Ukraine: bulldozing the Orange building

President Yanukovych is steadily demolishing the gains of the Orange Revolution. This turn towards Moscow looks uncomfortably like an attempt to placate the Tsar with tributes
Anna Babinets
9 July 2010

The first thing Viktor Yushchenko did on becoming Ukrainian president was to change the plaque on the building where he would be working for the next five years. During Leonid Kuchma’s time the service working for the head of state had been called the Presidential Administration. This name evoked fear: it was from here that journalists were informed what they were to write about, and what not; politicians were telephoned and given the president’s unwritten instructions.

To ensure that no one feared the president and his service any longer, Viktor Yushchenko initially got rid of the terrifying name (the new plaque said “Presidential Secretariat”), and then changed its structure. Yushchenko called the head of the secretariat the “state secretary”, in the Western manner, and reduced the number of officials working for him. This was the first and swiftest reform by the Orange regime. At the time, it seemed that from now on everything would be different in Ukraine.

On 25 February 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych took the oath in parliament as the Ukrainian president, the Presidential Administration plaque was already back in place. Leonid Kuchma’s world view proved closer to Yanukovych. It was as if the plaque had been dusted, polished and put back in its old place. The Orange regime’s first reform was easily and simply consigned to history. 

That was the beginning of the gradual but purposeful undoing of all the achievements that Ukraine had gained under President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Now that the new president has been in power for over four months, there is enough material about steps backwards for an entire article.

First of all, it must be said that there is no mass nostalgia for the Yushchenko era: his rule saw the reinforcement of the stereotype that all politicians are the same. Only journalists, the first to sense that the censorship from the Kuchma era may be coming back, sigh from time to time and recall how easy and unfrightening things were under Yushchenko.

Even in Western Ukraine, which was more opposed to Yanukovych’s presidency than other regions, Yanukovych is no longer seen as the embodiment of universal evil. The people who came to power on the crest of the Orange Revolution wave failed to bring in the reforms that Ukrainians expected from them. Only now are we beginning to realise that some changes did take place, and no one wants to lose what was gained.

“Two girls who are active in our movement were called to the office of the dean at the university where they study. They had a conversation with a man who introduced himself as an employee of the Ukrainian security service. He was interested in the organization: who is in charge of it, and where it gets its money from.  One of the girls was told that if she refused to say anything, she could be expelled from university”, the leader of the FEMEN movement, Anna Gutsol, told the newspaper  Ukrainskaya Pravda. This organization protects women’s rights in Ukraine by organising dramatized protests. It has a somewhat scandalous reputation: to draw attention to the problem, female activists sometimes strip naked in public places or outside administrative buildings.

But this form of protest is not prohibited by Ukrainian legislation, nor can these actions be grounds for a talk with employees of the security service – naked bodies are no threat to national security.

There was more publicity when an employee of the security service came to talk to the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lvov), Boris Gudziak. In an open letter the rector wrote that the employee had recommended him to persuade students not to take part in protests. The employee also insisted that Gudziak sign a document that the conversation had taken place.

In a few months, Ukraine has turned into a country where the national security service can hold talks with whoever it wants. Society might not have reacted to this so seriously had it not been for the five “Orange years”. During this time, a generation has grown up who don’t know what the Soviet KGB is, are not scared of the security service, and are not accustomed to “preventive” discussions. In Ukraine today, employees of the special service are not feared by anyone, but the regime’s desire to keep everyone under control is clear.

The next unpleasant sign is that the Yanukovych regime is attempting to restrict protests and rallies in any way it can. Under Ukrainian law, organizers of a mass gathering must submit an application to the authorities. In recent months, it has become customary to prohibit organizations from holding protests literally several hours or minutes before they are due to begin. In this case, the police can arrest protesters for taking part in a banned meeting. It is very interesting to see that the police allow people who are holding flags of the Party of the regions (the party in power) to have their meeting, but disperse the rest.

In May, the Ukrainian interior minister Anatoly Mogilev came up with a suggestion of pure genius – to give the opposition a place to hold its protests some way out of the capital.

Shortly before this, the government, which is headed by one of Yanukovych’s closest allies, Mykola Azarov, tasked the office of the Mayor of Kiev with taking measures to prevent protests outside the presidential administration and government buildings.

It was mass acts of protest that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power. Over the past few years, people have got used to the fact that, although protests are often ineffective (the regime simply did not pay attention to them), at least they are not banned. Now the situation is changing – one of the mechanisms of democracy, the right to protest, is being significantly restricted, if not abolished.

So as not to be distracted by undesirable protestors, the parliament, where the majority also supports President Yanukovych, has decided to pass a law which will significantly complicate procedures for organising protests.  It will, however, extend the rights of local authorities to allow or ban meetings at their own discretion. This law is now halfway through parliament. The first reading has gone through the vote, now a second reading is needed for it to be finally passed. But the process has been rather slowed down by journalists and politicians engaging in active debate and the creation of NGOs opposed to the law.

Despite the fierce confrontation between Yanukovych and Yushchenko in 2004, the victorious Yushchenko did not take revenge on his political opponents. Today, many people criticize him for this: they say he should have put some of Yanukovych’s people behind bars, or Yanukovych himself, to make an example of them. Then people would have seen that the evil that brought them out on to the streets had been punished, and good had triumphed. But Yushchenko quickly became involved in conflicts within his own group, and forgot about his opponents.

In this sense, Yanukovych’s people are much more organized.  They may not have put any of their opponents in prison, but criminal charges are gradually being brought. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been neatly nailed by her successor: Mykola Azarov has begun an audit of her government’s work. Now Tymoshenko herself and people from her team are periodically summoned for questioning at the Prosecutor General’s office as part of the investigation. In this awkward situation the former prime minister is unable to criticize the government, and is often forced to keep silent about her opponents to avoid being put in jail.

At the same time, the Prosecutor General’s office has closed the case on the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko. As the reader will recall, during the electoral campaign of 2004, Yushchenko was allegedly poisoned with dioxin. Five years of investigation have not managed to prove or disprove this theory. Throughout this time, the poisoning of the president was a cause celebre, but Yanukovych’s government decided not to waste its energy on trifles, and simply closed the case.

Yanukovych’s allies proudly announce that they have finally been able to smooth out relations between Ukraine and Russia. Perhaps the value of concessions Yanukovych has made to Russia over the period of a few months will emerge in time, but so far these friendly steps look pitiful. Ukraine agreed to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for muddled schemes of payment for gas, as if forgetting that in dealings with Ukraine, the Russian company Gazprom has a tendency to change agreements, even agreements fixed in documents.

President Yanukovych himself said on his first visit to Russia: “All roads lead to Moscow”, and promised to push laws on the Russian language through parliament. The Ukrainian deputy prime minister for humanitarian issues Vladimir Seminozhenko proposed a union of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

This doesn’t look like cooperation with the neighbouring country. It looks more like Ukraine ingratiating itself with Russia, and attempts to pay a tribute to the Tsar, so that he doesn’t become angry with his subjects.

There are many other areas where the new regime is scaling down work and changing the direction of activity by 180°. But there are many subjects for discussion. For example, declaring that the Holodomor [Famine] of 1932-33 in Ukraine was genocide, or awarding Stepan Bandera the title of hero of Ukraine. Yushchenko tried to give Ukrainians a feeling of history and historical justice, while Yanukovych is overturning Yushchenko’s initiatives and trying to rewrite the textbooks that were written during the Orange years.

Essentially, Yanukovych began as Yushchenko did – with the plaque on the building in which his office is located. But Yanukovych is moving much more swiftly, mainly because there are so far no internal contradictions within his team. The Orange legacy is being destroyed quickly and confidently, like a bulldozer destroying old unwanted houses. Even though there are still people living in some of those houses.


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