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Democracy Watch, 2011 - Issue 7

03-16-2011 03:24 PM CET | Politics, Law & Society

Press release from: People First Foundation

International observers IMF and Venice Commission note Ukraine’s worsening economic problems and disregard for recommendations. Religious groups speak out against pressure whilst Verkhovna Rada’s practice appals visiting delegates.

Diminishing religious freedoms in Ukraine

The President has seen fit to liquidate the National Committee on Religious Affairs with no open discussion of a replacement. After 20 years of relative balance between religious denominations in Ukraine the Association of Religious Freedom has stated that the first year of Yanukovych’s presidency has brought new obstacles religious freedom. Despite the liberal public attitude, only one faith – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) – appears to have received consistent support from the authorities. In his national Christmas address the President even neglected to mention the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, effectively snubbing over 5 million parishioners.

Other Faiths are increasingly concerned over possible violations of their rights. For instance, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate worry that the Moscow Patriarchate may receive ownership of historical and cultural memorials, including the Saint Sophia Cathedral. The Moscow Patriarchate however claims it has received no special treatment. The synod of the Kyiv Patriarchate has sent an open letter to the President in which they accuse the authorities of interference in internal affairs of the church, to the benefit of the Moscow Patriarchate. Whilst the local authorities refuse enter into dialogue with the clergy pressure on the church is growing along with the number of surprise investigations.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s 9,5 million supporters do not constitute the leading faith in Ukraine. The Kyiv Patriarchate carries favour with 14 million people and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church - 5 million. Perhaps the President feels his mandate so strongly supported that he need not consider the deepest held beliefs of 20 million Ukrainians?

People First Comment:

It is a challenge recognised by almost every democracy: where to draw the line between church and state? Such a boundary is clearly necessary to ensure that democracy and not doctrine defines the path of the nation and as such this principle is enshrined in many constitutions – including that of Ukraine (Article 35.3, ‘The church and religious organisations are separated from the State’).

Yet the suggestion of political favouritism clearly defies this principle therefore one has to question in whose interests was the mark overstepped? Party of Regions seems ever eager to lasso allies irrespective of the potential fall out. The favoured religious denomination in this case clearly wishes to cement its authority, not out of fear of persecution, but out of hunger for dominance and control. Both intentions sadly betray a confusion of authority and purpose.

It is the responsibility of the state to govern the nation such as satisfies the collective will and raises the quality of life threshold of the majority. The church is charged with supporting the spiritual essence of society, providing grounding, reconciliation and peace. The performance of either requires strong core values not competitive dominance. Perhaps if either party possessed a clear vision of their societal function they would earn authority on the merits of their performance. In what appears to be a taking of sides the President risks alienating some 20 million voters for little apparent political or social gain.

IMF warns against worsening conditions for business

Following an official International Monetary Fund (IMF) visit in February, Max Alier, IMF Resident Representative in Ukraine, noted that despite short-term macroeconomic improvements, problems in the economic system of Ukraine, tax legislation and customs regulation are worsening. Regarding the agricultural sector, Alier mentioned that the totally non-transparent distribution of grain sales quotas might force all foreign investors out of the agro-industrial complex altogether. The IMF representative stated that the restoration of the Ukrainian economy hinges on the issue of insecure loans and the protection of creditors' rights. Foreign investors, among them "ArselorMittal Kryvyi Rih", inform that VAT debt is increasing by 300 million UAH every month.

Although Ukraine continues to be characterised as a nation of great potential, the IMF representative clearly stated that business conditions in the country are getting worse. The failure of the authorities to act might jeopardise the rates of national growth together with the development of Ukraine's potential. The next tranche of $1.6 billion would be better secured if the government implement pension reforms before the end of the month. However, even if these funds are successfully acquired one has to question how the allocation process will be monitored to ensure that the money reaches those causes for which it was intended.

People First Comment:

‘The failure of the authorities to act might jeopardise the rates of national growth…’ One has to question whether the IMF study the financial realities at all before making such statements.

The GDP of this fair and pleasant land is now almost $1,000 per capita lower than it was at the time of independence 20 years ago. The SME sector has retracted by 800,000 companies in the last 2 years, 6.6 million of the nations work force now choose to work abroad and few will ever come back, the banks will only lend against 100% security and corruption and the black economy are now the only real currency.

Whilst it is clearly understood that it is the responsibility of the government of the nation to ensure its economic security, one has to ask just how blatant the figures have to be before that IMF realise that they are being taken for a ride. Ukraine should not need any financial support from the IMF as its mineral, energy and agricultural resources should have made this country one of the richest in Europe. However the incompetence of successive administrations coupled with a parliamentary system governed by greed has reduced the nation to poverty for the masses and extraordinary wealth for the elite. Can the IMF really believe that there billions are going to make any appreciable difference when they ignore the core problems and fail to demand systemic change?

Astonishing parliamentary practice in Ukraine

During an official visit to the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, deputies from the Polish Sejm were openly shocked by the practices of their Ukrainian counterparts; there appears to be a difference of opinion as to the sanctity of democratic norms. Under the official observation of the visiting dignitaries Ukrainian deputies went about their usual business, including the overt and casual hijacking of absent deputies’ votes. The polish dignitaries could do little but laugh at the blatant lack of respect for democratic essentials and felt compelled to document the abuse on video. (Reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-d66qXSOyc – English language transcript can be found here: http://peoplefirst.org.ua/btmpsh/en/). On viewing this video Lukash Adgarovich, senator of the Polish Sejm, noted that under Polish legislation cases of stolen votes automatically results in the immediate revocation of mandate and serious criminal punishment.

It seems the Party of Regions does not see that one deputy voting ‘on behalf’ of many others is a violation of democracy - invalidating the parliamentary system and defying the principle of representation. A solution proposed by Volodymyr Makeenko, deputy from the Party of Regions, was simply to legalise voting for another deputy – betraying a critical lack of understanding of democracy. The chaos and fraudulent acts that flourish in this environment is a constant hurdle and undermines Verkhovna Rada’s ability to govern. A recent fraud involved Volodymyr Ariev, a deputy from the opposition, whose card was used to vote for pro-government amendments to the Constitution; Ariev himself was in the US with his card when his vote was cast. To combat this issue Arseniy Yastenyuk, leader of "Front Zmin" political party, suggests the introduction of a criminal liability for violations of voting procedure. Unfortunately Verkhovna Rada lacks the political culture and parliamentary majority required to push through such initiatives.

People First Comment:

This story throws up two possible scenarios. The first is that Party of Regions members have become so consumed by power that they choose to totally disregard all legal and democratic practice irrespective of who is watching or that it was a deliberate attempt to create a scandal that could later be used to advantage.

For any government to have legitimacy it must first ensure that it works within the law. This government particularly in the absence of a viable opposition seems to feel very comfortable working on the very edge of legal legitimacy in order to achieve its goals. Breaches of parliamentary protocol are now so numerous that many fail to ever be noted. However there are certain laws that the government would very much like to work in their favour but to simply change them without cause would attract too much attention. What better way to create the opportunity to change a law than to create a scandal that demands it? As a result of this apparent legal goof the parliament is to review the legislation controlling the voting system.

This is not the only case. The President was elected in an election that the international observers hailed as free and fair yet the following local government elections, less a than six months later, were exactly the opposite. As a result an outraged President demanded a new electoral code but what the commission created was a new parliamentary election law. This is a questionable practice that needs to be carefully monitored as if this practice of scandal and change becomes commonplace the government may well overstepped the mark.

Ukraine remains deaf to the recommendations of the Venice Commission

Marina Stavniychuk, member of the Venice Commission, recently stated that the Ukrainian authorities continue to ignore recommendations regarding, legal reform and legislation on public assembly and peaceful demonstrations. The recommendations on election code are also being neglected. According to the commission the Ukrainian government lacks the essential vision for constitutional reform. The awaited statement from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is expected to come down hard against the Ukrainian authorities insular attitude.

In response the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice commented that the Commission's recommendations have yet to be implemented by any of the EU member-states. Minister of Justice Olexandr Lavrinovych stressed that each year the Commission’s evaluations become increasingly politicised and that the suggested implementation strategy is inappropriate. At the same time President Yanukovych signed a decree "On creation of Constitutional Assembly" under which a team of experts will draft a new Constitution incorporating the recommendations of the Venice Commission. Let us not forget that the National Commission for the Strengthening of Democracy and the Rule of Law has been operating in Ukraine since 2010 without a single result. Are there any guarantees that this time it will be different?

People First Comment:

Looking at their track record this government seems to be pretty good at ignoring advice. When the new tax code was first announced the government solicited advice and recommendations from the international community. The EBA and the American Chamber of Commerce took the matter very seriously and teams of highly qualified experts worked, without being paid and on a very tight timeline to create a series of recommendations in the belief that the government was serious about doing the right thing. Their recommendations took note of the government’s intent and the final set of recommendations took what was initially a rather crude government proposal and turned it into a set of legislation that would really work for both business and government. The government ignored every word.

The same thing is happening with the new Electoral code. Following the deeply flawed local government elections the President announced that he recognised the shortcomings and wanted a new Electoral code. A commission of the great and good was established and included representatives of civic society organisations and international bodies including the EU, OSCE, NDI and IRI. The process was due to go on until September of 2011 when the commission was scheduled to present its recommendations. The commission has met three times and last week it was announced that the next meeting would be the last. Instead of creating an Electoral code certain elements within the commission have used the opportunity to re-draft the parliamentary election law again ignoring international expertise they had requested.

Now we see the same system in play but this time the government is ignoring the Venice Commission. It is one thing to ignore business organisations and civic society; it is another to ignore what is one of the most important democracy guardians of the western world. One can only assume that this government is either being crazed by their own power or that this is a deliberate ploy to use the international community as a PR smokescreen. Either way there will be consequences.

Quote of the week:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Sir Winston Churchill
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1940–1945, 1951–1955)

Democracy Watch is the weekly monitor of the People First Foundation and serves to raise public awareness of how government and parliamentary action is impacting upon Ukrainian democracy and democratic due process. The information is copyright free and may be reproduced but we ask that any comments are reproduced in full and with reference to the People First Foundation.

People First Foundation
1 Skovorody Street, Kyiv 04070, Ukraine
Telephone: +38044 536 1508 / Fax +38044 536 1509
www.peoplefirst.org.ua

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