With the critical Vilnius Summit approaching in November and Russia making its position on EU-Ukraine Association – together with readiness to use unacceptable weapons – all too clear, there is mounting pressure to view the issue in very simplistic terms. Most crudely: are you for Ukraine’s European integration or against?
There is probably broad, although not unanimous, consensus regarding the absolute requirement to release Yanukovych’s main rival Yulia Tymoshenko from politically motivated imprisonment.
Among those (the author included) who view European integration as vital for Ukraine’s future, consensus stops beyond this point. The following is not about whether the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement should be, or will be, signed, but response to a familiar syndrome. During Yushchenko’s first year or more in office any criticism was deemed as disloyal, as helping his opponents, and playing into Russia’s hands. Even with a leader who proved naked, but not necessarily dangerous, the policy was disastrous. The last three years have seen a very significant monopolization of power; degradation of the judicial system; threats to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and serious blows to Ukrainians’ electoral rights.
The EU set a number of apparently stringent conditions to be met before the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement could be signed. How firm they will remain on these is a matter of debate. So, unfortunately, is the question who will benefit if these demands are waived.
Even if the Agreement is signed, it still has to be ratified by all member states, and that will take time, even if all are in unison. It would, however, be a major coup for President Yanukovych with presidential elections approaching.
Fighting your Opposition
Whatever now happens with Yulia Tymoshenko, no one is in any doubt that her imprisonment was at least in part aimed at eliminating a powerful political opponent. The same applies to the now-released Yuriy Lutsenko.
At present, the candidate who probably received most votes in the October elections is effectively exiled in Italy. Viktor Romanyuk will be arrested and detained if he returns to Ukraine. A criminal investigation concerns an alleged attempt to steal state property on a large scale and is linked to the Indar insulin factory of which Romanyuk was Deputy Director. But the case dates back to 2008 and Romanyuk was not a suspect when he ran for parliamentary office in October 2012 as the opposition Batkivshchyna candidate for single mandate election district No. 94. He was in the lead until his main opponent, Party of Regions candidate, and wife of the former Kyiv Regional Governor, Tetyana Zasukha, applied to the court to have the election results in some precincts cancelled. Thirty thousand votes could not be cancelled without scandal, and this was one of the seats in which the Central Election Commission decided that a re-election was needed. Ten months later the by-elections have still to be held. If and when they happen, Romanyuk will need to “campaign” from Italy and only reappear if elected when he will gain political immunity. This scenario was seen exactly a year earlier when Arsen Avakov, former Kharkiv Governor, ran for Mayor against Gennady Kernes in 2010. In short, politics is a dangerous game in today’s Ukraine.
The courts have also played a highly questionable role of late in removing MPs’ mandates. Four MPs accepted by the Central Election Commission as having been properly elected have been stripped of their mandate. The most notorious case was that of Yulia Tymoshenko’s defender, Serhiy Vlasenko.
Bypassing Electoral Hurdles
The refusal to call local elections in Kyiv is as brazen, as it is transparent. Two attempts in the Verkhovna Rada to schedule Mayoral and council elections have been blocked by the ruling Party of the Regions. All analysts agree that the results would not be favourable to the President and his protégé, Oleksandr Popov. The problem is that Kyiv has been without a Mayor for over a year, and the Council’s term in office expired over 5 months ago.
Ever resourceful, Party of Regions MPs turned to the Constitutional Court for “guidance.” The latter yet again obliged with a judgment on 30 May 2013, overturning a previous decision and stating that the next regular elections should take place in October 2015. This date was chosen, reportedly, to ensure greater “stability” and continuity by having all regular local elections at the same time.
Constitutional experts immediately pointed out that the Court was talking about regular elections. This did not preclude extraordinary elections. It certainly didn’t, but this was for the Constitutional Court to spell out, and it remained silent. So too did the Kyiv Administrative Court on 9 August when it ruled only that it was legitimate for the current Kyiv City Council to continue to hold sessions and function as normal.
In the meantime the President and Cabinet of Ministers have increased the number of employees of the Kyiv City State Administration, and the latter’s powers. The head of this Administration is appointed by the President, unlike the Mayor and Council who are elected. Or at least would be elected if those in power were not more intent on having a President-friendly Administration in the capital during the Presidential elections in early 2015.
Concern over this disregard for the electoral rights of Kyiv’s population was expressed by, among others, a spokesperson for the EU Delegation to Ukraine. It was stressed that elections must be held at reasonable intervals.
So What Happens if They are Not?
In a statement following his meeting with Andriy Klyuyev, EU Commissioner Štefan Füle said that they “appreciated the initiative of the Ministry of Justice to organize a series of roundtables on improving the electoral legislation. At the same time, the EU expects to see unequivocal and concrete elements of progress in the coming weeks.” He mentioned “improvement of the electoral legislation, the establishment of dates for by-elections in the outstanding five single mandate constituencies, [and] clear rules for balanced media access to electoral competitors.”
There have been plenty of such roundtables. There was even a President-initiated committee with representatives from major international organizations on election legislation, consultation with the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, etc. Both major organizations withdrew from the committee after understanding that their input could remain only verbal, the Venice Commission’s criticism was ignored, and the elections held as the party in power wished. Moves under way at present involving major changes in media ownership seem clearly aimed at anything but balanced media coverage.
Ukraine’s standing in the world has been damaged badly over recent years. European integration is Ukraine’s chance to climb out of a post-Soviet dead-end. That, however, means real commitment to electoral and other democratic values, not more cosmetic touches that will have rubbed off before any agreement can be ratified.