If only it were fiction ...

In a few months, the EU will decide whether to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych is, however, focused on a different agenda - how to win a second term in 2015. He's ready to go to any lengths to bring that about, reports Sergii Leshchenko. 

Viktor Yanukovych is, it seems, trying to make the Granta list for aspiring new fiction writers. The author is not joking. His tax return for last year, just published, includes a figure of two million US dollars earned for ‘works of literature’. He declared a similarly large sum the previous year.

The Ukrainian president is indeed a wonder of our times, because he has earned the four million for books that have not even been written. JP Rowling herself should envy him. Or perhaps it’s just a money laundering exercise. Yanukovych is, after all, only ever called a great literary figure in anecdotes: he can’t even spell his self-appointed title of ‘professor’. 

Viktor Yanukovych’s imagination certainly knows few bounds. But in the political thriller that is taking form in his head, there is much more at stake than two million worth of royalties. We are talking about the future of a country with a population of 46 million, on the eastern borders of the EU and one step away from signing an Association Agreement with it.

Ukraine is increasingly focusing all its attention on 2015, when the next presidential elections will take place. The entire state apparatus is being deployed to ensure Yanukovych’s re-election, and recent events in the Ukrainian parliament have been planned to serve the same purpose.

Is it possible to imagine British MPs holding a plenary session, not in the House of Commons, but in government offices in Downing Street? Or that one member could vote for two, to ensure a majority – MPs, after all, have two hands they can raise. Or that the press would be excluded on the pretext that no one had the keys to the front door? And that afterwards the leaders of the ruling party would announce that democracy had triumphed.

'Is it possible to imagine British MPs holding a plenary session, not in the House of Commons, but in government offices in Downing Street? Or that one member could vote for two, to ensure a majority – MPs, after all, have two hands they can raise.'

This was not a Monty Python sketch; it really happened in Kyiv. This month brought an extra twist to the Ukrainian Parliament’s spiral of crisis. Viktor Yanukovych managed to retain a small majority after the parliamentary elections of October 2012, but Parliament has been in chaos ever since. The trigger was the problem of Kyiv’s mayoral election. The capital has been without a mayor for a year now, its administration run by Oleksandr Popov, a bureaucrat appointed by the president.  The reason – the city is a hotbed of opposition; not a single Yanukovych candidate won a Kyiv seat in October. So the mayor’s post is an important element in opposition plans to dethrone the president in 2015. Even optimists realise, of course, that it will not be enough simply to win the election. Viktor Yanukovych, who over the last three years has become the country’s oligarch-in-chief, isn’t going to just hand over power. The opposition needs to be ready for another Orange Revolution.   

Opposition leaders have already been hotting up the fight by touring the provinces. And having control of Kyiv would give them a useful power base if the political situation were to deteriorate even further. Control of public services would after all give anti- Yanukovych forces the means of thwarting police attempts to break up street protests.

'Even opposition optimists realise that it will not be enough simply to win the election. Viktor Yanukovych, who over the last three years has become the country’s oligarch-in-chief, isn’t going to just hand over power. The opposition needs to be ready for another Orange Revolution.'

Viktor Yanukovych is well aware of this, which is why his Party of Regions (PoR) defeated an opposition attempt to press for a mayoral election in June, and proposes delaying it until after the presidential election in autumn 2015. So this party, with no support in the capital, has deprived a city of three million people of the right to a legitimate local administration. Could this happen anywhere else in Europe?  

In response, the furious opposition has been holding up parliamentary business by blockading the speaker's rostrum, a form of protest as traditional here as the annual chestnut blossom season along the city’s streets. The PoR  itself, when in opposition, blockaded the rostrum for several weeks in 2008, demanding that the ‘Orange’ government of the time withdraw its application to join NATO. Now, however, the PoR is in power, and responded to opposition blocking by holding a parliamentary session outside parliament, on Kyiv’s Downing Street, as it were. It proclaimed itself quorate, and started passing laws on a simple show of hands. The opposition and the media were locked out and couldn’t check on the count, although even state TV channel cameras showed many empty seats, proving that there was in fact no quorum.

'Stop dictatorship!' Opposition MP protests have become a common sight in Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada parliament. Photo: (cc) Demotix/ukrafoto Ukrainian News

The referendum – a cudgel to beat the opposition

The three years that have passed since Viktor Yanukovych’s election as Ukraine’s president have not only destroyed the fragile gains of the Orange Revolution: they have allowed the president himself to lose any illusions he had about public support. So more and more calls can be heard from the Yanukovych camp to carry through a radical scenario that would simply eliminate the opposition from Ukrainian political life and ensure the president’s re-election in 2015. The plan involves several stages, the first of which was already put in place last autumn, when Yanukovych’s previous, puppet parliament passed a law enabling constitutional changes to be decided by referendum, so bypassing parliament. This may look like people power, but in fact in the right hands can be manipulated to make it a mere instrument of government policy.

'Last autumn Yanukovych’s previous, puppet parliament passed a law enabling constitutional changes to be decided by referendum, and removing the need for parliament to confirm referendum results.'

An earlier president, the authoritarian Leonid Kuchma, tried a similar game back in 2000 when faced with a dissenting parliament. A referendum on increasing presidential powers appeared to give Kuchma 90% support, although when experts looked at the results more closely it turned out that they were totally rigged. And at least then MPs refused to implement the results; today Yanukovych has insured himself against such an eventuality by removing the need for parliament to confirm referendum results. In his hands the referendum has turned into a cudgel to kill democracy; he can use the public to rewrite the constitution, allowing him to dissolve this insubordinate parliament and replace it with a two-chamber lapdog one. The lower house, moreover, will be elected on a one member constituency basis (at present 50% of MPs are elected in this way, and the other 50% from party lists), which means that most MPs will be business people, who will be dependent on the favour of the government.  With this new system in place the president can finally be guaranteed re-election.

The second stage of the Yanukovych plan is the discrediting of the present parliament, which the government is trying to portray as a body that does no work and only squanders voters’ money. Another recent incident only confirmed this view – after an opposition rally protesters pelted PoR members with snowballs, and one MP claimed that she had ended up in hospital with concussion. The referendum, which is to take place this summer, will not only change how MPs are elected, but the new parliament will also be smaller and its members will lose their parliamentary immunity, which will make the opposition more vulnerable to police harassment. After which the government, with the help of its lapdog parliament, can pass a new law on presidential elections.  Yanukovych’s aim here is to abandon the present two-round system, since even now, with two years to go, all the polls show that he would lose in the second round to any one of three opposition fraction leaders, with boxing champion Vitaly Klychko, leader of the UDAR party, posing a particular threat. With a single round system he could win, although this presupposes opposition votes being split among several candidates.   

One hostage released

Time is running out for Yanukovych. The EU will soon be taking a decision about whether to sign an Association Agreement with him. There are only two possible outcomes here: either the Agreement will be signed at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, or it won’t be signed for several years at least. 2014 will be taken up with preparations for the 2015 presidential election, and the EU won’t want to conclude a treaty with that in the offing, since it would  look like an endorsement of  Yanukovych’s policies, which have systematically wiped out the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution.

In an attempt to gain some room for manoeuvre in talks with the European Union, Viktor Yanukovych agreed to a partial implementation of the recommendations made by the EU’s Cox-Kwasniewski mission. On 7th April he pardoned Yury Lutsenko, who served as Interior Minister in Yulia Tymoshenko’s  government, ostensibly on health grounds. His imprisonment, and that of Tymoshenko herself, have often been cited by European and American officials as examples of politically motivated ‘selective justice’. Lutsenko, the son of a former Soviet regional boss, came into the political limelight  at the time of the Orange Revolution, and became Interior Minister after Viktor Yushchenko’s presidential victory in 2004. He was regarded by Yushchenko’s team as a moderating influence on Tymoshenko, who despite their best efforts had become Prime Minister. However, he gradually went over to her side, and  was arrested in 2010 on criminal charges brought against him by Ukraine’s Prosecutor  General’s Office. The accusations against him included arranging for an illegal pension supplement (a sum amounting to less than $5000) for his driver, who also received a free government flat; the marking of National Militia Day in a crisis period when all official celebrations had been cancelled, and negligence during the search for a man wanted for questioning over the poisoning of the then presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in 2004.  Charges like these might make an impression in a country with strong democratic traditions such as the UK, but they look ludicrous in Ukraine, where the president lives in an estate of 140 hectares that he stole from the state with the help of Liechtenstein offshore banks; where members of his party, former notorious criminals, flaunt wrist watches worth half a million Euros in Parliament, and where the president’s son has in the last three years become one of the wealthiest people in the country.  

Yury Lutsenko, the former Minister of Internal Affairs in Tymochenko's government, was released from prison on 7 April 2013. Photo: (cc) Demotix/ukrafoto unrainian news

'In an attempt to gain room for manoeuvre in talks with the EU, Yanukovych has pardoned Yury Lutsenko, who served as Interior Minister in Yulia Tymoshenko’s government.  But he won't release Tymoshenko herself.'

Lutsenko served two years and three months of his four year sentence, has twice since his release undergone surgery for stomach ulcers, and has now been pardoned by the president. His conviction was probably less the result of his ostensible abuse of power than of a vendetta on the part of the powerful ‘Donetsk clan’. During his time at the Interior Ministry Lutsenko ordered a raid on the home of Donetsk ‘godfather’ Rinat Akhmetov, involving an armoured vehicle and a SWAT team that left muddy boot prints on the billionaire’s bedspread.  The oligarch himself was in hiding in Monaco – he hadn’t yet bought his three storey penthouse at No1 Hyde Park in London, at a cost of £136m – a record price for a UK residence at the time.

Lutsenko’s release can’t however be taken as a precedent; it in no way means that  Yanukovych will bow to the western leaders’ main demand  and release Yulia Tymoshenko. That was made clear in January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, when Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, asked him to allow Timoshenko to travel to Germany for medical treatment, to which Yanukovych’s only response was to initiate new charges against her.     

The opposition – a disaster area

The very thought of 2015 reduces Ukraine’s elites to a state of stupor. The oligarchs are afraid to criticise Yanukovych openly, but they secretly support opposition leaders. The gas lobby, which includes the co-owner of the RosUkrEnergo gas distributor Dmytro Firtash and the head of the presidential administration Serhiy Levochkin, is lining up behind Vitaly Klychko. Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the ‘Fatherland’ Party since Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, has the support of Rinat Akhmetov’s business partner Leonid Yurushev, while the nationalist ‘Svoboda’(Freedom) Party, which opposes both international Zionism and women’s right to abortion, is apparently bankrolled by the leader of the European Jewish Union Igor Kolomoisky.   

But although Yanukovych hasn’t managed to bring his wayward parliament round, the opposition has little to boast of either. The six months since the elections  have been a disaster for them. Immediately after the elections they failed to get their candidates’ wins confirmed in five constituencies.  Once in parliament, they didn’t manage to get fair representation in committees, and lost the Disciplinary and Regulatory  Committee. At the time, December 2012, this didn’t seem too serious, but two months later the committee expelled from parliament Serhiy Vlasenko, an MP who is also Yulia Tymoshenko’s lawyer. More recent defeats have included the opposition’s failure to get a date set for a mayoral election in Kyiv or to prevent the government holding its session outside parliament. The last straw has been the increasing incidence of opposition MPs leaving the ‘Fatherland’ fraction.

'Although Yanukovych hasn’t managed to bring his wayward parliament round, the opposition has little to boast of either. The six months since the elections  have brought them a string of defeats.'

The only positive feature of the last few months has been is that PoR MPs now have to cast their votes personally – in the past one MP could press seven members’ voting buttons. But this small victory is less down to the opposition than to Ukraine’s civil rights activists. The campaign for personal voting was begun by the ‘Chestno’ (Honestly) movement, and at first opposition politicians even refused to support it.    

Today Ukraine is entering a difficult time, with the opposition impotent and Viktor Yanukovych starting to cling to power, the loss of which would spell total disaster for him. The only possible way out of this situation is to find a formula which would satisfy both sides. The paradox is that such a formula could be a return from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, where there could be a balance of various interests. Ukraine did have a parliamentary republic, but it was wrecked three years ago, and it was Viktor Yanukovych who wrecked it, personally. Now is the time to start rebuilding.