Tuesday, 20 July 2010
Ukraine: What Opposition?
KIEV, Ukraine -- Nearly five months into Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s term, the opposition is in disarray - just when it is needed the most.
After the opposition’s last high-profile appearance in April, when its top leaders staged a mass protest against Yanukovych’s renewal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease on its Crimea base, observers predicted an opposition revival.
But now, as Yanukovych gravitates toward Moscow and threatens the democratic gains made after the Orange Revolution, the opposition seems powerless.
The opposition is loosely bound in parliament by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s faction, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), and the Our Ukraine-People’s Self Defense Bloc (OU-PSD).
Shortly after his inauguration, Yanukovych dealt the opposition a crippling blow by luring away some of its deputies and major funders into his own faction, the Party of Regions. The result was a consolidation of Yanukovych’s power through a parliamentary majority and a simmering sense of betrayal and discord within the opposition.
But the ultimate paradox is that while the opposition suffers, it is now needed more than ever.
Yanukovych’s recent turn toward semi-authoritarianism and his pursuit of divisive cultural policies - such as tapping the vehemently anti-Ukrainian Dmytro Tabachnyk to head the Ministry of Culture and Education and denying the Stalin-engineered famine of the 1930s was genocide against Ukrainians - create the potential for mass discontent.
Voicing mass discontent, however, requires mass organization - among the opposition’s biggest problems today.
The latest attempt to organize came in the form of the People’s Committee to Protect Ukraine, founded in early May. Ostensibly, it unites a handful of different parliamentary parties in opposition to the Yanukovych administration.
But the committee has so far failed to attract any serious media attention and lacks a specific, pro-active policy platform.
Besides Tymoshenko, the group is a hodge-podge of Ukraine’s elite, from intellectuals and activists to politicians. Some are recognizable, but most are uninteresting to the general public.
“The Ukrainian electorate is looking for a new face,” Serhiy Solodky, deputy director of the Institute for World Policy in Kiev, told ISN Security Watch. “But they simply haven’t been able to find it yet.”
Meanwhile, as the opposition struggles to get its act together, Yanukovych’s anti-democratic policies - media censorship, a crackdown on protests and his recent bid to tweak the constitution to grant himself more power - hang over Ukraine like a dark cloud.
Ukraine’s natural opposition leader would seem to be Tymoshenko, the runner-up in this year’s presidential election who was ousted from the premiership after Yanukovych installed his own loyalist. Her political experience, fiery rhetoric and unabashed criticism of Yanukovych’s administration should make her a prime candidate.
But after an exhausting presidential campaign, during which Tymoshenko consistently attacked Yanukovych while the global financial crisis ravaged the Ukrainian economy, voters developed a ‘Tymoshenko fatigue’.
“One of the reasons Yanukovych won [the presidential election] was because people showed that they were tired of Tymoshenko,” Ivan Lozowy, a political insider and president of the Kiev-based Institute for Statehood and Democracy, told ISN Security Watch. “She hit her ceiling a long time ago in terms of support. In 2005, people used to say ‘I like her because she does things.’ Now it’s the exact opposite.”
Within the opposition itself, Tymoshenko does more harm than good. Rather than unite the opposition, Lozowy said, she serves as a power-hungry “boulder” that stands in the way of other potential leaders.
Her proclivity for the spotlight leaves little room for other aspirants to gather steam for the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2011 and considered a major test for Ukraine’s opposition forces.
“An opposition candidate has to start developing around now,” said Lozowy. “It’ll be much more difficult to pop up a year before the election, but there’s no one else besides Tymoshenko.”
And among the other possible contenders, pickings are slim.
Arseniy Yatseniuk, onetime minister of foreign affairs and former parliament chair, lost his momentum during this year’s presidential election after an awkward campaign engineered by Russian political technologists.
Boris Tarasiuk, also a former minister of foreign affairs and current parliamentarian, lacks the youthful allure and charismatic personality to rally voters.
Others, such as OU-PSD parliamentarian Viacheslav Kyrylenko and former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, are young and visible, but their ties to disgraced former president Viktor Yushchenko damage their credibility.
The rest either lack the charisma or organizational capacity - or both - to make any serious bid for leadership, according to Lozowy.
Under Yushchenko, Ukrainians suffered five years of bitter political infighting, in which he and Tymoshenko traded accusations of corruption almost daily and left crucial reforms hanging unattended. The honeymoon after 2004’s Orange Revolution gave way within months to Yushchenko’s divisive nationalist rhetoric, on one hand, and Tymoshenko’s wild populism, on the other.
Now, the Yanukovych presidency - though decidedly less western-oriented and democratic - has brought relative order and political stability. The one-time villain of the Orange Revolution, it turns out, has become a long-awaited savior from the deadlocked politics of the Orange era.
And though Yanukovych’s policies may well be disconcerting, many Ukrainians have sacrificed political preferences for a break from the tumultuous past - which means a departure from the Orange elites, many of whom make up the current opposition.
“The previous government carries with it an extremely negative image,” said Solodky. “The electorate is tired of what has happened the past five years. Right now, it’s willing to look away in favor of calm and order.”
What’s more, opposition parliamentarians are too preoccupied with feeding their egos - and business interests - to effectively unite and counter Yanukovych’s increasingly worrying policies, according to Solodky.
“The opposition doesn’t sense a genuine risk, because everyone dreams of themselves winning the next [parliamentary] election, and they don’t want to give that up,” he said. “They understand the problem, but while it doesn’t affect their business support, and while there’s a potential to collect more votes for the next elections, they’ll remain divided.”
With Yanukovych consolidating his power at a steady pace, time is running out for the opposition.
It has already failed recently to push through parliament the dismissal of two highly controversial Yanukovych appointments: Valeriy Khoroshkovskyi, a media magnate dubiously tapped by Yanukovych to head the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU); and Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boiko, a former head of Ukraine’s state-owned oil and gas company, Naftohaz of Ukraine, during the energy corruption-infested administration of former president Leonid Kuchma.
The opposition’s next major obstacle will be the regional elections scheduled for late October. But recent legislation passed by Yanukovych’s majority - and howled down by the opposition as unconstitutional - requires that candidates run according to their parties for half of all local council seats.
And in order for a party to get a seat, it needs to win a majority of votes. Because both the opposition is a mere collection of smaller political parties and cannot put up a single candidate, the legislation effectively tips the scale in favor of Yanukovych’s dominant Party of Regions, of the eponymous faction.
The law, which BYuT said in a recent statement it would challenge in Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, would play on the opposition’s divisions and pave the way for the Party of Regions to collect the majority in many areas, according to Serhiy Kudelia, a political scientist and former advisor in the Tymoshenko government.
“The Party of Regions played a very smart trick on the opposition, which basically puts [party leaders] at odds with each other,” Kudelia told ISN Security Watch. “It provides them with an incentive to pursue their own projects.”
The regional elections will be a telling indicator of the opposition’s strategy ahead of the parliamentary elections, the first of Yanukovych’s presidency. So far, however, the signs are ominous: While Yanukovych’s Party of Regions is a colossal and united political force in its own right, Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, though the dominant party in BYuT, is riddled with disunity and competition.
According to Kudelia, the Yanukovych administration’s image as a unified force damages Tymoshenko’s - and the opposition’s - chance for success.
“The political fortunes of Tymoshenko will depend to a large extent on the ability of Yanukovych to preserve this united front of the government,” he said. “If she does poorly [in the elections], then this will be a precondition for further fleeing of major figures to other parties.”