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Viktor Yanukovych

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Ukraine: Two Cheers for Democracy

15 January 2010

Ukraine: Two Cheers for Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and Yanukovych were once called the “eternal triangle” of Ukrainian politics, and it was not a compliment. But eternity is not what it used to be: one side of the triangle is about to disappear.

Five years ago, when the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine turned Viktor Yushchenko (now president) and Yulia Tymoshenko (now prime minister) into democratic heroes, the villain of the piece was Viktor Yanukovych, the former Communist apparatchik who tried to steal the 2004 election. But it hasn’t been a happy five years in Ukraine since then, and it’s even possible that Yanukovych will win the presidency fair and square this time.

It’s certain that Yushchenko will lose it, and in the most humiliating manner imaginable: he persists in running for re-election, but he is unlikely to get more than 2 or 3 percent of the vote. He has been a very weak president except in one area: his obsessive feud with his former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, which has all but paralysed the government of Ukraine for five wasted years.

It’s likely that she bears as much of the blame as he does for this disastrous clash of personalities, but she is a much more vivid personality and an adroit politician, so the public has turned against Yushchenko. He will all but vanish from the political scene after the election on 17 January, while “Yulia” (as she is known to everyone in Ukraine) will slug it out with her old enemy Viktor Yanukovych in the second round of voting on 7 February.

Last time round, this was a confrontation that seemed to matter. It was a great story: the young democratic heroine Tymoshenko in her trademark braid, committed to modernising Ukraine and bringing it into the European Union and the NATO military alliance, versus the corrupt and colourless Yanukovych, who wanted to drag Ukraine back into collectivist poverty and political subjugation to Russia. But things look different this time.

The greatest difference is that there no longer seems to be such a difference between their policies. It’s now clear that Ukraine will never join NATO: the alliance does not seek a confrontation with Russia, and only 20 percent of Ukrainians would support membership in NATO anyway.

It is equally obvious that the European Union has no intention of expanding this far east. It is already suffering severe indigestion from its last round of expansion in Eastern Europe, and taking in an even poorer country with a population of 46 million people would not rank very high on the EU’s list of priorities even if it were not also reluctant to annoy the Russians. So Tymoshenko and Yanukovych no longer have much to disagree about in foreign policy.

Neither is there much to argue about on economic policy any more, since the country has few remaining options. Five years of governmental paralysis left Ukraine in a vulnerable position when the recession struck. The apparent prosperity depended on a huge inflow of foreign investment, and the prosperity drained away as fast as the foreign capital itself. Ukraine’s economy shrank by 15 percent last year, and the national currency, the hryvnia, has halved in value.

Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko wins hardly matters economically. Only massive loans from the International Monetary Fund are keeping the economy afloat at the moment, and for some time to come it will be the IMF, not the new government, that makes the key economic decisions. So what’s left? Well, they could fight over national identity.

The west of the country is Ukrainian-speaking, and deeply nationalistic; the east is mostly Russian-speaking, heavily industrialised, and would welcome closer ties with Russia. So this is the ground on which the two leading presidential candidates have chosen to fight, with Tymoshenko promising to keep Ukrainian as the sole official language and Yanukovych promising equal status for the Russian language.

Given the demography of Ukraine, this probably means that Tymoshenko wins the presidency in the second round of voting. (The nationalist vote is split too many ways in the first round, with a total of eighteen candidates running.) But who cares, apart from Ukrainians?

The glory days of the Orange Revolution were misleading. The key fact about the country is that Ukrainian per capita income is only about a third of Russia’s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Ukraine kept its steel and chemical industries, and even an aviation industry, but the oil and gas stayed in Russia. Ukraine has to pay through the nose for it, and it simply must stay on good terms with Russia.

With so little room for manoeuvre abroad, and such rampant corruption at home (it is said that 400 of the 450 members of parliament are millionaires), Ukrainians have grown very cynical about democracy. Indeed, a recent poll disclosed that only 30 percent of Ukrainians think that the change to democracy has been good for their country, whereas 50 percent of Russians think so.

And only 26 percent of Ukrainians say that they are satisfied with their lives. Democracy does not cure all wounds.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“Neither…value”; and “The glory…Russia”)

Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

27 March 2006

Small Earthquake in Ukraine, Not Many Hurt

By Gwynne Dyer

Ukrainians did not reject the “Orange Revolution” of December, 2004 in last Sunday’s election. Indeed, if you read the news stories very carefully, they don’t even claim that — but most of the headlines deliberately give that impression. After all, why would foreigners want to read a story about a peaceful, lawful parliamentary election in Ukraine?

The real upheaval in Ukraine happened last September, when the alliance between President Viktor Yushchenko and the other hero of the revolution, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, fell apart amid bitter recriminations. According to Yushchenko, it collapsed because of “the failure to recognise the position of one’s partners,…insincere behaviour,…behind-the-scenes intrigue,” while Tymoshenko says that “from the very first moment that the president came to power, people from his closest circle made an enemy figure out of me.” Both are probably right.

So Yushchenko fired Tymoshenko and appointed a new prime minister from his own circle, and the two leaders’ parties ran separate campaigns in this month’s election, splitting the “Orange” vote. As a result, the party led by Viktor Yanukovych, the very man whose alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential election triggered the revolution, will control the largest number of seats in the new parliament. With a little bit of work, you can make that sound like a big deal, but it isn’t.

In the last parliamentary election in Ukraine in 2002, Yushchenko’s party, Our Ukraine, won 24 percent of the vote nationally; this time, it has fallen to 15 percent. But Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, which won only 7 percent of the vote last time, has soared to 23 percent. Taken together, they have 37 percent of the votes, a good 5 percent up on what they had in the 2002 election, and are the obvious first choice for a new coalition government.

Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions got 30 percent of the vote, which makes it the largest single party. That result is hard to compare with its performance last time, since there has been much re-shuffling among the parties that mainly appeal to the Russian-speaking population, but it certainly doesn’t suggest that there has been a huge shift in public opinion. Nor are those parties as far apart from the mainly Ukrainian-speaking supporters of the “Orange” parties as they were two years ago.

The prospect of eventual Ukrainian membership in the European Union, however distant, still has a powerful attraction for Orange voters, but they are now a good deal more realistic about how distant it is: the EU has not even agreed to ease visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. And if candidate status for EU membership meant rising prosperity (as it has for most other candidates), then most Russian-speakers would not be fundamentally opposed to it either.

The same shedding of illusions has occurred about Russia. The brief but shocking shut-down of Russian natural gas deliveries during the January confrontation over Gazprom’s huge price increases reminded Ukrainian nationalists that defying Moscow’s wishes can be an expensive business. (Belarus still gets gas at the old price). It also shook the confidence of some Russian-speakers in the essential benevolence of Mother Russia, and reminded them that all Ukrainian citizens are in the same boat.

The rift between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, whose divergent views on Ukraine’s nature and destiny have dominated the country’s politics since independence in 1991, has not closed, but it is narrower than it was last year. Viktor Yanukovych still insists that “the Orange Revolution was a putsch, plain and simple” — but his image managers in this election were American, (as were Yushchenko’s, while Tymoshenko’s were European), and he no longer comes across as a mere pawn of Moscow’s.

Yanukovych does still come across to many people as a pawn of the big business clans of Donetsk, the big industrial city of eastern Ukraine, or even as the personal protege of the biggest boss there, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, but this is a problem he shares with Yushchenko, who is widely seen as personally honest but too weak to defy the oligarchs whose placemen dominate his own entourage. Only Yulia Tymoshenko is widely perceived as not being in the service of the oligarchs, mainly because she is a billionaire in her own right, a beneficiary of the chaotic privatisations of the 90s who no longer needs to steal.

A new alliance between her party and Yushchenko’s in parliament, with Tymoshenko back in the prime minister’s job, is the likeliest outcome of this election if the two can rise above their personal antipathy. But even if Yushchenko cannot bring himself to renew the alliance with Tymoshenko and backs Yanukovych as prime minister instead — either combination would yield a parliament majority — that would not mean that Ukraine is going back to the bad old ways.

Corruption will continue to be a problem and the relationship with Russia will always be troubled and complex, but the whole country has moved on. Democratic politics often produces strange political bedfellows, and an orange-blue coalition in parliament is not the worst thing that could happen to Ukraine. It might even help to heal the ethnic divide that has opened up in recent years. It has been a very small political earthquake, and not many were hurt.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The prospect…boat”)

Ukraine’s Election

18 November 2004

Ukraine’s Election

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s not just Ukraine’s fate that is at stake in Sunday’s election; it is probably Russia’s as well. If the Kremlin’s favoured candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, wins, then Ukraine will end up inside a

Russian-dominated common market that also includes the authoritarian regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan and effectively recreates the old Soviet Union. Once that structure was put into place, the post-Communist gangsters would be in charge everywhere, and any hope of Russian democracy re-emerging from the wreckage would go from slim to non-existent.

The democracy that is at risk at the moment, however, is Ukraine’s fragile and much-abused version of it: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Stalinist dictator Alexander Lukashenko both showed up to support Yanukovych just before the first round of voting on 31 October. Yet when all the votes were counted the main democratic candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, managed to end up with a wafer-thin lead over Yanukovych. The other eighteen presidential candidates were eliminated, and both Yushchenko and Yanukovych made it into the second round.

Exit polls suggested that Yushchenko had narrowly won a first-round victory by gaining just over 50 percent of the votes cast, but nobody trusts the totals from the first round. Indeed, last week a group of senior police officers from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine wrote to the speaker of the parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, detailing massive election fraud in the first round.

Among other accusations, the officers alleged that police were ordered to guard a room where 500,000 ballots pre-marked for Viktor Yanukovych were held before the vote, and to deliver them to various key polling stations on 31 October. (The Ukrainian Central Election Commission admitted that tens of thousands more votes were cast in the first round than there were genuine ballot papers.) Other police teams were tasked to plant bombs and create tension, and criminals were hired to join Yushchenko rallies and discredit them by acts of violence.

It’s all going to happen again this time, the Kharkiv whistle-blowers warned, and no doubt they are right. Yet here’s the thing: despite having stuffed the ballot boxes to guarantee a first-round Yanukovych victory, the authorities wound up announcing a final count that put Yushchenko slightly ahead and forced the contest into a second round. They did so because if they had declared a Yanukovych victory, there would have been mass civil disobedience in the streets.

The game that is being played in Ukraine is distinctly post-modern. The outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, wants to ensure the election of a reliable successor, Viktor Yanukovych, who will not launch awkward inquiries into how most of the existing government’s members became disgustingly rich. Viktor Yushchenko, who gained a reputation for honesty as the head of the national bank and then cracked down on corruption as prime minister until Kuchma’s pals had him dismissed for wrecking their scams, has gained the public’s trust, and would certainly win in a fair election.

It must therefore not be a fair election — but since Ukrainians are not fools, and know that many other cynical and corrupt regimes have been removed by non-violent mass action (most recently in Serbia and Georgia), it must not look too unfair, either. Yushchenko must be defeated at all costs, but not by methods that are so obviously corrupt that they provoke millions of people into coming out on the streets in protest.

That was why Yushchenko was permitted a narrow margin of victory in the official count after the first round of voting: anything less would have brought out the mass demonstrations. Now the oligarchs in Ukraine and their Russian allies have to engineer a second-round victory for Yanukovych that convinces the mass of voters and keeps them off the streets. It has to be a relatively narrow victory, therefore, since nothing else would be even remotely believable — but it may not work even then.

A Yanukovych win would mean that Ukrainians had voted to shrink their ties with the European Union, the main source of the recent and long-overdue surge in economic growth in the country, and had instead chosen to expand their ties with the still decrepit economy and increasingly authoritarian political style of their former Russian rulers. Intuitively, it doesn’t make sense, and most Ukrainians would not believe such a result. Most opinion polls tell them otherwise, and so do their own eyes.

The goal of the game being played by Kuchma, Yukanovych and their Russian allies is to come up with a win that just barely passes public inspection and does not provoke mass civil disobedience. They can only get even within hailing distance of their goal because of their divisive appeals to Ukraine’s substantial Russian minority — offering them official-language status, visa-free travel to Russia, and dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship — but even then the problem lies in the fine tuning. It is hard to fine-tune a narrow victory in the rough and tumble of an election campaign.

If the Putin-Kuchma-Yanukovych combine succeed, then Ukraine’s 50 million people will shortly be swallowed up in a post-Soviet union that incorporates all the corruption of the original, but none of the idealism. If it fails and Yushchenko’s centre-left coalition wins the presidency instead, then it is possible to imagine Ukraine joining the European Union ten or fifteen years from now. It is also possible to imagine Russia itself returning to democracy and joining the EU — but only if the present project fails.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Among…violence”; and”That was…then”)