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Democracy Watch, 2011 - Issue 12

04-20-2011 10:01 AM CET | Politics, Law & Society

Press release from: People First Foundation

With the opposition mute the authorities prepare to divvy-up the regions of Ukraine. As the conflict for favour between the EU and Russia heightens, rights such as freedom of speech remain restricted.

In the search of the Ukrainian opposition

Without deep political traditions and culture Ukraine has been lacking a real opposition since its independence. The division of political forces into those in power and those in opposition, whose job is to balance the governing forces, is yet to be established. Not political force in the multi party political environment of Ukraine has learnt how to manage being in opposition.
This is evidenced by the total absence of political platforms, ideologies and plans for the social and economic development of Ukraine, alternative to those suggested by the government. Of course, when politics is nothing more that a route to personal enrichment what is the need for genuine opposition?

As a result Ukrainian society is losing confidence in the opposition. The current opposition cluster consists of "Batkivshcyna" of Yulia Tymoshenko, "Front Zmin" liberal political party of Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok's nationalist party "Svoboda". The fact that the Ukrainian opposition has failed to mobilise any large-scale protests after one year of the current government and in spite of numerous occasions and controversial governmental decisions is indicative of their lack of credibility. In the case of the once opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, overuse of populism ruined public trust. Even during her last visit to Brussels her perspective of the present situation in Ukraine was challenged by a number of EU representatives. The ruling party are totally against the concept of competitive politics and block oppositional forces from interfering with government activity. It is quite telling that a bill on the protection of democratic principles and of the activity of parliamentary minorities was dismissed by parliament in the first reading. After setting the task of regulating the rights of opposition on 13th October 2010 President Yanukovych does not bother to monitor whether or not it is being executed. So the Ukrainian opposition has minimum rights and almost no ability to influence the government's activity. Nor do they offer any constructive alternatives to government policy to society. The situation will remain the same unless the government starts to care about the rights of opposition before it loses the elections becomes it itself.

People First Comment:

Ukraine currently has over 200 political parties but only three political ideologies. Ideology 1 is the nationalist vision of a Ukrainian Utopia however nationalism and National Socialism hold little voter appeal in any society let alone Ukraine. Ideology Number 2 is the Communist doctrine of the past. Whilst this may have a nostalgic appeal with the older generations, the current party abandoned the doctrine decades ago. The third ideology is the ‘Make me very rich’ doctrine to which almost all Ukrainian political parties belong.

To date all the political leaders of the past, with perhaps the exception of President Kuchma have been elected on the basis of paternalism. Their campaigns feature portraits, with or without pets, next to paternalistic promises to look after your interests. They all say the same thing ‘Trust me and I will…’ The problem is that each has then singularly failed to keep their promises. Is it therefore any wonder that 51% of the electorate have decided not to vote in the next elections? There is simply nobody to trust… Personality politics just doesn’t cut it any more.
The people want polices that deal with issues. They need bedrock ideologies as these are the traditional anchors of political society. The US Republicans and Democrats have very different visions of America and this influences every policy they put forward. Local elections in Germany always confirm the success of German political parties and the effectiveness of their work. The Conservatives, Liberals and Labour parties of the UK all came from the differing strata of British society and this too created their fundamental political foundations. But in Ukraine currently there is only one real political ideology and that is money, greed and self interest and who in their right mind is going to vote for that.

Administrative reform: risks for Ukraine

The Ukrainian government has started to prepare for administrative reform. It will require a careful approach considering the current economic and social problems as well as the condition of the national infrastructure. The statistics show that 268 settlements have disappeared from the map of Ukraine over the last 10 years. The Chernigiv region is the worst effected of all the regions in Ukraine and risks becoming half deserted within 50 years. A drop in the number of district centres will lead to the financial deterioration of the Ukrainian regions, bringing with it infrastructure degradation resulting in the reduction of district health and educational establishments among other issues. The authorities are also tempted by the opportunity to re-structure the regions of Ukraine according to the level of loyalty among the electorate to the governing party and the President.

In the years ahead Ukraine may face a reduction in the number of districts along with infrastructure changes and possibly the re-division of electoral constituencies. Such changes will prove crucial should Ukraine return to the partially majority system prior to parliamentary elections in 2012. The Cabinet of Ministers has scheduled the revision of the bill on administrative reform for December 2011. Oleksandr Lavrynovych, Minister of Justice of Ukraine, commented that with several conceivable variants the government still has to establish the core concept for the territorial model of Ukraine. It is important that in creating the territorial reform programme the government does not abuse its power, violate democratic principles and provoke popular frustration.

People First Comment:

According to United Nations statistical projections the population of Ukraine is set to fall from around 52 million at independence to around 25 million in the next 50 years. These figures are based on computer models that look at the birth and death rates and then do the obvious math. However these calculations do not take into consideration the fact that since independence 6.6 million Ukrainians have already emigrated and a further 15.3 million have said that they would leave if they could which, if the UN projection is right, could leave just 3.1 million people to run the country…

Like it or not Ukraine is depopulating very quickly indeed, first from the countryside to the cities and then through emigration. This is hardly surprising bearing in mind the economic hardships, the lack of vision of successive Ukrainian governments and the overall living conditions. In reality life in Ukraine has become so difficult that many Ukrainians feel it is less of a risk to be an illegal economic migrant in Europe or the USA than it is to be a citizen of their own country.

The proposed EU visa free regime will only add to the rate of decline. Ukrainians are not like the Romanians and Bulgarians who stayed at home when the borders were opened as they hold little real allegiance to what for many is a state that has failed them. Unless the government take serious steps to redress the economic and social imbalances then the future viability of Ukraine as a nation state and the Ukrainians as a people is in real doubt.

Decision time for Ukrainian trade

The conflict between developing negotiations with the EU regarding the free trade area and active Russian interests makes the prioritisation of Ukraine’s economic partnerships all the more topical. The pressure on Ukraine by Russian leaders to favour a customs union with Russia Byelorussia and Kazakhstan is already evident. Russian Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin publicly announced that if Ukraine creates a free trade area with the EU and decides to export products to the Russian market, Russia would have to protect its interests. Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, stated that the negotiations between Ukraine and the EU on the free trade area constitute a potential threat to the member-states of the Customs Union. He suggested that Kyiv first joins the Russian trade initiative so that both countries can build relations with the Free Trade Area together.

The Ukrainian authorities instead confirm their intention to create a free trade area with the EU whilst at the same time high-ranking officials play coy by holding trade negotiations with Turkey and welcoming Russia’s economic suggestions. The current government should understand that the choice it makes between the free trade area and customs union would define all further development of Ukraine and overall game rules. The European way requires the observation of laws and transparent game rules and will secure capitals, freedom and opportunity to improve business reputation and investment attractiveness. The Customs Union in its turn will provide short-term economic benefits but long-term perspectives in Europe will have to be sacrificed. There would be also be no need to play by the rules, with no guarantees from Russia concerning the preservation of capital, reputation and freedom.

People First Comment:

The decision over this issue will define the Yanukovich Presidency. In economic terms a union with Russia would be highly questionable as Russia has more economic problems than it likes to admit and very few tried and tested solutions. The EU on the other hand may have an equal number of economic problems but it has the economic clout and the financial muscle to solve them all. The Russian economy is totally dependent on energy, the vast majority of which is exported to Europe however this is scheduled to fall seriously over the next decades with the advent of much cheaper liquefied natural gas, shale gas and modern electricity generation and Russia has little productive industry to replace the lost export revenue.

Russia is projected to go through a period of political upheaval as the Siberians demand more autonomy and the Caucasus becomes more intransigent therefore whilst Russia may like or even want Ukraine to come back to the motherland the decision will be purely a political one.

The problem for the administration and many of the economic elite is that a union with Europe will mean that many of the questionable business practices they enjoy today will have to go by the board. Distasteful as many of them might find it, this may well be a good thing as the only way that they will be able to protect what they have will be under the umbrella of a European system of justice. Therefore if President Yanukovich opts for Russia his decision with be based on the benefit to an elite few and Ukraine will be destined to become a declining Slavic backwater whilst if he opts for Europe then he will be remembered as the one of the real fathers of a modern and vibrant European state. His decision will define his place in history.

Freedom of speech is still under threat in Ukraine

In spite of the many appeals to the authorities to stop the pressure on freedom of speech, Ukraine is still falling behind on freedom of the press, censorship and the attitude of the authorities towards criticism from journalists. For these reasons Ukraine has dropped from 89th down to 131st place on the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom index – although this may not be the worst result. Hanne Severinsen, President of International European Media Platform also stated that freedom of speech is again under threat.

But according to President Yanukovych freedom of speech is a celebrated and protected right in Ukraine. The authorities hope to partially restore their reputation concerning freedom of speech by settling the Gregoriy Gongadze murder case. Reporters without Borders has already responded with approval to the fact that the Prosecutor General's Office initiated the case against former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. However the authorities should recognise that no single measure can cover up their policy of establishing tight control over the media, which they have implemented so successfully.

Similarly opposition leaders have their unique way of protecting the freedom of speech… only when it concerns their political and election campaigns.

People First Comment:

It is time to establish what is really meant by freedom of the press in Ukraine. Journalists have the freedom to write as their heart and conscience dictate so long as they do not write unpleasant things about the President, Rada Deputies, the government and Ministers or the party of power. They can criticise the opposition till the cows come home but don’t, what ever you do, poke fun or pose serious and thought provoking questions at the parties in power. One has to ask just why these power structures are so paranoid. Is it that they have such tender ego’s or do they really have something to hide?

The root of the paranoia however probably lie in the hands of the Rada PR teams. Modern political PR is a virtual war between what you want to say and what others want to say about you. This means that today’s PR person has to be professionally trained to ensure that their client is pumping out so much well grounded and positive news that any negative comment is way behind the curve. Instead most are totally reactive and as a result many in power see censorship and repression as the only answer. Like it or not we now live in the communications era where as a politician you can either ensure that your PR team are keeping you ahead of the PR curve or accept that you are a target for every angry journalist with a laptop and mobile phone. Even the governments of North African countries have now realised that media repression creates more problems than it solves.

Quote of the week:

You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.

Abbie Hoffman
Political and social activist

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.

The People First Foundation recognise and appreciate the support of Ivan Matieshin in the production of Democracy Watch.

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People First Foundation
1 Skovorody Street, Kyiv 04070, Ukraine
Telephone: +38044 536 1508 / Fax +38044 536 1509

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