|Author: Mykola Riabchuk
TYMOSHENKO’S CAUSE CÉLÈBRE AND UKRAINE’S FUTURE
The seven-year prison sentence for Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister of Ukraine and a firebrand leader of the 2004 Orange revolution, provoked a real political storm in Western capitals. Both the EU officials and national politicians – presidents, ministers, and members of parliaments – joined their voices in a nearly unanimous chorus condemning the court decision as an exemplary case of selective justice, persecution of political opposition, and highly dubious criminalization of sheer political decisions made by the previous government. Some hot-heads went so far as to demand various sanctions against Ukrainian authorities, including freezing the IMF assistance, reintroduction of visa requirements for the holders of diplomatic passports, and even revoking Ukraine’s entitlement to host the 2012 European football championship.
Yet, even the moderates recognized grudgingly that the Tymoshenko imprisonment puts the pending negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) and Association Agreements with Ukraine in jeopardy, and that the documents could be signed only after Ukrainian authorities prove their strong commitment to the values upon which the documents are based.
Remarkably, in Ukraine, even the government camp does not look very cheerful about the sentence. Viktor Yanukovych, the president, still tries to distance himself from the notorious case – as if anybody on earth can believe the Ukrainian judiciary is really impartial and Tymoshenko was brought to court without president’s personal blessing. “Today the court took its decision in the framework of the current criminal code”, made the president a brave face on a sorry business. “This is not the final decision… There is the court of appeal ahead, and what decision it will take, and under which legislation, has great importance.” (He apparently hints at a mulled possibility to change the Criminal Code and thereby to decriminalize retroactively Tymoshenko’s transgression).
This may well happen since the Ukrainian authorities are well versed in playing with rules – instead of playing by the rules. The problem, however, is that neither Tymoshenko’s release nor imprisonment would bring them a satisfactory result. As a matter of fact, they put themselves in a lose-lose situation – a predictable outcome in a country with no rule of law, no independent judiciary, and no public trust in authorities’ anticorruption claims. The very decision to prosecute Tymoshenko was essentially wrong – because it was based on a highly dubious legal ground. But two other things made the bad situation even worse. First, Yulia Tymoshenko was not just a former prime minister but also a popular leader of opposition who narrowly lost the 2010 presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych (46 per cent to 49) and still remained his main rival. Second, the incumbent government is broadly perceived as the most unscrupulous and corrupted in Ukrainian history. Its credentials to judge the political opponents for some minor misdeeds are therefore very questionable – at least from the moral point of view.
So, the main questions are: why Yanukovych and his associates committed such a fatal mistake, and – what is a possible way out of a deep hole they put themselves (and the entire country) into.
Rationale for irrationality
Basically, there are three major explanations of Yanukovych’s decision: extreme stupidity, extreme smartness, and combination of both, that means stupidity of one (the president’s) side and smartness of the other side that typically means the pro-Moscow lobby – Kremlin’s paid agents and volunteers, overrepresented at all levels of today’s Ukrainian government.
The first explanation is the most popular and looks the most viable. Yanukovych and his associates are not very cultured and educated people (to put it mildly), they have virtually no experience of politics on the national level and even less understanding what the international politics mean. Instead, they have very special experience from their native Donbas region deemed the most criminalized and authoritarian. They sincerely believe they can manage Ukraine as they managed Donbas; the power politics is the only politics they truly understand; and the international politics, for them, is just an extension of local mafia wars on a global scale. In this view, all the rhetoric of human rights, rule of law and other blah-blah is merely a Westerners’ trick to get some advantages over less skilful in these phony games Easterners. The unique combination of a provincial ignorance and post-Soviet arrogance made Yanukovych’s politics within the year and a half a national catastrophe. He antagonized all the strata and groups in Ukraine, including much of his own electorate, deepened regional cleavages, made incredible concessions to Russia for virtually nothing, and largely curtailed all the democratic achievements of his “Orange” predecessors. Arrest of Yulia Tymoshenko was merely one of many wrong steps in the wrong direction, caused by incompetence, irresponsibility, and sheer miscalculation.
The second explanation claims the opposite: Tymoshenko’s imprisonment is a smart tactics elaborated by Yanukovych’s team. It allows him, on one hand, to compromise the main rival, to intimidate the opposition, and to raise the stakes in his negotiations with both the EU and Russia. On the other hand, it allows him to make a tsar gesture at a due point, to pardon the prisoner and reasonably pretend that all the problems are settled. Tymoshenko is assigned a dual role in this whimsical scheme. On one hand, she is treated as an important asset, a high-rank hostage taken by terrorists that can be exchanged for something equally valuable. On the other hand, all the fuss around her case is used as a smoke-screen that distracts attention from the fate of other political prisoners, widespread police tortures, security service harassments of civic activists, creeping censorship of mass media, manipulation of electoral law, rampant corruption at the highest level, and many more things that cannot and should not be indulged by the Tymoshenko’s release, as the regime seems to expect.
The third explanation is, in a way, an extension of the first one. Indeed, if somebody is too dull and incompetent he inevitably provokes some smart guys around to take advantage from his inaptness. These people – in president’s office, or security service, or elsewhere – may have used Yanukovych’s phobias, fears, and vindictiveness to persuade him to crash Tymoshenko – and he fell in this trap. But what personal advantages may get these people from making the president an international pariah and completely derailing Ukraine from its proclaimed path of European integration?
A conspiracy theory may suggest a skilful coordinated work of a few Russian agents on the highest level of Ukrainian government. In this case, the Kremlin’s advantages are very clear but the personal benefits for the presumed “agents of influence” remain questionable. Realistically, the only incentive that may seduce people at such a level to play Moscow’s game seems to be their hope to replace, with Big Brothers’ help, Yanukovych himself. All other carrots are just too small here. With no prospects for such a change in a foreseeable future, we would rather come back to the explanation no. 1 – even though some elements from no. 2 and no. 3 can be involved. That means that the sheer stupidity of the ruling elite as the main driving force of the Tymoshenko imprisonment could have been presented to Yanukovych by ‘siloviki’ as a great smartness and well supplemented by Russian intelligence with some undercover activity.
So far, this looks as the most suitable explanatory model for Ukraine’s development under Yanukovych, and the Tymoshenko affair is no exception from everything that has happened in Ukrainian politics since March 2010. Alexander Motyl labeled it Gleichschaltung – referring to Nazi’s “consolidation of the government” in 1933. The communist takeover of East European governments after WWII might be another analogue. The closest parallel, however, comes from Belarus under Lukashenko in 1994-1996 and Russia under Putin in 2000-2002. Viktor Yanukovych was also elected in free and fair elections, responding to a popular demand for law and order – after his dysfunctional predecessors completely compromised both themselves and the very idea of democracy. Like Putin and Lukashenko, he belonged to low ranks of the Soviet nomenklatura – people with some practical skills at a specific field but no vision of a greater picture, with some ambitions but no moral constraints, and with a profound belief that might makes right, goals justify means, and winners take all.
From the very beginning, Yanukovych as president tried to emulate his Russian and probably Belarusian brethren. These are the models he really knows and understands and believes they suite both him personally and the country in general. He tries to introduce in Ukraine a provincial brand of authoritarianism that worked so well in Donetsk where he was a governor and seems to work perfectly, in his view, in Russia and Belarus. To his disappointment, the public resistance to Gleichschaltung in Ukraine appeared to be much stronger than in Russia or Belarus or his native Donetsk.
Prospects for a dictatorship
To make bad things worse, Yanukovych has no efficient siloviki, no extra money to bribe the society, and no nationalistic-cum-imperialistic appeal to mobilize his electorate. He lacks both material and symbolic resources to emulate Putin and lacks many other things to emulate even Alyaksandr Lukashenko. Yanukovych has no political intuition, no charismatic zeal, no personal integrity and self-confidence. Instead, he exposes a clear penchant for luxury, overtly tolerates a hierarchic corruption within his closest milieu, encourages nepotism, and privileges friendly oligarchs at a cost of the common folk. With his popularity ratings diving today below 10 per cent, he has barely chances to become a “batska” – a rough but seemingly just “father of the nation”, as Alyaksandr Lukashenko has managed to represent himself for nearly two decades.
This does not mean that he would not try to consolidate his authoritarian rule by sheer force and coercion. Disturbingly, he seems not to worry too much about the prospects of international isolation; the Western world looks uncomfortable for him at best, and hostile at worst. At the same time, there are worrisome signs that he is ready to hold on power by all possible means. Reportedly, back in 2004, during the Orange revolution, he was among the hawks who pressed the incumbent president Leonid Kuchma to use force against the protesters. Actually, all his activity since March 2010 represents a gradual accumulation and monopolization of power by mostly unscrupulous means. Sentencing Tymoshenko is not any sort of obsession or deviation, as many observers believe, but quite a logical step in the pending process of Gleichschaltung. The very fact that Tymoshenko was given not only the maximum term of imprisonment (seven years) but also three additional years of prohibition on holding a public office signifies that Yanukovych intends to exclude her from both the 2015 and 2010 presidential elections.
One may guess only how a politician with one-digit rate of popularity expects to win the second and maybe even the third (forbidden by the constitution) presidential term.
Ironically, the Westerners themselves have greatly contributed to the current situation. Since March 2010, they benignly neglected the growing roughness and lawlessness of Yanukovych’s regime – starting with a de facto parliamentary coup d’état and ending up with the shamelessly manipulated local elections and even more unscrupulous changes of the national constitution. In fact, they sent Yanukovych and his associates a very wrong signal: as long, guys, as you can restore and maintain some order in this chaotic country, we wouldn’t care much about law and democracy in your fiefdom. What the Westerners offered as a benefit of doubt, the Ukrainian authorities took as a carte blanche.
Now, the both sides are badly surprised and bitterly disappointed. The Westerners simply do not understand why Yanukovych ignored so defiantly their quite clear message to leave Tymoshenko in peace. And Yanukovych seems to be equally puzzled why they decided finally to react – after having accepted tacitly all his tricks throughout a year and a half. He may believe, quite sincerely, that the EU reaction is just a show staged by the smart Western politicians for their candid electorate – exactly like the Tymoshenko trial is staged by his fellas for domestic purposes.
Whatever the rationale, Yanukovych seems not to fully understand that his reprisal on Tymoshenko is not the reason per se for ostracizing him but just the last straw that broke the camel’s patience of the EU leaders. One may speculate on how many of them are really concerned of Ukraine’s democracy and how many (many more probably) use the case as a sheer pretext to exclude a nuisance Ukraine from the European project and, inter alia, to please the old pal Vladimir. The fact is that the Ukrainian government has crossed the red line and entered uncharted land where no benefit of doubt would be granted them any longer, and no benign neglect for thuggish behavior, cheating and bluffing, could be expected for whatever reason.
The most likely, Yanukovych’s regime will tighten the screws and enhance its pressure on opposition, civil society, and independent mass media. The next year parliamentary elections will be heavily falsified, the protests suppressed, and the propagandistic West-bashing will become a kind of national quasi-ideology – in response to the EU sanctions against the Ukrainian authorities. There are two factors, however, that may preclude Ukraine’s transformation into another Belarus. Civil society is one of them and, paradoxically, Ukrainian oligarchs might be the other. Most of them are not very eager to follow the president in his drift to Moscow and even less so in his break with the EU. This group, however, is highly opportunistic and would never oppose the president openly until and unless the society proves its strength and the West steps up its pressure.