The policy and business elites who attended the Atlantic Council’s September 24th luncheon in New York with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych may be wondering just what he meant by what he said—and, more important, by what he did not say.
The good news is that his “address” was probably written by his minions—possibly in Ukrainian, possibly in Russian—and then translated into barely adequate English (with a noticeable absence of definite and indefinite articles). The speech may therefore be assumed to reflect Yanukovych’s views, and not those of his American handler, the political consultant Paul Manafort.
It’s important to remember that, despite Yanukovych’s claim to be a straight shooter, he is above all a product of Soviet politics and ideology and their current incarnation in his bailiwick—Ukraine’s reactionary rustbelt, the Donbas. That means he knows that words, and their manipulation, matter.
So, as Americans try to maneuver through Yanukovych’s linguistic Wonderland, they may be advised to keep the following translation manual in mind. Let’s go through some of the main claims made by Yanuklovych and determine what they really mean or what really lies behind them.
Claim: “for the first time in the modern history of Ukraine – the President, the Government and the Parliament (to be exact the coalition majority that has been formed) are moving in the same strategic direction, not in the three different ones as was the case earlier.”
Reality: Yanukovych fails to mention that this unprecedented unanimity is the product of crude constitutional shenanigans that enabled his Party of Regions to form a majority in the Parliament and thus a government.
Claim: “I put forward tough, but accomplishable requirements to reduce licensing procedures by 90%, to cut the number and scope of activities of the controlling bodies to the fullest extent possible in order to substantially decrease the tax pressure.”
Reality: Revenue collection by the government is woefully below target, with the result that tax collectors have been set loose on the small and medium-sized businesses Yanukovych claims to support. More important, Yanukovych fails to explain just how the liberalizing measures he ostensibly supports can be reconciled with an authoritarian bureaucracy dominated by one party—his own—and intent on never giving up power to an opposition that Yanukovych’s people have publicly vowed to destroy.
Claim: “This and other measures have already brought in first considerable results – we have not only stopped an unprecedented economic downslide in a time of peace, but set forward a steady economic development – more than 6% GDP growth in the first six months of this year.”
Reality: As everybody knows, no government policies can affect GDP immediately. There’s always a time lag of several months, maybe more. Ukraine’s economic growth in the first half of 2010 is thus due either to the policies of the Tymoshenko government or, more likely, to the general upswing in the global economy. We’ll see what impact Yanukovych’s policies will have only in 2011.
Claim: “I think you will be interested to know how I understand democracy. Of all its various definitions the following is the closest to me: Democracy means stable state institutions, broad civic freedoms and justice. A state in which these principles are being violated is doomed to have a corruption, chaos, lawlessness or authoritarianism.”
Reality: No self-respecting political theorist anywhere would define democracy as stability plus broad civic freedoms plus justice. Democracy, Yanukovych may be interested in knowing, is about “rule of the people”—and that means, above all, fair and free elections in which competing and viable parties take part. That Yanukovych says nothing about elections is his way of saying that his party plans to stay in power for the indefinite future, despite the inconvenience of local elections in October 2010 and parliamentary elections in 2012. Note also that Yanukovych fails to mention specific freedoms, such as freedom of assembly and speech, as those have been violated systematically since he came to power. Last, Yanukovych pointedly avoids the term “rule of law,” which is about impartial institutions and procedures, and prefers to speak of “justice,” which all authoritarian leaders, from Russia’s Putin to Belarus’s Lukashenko, claim to be best qualified to dispense.
Claim: “National public discussion of the public television concept that I initiated has been completed. In the nearest future a bill paving the way for the principally different mass media – the ones which policy will be determined by the civil society – will be submitted to the Parliament for consideration.”
Reality: Note that Yanukovych states that the policy of public television will be determined by “civil society”—implying, among other things, that the current media, and especially his critics, are not reflective of civil society. You can therefore be certain that his notion of civil society excludes the opposition. More important, you can be equally certain that “civil society” will be represented by some Yanukovych-appointed “civic” body, whose members will all be Yanukovych allies and/or creatures. And you can be absolutely certain that they will transform public television into a mouthpiece of the president.
Claim: “I categorically disagree with statements that claim freedom of speech is on decline in Ukraine. As for separate turf wars in media sphere that have recently been widely discussed, I have to responsibly stress that the government has nothing to do with them. They are clashing of business interests or disputes between the media management and its staff.”
Reality: Yanukovych fails to mention that these turf wars involve Ukraine’s largest media mogul, Valery Khoroshkovsky—who just happens to be the head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, which just happens to have begun a process of selective intimidation of academics, journalists, and foreigners. Khoroshkovsky, by the way, was appointed by Yanukovych.
Claim: “Will correction of our Euro-Atlantic integration course and defining our non-aligned status as the main guidance point in the security sphere leave a mark on our relations? … By the way, the term “non-aligned” or “non-alignment” is not the most adequate one since the era of military blocks has long ended together with the Cold war. But at least, it is concise and understandable. I think the principle of non-participation of our country in any military-political alliance most adequately fits the current geopolitical realities.”
Reality: Note that Yanukovych eschews the word neutrality. That’s no accident. As he knows, neutrality would imply removing the Russian military presence from the Crimea. Non-alignment, in contrast, can be fudged, and, as we know from history, non-aligned countries could be non-aligned with the West (like Yugoslavia) or with the East (like India). Even so, Yanukovych should know that even non-aligned countries do not permit foreign militaries to have bases on their territories. When they do—and Yanukovych extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing rights by 25 years—they effectively abandon non-alignment.
Claim: “Taking this decision was conducive to defusing tensions that existed both in Ukraine and on the entire European continent in connection with the possibility that Ukraine would join NATO.”
Reality: Yanukovych forgets to mention that Ukraine’s joining NATO was on President Kuchma’s and his own agenda before the 2004 Orange Revolution disgraced both of them. The “tensions” about NATO that enveloped Ukraine after 2004 were entirely the handiwork of Yankuovych and his minions in the Party of Regions.
In the end, just what did Yanukovych really say to the Atlantic Council? That he’s right, that his critics are wrong, and that he has no intention of leaving office.
That may be stability—but only in Wonderland.
Alexander J. Motyl (Ph.D., Columbia University, 1984) is a Contributing Editor at the Atlantic Council, and a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.