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Ukraine is not Russia or Venezuela

Batkivshchyna Party leader Yulia Tymoshenko and the proposals made at her June 15th “New Deal” congress resemble those introduced by Nicolás Maduro, successor to military officer and President Hugo Chávez, a socialist-populist who ruled Venezuela from 1999-2013. Chávez and Maduro are anti-democratic leaders who have ruined the country’s once strong economy based upon it being a major oil producer.

June 26, 2018 - Taras Kuzio - Analysis

Tymoshenko at the 2014 EPP Dublin Congress. Photo: European People's Party (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Venezuela’s slide to authoritarianism has been condemned by most Latin American and Western countries. Its only allies are Latin American leftwing regimes in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, and further afield, China and Russia. Russia has been a major supplier of military weaponry to Venezuela and Chavez was a close friend of the Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro.

What then is Tymoshenko proposing for Ukraine if she wins the March 2019 presidential elections?

Western academics who have written about populism and the rise of populist parties note that populists are critics of established institutions, such as parliaments, because they claim that the “people” are excluded from decision making as these institutions, which have been captured by the corrupt elite and oligarchs. All populists are united by their rhetoric of claiming to represent the “people” in their struggle against the “corrupt elite” and the “establishment”.

Tymoshenko has shown similar traits and she has a very low attendance rate for parliamentary sittings. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine, an NGO watchdog, calculated that in May 2018 Tymoshenko and Opposition Bloc MP – and presidential candidate – Yuriy Boyko attended only one per cent and six per cent of the parliamentary proceedings respectively.

Tymoshenko’s authoritarian-style of leadership was revealed to the US Ambassador to Ukraine in 2010 by Viktor Pynzenyk who resigned as finance minister from the Tymoshenko government. Many of her traits are commonly found in European populists, including making decisions without listening to advice, believing everybody else is wrong and using populism for the goal of attaining maximum power.

Tymoshenko proposes giving the citizens of Ukraine the right of legislative initiative and empowering them with an effective instrument of direct democracy – referendum by popular initiative. She has claimed that this is a form of direct democracy. “Closing the path of legislative initiative for a citizen in the 21st century, when the communication system is limitless and can unite the intellectual synergy of hundreds of millions of people, would be wrong,” she said. Tymoshenko called for a transparent mechanism of legislative initiative to be written into a new Ukrainian Constitution.

This is a similar proposal to the Constituent Assembly created in 2017 by Venezuela’s Maduro. It would draft a new constitution to replace the 1999 constitution introduced by Chávez. Members of the Constituent Assembly would not be elected in free elections but selected from social organisations loyal to Maduro. Approximately two-thirds (364) of the Constituent Assembly members were elected by municipal citizens while members of seven social sectors – including trade unions, communal councils, indigenous groups, farmers, students and pensioners – elected the remaining one-third (181) of members. The new constitution proposed by the Constituent Assembly will be subject to approval by referendum.

Criticisms of the Constituent Assembly believe it is meant to circumvent the opposition-controlled parliament and will make Maduro president for life. The Constituent Assembly elections expressed its support for President Maduro which shows how it is likely to become a rubber-stamp parliament, much like Russia’s State Duma. Elections are likely not to be free. The Constituent Assembly will give itself the power to legislate on issues including the “preservation of peace, security, sovereignty, the socio-economic and financial system” It also voted to put opposition leaders on trial for treason.

Giving legislative initiative to the citizens would be seen as a means to circumvent the elected parliament whose deputies represent the people which is not equitable with democracy and does not exist in European and North American democracies. Public petitions, which Tymoshenko pointed as examples of direct democracy in the US already exist in Ukraine and supported by the US government through its development agency USAID. Tymoshenko is therefore not proposing anything new and she is being disingenuous when she said that “We can’t be on the side-lines – we should also do this.”

Tymoshenko argued that a new social contract should give people the right to hold a real referendum by popular initiative – both national and local – and the procedure for holding a referendum should be clearly outlined in a new constitution. “We need to create a referendum organizing committee that will hold a national gathering (viche) with special quotas for the whole country, that will have the right to appoint the Central Election Commission and will include representatives of state authorities … And then we should create a special referendum fund that people will contribute to and will not require expenditures from the [state] budget.”

Referendums do not enhance democracies and can actually lead to chaos, political instability and uncertainty.  How can anybody seriously believe that Britain’s referendum on Brexit was not a disaster leading the country into the unknown? Fifty-two per cent – a bare majority over only four per cent of the “Remain” voters – have decided the future of Britain’s relationship to the European Union, putting the economy, people’s lives, travel and trade all at risk. The Netherlands is an even better example of a country having the mechanism to hold referendums promoted by Dutch citizens – exactly as Tymoshenko proposed. The April 2018 referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was won by opponents by a vote of 32 per cent – only two per cent above the minimum threshold for turnout to allow the results to be valid.

Referendums in Ukraine could, and most certainly would, be used by Russia and its Ukrainian proxies to call for referenda on a special status for Donbas, Odesa, Novorossiya and membership of the Eurasian Economic Union. Calls for a referendum on making Russian a second state language have long been around. Added to this threat is the possibility of Russian hackers tipping the results in Moscow’s favour. There is evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit and Dutch referendums.

Tymoshenko has proposed all-Ukrainian public associations be created on the constitutional level to influence processes in different spheres. Again, it is not clear why this is needed as Ukrainian civil society organisations already have their own unions such as the Reanimation Package of Reforms which has been influential in lobbying for the reform processes after the EuroMaidan. Human rights and civil society organisations are also united in an umbrella organisation. And Ukrainian civil society organisations in Ukraine as elsewhere zealously guard their independence and will not want seek to join a GONGO (government-controlled civil society forum).  A study of GONGO’s published in Foreign Policy magazine pointed to how they are a threat to democracy.

The launch of Tymoshenko’s 2019 election campaign – her third (and probably last) attempt – included a lot of sympathetic rhetoric about the need to improve Ukrainian citizen participation in the country’s young democracy. Behind the rhetoric, though, there is little new that is not already being undertaken by civil society and foreign-funded assistance programmes. At the same time, some of her populist proposals are eerily similar to those introduced by authoritarian leaders such as in Venezuela.

Taras Kuzio is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS and Professor at the Department of Political Science National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March 2017.

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  • Big Basterd

    What a load of bullsh!t, the dutch referenda are held on PAPER ballots, unhackable.

  • grayestphoenix

    I’m not that familiar with Tymoshenko but I do know that comparing referendums to the Maduro Constituent Assembly is completely unfair. Referendum can increase direct democracy and provide forward movement when elected bodies stall.

  • halldor

    This article, while interesting, reads like a rather elaborate straw man argument. Mr. Kuzio may see elements of Venezuelan populism in Yulia Tymoshenko’s programme, but this is a partial and subjective view, and is not entirely convincing. Her proposals are aimed at an increase in democracy, not a reduction of it.

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