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The Broth and its Many Cooks: Ukraine in-between elections

March 10, 2013 - Yegor Vasylyev - Bez kategorii

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The country on the border of West and East, mired in the habits of the previous epoch, is approaching a new historic waterline, and all of its tensions and challenges are becoming more acute.

Pepper from the Opposition

The winter retreats and Kyiv roads, another failed object of EURO 2012's initial frenzy, well remind one of a landscape after a meteorite attack. The country’s political landscape beyond the signpost of the third anniversary of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency has also fractured.

A hitherto unabridged advance of the ruling cohort came to a halt with a 16-day blockade of the new parliament by a renovated opposition. Bat’kivshyna brought the slogans, Svoboda – the thrust, and UDAR – fancy stickers and T-shirts, but all stayed united, and won. For the first time since Viktor Yanukovych became Ukraine’s president, his parliamentary majority had to backslide on its intentions and take on the opposition’s demands.

These were simple and clear – the majority, if it is real, must vote in person. That is, it must abandon the usual practice of “piano-playing”, when one member of parliament runs across the row of empty seats to press the right button during the vote.

Then, the virtual essence of the majority, constructed in a series of electoral manipulations, has let itself be known. The ruling party simply couldn't secure the needed number of MPs to actually do their job – come to the parliament and vote for its decisions. A permanent live attendance of the sessions by many businessmen-MPs turned out to be a big problem.

Ultimately, the majority supported the opposition’s amendments to the rules of procedure on blocking the voting cards of those absent at the session. However, when the Rada reopened on March 5th the opposition continued with the blockade, this time to protest against the court’s decision to strip Sergiy Vlasenko, a member of Bat’kivshyna faction and Yulia Tymoshenko’s defence lawyer, of the parliamentary mandate.

Traditional Russian flavourings, new ingredients

This turbulence takes place amidst rising temperatures of Ukraine’s eternal East-West dilemma, usually resolved or rather unresolved with a game of balancing by its post-Soviet rulers.

Vladimir Putin has launched another large-scale campaign to entice Ukraine back to the Slavonic brotherhood. It has a lot to do with the traditional language of economic pressure and ultimatums, but this time also involves more sophisticated tools.

In January, Gazprom once again invoked the pay-or-take gas scheme, signed up by Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009, and billed Ukraine a seven billion dollar fine for failure to take up eight billion cubic metres of gas in 2012. Ukraine has refused to pay it, and the speculations about Russia taking control over its gas-transit system are once again rife, especially as the public knows very little about why Putin kept Yanukovych awake until 2 am. during their latest meeting at Putin’s residence on March 4th.

Meanwhile, the Russian President lauded the New Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation for taking into account “a changing balance of power in the world”. He has accentuated the use of modern foreign policy tools, such as soft-power and global information flow.

Indeed, on February 22nd, Putin, while giving out Russian state awards to the Party of Regions’ MPs, who initiated the law on raising the status of Russian language in Ukraine, remarked in his very own frank manner that “we, in Russia, see no difference between the Ukrainians and Russians”.

However, the usual tools of Moscow’s influence on Kyiv seem rather worn out. The diversification of gas supplies and subsequent decline of “Gazprom diplomacy” is no longer a chimera; the Ukraine-wide tour of Russian Orthodox Church primate Patriarch Kirill have failed to re-ignite “Mother Russia” religious sentiments in the country; and the effects of campaigns led by Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s friend and once a head of the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma’s administration, aimed at boosting support for the Customs Union, are largely disproportionate to their costs.

Even the adoption of the new language law and Russification attempts of the manifestly Ukrainophobic education minister Dmitriy Tabachnik have contributed to support for the national status of the Russian language decreasing.

There clearly seems to be a place for more creative forms. One might wonder, whether arousing Soviet-nostalgia is a modern foreign policy tool. The latest resurrection attempts range from the Soviet football championship to the most popular Soviet beer.

A proposal to Ukrainian clubs to join a new tournament, oiled by Gazprom through a one-billion-dollar sponsorship, was met with a cold reception in Ukraine. The once legendary confrontation between the renowned FC Dynamo Kyiv and its rival Spartak Moscow means little to a new generation of fans in both capitals. And a Soviet “Cup spirit” of provincial Shakhtar Donetsk stemming from the local players’ loyalty to their working class origins, runs a distant mile from today’s Brazilian Shakhtar, bathed in Rinat Akhmetov’s spending spree.

Moscow beer brand “Zhyguli”, a close allusion to the most popular Soviet beer “Zhyguliovskoe”, and the similarly named restaurant, famously treated Vladimir Putin and Dmitriy Medvedev to a traditional Soviet Labour Solidarity party on the May 1st 2012. Last year has also seen the brand’s breakthrough in the Ukrainian market, following a purchase of the share in a local beer company by Russian investors.

Russia has already significantly widened its business and political support base in the former satellites, creating what the newly appointed Polish minister of the interior Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, in his interview to Nowa Europa Wschodnia, called an orbit of “small Moscows” in Budapest, Bratislava, Vilnius and Riga. However, it certainly aims at somewhat “bigger Moscows” in Kyiv and Minsk.

The need to hurry up seems obvious: surveys of ideological markers show a clear shift into an opposite direction in the attitudes of younger Ukrainians, and it is unlikely that any kind of soft power might stop it.

More sauce from the EU

The European Union has also reinvigorated attempts to facilitate a decisive shift from the country’s infamous imitation of the European choice to practicality.

It has once and again highlighted the willingness to bring Ukraine closer and sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the November Eastern Partnership Summit in Ukraine-friendly Lithuania. However, a tangible progress must be demonstrated in addressing the issues of selective justice, establishing a reliable electoral system and judicial reform.

According to EU Observer, the European giant Germany and long-standing proponents of Ukrainian EU integration Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have joined up on their vision of the EU Eastern Partnership. Allegedly, Germany is no more against giving post-Soviet states an EU-perspective, if they achieve significant progress in democratic reforms. The countries also stress the need to strengthen the EU’s image and soft power in the Eastern neighbourhood and propose a special “Eastern Partnership label” to brand the results of EU-funded projects.

The Ukrainian authorities so far have responded in their typical manner – nodding and promising, but doing little in the direction of the fulfilment. To the contrary, Yulia Tymoshenko faces a new trial, this time, being accused of the murder of a Donetsk businessman in 1997.

The classics of a balancing see-saw have been inherited by the new foreign minister Leonid Kozhara, once a Communist Party High School functionary, who replaced Kostyantyn Gryshenko. The latter was put through a typical post-Soviet trick of a “fake promotion”. As deputy prime minister in the new cabinet, he is now engaged with the Soviet-style opening of new schools in villages and visits to ambulance stations.

A similar path to oblivion has already been walked by Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, who proceeded from the Head of the Security Service in 2010, through a short stay as the minister of finance and a technical post of deputy prime minister on European integration, to a final exit from the scene in December 2012.

Kozhara has immediately engaged himself with the favourite post-Soviet game, promising to find a formula to cohabit the Eurasian Customs Union and European Union – quite alike “the third way” project-mongering of his predecessor.

The big spoon

An issue of political persecutions is the main stumbling block in EU-Ukraine rapprochement. Yuriy Lutsenko’s chances of leaving prison seem rather good. Yanukovych has recently implied this being possible, and he might really mean it.

Lutsenko’s imprisonment is usually seen in the context of revenge for his aggression back in 2005. As the minister of the interior, he stood behind an unfinished persecution of Rinat Akhmetov’s confidant, Borys Kolesnikov. Unlike Tymoshenko, however, Lutsenko is not perceived as a personal threat by the Ukrainian president. Akhmetov’s loss of influence on presidential decision-making also removes a major barrier for Lutsenko’s release.

Tymoshenko’s story is quite different, however. Opposition MPs expressed concerns over rumours about Yanukovych’s attempt to bargain on her medical treatment abroad – in practice, an exile – as a possible solution to an impasse in his relations with the EU.

Yanukovych desperately needs new bright colours for a so far grim picture of his presidency. Some expect as much as a possible assault on the oligarchs. Indeed, if his neo-patrimonial rule is only naturally taken by one part of the electorate, the oligarchs are hated by both. In political terms, he no longer needs any of his former patrons. In business, he has let them transform entire industry branches into private monopolies – very convenient, if someone decides to “familise” them. Such an assault might also debase possible sources of funding for the opposition.

Taking political prisoners as bargaining chips and collecting “family jewels”, compiled with full control over the siloviki (security-service personnel – editor's note) will make the situation look exactly like neighbouring Belarus. But the burgeoning family business empire might blindfold the weakening of the president’s political control. Slowly, but surely, post-Soviet political technologies seem to be losing their effectiveness in modern Ukraine, and the problems of the parliamentary majority is the latest sign of this tendency.

Thus far, the Ukrainian president still retains the big spoon for adding the ingredients and mixing up the broth. But whether he will be able to switch the fire off promptly, in case the cooking breaks away from his traditional post-Soviet recipes, is by no means obvious.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.

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