Ukraine unravels

Just over two years ago it seemed Ukraine was firmly headed on a democratic path after its bloodless “Orange Revolution”. But for the last several months the country has been in political crisis and opposing demonstrators have crowded onto its streets.

The crisis has revealed the ugly and deep-seated problems which endanger Ukraine’s very existence and, some fear, could lead to violence. In 2004 millions of pro-democracy demonstrators across Ukraine defied the cold and the threat of a violent crackdown to protest against massive vote-rigging by the government.

The demonstrators rallied in support of their leader and presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, whose face had been horrifically disfigured by an attempt to kill him by poison. Few had any doubt that those who desperately wanted the pro-Russian government candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, to win were behind the poisoning.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin openly backed Yanukovych against Yushchenko who was calling for Ukraine to join the European Union and NATO. Many in Ukraine are convinced the poison was provided by the FSB Russian secret service and came from the same specialist laboratory which prepared the radioactive substance used to murder the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko last year.

The demonstrators of 2004 wanted to end the rule of corrupt politicians allied to ruthless business and criminal elites who had run Ukraine since its independence in 1991. The government’s resolve crumbled as the demonstrators stood their ground and gave rapturous responses to Yushchenko and the co-leader of the orange revolution, the glamorous firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko. A re-run of the elections yielded a victory for Yushchenko. He was sworn in as president in January 2005 and appointed Tymoshenko prime minister.

But Yushchenko did not follow through on his electoral promises to break the power of the clans and “put the criminals behind bars”. Instead rivalry fuelled by personal jealousies split the orange camp and by August 2005 Yushchenko dismissed Tymoshenko and the first orange government. The president humiliatingly enlisted the support of his former rival, Yanukovych, now leader of the parliamentary opposition, to get enough votes to secure the appointment of his new nominee for premier.

In return Yushchenko was forced to abandon the pursuit of the oligarch-criminals and those who had rigged the election. Many of the most powerful oligarchs initially fled Ukraine when Yushchenko became president. Now they returned emboldened and determined to regain power. During scheduled parliamentary elections last year the Yushchenko and Tymoshenko camps, and the small Socialist Party, ran separately but on the understanding they would form an “orange government” with whoever among them gained the most votes nominating the prime minister.

The country divided, as it had in the presidential elections, with its eastern and southern parts where Russian-speakers and Ukraine’s 17 percent ethnic Russian populations is concentrated, supporting Yanukovych while central and western Ukraine voted for the orange parties. The orange forces managed to secure an overall majority but months of procrastination followed. Yushchenko tried to renege on the deal that should have made Tymoshenko premier.

The notoriously fickle socialists defected to Yanukovych thereby handing him a parliamentary majority sufficient to form a ruling coalition. Tymoshenko began campaigning for early new elections while Yanukovych backers embarked on a thuggish expansion of their power beyond their traditional turf in the east. Yushchenko, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, flirted with the idea of a coalition with Yanukovych who was only interested in wresting as much power as possible from the president. He was helped by a 2004 agreement to devolve many of the presidential powers to the premier in 2006.
Yushchenko challenged implementation of these constitutional changes and the resulting wrangle meant a legal grey area developed. Earlier this year Yanukovych began to poach MPs from Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s parties. He boasted he would soon have the two thirds of parliamentary seats needed to amend the constitution and strip Yushchenko of his power.

On April 2 Yushchenko promulgated a decree dissolving parliament and calling for elections on May 27. But Yanukovych and his supporters refused to comply and challenged Yushchenko’s right to dissolve parliament. Tens of thousands of protesters once more descended on the centre of Kyiv. But this time many of them were waving the blue and white colours of Yanukovych’s party. Many of the Yanukovych supporters find it difficult to explain their motives for demonstrating while some have freely admitted they are being paid to attend.

The two Viktors have argued first over whether there should be fresh elections at all and then about their timing. September seems the earliest they could now take place. Many journalists, under pressure to provide a compact explanation of Ukraine’s political turmoil, talk of a tectonic divide between the predominantly Ukrainian-speaking, mainly Catholic western part 
of the country and the Russian-speaking, orthodox Christian east.

But the real issues at stake are not about language or religion but about whether the sway of the criminal clans and whether they will be able establish total control over Ukraine. An increasingly authoritarian and assertive Russia is another important factor. Moscow, still stung by the loss of its Soviet empire, needs an obedient Ukraine if it is to succeed in its new imperial ambitions.

Perhaps more importantly, Russia, which has surged back to importance because of its vast energy sales to Western Europe, wants control over those critical gas pipelines which pass through Ukraine. Despite the fact that Yushchenko’s prestige has plummeted, the orange revolution can claim some achievements. It brought about a profound and irreversible change in Ukrainians’ psychology that saw them demand and win a role in shaping their country’s future – a role that neighbouring Russians and Belarusians do not enjoy.

There is much more press and political freedom than ever before. Democracy is solidifying, however slowly. A dramatic example of this is that in months of political demonstrations, the police have not used violence against any of the protesters.