The recent indictment of former President Leonid Kuchma for abuse of power in the case of the murder in 2000 of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze has sent shockwaves through the Ukrainian body politic.
Indeed, the opening of a criminal process against a former patron of current President Viktor Yanukovych is something few expected, as Kuchma was protected from prosecution during the five-year presidency Viktor Yushchenko. Neither Yulia Tymoshenko nor Yushchenko, two politicians whose rise to power was fueled by public discontent over the Gongadze murder, proved capable of doing what has occurred under President Yanukovych.
For some, the charges are said to be a part of an arcane and cynical plot that will eventually find Kuchma innocent and put the matter to rest. But that is unlikely. The resurrection of this case, its public humiliation of Kuchma, and the renewed spotlight on crimes that occurred during his reign is having the opposite effect. It is raising Ukrainian—and international—demands that a transparent and fair process occur. Any hint of a coverup will only undermine Yanukovych’s image and this is something his advisors certainly understand. As importantly, the international community knows that of over 140,000 cases brought to trial in Ukraine last year a little over a hundred ended in acquittals. Thus, the news for President Kuchma appears grim, as does the accumulating weight of evidence.
Taken on its own, the launching of a case against President Kuchma, a pillar of Ukraine’s establishment, defies reason and requires the weaving complex conspiracy theories involving motives, such as revenge by Yanukovych for Kuchma’s alleged abandonment during the Orange Revolution or the coveting of the vast fortune the Kuchma family has accumulated.
But recent trends point to another explanation. There are clear signals of the beginning of a political thaw that reflects a return to the policy course many expected at the outset of the Yanukovych presidency. These early hopes, however, were dashed by signs of authoritarian behavior by police against protestors, the launching of criminal cases against former Prime Minister Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders, and security service efforts to intimidate university rectors and leaders of NGOs.
Such authoritarian acts obscured positive policies in the areas of deregulation, tax policy, the opening of corruption cases against ruling party officials and political allies of the president, the downsizing of government, fiscal stability, and the establishment of a more effective administrative system. Authoritarian policies also strained relations with Europe at a time when Ukraine’s leadership is singalling that it is firmly committed to a deep and comprehensive free trade area with Europe and an association agreement despite Russian financial incentives and other blandishments.
As a result of this commitment to a pro-European course, we are seeing unmistakable signs of modest political liberalization and a policy shift aimed at reducing domestic Ukrainian political tensions.
The appointment to the Yanukovych administration of respected journalist Darka Chepak– a founding member of the “Stop Censorship” movement– as the president’s press spokesman and the naming of Maryna Stavniychuk, former top legal aide to President Yushchenko and a respected member of the Venice Commission (a European rule of law monitor), as a key advisor underscore this shift.
Other signs of the thaw include recent government responsiveness to the demands of mass protests by students angry at the introduction of new fees, small entrepreneurs dismayed by tax code revisions, and educators angry at cutbacks.
The chastising of the highly divisive Russophile education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk for his dismal relations with educators as well as the Yanukovych’s clear support for testing as the sole criterion for entrance into institutions of higher learning opens the door to his possible dismissal. Such a move—couple with Yanukovych’s recent reiteration on April 7th that Ukrainian will remain as the sole state language for the country—would represent a further course correction, a move away from policies provoking tensions between the country’s Ukrainian-speaking West and Russophone East.
Yet another unmistakable signal is the improvement of the media environment at state owned Channel One TV, for years a government propaganda vehicle. Now the channel is offering prime time news programs hosted by one of Ukraine’s most respected journalists, Savik Shuster who consistently gives equal time to civil society and opposition leaders.
The recent flurry of prime time appearances by opposition leader Tymoshenko on channels friendly to the government as well as on independent tv stations and the decision to allow her to travel to Brussels while under a pending criminal case is another sign of change. So, too, was passage with Yanukovych’s support of Ukraine’s first comprehensive freedom of information legislation.
In this context the opening of a criminal case against President Kuchma seems less of anomaly and more a part of a pattern by President Yanukovych to restore the trust of his people, of Europe and of the US as he seeks to move his country closer to European integration.
The new trends in Kiev, however, are far from irreversible. Just as was the case under the Orange government, there are powerful rent-seeking interest groups that continue to use their presence in and influence over the government to advance their narrow interests. Their avarice needs to be controlled and pushed back as much as do efforts to resort to “old school” political intimidation. At the same time positive trends need to be understood and encouraged when they emerge. Thus, just as when he was sharply criticized by Western leaders as Ukraine began straying from democratic practices, President Yanukovych now should be saluted for the recent steps he has undertaken in the political sphere, though they are modest in scope. And Ukraine’s President should be encouraged to continue his government’s hard look at the crimes of the Kuchma era as well to deepen his attacks on corruption by political allies in Kiev and in the Crimea.
As importantly, Yanukovych and Ukraine should be given clear-cut signals by the international community that such positive trends by Ukraine will open the door to full-fledged integration into the European Union.
Adrian Karatnycky is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the US and coordinator of its Ukraine-North America Dialogue.