In his rejoinder to my recent article, “Orange Peels: Ukraine After Revolution,” my good friend Alexander Motyl claims he and other critics of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych gave him the benefit of the doubt.
For the record, Motyl’s benefit of the doubt did not last long.
Within five weeks of the inauguration Ukraine’s new President, Motyl wrote that Yanukovych: “has committed a series of mistakes that could doom his presidency, scare off foreign investors and thwart the country’s modernization. Yanukovych’s misrule is courting a second Orange Revolution.” So much for a honeymoon for the new president and his then three-week-old government.
Motyl is correct that voters did give Yanukovych the benefit of the doubt. They continue to do so. He enjoys approval ratings of over 60 percent, an improvement over his 50 percent level of support in the presidential vote. That means that today, well over 20 percent of Yulia Tymoshenko voters are pleased with Yanukovych’s performance.
Motyl asserts that “Yanukovych and his party have proceeded to dismantle democracy—violating the Constitution in order to acquire a parliamentary majority, transforming the Parliament into a rubber-stamp institution, encroaching on freedom of assembly and speech, passing a law on local elections that guarantees a Party of Regions monopoly of power, encroaching on academic autonomy, and activating both the Security Service and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
I believe we can agree that Ukraine’s constitution and its court system are flawed. However, Yanukovych’s alleged steps against the constitution were no less problematic than the reality that for well over a year the Tymoshenko government held on to power with the support of less than half the legislators in parliament. Moreover, on March 1, 243 legislators voted for the dismissal of the Tymoshenko government, a clear affirmation of the will of that sitting body.
More significantly, after the vote for a new government was taken, President Yanukovych told European Union representatives that “If the decision of the Constitutional Court will be that the coalition was formed illegally, then I will take a decision on a snap election, I will never go down the path of breaching the constitution that is in force.”
Many critics of the decision assert that the Constitutional Court itself is subject to political influence and pressures and, so, lacks legitimacy. But if one argues that Ukraine’s entire legal system is illegitimate, one must also agree that the same “illegitimate” court system took the decision to hold a re-run of the tainted presidential election of 2004 that sparked the Orange Revolution.
The reality is that today no fewer than 260 out of 450 legislators support the current government. While imperfect, this clear majority is a better outcome than a situation in which a de facto minority Tymoshenko government held on for over a year despite the fact that well over half the deputies in the legislature supported its dismissal.
Indeed, is it not more logical that Ukraine has a government which enjoys the support of 260 deputies than one that could have hung on with the support of a mere 115 deputies? Bear in mind, that under the interpretation of Ukraine’s Constitution offered by the opposition, a government could remain in office if it retained the backing of a majority of deputies, whose fractions together account for a majority. That would have meant that a majority (78) of 155 deputies from the Tymoshenko bloc and a majority (37) of 72 deputies from the Our Ukraine bloc could have continued to claim they represent a legitimate majority of 227. Under such circumstances, we can agree that the Constitutional Court’s ruling was at the very least not a dilution of democracy as it existed prior to Yanukovych’s election.
While I agree that a new election would have been preferable, I can also see why given the fact that Ukraine faced a growing economic crisis, President Yanukovych felt he could not delay moving forward without an effective government. A new election would likely have put off the creation of such a government for a further 4-5 months.
On other issues, Prof. Motyl is simply wrong. Academic freedom has not been infringed upon sytematically. Under Yanukovych, not a single professor has lost his teaching post in Ukraine’s universities. A widely publicized visit by a low level security service functionary to the rector of Ukraine’s Catholic University contained no discussion of academic matters and was soon followed up by a contrite visit by the head of the Security Service to clear the air.
Demonstrations remain an inalienable right of Ukrainians, though the proposition has not yet been tested as most Ukrainians are for the moment tired of protesting. It is true there has been excesses by the Ministry of Interior in policing demonstrations (mostly keeping demonstrators at a distance from President Yanukovych for “safety” reasons), but these excesses resulted in the Minister of the Interior being called on the carpet by President Yanukovych and sternly rebuked for such actions.
As for a rubber-stamp parliament, I see no such thing. There is reasonable diversity of views within the party of Regions and between the coalition members with pro-free market and more statist currents both represented. There is also a healthy rivalry for influence between factions in the Party of Regions that are jockeying for influence. The current state of politics in the government and legislature is hardly one of monolithic rule.
And in the case of press freedom, there is plenty of it. Opposition forces are seen regularly on the major TV stations, and the news and information content of the major channels belonging to billionaires Viktor Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov reveal a high degree of balance and professionalism in coverage.
While the most popular channel Inter has a pro-government bent, its tilt is no different from the partisan bent observed on the US’s (conservative) Fox News channel and on (liberal) CNBC.
I don’t think much needs to be said about Motyl’s comment comparing Yanukovych’s moderate policies “with Hitler’s Gleichschaltung in 1933.” It merely confirms my thesis of the excessive rhetoric adopted by normally sober analysts of Ukraine’s politics.
On the matter of culture, I am in broad agreement with Motyl. We both disagree fundamentally with the Ukrainophobic policies of Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk and with the naming of a Stalin apologist as head of the Institute of National Memory, I still believe that these odious appointments can and will be reversed. Nevertheless, I think that Yanukovych is right in trying to ensuree a hospitable environment for Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. Such steps, in my view, are likely to deepen their support for Ukraine’s statehood.
However, I do not agree with Motyl that Ukraine is threatened by the presence of a couple dozen Russian security services agents who are attached to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and have been allowed to be present on the peninsula.
And I fundamentally disagree with Motyl’s assertion that Yanukovych is eroding Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
Indeed, by stabilizing and normalizing relations with Russia, renewing sensible Russian investment in Ukraine (while at times blocking takeovers that are not in the national interest), securing a cheaper price for natural gas, and renewing and expanding cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, Yanukovych is creating a stronger Ukrainian economy better able to defend its sovereign interests. His planned September visits to Asia and the US (UN General Assembly) are also aimed at diversifying and increasing international investment in Ukraine’s economy.
As for economic reform, the presidential team has developed a serious, sequenced plan of reform that is to be introduced gradually over the next couple years. It will include speeded up privatizations, investment promotion initiatives, and, most likely, land privatization. All that sounds like a serious agenda to me.
And on the matter of corruption, Yanukovych’s government has already moved against high level corruption in the Kyiv mayoralty (which was controlled his political allies), and arrested his Deputy Environment Minister, his regional, and a mid-level Presidential Administration official all for alleged corruption.
On balance, while not a sterling record, Yanukovych’s half year in office is hardly one of misrule. He has taken a reasonably effective set of steps in a variety of policy areas, while making some serious mistakes in the educational and cultural spheres.
On some matters, President Yanukovych has acted intelligently and erased doubts. He therefore has earned the benefit of our doubt in those areas where he has fallen short.
Adrian Karatnycky is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Relations program at the Atlantic Council and Managing Partner of Myrmidon Group LLC, a New York based consultancy.