13.08.2010 | Halya Coynash

Who Needs Pretend Democracy?


Western supporters of the Soviet Union rejected any criticism of the communist myth, finding arguments about the chasm between words and reality especially laughable. As if their politicians didn’t lie and declare their commitment to the highest values when in fact they just want power and ways to get rich!

They failed to grasp – or preferred not to know about – one crucial difference. Politicians in democratic countries can kiss any number of babies and make moving speeches galore about freedom and prosperity. It is their actions and policies which count, not the gloss.

Almost 20 years after the collapse of the USSR the chasm between words and deeds has every chance of catching up with that divide between the elite who wield power and wealth and the “bearer of sovereignty and sole source of power in Ukraine”, otherwise known as the people.

Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak is surely right in stressing the economic basis for the dissatisfaction expressed by Ukrainians with the changes since 1989 in a recent survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. However with all such surveys, a lot depends on your possible choices of answer. When asked about democracy, had there been the option “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it”, I suspect a fair number might have chosen it.

That the existence of many political parties is not quite the same as democracy was demonstrated unequivocally by the events around the formation of a new government in March this year (cf. Constitutional Dead End). However the roots go much deeper. The mechanisms which could protect people from the arbitrary will of politicians are simply not there.  Deputies have unfailingly passed laws on the elections to suit their own needs, while laws to ensure an independent judiciary, real access to information and to higher education, transparency, accountability etc, have been discussed, even drawn up, only never passed.

It is cheering to see from the survey that there remains a basically positive attitude to democratic values. It’s quite understandable that people are more concerned about having a job, about food prices, etc, than about what they see as abstract “rights”. The problem is that they are in no way abstract. Freedom of speech, of peaceful assembly, the right to stand for electoral office or the right to appeal against court rulings are not restricted for the sake of some abstruse violations of a no less unreal Convention. They serve an absolutely clear purpose – to prevent anyone getting in the way of those in power doing precisely what suits them.

In this context it’s worth noting one specific feature of the recent appeal to President calling on him to veto the Law on the Judicial System and Status of Judges. Reservations over some new features of this law had been expressed by the Parliamentary Legal Department, analytical and human rights groups, the Co-Rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] and individual members of the Venice Commission.  The appeal warned that the Law jeopardized judges’ independence and access to all stages of legal proceedings. More people responded, and are continuing to respond, from various western countries than from within Ukraine itself. Ukraine’s citizens have effectively never lived under an independent judiciary, do not react so strongly to additional restrictions, and don’t understand that this affects them directly.

Those in power, however, are well aware of this. Our calls to wait for an assessment from the Venice Commission were ignored first by the Deputies of the coalition who hurriedly and consciously passed a law with violations to the Constitution, and then by the President who signed it on 27 July.

The President had previously ignored warnings from human rights and media organizations as well as the Association of Ukrainian Banks that the Law on Personal Data Protection was a threat to freedom of speech and access to information and would jeopardize the country’s economic development. He was just as little concerned by all the reservations, which included concerns from PACE representatives over his appointment of media owner Valery Khoroshkovsky first as Head of the Security Service [SBU], and later also as member of the High Council of Justice. The latter body, according to the law passed on 27 July, has powers much broader than those envisaged by the Constitution on appointing, dismissing and disciplining judges.

A new look SBU was not long coming. In the last few days we learned that the SBU have taken a written undertaking from blogger Oleh Shynkarenko to not criticize the authorities “in strong form” on his Live Journal blog. There may be comical elements, but it is all too serious for humour and the objective was achieved. Everybody now knows that the SBU not only reads individual blogs but may turn up on their authors’ doorsteps. I would make one thing clear at this point. It is likely that in all democratic countries secret surveillance does take place aimed at preventing terrorist acts or real threats to the life of a public figure or to State security. Neither the blogger who wrote the words “kill the reptile” with President Yanukovych in mind, nor the members of the Kharkiv regional branch of the Union of Ukrainian Youth [SUM] who wrote a letter to President Obama, nor Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who wrote a critical article about authoritarian tendencies during Yanukovych’s first 100 days in office, presented any such danger. If they had, then the blogger and representatives of SUM would have been arrested so that their criminal behaviour could be proved by the court, and Nico Lange would not, after 10 gruelling hours at the airport, have been let back into the country.

It is clear that we are dealing here with “prophylactic measures”, as was probably also true of the visit by an SBU officer to the Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Father Boris Gudzyak on 18 May this year.

And if there is simply no place for so called “prophylactic measures” in a democratic country where such intimidation and pressure on citizens and guests to the country are not merely prohibited by law, but absolutely unthinkable?

In fact there’s a fair amount that’s unthinkable. The fact that it didn’t bother the President that Khoroshkovsky cannot by law be a member of the High Council of Justice (he’s not even a lawyer). Nor did he trouble his head about the unconstitutionality of the reduction in powers of the Supreme Court, or of the considerably extended powers of the High Council of Justice in the law signed by the “Guarantor of the Constitution” on 27 July.

Following the judgment of the Constitutional Court on 6 April which legalized the creation of a coalition by factions and individual deputies (who abandon their own faction) despite an absolutely opposite ruling by the same Court 18 months earlier, it is depressingly difficult to believe in the success of any constitutional submission. What is to stop the Constitutional Court judges again being “guided by the real processes of life”, i.e. ruling that National Deputies had the right to pass an unconstitutional law, and the Guarantor was empowered to not protect, but violate the Constitution?

They’ll think up some fine-sounding words which will be obligingly repeated by most of the television channels. This includes the National Television Channel which, according to the Deputy President of the National Television Company of Ukrane Valid Arfush, “should always cover the work of the authorities, provide only positive information to the viewers. Then let people decide for themselves whether everything is really like they say on the channel. For example, we tell them that the apartment block entrance has been renovated, and it hasn’t in fact, then people will complain”.

Mr Arfush’s words are disturbingly disingenuous. It is difficult to believe that he cannot grasp the difference between repairs not carried out to a block entrance and the danger from various legislative acts or dubious behaviour by the SBU. However the main duplicity is in the fact that over the last months more often than not information has been concealed.  He should explain, if he can, how viewers are to judge when they are deprived of socially important information such as, for example, the fact that traffic police have been used to stop members of the opposition or supporters of the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate reaching Kyiv.

Almost from the first day of the new government and appointment of two ministers who do not conceal their contempt for considerable parts of the population, the regime has demonstrated absolute unwillingness to act in accordance with the rules of democratic society. This is not to suggest that their predecessors showed an exemplary sense of responsibility to the people. If that had been the case, it would not have been possible to so rapidly destroy those few reforms in the area of human rights and the work of the police. And people would not have been so tolerant of broken promises and moves to gain absolute power. Tolerant - or circumspect, because the fear is returning.

It is frustrating that Soviet methods are becoming more and more evident in the actions of the present regime, together with the rhetoric of those times. The latter is seriously out of sync with words about democratic values.  They so obviously don’t gel that it seems reasonable to assume that the regime cannot do without imitation of democracy. You don’t have to strain a brain to understand the motives behind certain legislative initiatives, some grotesquely inappropriate appointments, etc. You can, of course, exert pressure, find, so to speak, “incentives” to entice deputies and others, or simply brainwash with the help of obliging media friends.  With investors, with the IMF it’s not so easy, and without them all fine words are powerless.

I would however hope that we are not just talking about investors, but about a considerable part of the population. It is therefore absolutely vital that we do not give up, do not be conned by words and empty declarations. We need, as publicly as possibly, to point to the truth, to pose hard-hitting questions and demand that actions are in keeping with their words.

Who needs pretend democracy?

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