Articles and Commentary

Lutsenko Pardon is No Signal for Change


The rollercoaster that is Ukrainian politics took an unexpected turn on April 7th, when President Viktor Yanukovych pardoned several opposition figures, most notably Yuriy Lutsenko. The move was welcomed by European leaders, who have repeatedly appealed for Ukraine to address the issue of selective application of justice – a key condition for the Association Agreement to be signed at the Eastern Partnership summit in November.

But it is too soon to celebrate just yet. For one, the jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko remains behind bars, and many of the concerns voiced in European Union reports have yet to be addressed. Even worse, continued tampering with Ukraine's political setup suggest Lutsenko's pardon is more about sowing discord among the opposition, and in Europe, while Yanukovych fights for every possible advantage ahead of the 2015 presidential elections.

In prison for 833 days, Lutsenko has arguably been the starkest symbol of the authorities' persecution of opposition figures. An opposition strategist and Yulia Tymoshenko's interior minister, he was essentially imprisoned for not cancelling a national holiday, going against instructions to cut spending, and overpaying his driver. He also lacks Tymoshenko's murky business past, a major reason for her limited public support.

As a result, EU leaders have long insisted Ukraine solve the Lutsenko problem before the Association Agreement between the two sides, ratified in Kyiv in December 2011, can be signed. Indeed, a May deadline has been put forth if Ukraine is to have any hope of signing the agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Without progress, EU leaders have warned, Ukraine's integration prospects could be put on ice until 2015.

European efforts have certainly been instrumental in bringing about Lutsenko's liberation. Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski and former European Parliament head Patrice Cox, who have repeatedly visited the jailed opposition figures, lobbied strong and hard for the release. Ukraine's ombudsman, Valeria Lutkovskaya, also pushed the idea, appealing to Yanukovych on April 5 to let Lutsenko go on humanitarian and health grounds.

Yet it would be naive to believe that Yanukovych was ultimately swayed by appeals for clemency and pro-democracy arguments, or indeed a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which pronounced Lutsenko's arrest illegal. Instead, pardoning the former minister has all the makings of a savvy tactical move.


Divide and conquer

The October 2012 parliamentary elections changed the face of Ukraine's opposition. The rather timid bunch, mostly composed of Batkivschyna members resigned to not having the powers to change the nation's course, saw an injection of fresh blood in form of the right wing Svoboda and the more centrist UDAR party.

Overcoming its deficiency in votes with passion, particularly from hot-headed Svoboda members, and reasonable policy strategy, mainly from UDAR, the opposition has aptly picked its battles – and not just the physical ones on the parliament floor. Raising hell about such scandalous topics as not voting in person or the so-called practice of tushki, a change of allegiance by deputies, it has been able to revive some interest in politics amidst a jaded population.

But the success of the strategy has rested on the triumvirate of the three parties' leaders: Svoboda's Oleh Tyahnybok, UDAR's Klitschko, and Batkivschyna's Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Of the three, Yatsenyuk has the weakest standing. Without Tymoshenko's charisma and running the most fragmented of the opposition groupings, his image has further suffered from the betrayals of party members who have sided with the ruling coalition.

As a convict, Lutsenko will not be able to hold office for the foreseeable future, and thus does not present an immediate threat. But this also means his interests do not fully align with those of his colleagues in parliament, allowing him a longer time horizon. Most likely, Lutsenko will take on the role of a moral authority and coordinate closely with other opposition leaders, avoiding the mixed messages of the past. Nonetheless, attempts to discredit the opposition and drive a wedge between its various factions are sure to follow. If past experiences are anything to go by, Ukraine's opposition can be thrown off balance in a heartbeat, and the more cooks – the better.

Moreover, Yanukovych does not necessarily need a lot for victory, as last year's parliamentary election has shown. Indeed, despite winning the popular vote, the opposition failed to win in parliament as half the seats were filled from single-mandate districts. Dissent amid the largest opposition faction could lead to a repeat of that scenario, or at least open the door to further tweaking with electoral law.

Lutsenko's release could also have a divisive effect beyond Ukraine's borders, namely in Brussels. Looking back at the three years of Yanukovych's presidency, it is hard to view signing the Association Agreement as one of the administration's strategic priorities. Nonetheless, inking the deal could hardly hurt, particularly since implementation would likely hit a brick wall in the form of ratification by Germany's Bundestag.

Supporters of powering through with a deal have argued that hoping for Tymoshenko's release is futile, at least for the time being, and that a significant sign of good faith should be enough. In return, opponents have argued that only full compliance can move relations forward. Freeing Lutsenko cuts right down the middle, giving fodder to the “pro-signing” camp. Expect promises of reform, work on drafting legislation, and hints at flexibility over the Tymoshenko issue to follow.


Playing with the rules

Meanwhile, Ukraine's authorities continue to tamper with the rules in the hope of squeezing out any advantage for the upcoming elections amidst an increasingly hostile population. This has been particularly visible in Kyiv, which is in the middle of a heated debate about holding mayoral elections. Ukraine's capital has officially been without a mayor since June 2012, when the former head Leonid Chernovetskyi resigned.

Since then, the city has been run by Oleksandr Popov, a Yanukovych ally. While an improvement on his absentee predecessor, the appointed Popov has failed to convince Kyiv of his capabilities, most recently during a record-breaking snowstorm that left thousands stranded for hours and turned the streets into ski slopes.

Nonetheless, both citizens' protests and opposition efforts have failed to push a bill proposing June mayoral elections through parliament. The loss of control over Kyiv, whose shrinking budget has increasingly been channeled to suspect firms (often connected to the president's son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, one of the biggest recipients of public tender money, according to Forbes Ukraine), would be a big blow to the ruling party.

Among the results of the stand-off was the April 4th “coup”, as Yatsenyuk called it, when members of the de facto ruling coalition – the Party of Regions, their communist toadies, and tushki – held session outside the parliamentary building. Highly irregular, to put it mildly, the session was marked by a flurry of laws, rapidly passed in a vote through raised hands.

While the government claimed the session was legal due to the presence of a parliamentary majority of more than 225 deputies, the opposition – who was not allowed to enter the building – counted only 182 lawmakers. According to parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak, the move was necessary due to the gridlock plaguing the legislature, but it seems more likely the ruling coalition is testing how far it can bend the rules.

Going even further, The Ukrainian Week suggested recently that the capital may be a testing ground for the 2015 presidential elections – and specifically for their cancellation. Indeed, reports continue to surface about the possible postponement of the election, having the president picked by parliament, or switching to a single-round vote. This would allow Yanukovych to win despite his ailing popularity – especially if the opposition puts forth four different candidates.


Jakub Parusinski is an editor at the English-language weekly Kyiv Post and a contributor to New Eastern Europe's Unravelling Ukraine column.

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The Lutsenko Factor


On the one hand, Yuriy Lutsenko’s release could be treated in the foreign policy arena as an outset of changes of President Yanukovych’s policy in respect to political prisoners and “the selective justice”. However, in the domestic policy arena such a release could be used to try to edge the personal conflicts within the parliamentary opposition on the grounds of the struggle for personal leadership inside the Yatsenyuk-Klitschko-Tyahnybok triumvirate, and the right to run for president as “a single candidate from the opposition” or just as “the most rated” among the parliamentary opposition leaders.

Here, presidential advisors might expect the emergence of a line of future ideological conflict between Lutsenko and Oleh Tyahnybok, as well as with Arseniy Yatsenyuk (as leaders of the “non-parliamentary” and “parliamentary”, “moral” and “pragmatic” oppositions). The latter would provoke problems inside the Batkivshchyna fraction, and would therefore enhance the regime’s position in parliament, as well as during the presidential elections.

Yuriy Lutsenko will take an active part both in public politics and the shadow negotiations between different political actors. Lutsenko’s appearance in the political arena changes the oppositional “three” into “four”, and thus complicates the preconditions for reaching arrangements, and allows more room for manoeuvring with presidential political techniques among the interests of the opponents of President Yanukovych. The first thing they might throw into the media scene is the analogy to the failure of “Kanivska chetvirka” (“the Kaniv Four”) in the 1999 presidential elections.

On the other hand, Yuriy Lutsenko will inevitably bring the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko immediately into focus: starting from her physical liberation, to recognising her as “the leader of the opposition”, which is more important than the present “trio” put together. This could also impact the ambitions and interests of Yatsenyuk-Klitschko-Tyahnybok and would clearly complicate their tasks.

Eventually, the appearance of such a political figure as Yuriy Lutsenko would inevitably lead to an attempt at setting up a new political project headed by him, as he would unlikely join any of the current three oppositional actors.

In a word, the government might see in the “Lutsenko factor” some additional opportunities for manoeuvring and manipulation. The regime, however, faces the risk of losing control over the situation, as is the case of any force majeure, the leader of the future mass resistance will be free and in the thick of action.

Translated by Olena Shynkarenko


Volodymyr Horbach is a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv and Editor-in-Chief of the EuroAtlantica Web site.

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The Lutsenko Pardon: Enough to appease the EU?


On Sunday President Yanukovych pardoned Yuriy Lutsenko and Georgiy Filipchuk, two of Ukraine’s highest profile ‘selective prosecutions’, who were respectively Interior Minister and Environment Minister during the last Tymoshenko government (2007-10).  This is just in time for the looming May deadline, when the EU has promised it will review Ukraine’s progress towards meeting the conditions Brussels has outlined for getting the Association and DCFTA agreements back on track in time for the Vilnius Eastern partnership summit in November.

Is the pardon enough to do so? In itself, clearly not. The EU has rightly been stepping back from conditions that are too ad hominem . The case against Lutsenko was weaker than most.

But will the pardon lead to progress elsewhere? It should not be forgotten that Lutsenko’s final court appearance last month was held in such shabby conditions – in a rather obvious reminder of where power lies. Even more importantly, Yanukovych also stressed that he would not issue a pardon until all legal options had been exhausted. The new charges laid against Yulia Tymoshenko in January therefore seem deliberately designed to stretch her process out until the next presidential election due in 2015. It will take a long time before all her process are ‘exhausted’, even if a European Court on Human Rights ruling comes before 2015.

The authorities in Kyiv are almost certainly calculating that the pardon of Lutsenko on its own will be enough to sow divisions within the EU. As long as ‘progress’ can be demonstrated, Brussels will allow the goalposts to shift. Particularly because there is political crisis in Moldova, and Georgia, rightly or wrongly, is accused of heading down the same road as Ukraine towards ‘selective prosecution’; and the EU will need a success story for the November summit.

But a few voices urging compromise will probably not be enough. Precisely because the original case against Lutsenko was always so absurdly weak, the EU should stand firm. Initial statements by Catherine Ashton and Štefan Füle have rightly said they ‘look forward to Ukraine addressing without further delay the outstanding case[s] of selective justice’.  If Ukraine is serious, it will show willing in other areas. A fig-leaf ‘success’ in November negotiated for tokenistic reasons and proclaimed for PR purposes is unlikely to stick.


Andrew Wilson is a Senior Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Lutsenko's Pardon – for international consumption


The first analyses of President Yanukovych's decision to pardon Yuriy Lutsenko have rightly focused on the international implications of the decision. Aside from questions over Lutsenko's health, reports of a split amongst supporters of the president over the lack of progress on EU integration suggest that Yanukovych may have been pressured into making a gesture symbolising Ukraine's progress in the fields of human rights and criminal justice. So far the reaction from Brussels has been guarded but positive – the consortium of ministers in charge of external relations are aware that the pardon is meant as evidence of a change in attitudes, not deeper reform.

A bigger bang could have been made by releasing former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, yet the president's statement made no mention of his long-time foe. That Lutsenko's imprisonment had been criticised by the European Court of Human Rights, while Tymoshenko's case has been dragged out, gives Yanukovych some cover for keeping Tymoshenko in prison, but the question remains, why is she considered so much more dangerous than Lutsenko?

The answer may lie in domestic politics. Yanukovych and Tymoshenko have long been estranged, but the roots of the president's grudge against Lutsenko go back to 2006. As then President Victor Yuschenko and Tymoshenko negotiated a coalition agreement, the Socialist Party sensationally announced that it would leave the Orange Coalition to support the appointment of Yanukovych as prime minister and a Party of Regions-backed government. Lutsenko rejected this shift and led a breakaway group that merged with Yushchenko's now-defunct party, Our Ukraine. 

Releasing Lutsenko now might do more damage to the opposition than pro-government forces. Yanukovych may hope that he can split the opposition's vote in mayoral elections in Kyiv (for which there has been considerable public pressure), and perhaps even in the presidential elections in 2015. Indeed, some mysterious figure has already attempted to bounce UDAR into a statement of support or opposition to the prospect of Lutsenko becoming Mayor of Kyiv. The elections could be important if the government wants to retain the option of frustrating large scale public protests, or for the distribution of development permits to loyal supporters.

Tymoshenko's party, currently led by Arseniy Yatsenyiuk, and Vitali Klitchsko's UDAR party have been unable to agree on all but the most basic coordination of their activities. Both would like to become president – Klitschko has the charisma, Yatsenyiuk the parliamentary experience (and larger representation). The introduction of a third-candidate for leadership of the opposition would further distort the opposition's message and introduce an added element of competition.

Yanukovych's other great problem recently has been the repeated blocking of the Verkhovna Rada. Lutsenko's release will not in itself help resolve this, and the Party of Regions has resorted to attempting to hold separate sessions in secret locations – on shaky constitutional grounds. The best hope for Yanukovych may be that the public tire of the opposition's activities, but he will also have to resort to less crude methods of parliamentary manipulation than the stripping of Serhiy Vlasenko's parliamentary mandate.

The government's use of patronage and administrative resources to encourage defections amongst opposition factions has been a key weapon in the arsenal of the Party of Regions since the era of President Leonid Kuchma. In 2010 the almost unworkable “imperative mandate” (tying seats to parties and allowing their leaderships to replace disloyal deputies) was repealed. Between Yanukovych's election and the 2012 parliamentary elections, Tymoshenko's faction lost 56 deputies, some of whom became independents and some of whom joined the Party of Regions. Since the 2012 elections, five deputies have left Tymoshenko's faction but UDAR has proven more disciplined.

Pardoning Lutsenko may activate further parliamentary divisions by encouraging centre-left members of the opposition to consider forming yet another parliamentary faction aimed at enhancing their influence. The provision of official resources to each faction is a great incentive, and presidential hopefuls will be desperate for resources come 2015. Tymoshenko, a natural arm-twister and coalition builder, is seen as having the skills and tools to unite the opposition, since during periods of co-habitation with President Yushchenko she proved adept at convincing elements of Our Ukraine to join her faction. Lutsenko, on the other hand, is regarded by Yanukovych as an opposition-splitter. However, he brings less political baggage than Tymoshenko and also has an awareness of the broad range of characteristics demanded of a successful Ukrainian politician. Whether or not he has been underestimated, we shall soon find out.

Yanukovych's dreams of a fragmentary opposition depend heavily on the major personalities removing their egos from politics. The government's majority is itself not something that can be relied upon, especially if the country's poor economic conditions continue to limit the amount of pork that can be distributed to constituents. Yet the opposition know that their performance in the last parliamentary elections was unsatisfactory, and that campaigning against political repression is failing to mobilise the electorate. With the five years of infighting and instability that the Orange Revolution brought still fresh in the minds of the voters, Yanukovych may be gambling on an apparently united government remaining more attractive than a disorderly opposition movement.  


Josh Black is studying for an MSc in Russian and Eastern European Studies at Oxford University, where he is also the editor of the blog Vostok Cable ( or twitter @vostokcable). He has a special interest in Russian and Ukrainian politics since 1991.

A Positive Signal?


The freedom of Yuriy Lutsenko is a very positive signal, no doubt. And it is not only an execution of one point on the EU wish-list to Ukraine before the Association Agreement signing.

The execution of such an important, but painful to Yanukovych, point illustrates the problems in the relations with Vladimir Putin. The Ukrainian president still hasn’t chosen which way is more comfortable for him – as this person does not work in the state interest. But a strong and non-compromising wish-list of Putin indeed says to Yanukovich “no” to his future in a Union with Russia.

Thus, the EU should use the Yanukovych-Putin problem to push the Ukrainian leader to do other points before signing the Association Agreement and to show Yanukovych all possible positive results in choosing the European way.


Volodymyr Ariev is a People’s Deputy of Ukraine, a member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) and sits on the Ukrainian parliament’s committee for foreign affairs.


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