Economist: Viktor Yanukovich turns eastward
One year after his inauguration, the Ukrainian president has taken the country in a more authoritarian direction
IN 2003 Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine’s president, published a book called “Ukraine is not Russia”. Just over a year later the “orange revolution” broke out in Kiev, depriving Viktor Yanukovich of his rigged victory in a presidential election. Although Mr Kuchma’s book was mainly about history and culture, after the revolution its title was projected onto politics, becoming a mantra to both Ukrainians and the West. The rejection of Mr Yanukovich’s election was seen as a new stage in the eastward expansion of Western values.
The contrast was striking. As Russia slid into authoritarianism, Ukraine was revelling in its newly-won freedon. Just over a year ago, the ineffectual Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the orange revolution, lost a presidential election to Mr Yanukovich. The return to power of a man who had tried to steal it five years earlier was a disappointment. But the peaceful transition also suggested that democracy had at least been consolidated in Ukraine.
Today, however, Mr Kuchma’s democratic credentials are looking more doubtful. The concern is not that Ukraine has lost economic or political independence, as many Western observers feared it might. Mr Yanukovich is too beholden to Ukraine’s tycoons and too tight-fisted to share the spoils with Russia. It is rather that he is emulating Vladimir Putin’s methods, albeit without Russia’s imperial zeal. The free spirit that once characterised Ukraine is evaporating as quickly as it did in Russia a decade ago. Ukraine, until recently rated by Freedom House as the only free ex-Soviet country (apart from the three Baltic states), has been downgraded to partially free.
Mr Yanukovich has consolidated more power than any of his predecessors enjoyed. He has forced through constitutional changes to restore old presidential powers and add new ones. As in Russia in the early Putin years, the influence of parliament, prime minister and government has been cut back. Decisions belong in the presidential administration. Prosecutors, the constitutional court and the central bank have lost any semblance of independence. As Viktor Pshonka, a new prosecutor-general chosen by Mr Yanukovich, told a television interviewer, “I am a member of [Mr Yanukovich’s] team, implementing all the decisions taken by the president…[He] is a very objective man.”
Centralising power, say Mr Yanukovich’s aides, was necessary to re-establish order after years of chaos. Sergei Levochkin, Mr Yanukovich’s chief of staff, says the president is determined to pursue administrative and economic reforms. Red tape has been cut, he says, gas prices raised and the government is preparing to push through a pension reform and open up a market in land.
Yet as the experience of Russia shows, weak institutions mean government actions carry more weight than laws. The reforms have yet to appear but the thuggery and cronyism are in place. The first local elections fought under Mr Yanukovich were dirty. The air of intimidation has thickened. Investors complain of businesses being shaken down by Mr Yanukovich’s men. Alexander Lebedev, a Russian businessman who owns hotels in Kiev and Crimea, says his properties have been raided.
Mr Yanukovich has taken a leaf from Mr Putin’s book by exploiting a right-wing nationalist party in western Ukraine to serve as an easily defeatable opposition that can also be presented in the West and in Kiev as an ugly alternative to his moderate Party of Regions.
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who was Mr Yanukovich’s main challenger at last year’s election, says some of her party members have been intimidated into giving up their parliamentary seats. Several of her former ministers, including Yuri Lutsenko, who served as interior minister, are in detention for crimes allegedly committed in office. She herself is unable to leave the country, or even to travel within it.
To give its attack on Ms Tymoshenko an air of legitimacy, the government hired an American law firm to investigate her behaviour in office. But it turned up little. She now stands accused of spending money received from the sale of greenhouse-gas quotas on pensions rather than on reducing pollution, and of buying ill-equipped ambulances.
In a country where billions of dollars are siphoned off in shady gas deals, these charges seem not only political but flimsy. What really sets Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Lutsenko apart, says Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly, is their experience in organising mass street protests. Mr Yanukovich, say some, is still haunted by memories of the orange revolution.
Meanwhile, corruption continues unchecked. Last year Ukraine set quotas for grain exports, half of which ended up in the hands of three domestic firms. “There was no logic for this restriction…apart from graft, ” says one foreign economist.
There are still many ways in which Ukraine is not Russia, says Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank. It does not have Russia’s natural resources, its economy is less reformed, it has no imperial hangover and no tradition of a strong state. It is also more dependent on foreign financing, which gives outsiders greater sway. Yet few of Mr Yanukovich’s actions have attracted serious criticism in the West.
One reason for this is fatigue with Ukraine; the appearance of stability has brought Mr Yanukovich relief from Western pressure. America, which was crucial in preventing the use of force during the orange revolution, has other things to worry about. Mr Yanukovich’s agreement to relinquish Ukraine’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium, one of the few tangible results of Barack Obama’s summit on nuclear material last year, makes it harder for America to criticise him.
After an initial honeymoon, relations between Mr Yanukovich and Mr Putin have soured. But as the example of Belarus shows, this should be of no comfort to the West. There is little love lost between Belarus’s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and the Kremlin. Even so, Mr Lukashenka’s brutal crushing of protests after a stolen election in December lodged him deeper in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Ukraine is in a different league from Belarus, and still freer than Russia. But the trend is clear: the eastward expansion of Western values in the 1990s has been replaced by the westward creep of a post-Soviet model.