Losing Russia, part II: losing Ukraine

Monday, 18. October 2010     0 comment(s)
Arkady Moshes
Programme Director - The EU's Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia research programme

Analysts no longer hide their concerns about the future of Ukraine’s democracy. Within several months that have passed since Viktor Yanukovich’s election as Ukraine’s president there were enough warnings telling that the earlier achieved standards will not necessarily be preserved.

The most recent signal was the repeal of the constitutional amendments adopted in 2004 and transferring some of the presidential competences to the parliament. Now Viktor Yanukovich takes those powers back, re-establishing full control over the security services and re-gaining the right to appoint the prime minister.

Of course, Ukraine is a sovereign state and has the right to change its legal regime the way it would see fit. The problem is that we know the background: manipulation with the law in March that allowed the new president to have a cabinet of ministers headed by his loyalist Nikolai Azarov; legally dubious ratification of the April agreement with Russia extending the lease of the Sevastopol naval base until 2042; multiple cases of alleged intimidation or bribery involving opposition politicians; pressure on the media; and, finally, cherry-picking and deviations from the just reinstated fundamental low, when extending the terms in office of both the president and the parliament according to the 2004 version of Constitution rather then sticking to shorter stints in compliance with the original text.

There is little doubt that the new administration is aiming to consolidate as much power as possible and to import the Russian model to Ukraine. Apparently aware of their inability to play by the rules of the pluralist political system which has emerged in Ukraine and has led to the victory of the then opposition four times out of four elections held since 2004, Ukraine’s new rulers want to play with the rules.

But as repeated many times, Ukraine is not Russia. When the latter was embarking on its course of de-democratization, its economy was growing, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating was sky-rocketing and the society at large was either apathetic or nostalgic for the “order”. On the contrary, Ukraine’s economy is still in a terrible shape, the support for the president and the cabinet decreased considerably if compared with the February election days, and numerous representatives of opposition parties, civil society and western regions of the country resist the concentration of power.

In this situation Kiev needs consent, or acquiescence, or at least silence of the West. If the West could say clearly that Ukraine’s backtracking from democracy would have a clear price tag in terms of economic and political interaction with the regime, the effect would be more than likely. For, democrats or not, Mr. Yanukovich and the oligarchs in his entourage cannot afford to be left one on one with the assertive Russia. In other words, unlike Putin’s Russia, Yanukovich’s Ukraine would care about the Western response.

Yet, can current Ukraine’s diplomacy secure the “understanding” of EU and the US? Well, insofar, little has spoken to the contrary. One can easily hear the talks about Ukraine needing “stability” – and often this will be the same people who five years ago valued stability over democracy when they spoke about Russia – or find “pragmatists” in some EU national capitals who would be ready to please Moscow by stopping the policy of democracy-promotion in Russia’s vicinity.

No doubt, the game is not over yet. But if instead of actually playing the game the West chooses a position of an outside observer, however comfortable such a position may seem to the people whose mantra is that they have “too much on the plate already”, the odds will not be very encouraging.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

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