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Democracy Watch, 2011 - Issue 9

03-29-2011 02:06 PM CET | Politics, Law & Society

Press release from: People First Foundation

Danger from within and without for Party of Regions as internal schisms and public opinion worsen. With new election law threatening the principles of European democracy in Ukraine, experts question whether the EU need remain idle.

Eastern Ukraine falls into disenchantment

Discontent with government activity is on the rise in President Yanukovych’s native region. Miners' wives have gathered outside the municipal building in Donetsk in a spontaneously organised protest to demand improvements to living standards. The women claim that food has now become a luxury item, as their tiny salaries are required to pay for services that should be provided by the state. According to protesters, the authorities also support and cover-up the illegal extraction of coal which siphons over 10 billion UAH (US$1.26 billion) a year into the shadow economy. Some protesters also possess evidence that the authorities tried to intimidate them and block their access to the demonstration.

Currently the miners discharge their outrage only upon the local authorities, under the assumption that Yanukovych would not sanction their plight. However the Ukrainian characteristic of naivety is on the decline. The GfK Ukraine survey conducted in January shows that 54% of respondents think that the nation is moving in the wrong direction. 59.3% of respondents to the survey carried out by the Gorshenin Institute in February view the activity of the current government as ineffective and not in their interests. In summing up his first year of office President Yanukovych promised to focus his attention on the coal industry and those who rely upon it. These statements give the President's loyal supporters hope - but should they lose it the backlash would be very public and not easily quashed.

People First Comment:

It would appear that President Yanukovich has achieved in one year what it took Yushchenko and Tymoshenko five years to achieve. After the Orange revolution the west of Ukraine were delighted that they had, what they believed was a democratic President and an inspired Prime Minister. The East and South were a little disappointed. It took five years for the West of Ukraine to realise the awful truth. With the last presidential election it was the East and South that were delighted and the West who had to eat humble pie. Yet this time it has taken President Yanukovich’s team a little over a year to convince their core electorate that they are little better than the previous incumbents of Bankova Street.

In some ways mid-term disappointment is normal in any political environment but the enormous tax-free profits enjoyed by the elite have created the illusion that everything in the country is stable. What is ironic about this situation is that, according to the recent GfK survey, the North, South, East and West of Ukraine are now all saying the same thing. For once we actually have a country united behind a common understanding: their universal disappointment with the entire political system and the political class.

This form of Ukrainian ‘democracy’, if you can call it that, simply does not work and cannot deliver social justice, economic security, wealth or the employment promised. It is not the politicians with their oligarch controllers that are incapable, it is that any political system that allows politicians and power brokers to live above the law is fundamentally flawed and is incapable of delivering the benefits of democracy in any form. Until the system is changed the status quo will prevail because as of today it is not in the interests of the ruling elite to change. Democracy can only work in an environment of transparency, public accountability and adherence to the law, anything else is at best a pastiche and at worst a fraudulent myth.

Divisive times for the Party of Regions and its incapacity for reforms

After receiving absolute power in Ukraine one year ago, the Party of Regions now faces its most significant challenge – internal conflict, which may jeopardise party unity prior to the parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2012. Disputes between the Presidential Administration and government, governmental criticism in publications owned by party members and frequent conflicts between members at local level suggest that PoR is losing control over leaks into the public domain and that the disunity is too rife to contain.

A lack of core ideology and focus on microeconomics has led some to suggest that the few bonds within Party of Regions are weakening and that schisms and factions already exist beneath the surface. PoR also suffers growing un-popularity due to the poor social and economic performance of Ukraine, the decline in living standards, the continuing fallout from the world economic crisis and limited state capitalisation of national resources. Now that his power is centralised and secured the President has no interested in preserving a strong and influential Party of Regions, as they could prove to be a primary competitor in future power struggles. Evidence of further conflicts between separate business groups within the governing party may continue to penetrate the governing party’s iron-PR-curtain as ministers jostle for position in the elections in majority constituencies. It remains to be seen whether public dissatisfaction and a general desire for change will be enough to topple Party of Regions’ political monopoly.

People First Comment:

Let us not forget that Party of Regions is a coalition not of two or more political ideologies as in many western countries but a coalition of business groups all determined to have their slice of the budget pie. One of the unfortunate truths about all political parties in Ukraine is that without exception none have any form of ideological base. Even the present Communist party uses its ideology to fight for personal gain rather than the realisation of their ideals. In reality they are all little more than money making machines that have tuned the constitution and much of the legislation to suite their interests at national expense.

We have seen how easy it is for politicians to cross the floor to opposing camps. In a democracy each Deputy should have fought a bi-election to see if their constituents agreed with the change but in Ukraine the only person to complain was the losing party leader. Therefore to now see cracks’ appearing in the PoR coalition is hardly surprising as one clan fights the other for better feeding rights. But if these cracks were to turn into an outright split then serious questions would arise. What would happen to the President’s vertical power structure as the injured parties within PoR would then hold the balance of power in the Rada? Would we see political repression of the type used against Tymoshenko and her clan? Would we see the presidential team advocate for even more power for the President in order to maintain control?
Looking at it from this perspective perhaps the President’s grip on power is not a vertical as some might think.

The unused tools of European influence

European experts, among them Nico Lange - director of the Representative Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Ukraine, have questioned whether the EU has sufficient instruments to effectively influence Ukraine and deter it from further violating democratic principles. Perhaps Europe has truly given-up on Ukraine and its democratic education. There are also some positive developments with the EU-Ukraine dialogue, namely the adoption of the action plan for visa liberalisation and the on-going negotiations preceding the Association Agreement for free trade.

Nico Lange and other experts have contributed suggestions for pressuring Ukraine towards democracy, including: the refusal to sign agreements between the EU and Ukraine; economic pressure on Ukrainian business heavy-weights who export their products to Europe, such as a 50% customs fee on Ukrainian goods; refusal of a visa for high ranking officials, as already experienced by officials from Belorussia and Russia; freezing of assets as in the case of Libya. The EU has options available, but will they be enough to convince the Ukrainian authorities of the advantages of democratic development.

People First Comment:

Mr Lang is right in his assessment that the EU does not currently have sufficient instruments to influence Ukraine but this may well change. In political terms the EU is a new boy… it is only recently that the organisation has started to look outward as for all of it’s past it has been focused primarily on internal issues. Russia has traditionally exploited this through its cosy relationship with Germany, Austria and Italy seeking to divide and rule, however this may no longer be possible.

The acceptance of the Lisbon treaty gave the EU teeth for the first time. As a result the EU is now beginning to flex its muscles particularly on matters of foreign policy. Gone are the days of divide and rule as the EU now has a mind of its own that Ukrainian Deputies would be wise to heed. The speed with which the EU imposed targeted sanctions against Belarus and more recently against Gaddafi was an indication of the future might of Europe that should not be under estimated.

Russia has already recognised the change and is now taking a much more collective and pragmatic approach to EU member states, whilst Ukraine still seems to lumber on in the misguided opinion that they will be able to say one thing and do another without the EU noticing. They do this at their peril as European patience is not limitless.

New parliamentary election law – the death knell for Ukrainian democracy?

The return to the ‘majority or mixed’ system of elections for Verkovna Rada has secured a veritable monopoly of influence for Party of Regions and the President, with the idea of opposition remaining wholly theoretical. Even if the opposition should triumph under the proportional election system it is doomed to insignificance, as the governing party’s administrative resources will easily pressure favour in the majority constituencies. Some politicians are trying to get in early with campaigns already underway in the west of Ukraine.

The ‘majority or mixed’ system, re-established 2nd November 2010 under Presidential decree, is not without its technical caveats. The government has assigned a work-group to improving the legislation – producing a draft law by the end of March. Yanukovych supports further changes to the current parliamentary election system as well. During his "Conversation with the Country" the President voiced that he will sign no law that compromises the ‘majority or mixed’ system, which he believes to increase social responsibility and the effectiveness of the parliament. Volodymyr Shapoval, Chairman of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, supports the President's initiative and goes further saying that the mixed system is superfluous in the present context. Public opinion is yet to be swayed - the research of the Laboratory of Legislative Initiatives and TNS shows that 48.9% of Ukrainians are against the implementation of a new mixed system prior to the next parliamentary elections.

People First Comment:

What is most disconcerting about the political engineering that is taking place at present is that it is all so obvious. To date the Presidential team have manipulated the Constitution in order to create a vertical power system, run a distinctly questionable local authority election as a pretext to alter the election law for the next parliamentary elections and now they want to adjust the shape and size of constituencies in their favour. All this has one singular purpose… to stay in power for as long as possible by any means possible. What is being created is yet another circle where PoR is altering legislation to suit their ends. It is a route to nowhere.

This strategy defies even the most basic of logic. First we are no longer living in the early 20th Century, next the people of Ukraine are extremely well educated and have easy access to the internet and mobile phone networks and finally the world has grown very tired of politicians treating their countries as there own personal possession. Whether PoR like it or not over 90% of Ukrainians voted for a democratic state which means that the President, parliament and the government are all answerable to the people. There was no mention of much of what PoR are seeking to put in place in the President’s election manifesto or in the party manifesto therefore with the greatest of respect neither has a mandate from the people to enact such legislation despite the their grip on power. Back in November last year President Medvedev was warning Russia of the perils and potential for stagnation of a one party state, yet this seems precisely what PoR are seeking to build.

The most frustrating factor in Ukrainian politics is the political culture of those calling themselves the opposition. They seem unable or incapable to either protest or to maintain any constructive dialogue with the people despite the fact that the current authorities have created a reality in which it is virtually impossible not be in ‘opposition’. Obviously, it is potentially dangerous to be in opposition in a country where the law protects fraudulent activity, the security services and the courts protect the rich and 450 people’s deputies are unaccountable budget managers. But you either become active in opposition or you forfeit the right to represent the will of the people.

Nations are built by people of vision and ability, working in the national interest, each building on the foundations of their predecessors and not by blatant political engineering. The law must be respected for if politicians can play with the law then so can the people and that is a recipe for total chaos. The history of Ukraine and its people proves that even the strongest of patience eventually comes to an end.

Quote of the week:

I’d like to begin with the global economic crisis, because it already looms as the most serious one in decades, if not in centuries... Economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they are prolonged for a one- or two-year period... And instability can loosen the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order, which can spill out in dangerous ways into the international community.

Dennis Blair
Former Director of National Intelligence (USA)

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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