Don’t be quick to judge the new Ukraine

Foreign analysis of contemporary Ukrainian politics has alleged a black-white conversion from freedom to autocracy. The reality is much more nuanced than that, says Ukrainian MP Alexander Feldman

Alexander Feldman
28 October 2010

Politics in Ukraine is a passionate affair; sometimes too passionate for its own good. Competition for power often assumes the character of a life or death struggle in which few limits are respected and truth is an all too frequent casualty. Campaigns of smear and bitter denunciation are routinely employed, even between politicians ostensibly on the same side as each other. Just look at the destructive rivalry between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yuschenko that turned the Orange Revolution into such a farce.

So when opposition politicians compare the new President, Viktor Yanukoych, to Pol Pot and accuse him of wanting to turn Ukraine back into a one-party state on the Soviet model, it would be wise for outside observers to take a sceptical view and consider the facts on their merits. No one pretends that Ukraine is a model European democracy. The new government is fallible and capable of making mistakes. But it is far too early to conclude that Ukraine is taking an authoritarian turn in the style of Putin’s Russia, especially since there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

Yanukovich in Brussels

President Yanukovych in Brussels: ”European integration is a “key priority”

Far too much credence has been given in the Western media to the idea that Ukrainian politics can be boiled down to a bipolar struggle between Westernisers and Russophiles. According to this simplified narrative, the Orange Revolution was an attempt to embed Ukraine in the Euro-Atlantic camp, whereas the new government is determined to return it to a Russian sphere of influence. Decisions to renew the lease on Russia’s naval bases in the Crimea and renounce attempts to join NATO are taken as confirmation that Ukraine is back in Moscow’s grip.

As anyone with real experience of the country knows, the actual picture is infinitely more complicated. Yanukovych has certainly moved to repair relations with Russia, but he has also set firm limits on how far he is prepared to go. Proposals to merge Ukraine’s national gas company, Naftogaz, with Gazprom were politely but firmly rebuffed in order to maintain control of a strategic national asset. Forced to choose between a customs union with Russia and a free trade area with the EU, Kiev continues to make clear an overwhelming preference for the latter. The influential industrial lobby from Yanukovych’s home region of Donetsk wants access to the bigger and more business friendly markets of Europe.

The message from the EU should be that Ukraine’s efforts to modernise its economy and integrate more closely with the rest of Europe must go hand in hand with a commitment to democracy and human rights. The Ukrainian business elite that helped to put the new government in power understands that Ukraine’s future lies in being part of a wider European market. That gives the EU an opportunity to help Ukraine make the changes it needs. It is influence we must use with renewed focus.

Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former President of Poland, Financial Times 

Much like Kazakhstan, another former Soviet state squeezed between larger and more powerful neighbours, Ukraine is seeking to construct the broadest network of multilateral and bilateral alliances as a way of strengthening its independence. To portray Yanukovych’s desire to rebalance his country’s diplomatic focus as an attempt to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s will is therefore mischievous and false. The European strand of his foreign policy remains of central importance and provides the EU with an opportunity to influence Ukraine if it chooses to see beyond the headlines and engage.

The more serious charge made in Open Democracy and elsewhere is that Yanukovych is systematically eroding human rights and democracy in Ukraine and reverting to a familiar pattern of post-Soviet autocracy. Media censorship is said to have returned and a new electoral law has been passed which critics argue threatens the fairness of local elections being held at the end of this month. Again, this black and white picture turns out, on closer inspection, to have more colour and shade than the critics allow.

In its original form, the new electoral law did indeed contain provisions that were criticised by international observers and opposition parties as unfair and likely to restrict electoral choice by disbarring parties registered less than a year before polling day. But the reaction of the government belies the opposition caricature of it as authoritarian and inflexible. Before being passed, the law was amended to allow new parties to take part. Only around 1% of candidates nominated for the local elections have been prevented from standing, mostly for self-evidently valid reasons. This is hardly an attack on political pluralism.

Also omitted from the account given by the opposition is the fact that the new electoral law establishes the right of independent monitors to scrutinise elections to ensure their fairness. Indeed, the government has gone out of its way to encourage experts from the OSCE and other international bodies to come to Ukraine and oversee the ballot. Again, such openness is hardly suggestive of a desire to bring multi-party democracy to an end.

One thing that much of the commentary on Ukraine fails to acknowledge is the need to reform the political system to make it more effective and less crisis prone. Too often in the last six years, government has been paralyzed by infighting and a constitution that created confused and overlapping lines of executive authority. The recent decision of the Constitutional Court to annul the 2004 constitutional changes and restore presidential government should therefore be welcomed, not least by the Orange parties that urged it to do precisely the same in 2006. To call this a return to dictatorship, as Yulia Tymoshenko has done, is sheer hypocrisy.

Yanukovich in Moscow

Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovych: two countries are still testing the limits of accommodation and grappling with differences over energy and trade.

The final charge is that freedom of expression is under threat. An example of this was Alexa Chopivsky’s article in Open Democracy last month, which claimed that media freedoms in Ukraine were being severely curtailed and that there had been a dramatic rise in the number of articles criticising the policing of political demonstrations. Surely the second claim casts doubt on the first. The fact is that open debate is thriving in Ukraine. Yes, there are concerns about limited ownership and access to the media, but these are not new. What may surprise readers of Open Democracy is that Yanukovych is committed to increasing media pluralism by establishing a new public television channel capable of providing balanced news coverage. He at least deserves a chance to show that he means it.

Of course, no one expects the EU to remain silent when it sees things it considers incompatible with democratic norms and values. The Yanukovych administration will undoubtedly make mistakes and should be taken to task when it does. But friends of Ukraine should endeavour to weigh evidence in the balance, retain an open mind about what it is trying to achieve and engage in ways that encourage reform. Bitter campaigns waged by opposition parties are a familiar part of Ukrainian politics. It would be shame if this one succeeded in creating a barrier of mistrust that forced the EU and Ukraine apart, not least because there are good reasons to believe Yanukovych is sincere about wanting to take a European path.

Alexander Feldman is an independent Ukrainian Member of Parliament

Photos: Ukrainian President's Press Service

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