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.
Read more commentary on the Lutsenko pardon at: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/739