge former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko with murder, few believe that the judges – or prosecutor – in the cases are acting autonomously.
The case against Tymoshenko encountered a bump on 2 April with a key witness Serhiy Taruta testifying that at the time of the killing of MP and businessman Shcherban, there was no conflict between him and Tymoshenko.
The case is so dodgy that inconvenient bleeps may not overly worry those pulling the strings. Renat Kuzmin, Deputy Prosecutor General, whose trips abroad to justify the trials of opposition leaders are organized by such PR companies as Burson-Marsteller, will simply accuse all critics, including authoritative western observers of defamation if they suggest any political motivation.
There were plenty of other uncomfortable subjects during the week. They included the President’s income declaration which, for the second year in a row, declared 15 and a half million UAH in “royalties.” The latter must be understood very loosely since the President did not publish a single word in 2012. In fact, had he published even one book the royalties received per word would quite possibly outdo many international bestseller writers. The amount would also instantly bankrupt most publishing houses, at least in Ukraine. Not, however, the Donetsk publisher Novy Svit which in 2011 paid 16.4 million UAH for all President Yanukovych’s works, past, present and future. It now transpires that this was only the first instalment of an ongoing fee.
The use of the rightwing VO Svoboda Party to present the Party of the Regions as antidote to creeping fascism and xenophobia had a novel application on Wednesday with a number of Svoboda activists detained by police in Kyiv and interrogated for many hours. The events had seemed to promise high drama with a Party of the Regions MP Iryna Horina reporting on Tuesday that after the close of the Verkhovna Rada’s evening session she and other women MPs had been pelted with snowballs, ice and dirt by members of a political protest. She later apparently claimed that there had been an attempt to kill her.
A criminal investigation is underway, and the police felt no need to follow the restrictions of the new Criminal Procedure Code on how many hours witnesses can be interrogated. From a PR point of view, a trial would be as much of a loser as trying now to bring charges of hooliganism against the young man who so famously felled the then presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych with an egg in 2004.
Thursday was a full-on day for Ukraine’s MPs though few of the events bore much relation to parliamentary democracy. With the opposition continuing to block the Verkhovna Rada tribune, the Party of the Regions, Communists and others who vote with the government decided to attempt a kind of outreach parliament – in the premises of the parliamentary committees on Bankova St. There was supposedly a vote on this with 244 in favour (226 is a simple majority), however leader of the Batkivshchyna faction in parliament, Arseny Yatsenyuk asserted that only 168 MPs were actually present.
It was one side’s word against the other’s since opposition MPs were not allowed into the building on Bankova St.
Interpretation of the Parliamentary Regulations also depends on which side you listen to, and how one is to understand “exceptional circumstances”.
This is of enormous importance since the pro-government MPs (in person, or in name and MP card alone) managed to vote on 22 laws, one of which changed the 2013 State Budget. All of this without open discussion and without the presence of the opposition who numerically cannot override a government vote, but can at least point to dangers in the laws passed.
What is particularly disturbing is that analysts asked by the Deutsche Welle Ukrainian Service considered the votes to be illegitimate, but were not at all confident that they would be revoked. Former MP Yury Klyuchkovsky pointed out that there had been similar situations during the 2000s and the laws passed, however dubiously, remained in force. The Constitutional Court then refused to consider submissions from MPs asking for the laws to be declared unconstitutional. In this regard it’s worth noting that the Constitutional Court in March for the fourth time refused to consider the highly controversial language law signed into force by President Yanukovych in August 2012. This law effectively ignores the constitutional norm stipulating that Ukrainian is the sole official language and significantly increases the role of the Russian language.
Another specific smell from Ukraine’s parliamentarianism comes from turncoats or, in the Ukrainian, “tushki” (carcases). On Thursday Speaker Rybak announced that four Batkivshchyna faction MPs had changed sides. Interpretation of motives and / or incentives will inevitably depend on whose version you trust, however the phenomenon cannot under any circumstances be considered healthy.
It is also difficult to see it as democratic. Even during the last elections where 50% of the candidates entered parliament on party lists and 50% stood for election on an individual basis, the vast majority of voters would have voted for the party.
If MPs can then choose where the grass for them is greener, the voters’ electoral choice is rendered meaningless, like so many other fundamental components of democracy increasingly treated as cosmetic props.