Since Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in February, observers have been looking for signs of whether Ukraine would move closer to Russia or continue integrating with Europe. The return of Yanukovych, who was swept from office by the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, sparked fears among some that the momentum of Ukraine’s domestic political and economic reforms would be lost.
In a Q&A, John Hewko assesses Yanukovych’s first 200 days in office and how the United States and Europe should respond. Hewko argues that “it is critical that the United States and Europe continue to engage Ukraine” and outlines five steps Western policy makers should take to strengthen democracy in the country and build strong long-term relations.
- How has the country’s domestic politics changed since Viktor Yanukovych took office?
- Is the country sliding away from democracy?
- Is Ukraine moving closer to Russia?
- How has Ukraine’s economy fared during the financial crisis? What does this mean for the country’s stability?
- How should the United States and Europe approach Ukraine and its new leader?
- Where is Ukraine headed?
There have been significant changes since Viktor Yanukovych took office six months ago. The previous administration, led by Viktor Yushchenko, was marked by political gridlock due to infighting between Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, combined with an inability to form a workable majority coalition in parliament. The result was a tragic squandering of the historic opportunity offered by the Orange Revolution that swept Yushchenko into office in 2004.
Yanukovych, in contrast, promised he would restore “order” in a country fed up with political chaos. He was able to put together a majority socialist/communist coalition—although on the back of a controversial Constitutional Court decision that overturned a 2008 ruling, which stated only parliamentary factions, and not individual deputies, can form a coalition—that should make governing and achieving his legislative agenda easier. The key question, however, will be how he utilizes this increasingly consolidated power and whether he uses democratic or autocratic methods to bring about the promised order and stability.
The finalization of a $15 billion loan from the IMF is a positive development in light of the country’s budget and financial crisis. Unfortunately, other actions by the new government have been disappointing and even alarming. The 2010 budget was rushed through parliament without hearings and in violation of other procedural rules and contains few reform measures. By breaking with the post-independence approach of his predecessors of governing from the center Yanukovych has exacerbated the tensions between the Russian speaking eastern oblasts and Euro-friendly Western Ukraine, particularly with his appointment of Dmytro Tabachnyk as minister of education. Tabachnyk is a strident Ukrainophobe whose inflammatory statements denigrating the Ukrainian language have outraged and alienated many Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine.
The current government has few committed market reformers and is comprised largely of Soviet-style managers. Domestic politics has become somewhat less chaotic and erratic (although the recent brawl on the floor of the Parliament over a proposal to increase gas prices may put this into question), but this has come at a price as the government has undertaken a number of measures that negatively impact democratic freedoms, human rights, and the Ukrainian language, culture, and educational system.
There is no question in my mind that democracy is under attack in Ukraine. For all of its failings and in marked contrast to Russia, the Yushchenko administration encouraged freedom of the press and the development of a vibrant civil society. The current administration is trying to roll back this progress in the name of stability and order.
Early legislative action, such as the law on local elections, has focused more on strengthening political control rather than on undertaking measures to address the country’s deep economic crisis. The Ukrainian state security apparatus—the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the Ministry of Interior—were granted expanded powers, restrictions on demonstrations are being imposed in the name of “public safety,” and pressure on journalists and media outlets is increasing. In a case that generated significant attention abroad, the SBU tried to intimidate the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University into signing a secret letter ostensibly holding him liable for any anti-government protests by his students.
Nevertheless, despite his pro-Russian orientation, maintaining a good image in the West is important to Yanukovych. In the case of the Catholic university, the government backtracked in the face of international concern and apologized for the secret service’s actions. But the worrying trend continues as there have been new instances of SBU harassment of academics and opponents of the government, such as the recent detention of a museum director in Lviv, the questioning by the SBU of bloggers accused of “insulting” the president, and numerous instances when authorities threatened bus companies with the loss of their licenses if they transported opposition supporters to a recent rally in Kyiv.
There is no doubt that Moscow was delighted with Yanukovych’s victory. Certainly in the first year of his administration Yanukovych has moved quickly and aggressively to strengthen ties with Russia through a series of agreements and statements such as the Kharkiv accords on gas and the Black Sea fleet; cooperation agreements in the areas of aerospace, banking, education, and culture; statements on joint cooperation on European security, Transnistria, and security in the Black Sea region; and a border demarcation agreement.
However, the jury is still out as to how far Yanukovych will go in this direction. Yanukovych and the oligarchs who support him may have more to gain by striking a balance between Moscow and the West than by embracing Moscow too fully. In Russia politicians run business; in Ukraine the politicians depend on big business and the oligarchs. And there is starting to be serious resistance from some of the oligarchs who are increasingly concerned about the looming loss of economic power to Russian interests.
In the end, Yanukovych will likely realize it may be better to be number one in an independent Western-oriented Ukraine than to be number fifteen in the Politburo of a reincarnated version of the Soviet Union. And Ukrainian civil society and the country’s relative political pluralism are acting as a counterweight to Yanukovych’s pro-Russian measures. The question is: will the Ukrainians be able to slow down the pro-Russian train that Yanukovych has set in motion?
In my opinion, Moscow’s long-term policy is to put an end to what many in Russia view as an historical aberration of an illegitimate experiment in Ukrainian independence. Russia’s tactics are quite clear: prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and bring Ukraine back into the Russian orbit through economic integration—by gaining control over Ukraine’s gas transit system and direct or indirect acquisition of strategic assets and enterprises—and merging Ukraine and Russia into a single economic and cultural space.
How has Ukraine’s economy fared during the financial crisis? What does this mean for the country’s stability?
The economy has fared very badly during the latest financial crisis—the country’s GDP fell 15 percent in 2009. While revitalizing the economy should be the government’s top priority, the signs so far have not been encouraging. The 2010 budget is viewed by many as unrealistic. A new tax code that the government published in August was roundly criticized—even by many in Yanukovych’s camp—for failing to simplify the tax system and ease the tax burden on businesses. It has been reported, however, that an improved version may soon be presented which, if true, could represent Yanukovych’s first significant economic reform.
The issue has geopolitical implications as a vibrant economy marked by the rule of law would diversify the country’s foreign investment base and act as a counterbalance to Russia’s economic neo-imperialism.
The Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia cannot be at the expense of Ukraine. An independent, democratic Ukraine is critical to long-term U.S. and European security interests. It is also an anchor and beacon of hope for other democratic movements in the former Soviet space. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has pointed out, without Ukraine, Russia will never be an empire.
It is critical that the United States and Europe continue to engage Ukraine, despite their misgivings about some of the actions of the new government. To this end Western policy makers should take several measures to ensure constructive engagement:
First, at least in the near to medium term, policy makers should set aside plans to bring Ukraine into NATO. This is a highly divisive issue in Ukraine and the focus should instead be on developing a clear and aggressive path for furthering Ukraine’s economic cooperation with the United States and European Union, including a free trade agreement and visa-free travel to Europe.
Second, leaders should build on one of the few positive legacies of the Yushchenko era and significantly increase support for civil society and media organizations.
Third, where possible, the West should engage in a constructive dialogue directly with the Ukrainian oligarchs. These figures fund the political parties, and their long-term economic interests and transition from robber barons to legitimate industrialists depend on greater EU integration and a stable business environment.
Fourth, the United States and Europe should significantly increase foreign assistance to Ukraine, particularly for infrastructure projects and anti-corruption and rule of law programs.
Beyond these immediate steps, the West should exhibit patience and, as frustrating as Ukrainian governments can be, take a long-term view. Overcoming the legacy of 70 years of communist rule is difficult, as I saw when I practiced law in Ukraine from 1991 to 1996. Unlike Russia, which inherited a great deal of the Soviet state structures when the system collapsed, Ukraine had to build its institutions of government—the army, central bank, overseas embassies—almost from scratch.
The process of transforming a society with little to no experience in democracy takes many decades and perhaps a generation or two. One only needs to look at the difficulties faced in the reunification of Germany, a significantly less challenging transition, to appreciate the scale of the challenge facing Ukraine. In some ways it is remarkable that a country with potentially explosive linguistic and cultural divides was able to complete its first nineteen years of independence with no significant violence or social upheaval.
In spite of the many concerns, cautious optimism about Ukraine’s trajectory remains. Meaningful, yet difficult, change often needs a politician who is willing to go against the grain of his own political base. It took Carlos Menem, a Peronist, to carry out an aggressive privatization program in Argentina; Richard Nixon, a Republican, to start the dialogue with China; and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to reform welfare. Time will tell whether Yanukovych will rise to the occasion and deepen rather than weaken Ukraine’s democratic roots, but the leader who ultimately takes Ukraine to the promised land of a vibrant democracy and prospering economy will likely have to come from the East. Western and parts of Central Ukraine need no convincing; the East does.