Ukraine's political merry-go-round

The new Ukrainian government has turned out to be a rather ugly bunch: coarse, corrupt, opaque and inexperienced from the President down. Not much different from the previous lot, then.
Olesia Oleshko
15 April 2010

When I sat down to write this article, I was not expecting to write a such a gloomy assessment of the state of Ukrainian politics. On reflection, however, there is quite a lot to be worried about. The President and his team have a seemingly endless number of personal character flaws: every appointee has his dark side and most of them have already made some unpopular, sometimes highly unprofessional, decisions.

Take, for example the newly appointed Minister for Education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, who recently offended people from Western Ukraine by calling them “uneducated servants”. Or the new Internal Affairs Minister, Anatoliy Mogilev, who has begun a process of political cleansing among top officials in his Ministry, and plans to liquidate a department of human rights NGOs in place to monitor the activities of the Ministry. Or Vasyl Tsushko, the new economic chief who, despite a degree in economics, proved himsel unable answer a journalist’s question about monetary policy. This is not to forget the President himself, Viktor Yanukovich, who is known to yell at top officials during staff meetings.

Still, what is going on in Ukrainian politics now is nothing but a mirror image of what the “Orange team” did when it came to power five years ago. Then, as some politicians recall, former Minister for Education Ivan Vakarchuk described Russian as a “dog language”, thus offending a similar proportion of the Russian-speaking population. Even if you take the position – as I do – that Ukraine should have only one official language, it is hard to argue against people being given the opportunity to send their children to schools where at least some subjects are taught in their national language. Certainly, nobody should be allowed to insult other nationalities and other languages, especially top-ranking officials.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Interior, meanwhile, continues to demonstrate its one distinctive quality: no matter who’s in charge, it is an institution perennially enveloped in scandal, corruption, abuse of power and other wonderful things. The new minister, Mogilev, is well known for his association with Ukraine’s richest businessman Rinat Akmetov, his ultra-rigidity and evident lack of diplomacy.  As one high-ranking police officer told me, “these guys behave as if they’re going to rule this country forever and they push forward like tanks”. He was worried about his own job: “They got rid of all the top officials from Yushchenko’s team immediately, and now it’s our turn. I won’t be surprised if they fire me without any prior notification this coming weekend”.

But what Mogilev is doing now is exactly what previous interior ministers did when they arrived in office. I remember what the same official told me five years ago: “Those guys have cleared a room for their team. I have just been kicked off to another position, as Petro Poroshenko (a former Yushchenko ally) has already given my office to one of his supporters/friends”. Do you really see any difference between the current situation and what it was before? I don’t. Of course, former “Orange” government officials are very keen to accuse the new one of being unprofessional and corrupt. And the new ministers, in turn, accuse their predecessors in improper governing that led to economic  crisis and all other deadly sins. But this is what goes on in public. In private, most of them keep pretty friendly relations and willingly cooperate with each other for sake of their business interests.

In short, I haven't see much that makes the current team different from the former one. Both have strong and weak players. Both have made and will be making more mistakes. Of course, Yanukovich’s cabinet would only benefit from replacing such odious figures as the Education Minister Tabachnyk and Interior Minister Mogilev, who frighten the life out of large sectors of Ukrainian society. On the other hand, the new government has a number of highly professional players like the Vice Prime Minister Sergiy Tyhypko, Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko and others besides.

I sincerely hope the new Yanukovich team will avoid making the same mistakes that the “Orange team” made in 2005, when they drove Kuchma’s entire team out of office. In that process, they also  parted with a lot of experienced and highly professional people. I remember having a conversation at the time with a journalist who tried to persuade me the new leaders should remove people who used to work with the previous government — a new, creative administration needs to be surrounded by like-minded people. My argument was that that the new creative team would only benefit from having experienced people aboard: people, essentially, who created and developed the entirety of governmental structures and processes. We couldn’t convince each other and the conversation went nowhere. Which is precisely the way that government went too.

Indeed, there are many pundits who believe that the Yanukovich government will defy expectations. Some, for example, believe the current government could turn out more efficient than the previous one. The proof of this will come in a basket of figures – like GDP dynamics, unemployment statistics, changes in gas/food prices and so on. 

Others remember that the expectations of Yanukovich’s team are very different to those formed during the hope and pomp of the Orange revolution. Yuschenko failed to deliver on very high expectations. No-one expects much from Yanukovich: people just hope their life won’t get any worse. In this context, Viktor Yanukovich’s political performance could turn rather better than expected.

Olesia Oleshko is a journalist based in Kiev

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