ISSUE 3-2012
Petr Vagner
Игорь Яковенко Мыкола Рябчук
Petr Vagner Виктор Замятин Сергей Саркисян
Ярослав Шимов Stepan Grigoryan
Матуш Корба
Pavel Venzera

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Мыкола Рябчук | научный сотрудник,Національна академія наук України, Украина | Issue 3, 2012

Ukrainian political opposition, since its very emergence in the last years of ‘perestroika’, has never been unified and strong enough to completely remove the ancien regime from power and to radically change the institutional setting and rules of game – as it happened in Poland, Czechoslovakia, or the Baltic states. At the same time, unlike in Central Asia or Belarus, it has always been strong and persistent enough to influence some government policies and to play a role of a situational ally for the ruling nomenclature-cum-oligarchy and its various clans.

The relative weakness of Ukrainian opposition comes primarily from the general underdevelopment of civil society under highly repressive regimes that had ruled the country. Neither traditions of liberal democracy nor of rule of law could effectively evolve under czarist autocracy, and even less so under communist dictatorship. Yet, at the same time, the relative strength of Ukrainian opposition can be attributed to country’s proximity to the West that facilitates diffusion of western ideas, and in particular to Ukraine’s historical linkages to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (until the late 18th century) and the Habsburg empire (until the early 20th century) that exposed Ukrainians in the central and, especially, western parts of the country to substantially different traditions of civility and legality.

This makes strength of Ukrainian opposition in various regions highly unequal – with a general tendency of decline from the staunchly anti-Soviet West to the heavily Sovietized/ Russified South East. Identity – both civic and ethnic – is tightly connected to this unequal distribution, determining a strong correlation between the strength of nationalism and level of political mobilization. The fusion of democratizing and national liberation agendas has always made Ukrainian opposition both democratic and nationalistic. This always has caused some internal tensions and external problems of misperception and misrepresentation.

Internally, within the opposition, there has always been a radical wing that would have liked to hijack the entire movement under genuinely nationalistic, or even xenophobic slogans and to sacrifice the program of democratization for the sake of state-nation building understood as an authoritarian ethnocracy. And there has been a wing that would like to completely ignore the postcolonial plight of Ukrainian nation and the need of some state protectionism for the revival of long-suppressed Ukrainian language, culture and identity.

Externally, outside the opposition, there have always been either overt or covert attempts of the government to compromise their opponents’ democratizing drive as a purely nationalistic, and to misrepresent their demand for de-Sovietization and decolonization of the country as a demand for de-Russification that threatens the rights and identities of Russians and Russophones in Ukraine. Within this propagandistic strategy, opposition has been always depicted as not only rabidly nationalistic but also as regionally based, contained primarily or even exclusively in the intrinsically Russophobic Western Ukraine.

Orange revolution: a lost chance
In 2004, however, Ukrainian opposition managed to win presidential elections, despite its internal weakness and discursive demonization and marginalization by the government. A number of factors contributed to this success. First of all, it was a tape scandal that completely delegitimized the incumbent president Leonid Kuchma – both domestically and internationally, and disabled him from running for the third term. His unfortunate choice of a rough ex-convict from Ukrainian ‘Sicily’ ¬– the Donbas region – as his pick-up successor made only bad things worse. Yet, the most importantly, opposition managed to unite around a charismatic person of a former head of the National Bank and short-time Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko who had an attractive image of a decent non-ideological technocrat and therefore allowed each group to associate him with their own agenda.

The eventual split of the Orange coalition was rather inevitable provided that it had summoned under the anti-incumbent umbrella just too different political forces and even more different and controversial personalities. Virtually the same had happened in all post-communist countries of Eastern Europe – with the significant difference, however, that some of them managed to carry out the institutional reforms and make thereby the comeback of ancien regime less dangerous (these countries, primarily of Central East Europe, appeared the most successful in post-communist transformations), whereas some other countries, primarily in the Balkans, failed to this but were dragged ahead by the EU and, in some cases, NATO. Ukraine neither succeeded with institutional reforms from inside nor was forced to do them from outside. Instead, the squabbling Ukrainian leaders encountered the problem that barely existed in Central or South Eastern Europe (but may have emerged in Latvia and Estonia should Moscow succeeded to pump a few hundred thousands more Soviet migrants into these countries). In Ukraine, a dysfunctional democratic government was challenged by a powerful counter-revolutionary, regionally based and in many terms anti-national, externally supported force, with enormous oligarchic resources, mafia-style connections, and a stable bulk of Sovietophile electorate easily mobilized (and manipulated) by identity issues.

Party of Regions did virtually nothing to increase its popular support (this was very problematic anyway regarding its regionally constrained power base and strictly limited, even though broad appeal of its anti-Western/ Sovietophile ideology). It just waited until its orange opponents completely exhaust and compromise themselves, and their frustrated electorate turns away not necessarily to the Party of Regions but just away from any politics in general. The limited number of their supporters that back in 2004 made up a plurality, in 2010 appeared to be the majority just because of a much lower participation of their opponents in the election.

Counter-revolution: parliamentary coup d’etat
Yulia Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost competition to Viktor Yanukovych, was apparently unprepared for such a development. Neither she nor her colleagues from opposition had any plan B to recover the losses or, at least, to resist Yanukovych’s aggressive usurpation of power. Like many Ukrainians, they seemed to rely too much on the 2004 constitutional amendments that constrained significantly president’s power by increasing the role of prime minister and entitling the parliament to form the government. Remarkably, the amendments stipulated that the cabinet of ministers should be formed not by sheer majority of MPs but by the coalition of parliamentary factions that contain such a majority.

The requirement may look strange from the point of view of mature Western democracies but in a badly corrupted country like Ukraine it was designed deliberately as an antidote to prevent buying off the opposition MPs wholesale by the oligarchs – as it happened back in 2002 when pro-president parties won only 20% of votes but created ultimately the parliamentary majority by bribery and blackmail.

In 2010, after Yanukovych’s victory, the Party of Regions was in position to dismiss Tymoshenko and her government but could not form the new one without making a parliamentary coalition with either Tymoshenko’s block or, more likely, Yushchenko’s. Alternatively, the president had to dissolve the parliament that failed to produce a governing coalition, and to announce new elections. Party of Regions, however, ignored all these constitutional requirements and formed the government in an illegal, illegitimate way – by co-opting individual opposition MPs into their own faction.

The orange fatigue was so high that neither Ukrainians nor international community bothered to protest vociferously against this blatant violation of constitution. Yulia Tymoshenko who was dismissed but had to stay as the acting prime minister until the new government is legitimately formed, unexpectedly stepped down – even though she was in position to prevent parliamentary coup d’etat and demand the new government to be formed in a due procedural way. The most likely, she was too depressed by the election defeat (she reportedly disappeared from the political scene for a few months), whereas her parliamentary supporters were not eager to fight for the principles risking thus to provoke the early parliamentary elections and possible loss of mandates alongside with massive personal privileges. Many of them opted instead to change the side and join the victors (by now, more than one third of her former 160-person faction defected to Yanukovych). This reveals not only endemically corrupt nature of Ukrainian politics where the price for the switch of the sides varies between half a million and a million dollars. It reveals also inherently vicious principles upon which the political parties and their electoral lists are formed. In most cases, they consist of the businessmen who contribute their money and get instead the parliamentary immunity and possibility to lobby their business interests in a prestigious business-club.

In this regard, parliamentary opposition does not differ much from the Party of Regions that has virtually no ideologically driven MPs committed to whatsoever besides their business interests and personal loyalty to the party bosses who patronize them. Both Tymoshenko’s BYuT and Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine are also dominated by businessmen and their business interests. Yet, their core ‘national-democratic’ electorate is ideologically more sensitive and demanding, and politically sophisticated than the core Sovietophile electorate of the Party of Regions. Yulia Tymoshenko might be a sheer opportunist but she needed to ally herself with some national-democratic leaders with impeccable reputation and clear ideological stance to prove her national-democratic credentials and woo the ideologically committed masses. This is even more true about Yushchenko’s and Lutsenko’s block that lost remarkably few defectors to Yanukovych within the past two years.

This means that despite the widespread cynicism and rampant corruption in Ukrainian politics, peoples’ opinion cannot be completely ignored, even though it is not always addresses by politicians aptly and properly. Ukrainian opposition, indeed, is squeezed by two hardly compatible imperatives. On one hand, there are moneybags who sponsor the political parties and would like them to serve their interests. On the other hand, there are people who want their representatives to be decent, ideologically committed, and politically consequent. So far, people lose to moneybags, and opposition loses to the government.

Local elections: opposition’s weak spots
In the parliament, opposition is virtually excluded from any decision-making and even from opportunity to discuss the most crucial and controversial issues like the so-called “Kharkiv Accords” (a.k.a. “Fleet for Gas” deal) prepared in utter secrecy by Putin and Yanukovych and rubber-stamped by the parliament in April 2010 without any deliberations and any expert analysis and due conclusions of the respective parliamentary committees – as is required by law.

In October 2010, ‘orange’ parties lost local elections in Central Ukraine where they used to dominate until then, and failed to protect their victories in some key areas like Odesa and Kharkiv where their candidates, according to exit polls, won mayoral positions but were barred from assuming offices by government’s dirty tricks and falsifications. The elections revealed very serious weak spots of Ukrainian opposition that are likely to determine its defeat also in October this year, in parliamentary elections that are expected to be at least as dirty and manipulative as the local elections in 2010.

First and the worst of all, opposition fails to unite and agree on joint candidates – something that is absolutely necessary in the ‘first-past-the-post’ system, especially vis-à-vis the authoritarian, monolithic and extremely resourceful Party of Regions with its mafia-style discipline and mobilization. As a partial consequence of this, opposition fails to effectively mobilize its electorate to defend the fair results and challenge falsifications. Not only post-orange fatigue but also opposition’s disunity demoralizes opposition’s supporters.

Thirdly, opposition political parties are built primarily as business clubs, with very weak or virtually absent grass root support, activists networks and regional infrastructure. Party of Regions can afford such a model relying primarily on patron-clientelistic relations and the power of blackmail state they fully control. In a country with no rule of law, business cannot afford being in opposition or support its activity – at least openly. This creates huge advantage for the authorities and disadvantage for their political rivals.

Finally, opposition is still represented almost exclusively by the politicians who have already been in various ‘orange’ governments and did not impress anybody by their professionalism, moral integrity, and ideological commitment. They still quarrel and blame each other for the defeat, and not a single of them has minded yet to repent and to tell the people “I am sorry”. In practical terms, this means that the ‘orange’ electorate may still vote for them in the absence of a better choice (this is exactly how Yulia Tymoshenko got 46% in presidential election). But they would barely go on streets to protest the vote rigging and confront the riot police just for the sake of the lesser evil.

New electoral law: self-defeating compromise
Last November, the Ukrainian opposition once again shot itself in the foot, helping the Party of Regions to dismantle the last achievement of the Orange revolution: the proportional election system that precluded, more or less successfully, large-scale falsifications and vote buying. Instead, they reestablished the earlier mixed, proportional-majoritarian system, in which half of the members of the parliament were elected from the national party list, and another half from territorial single-candidate districts. The system, especially its “majoritarian” part, employed in Ukraine until 2004, turned out to be highly susceptible to all sorts of manipulation and abuse of power by unscrupulous authorities. The proportional system, indeed, reduced corruption both in electoral districts where government-connected oligarchs bribed voters, and in the parliament where the “independents” (typically local officials or businessmen) had always been easy prey for governmental blackmail and bribery.

To make bad things worse, the new electoral law barred electoral blocs from participation in elections. This brought an additional advantage to the Party of Regions and delivered a serious blow against the political force of Yulia Tymoshenko that was broadly known as her eponymous bloc, while her specific political party “Batkivshchyna” (Fatherland), even though the strongest within the bloc, was largely unknown.

Also, the electoral threshold was raised by the new law from 3 to 5 percent. The calculation was simple: it is opposition, not the incumbents, that consists of many small parties unable to surpass the threshold. As a result, all the votes of the opposition parties that fail to get 5% will be distributed proportionally among the parties that manage to do it. In other words, the Party of Regions will appropriate a significant share of opposition votes that otherwise would never go to them.

The reason why opposition supported the new electoral law was arguably that the Party of Regions had enough votes to pass it anyway, so it was better to compromise and get some concessions – some minor improvements of the law that presumably restrain authorities’ ability to manipulate elections. It is true, indeed, that the Party of Regions could have passed any law it wished, in the most unscrupulous way, – as it actually happened back in 2010 with “Kharkiv Accords” or, recently, with a highly controversial law on “regional languages.” Yet, in the case of the new electoral law, the Party of Regions had a vested interest in opposition’s engagement in the procedure. The ultimate goal was to make opposition accomplices in the future electoral mess and protect thereby its own dubious ‘victory’ from possible delegitimization. Opposition blinked first and helped the authorities to legitimize the change of rules at their convenience.

Now, there is a very high probability that the Party of Regions would manipulate the elections to a degree it needs to muster a simple majority (226+) in the future parliament. Then, they are likely, by a hook and a crook, to draw more ‘independents’ and, if necessary, defectors from opposition to Yanukovych’s camp and create thereby the qualified majority (300+) that would enable them to change the Constitution and, in 2015, to elect the president, with all his enormous powers, by a simple parliamentary vote. After that any elections in Ukraine would become a sheer formality – like in Russia or Belarus.

It seems opposition parties had recognized, albeit belatedly, this threat and made some steps toward unification or, at least, coordination of their activity.

Political scene: major players
On May 12, the Forum of opposition parties was held in Kyiv where they agreed to create a united opposition under the name and banner of Yulia Tymoshenko’s party “Batkivshchyna” (Fatherland). Since electoral blocks are not permitted by law, many small parties were reluctant to get dissolved in the new-old political force, which in fact is a coalition of two heavy-weights – “Batkivshchyna” proper and Arseny Yatseniuk’s “Front zmin” (Front of Changes). Both of them, according to opinion surveys, were to easily pass the 5% electoral threshold and enter the parliament with about 20% of votes each – that were likely to exceed the projected results of the Party of Regions. Both of them have significant core electorate but face a serious problem of expanding beyond it.

Tymoshenko’s party was heavily handicapped not only by the new electoral law but also, dramatically, by the imprisonment of its charismatic leader and lack of any sound figure of that caliber in party’s leadership. In this situation, the unification with the second strongest opposition party “Front zmin” was a reasonable tactical step. This facilitated successful re-branding of Yulia Tymoshenko’s eponymous block into “Batkivshchyna” and placed symbolically on the top of it a young and prospective leader Arseny Yatseniuk, the head of the “Front zmin” party (he was appointed the head of Council of the United Opposition, while Yulia Tymoshenko was elected its honorary leader and her deputy Oleksandr Turchynov became the head of its central electoral headquarter).

Yatseniuk’s advantages from this alliance are less certain. Three years ago, his party surged from sinking Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine block and looked much better positioned on the political scene than the Fatherland since it consisted of relatively young people who had no image of ‘oligarchs’ and no embarrassing records of corruption. Also, importantly, they had rather limited participation in orange governments. This allowed them to dissociate themselves from the orange failure and shameful internecine wars in the orange camp. As a ‘moderate opposition’, they were not harassed so unabatedly by the authorities as Tymoshenko’s followers, and seemed to enjoy even some covert support from a part of oligarchs who reportedly would like Yatseniuk to be a prime minister or even Yanukovych’s successor.

Back in 2009, Yatseniuk had a good chance to lead the orange electorate (instead of highly controversial Yulia Tymoshenko) against Viktor Yanukovych. He just needed to play the role of an ‘upgraded Yushchenko’ – a pragmatic, intelligent, non-corrupted and non-ideological technocrat who knows what to do and how to lead the country out of economic mess and rampant lawlessness. The popular expectations for such a Yushchenko 2.0 had always been high but Yatseniuk spoiled his campaign by dressing himself in a ridiculous paramilitary garb, employing dull militant rhetoric incompatible with his previous mild and ironic intellectual image, and speaking some strange things about ‘Eurasian integration’ that could only alienate his core orange supporters.

Now, he might be completing the second mistake since the cumulative vote for the United opposition, according to opinion surveys, does not exceed yet the vote “Batkivshchyna” and “Front zmin” might have gain separately.

Political scene: second echelon
By and large, the niche of a “new”, “alternative” political force abandoned by Yatseniuk was filled by a heavy-weight boxer Vitaly Klychko and his new and virtually “nowhere” political party UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, literally “punch”) and led by a famous boxer Vitaly Klychko. Besides its decent but barely charismatic leader (Vitaly Klychko is not very outspoken), the party has no prominent front liners in its ranks, nor has it real party organizations network throughout the country. Nevertheless, party’s relative success in the 2010 local elections reveals a significant popular demand for decent politicians epitomized by the world champion. And suggests that if Vitaly Klychko manages to team up good allies and craft properly his electoral campaign, he may well bring some fresh blood into the conspicuously rotten Ukrainian parliament.

So far, UDAR is supported by more than 10% of prospective voters. This might be a good challenge for both the authorities and the United opposition in the proportional part of elections (from party lists). But in the majoritarian part (from territorial districts), UDAR’s competition with “Batkivshchyna” might well result in a landslide victory of the authoritarian Party of Regions since first-past-the-post system benefits the hegemonic, well-disciplined party, whose candidates can win by a simple plurality of votes -- suffice only to break and disperse opposition as much as possible.

Another party that firmly passes the 5% electoral threshold – the Communists, led by Petro Symonenko, -- is a party of old komsomol apparatchiks that play virtually no independent role in today’s Ukrainian politics. Within the past decade, the resourceful Party of Regions appropriated the major part of the Sovietophile CPU electorate, domesticated the CPU bosses, and made the Communist faction just as a junior partner assigned to the dirtiest job (like Zhiriniovsky’s party in Russia) – to smear Western governments, attack NGOs, and stage provocations against opposition.

One more pocket party supported by the authorities and arguably created by their spin-doctors that might be pulled to the parliament through the 5% threshold is a nowhere “Forward, Ukraine!” party headed by a successful businesswomen, former Tymoshenko’s ally and eventual defector from her faction in the parliament Natalia Korolevska. While the Communists are assigned to catch the left-wing electorate disappointed in the Party of Regions, Korolevska appeals to younger and more liberal people dissatisfied with both the authorities and their orange opponents. In fact, she plays the same role as back in 2000-2010 was played by Serhy Tyhypko and his “Strong Ukraine” party. (Eventually, Tyhypko accepted ministerial position in Yanukovych’s government, and his party merged into the Party of Regions).

Finally, the third party that swings at the 5% electoral threshold and might well enter the parliament is a right wing (or, as many experts contends, extreme right) party “Svoboda” (Freedom) led by Oleh Tiahnybok. Until 2009, the party was rather marginal, with no representation in the national parliament and very limited number of deputies in local councils in just a few West Ukrainian regions. A number of factors, however, gave the party a boost.

First of all, it was a mass disappointment in the mainstream democratic parties and in democracy in general that made people to look for an authoritarian alternative – more or less as it happened long ago in Italy and Germany, and most recently in the post-Yeltsyn’s Russia. In Western Ukraine, the protest vote stuck to the Ukrainian authoritarians from Svoboda, in South Eastern Ukraine the same resentment draw people to Russian/pro-Russian authoritarians from the Communist Party and the Party of Regions.

The second factor that added insult to injury was the anti-Ukrainian policy of the victorious Party of Regions that, in an alliance with Communists, resumed old-style policies of Russification and re-Sovietization of Ukraine. This inevitably provoked a strong nationalistic reaction that winded the sails of Svoboda and brought them up to one third of seats in some West Ukrainian local councils in October 2010.

And the third factor that hinges at the verge of conspiracy theory but is extensively buttressed by indirect evidences, is a covert support for Svoboda by the Party of Regions and, rumors say, by the Kremlin (the sudden Svoboda’s interest in ecological issues and brazen campaign against exploration of shell gas in Western Ukraine is broadly considered as a payment in kind to some of their covert masters). By all evidence, Svoboda has no problem with funding – in sharp contrast to moderate opposition, and no problems with the access to tightly censored Ukrainian TV-channels. The reason for such a game might be simple.

Party of Regions is well aware that would never get Western Ukraine. So, the reasoning goes, it is better to give it to radicals than to allow moderate nationalists to retain their regional power base. The advantage of this strategy is two-fold. First, the real rivals of the Party of Regions from the moderate national-democratic camp are weakened whereas the fake rivals from the radical groups are strictly contained within the western region (all their attempts to make inroads eastward are severely crashed). And secondly, Western Ukraine in this model, rather than to play its role of the flagship of national democratic movement, is downgraded to the role of a nationalistic scarecrow for the rest of Ukraine and the international community.

There are many more minor parties that have no chances to pass the electoral threshold but will be trying to do so and will be in many cases encouraged by the authorities who have a vested interest in splitting Ukrainian political forces as much as possible.

Resilient society
One more actor, probably, should be mentioned on the opposition side – the actor that played the decisive role during the Orange revolution and is likely to play it in the future, ultimately determining Ukraine’s both political and civilizational development. It is a huge number of non-government organizations and civic initiatives, local and national, formal and informal. Within the past two years, in many occasions, they proved resilience of Ukrainian civil society vis-à-vis authoritarian pressure and a growing ability of common people – students and journalists, Chornobyl and Afganistan veterans, workers and small entrepreneurs – to cooperate for a common cause and to bear new leaders “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. It make take some time until all these movements that are popping up all over Ukraine, mature enough and develop all-national well-coordinated networks, promote authoritative leaders, and elaborate comprehensive programs. But no authoritarian government would push this genie back into the bottle – even though it would definitely try to.

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Игорь Яковенко
Petr Vagner
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