Analysis: Ukraine is a lapsed democracy we must bring back to the fold
UKRAINE’S parliamentary elections on Sunday will be neither free nor fair. Eight unproductive years after the 2004 Orange Revolution, its democratic opposition is demoralised. Yet the elections may check president Viktor Yanukovych’s power.
He was fairly elected in February 2010 but soon turned Ukraine into a mildly authoritarian state. A dozen opposition politicians have been jailed, including former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and interior minister Yuri Lutsenko.
Ms Tymoshenko, leader of the liberal and pro-western opposition, was sentenced to seven years for a gas deal with Russia in which she was not even accused of having benefited personally. But Mr Yanukovych has not stopped there. He exerts pressure on private television channels, and has blocked licences and cable access for the independent channel TVi, which has exposed the most serious corruption cases of his reign. Moreover, he uses the civil service and law-enforcement authorities to repress opposition and promote his protégés.
And yet the upcoming election matters. Ukraine has a vibrant civil society and excellent free internet media. But the opposition is badly demoralised after five years of stalemate among the Orange Revolution’s leaders. Former president Viktor Yushchenko is greatly to blame for allegedly betraying the democratic breakthrough he represented. He now leads the party that supports Mr Yanukovych.
Ukrainian voters are fickle. They voted against the incumbents in the presidential elections of 1994, 2004, and 2010. They may do so again. The most recent poll suggested that Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions would get 28 per cent of the vote and its main ally the Communists 11 per cent, giving them a total of 39 per cent. Ms Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party polled on 19 per cent and heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR, her main ally, polled 17 per cent.
The predatory nature of Mr Yanukovych’s rule is not well hidden; his family members and loyalists control the security apparatus and main economic agencies. Anticipating that his party might lose the election if Ukraine’s proportional voting system were maintained, he has reverted to the 2002 system, with only half of the 450 seats to be distributed proportionally. The remaining 225 seats will be filled by single members from first-past-the-post constituencies – a change that gives regional tycoons an opportunity to buy seats.
But Mr Yanukovych failed to anticipate that tycoons would be disloyal to him. Initially, his government contained nine groups of big businessmen, but that number has fallen gradually, and even top businessmen have been marginalised by his core loyalists, who are rumoured to be enriching themselves at the expense of state and business.
Each summer, the Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk organises a major international conference, the Yalta European Strategy, attended by the Ukrainian elite and prominent foreigners. This September, the lesson of the conference was that Mr Yanukovych has isolated himself not only from the West and Russia, but also from his main backers at home.
The tycoons might not oust Mr Yanukovych, but they will check his power. Their main objection is that Mr Yanukovych prefers to keep Ms Tymoshenko in prison rather than obtain an Association Agreement with the European Union. The already-concluded free-trade agreement with the EU would offer Ukraine badly needed market access and increased exports, but the EU will not ratify it unless Ms Tymoshenko is released.
Similarly, the tycoons advocate restored co-operation with the International Monetary Fund, because they want access to credit at reasonable interest rates. But Mr Yanukovych refuses to liberalise gas prices, a key IMF demand.
Concern that the West’s pro-reform stance will push Ukraine into Russia’s embrace is largely unfounded. Mr Yanukovych’s relations with Mr Putin are so poor that Putin all but refuses to talk to him – other than to make preposterous demands.
The West is providing 2,000 monitors to ensure a free and fair vote. And the US and the EU have a large stake in the outcome. Ukraine is a friendly country – one that always joins “coalitions of the willing”. But it is a lapsed democratic country. They must help to change that.
• Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
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