During the past five years, Ukraine has often been compared to a poorly controlled ship. The analogy is a valid one, since the constitutional amendments of 2004, which split executive power between the president and parliament in an effort to limit the reach of the Orange Revolution and subsequent presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, have doomed Ukraine’s political system to a high level of instability. Checks and balances within the power triangle of the president, prime minister and parliament have degenerated into a destructive struggle for power. As a result of these amendments, instability can be overcome only if the presidential office and the parliamentary coalition are controlled by the same political party – a political experience previously unknown in post-communist Ukraine.
Let’s take the ship analogy a bit further. By the inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych as the fourth President of Ukraine on 25 February this year, the captain’s bridge has been given over to a man who was barred from it in 2004 but who subsequently remained on board, consolidated his crew and even managed to temporarily serve as boatswain – ie prime minister – from 2006-07. In less than three months since he came to power, this new captain has put an end to any serious power-sharing on his ship, and has dramatically changed course in the seas of current world politics.
POWER CONSOLIDATION: IS DEMOCRACY SAFE IN UKRAINE?
Currently, any elected president of Ukraine cannot hope to enjoy much power unless he or she commands a majority of votes in parliament, total control over the prosecutor general’s office and security service, and the loyalty of some 30 cabinet ministers. This is exactly what was missing during the presidency of Orange Revolution hero Viktor Yushchenko.
In contrast, it didn’t take long for Viktor Yanukovych to dramatically consolidate power. On 2 March, a week after inauguration, the parliamentary coalition – the basis for the previous cabinet of former prime minister (and presidential challenger) Yulia Tymoshenko – was dissolved; the following day, the government was dismissed by parliament. Then, on 11 March, a new coalition was formed in a controversial way that enabled separate MPs to join (whereas previously only parliamentary fractions could form a coalition). But a deficit of legitimacy did not prevent the new parliamentary majority from installing a new cabinet the very next day. Mykola Azarov, a former finance minister under President Leonid Kuchma and a close associate of Yanukovych’s who can hardly speak the Ukrainian language, took the office of prime minister.
A feeling of déjà vu was hard to resist when looking at the new government. A number of key officials have resurfaced from the past – specifically, from the era of President Kuchma, when Yanukovych was himself a loyal prime minister. Accusations of corruption and nepotism have greeted these freshly appointed governmental decision-makers, as have doubts over their ability and/or commitment to enact reforms. But at least no one is predicting any discrepancy between Yanukovych and Prime Minister Azarov – itself something of a victory for the new president.
‘Consolidation’ may equate with ‘stability’ in President Yanukovych’s lexicon, but in Ukrainian society it has already produced destabilising effects. The diminishing role of civil society institutions, narrowing opportunities for opposition and threats for freedom of speech are now threatening democracy in Ukraine. President Yanukovych repeatedly promised that democratic development would be his number one priority, but many Ukrainians realise, through bitter experience, that democracy is not a matter of promises but of norms and institutions. High levels of corruption, weak independent courts and an imperfect legislature – these challenges cannot simply be ‘promised’ away.
On the question of whether democracy is safe in Ukraine, Dr Volodymyr Horbulin, formerly Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (1996-99 and 2006), declares: ‘It is absolutely evident that effective democracy cannot function without stable democratic institutions. In Ukraine they are weak. When power is monopolised, there is a further threat to their functioning. The Russian “security umbrella” does not improve democratic institutions [either]. All in all, the [prospects] of Ukrainian electoral democracy don’t look very good.’
RESHAPING FOREIGN POLICY:
IS THERE A THREAT TO UKRAINIAN
At the time Yanukovych took office, Ukraine was already faced with a difficult security and foreign policy scenario. The responses offered by the new president seem to have only made matters worse: in less than three months Ukraine’s strategic choices have dramatically narrowed, while the risks to its long-term security have multiplied.
Before the elections Yanukovych promised neutrality and European integration as the pillars of his foreign policy. His first official foreign visit was a symbolic trip to Brussels, where he behaved diplomatically in the sense that he didn’t demand EU membership for Ukraine, didn’t push EU officials for any immediate assignments and promised to keep Ukraine ‘European’ with respect to democratic standards. Many observers concluded, somewhat hastily, that Yanukovych, in visiting Brussels before Moscow, intended to honour his pro-European promise.
However, during his subsequent official visit to Moscow, the Ukrainian president opened a series of high-level bilateral negotiations with very high stakes. Now, near-weekly bilateral summits with Russia are being held to discuss cooperation in energy transport, gas prices, aircraft manufacture and, most importantly (and controversially), the status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.
Such initiatives had been anathema to Yushchenko, the previous president, who blamed Russia for attempts to restore a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region and was actively seeking NATO membership for Ukraine. Yushchenko was clearly not going to let the Black Sea Fleet stay in Ukraine a day longer than as specified in the Treaty of 1997 – that is, until 2017. By relaxing on this issue, Yanukovych has cleared the way for a broad dialogue with Moscow, while at the same time dramatically narrowing Ukraine’s strategic options.
The most important meeting of Ukrainian and Russian leaders so far took place in April this year, in Kharkov, the second-largest Ukrainian city and the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic from 1919-34. There the parties agreed that the Black Sea Fleet will stay in Sevastopol until 2042, with Ukraine receiving a 30 per cent discount on the price of Russian natural gas in return. The ‘price’ Russia will ultimately pay for her fleet base amounts to an incredible $40 billion, but even so the Kharkov Accord raised a storm of comment and criticism. On 27 April the Ukrainian parliament, simultaneously with Russia’s State Duma, ratified the agreement, by a bare majority of 236 votes out of 450. The ratification prompted fisticuffs among deputies and an impression of total disorder, which reached its nadir when a smoke bomb and eggs were thrown at parliament speaker Volodymyr Litvyn. In another sense, however, the ratification was anything but disorderly: the newly formed coalition demonstrated inflexibility and a firm readiness to take quick decisions without paying much attention to critical remarks.
We believe that the compromise reached in Kharkov is a bad one for Ukraine. It exchanges discounts on energy for security interests – a mistake that weaker parties to asymmetrical bilateral negotiations should always be careful to avoid. Moreover, it prolongs Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas by distorting economic incentives to modernise Ukraine’s economy, which is one of the most energy-hungry in the world. Finally, so long as it hosts the Black Sea Fleet, membership of NATO is impossible for Ukraine. The price Russia is paying to secure the number one priority in its regional policy in fact looks way too small, especially when one considers that the price for Russian gas is still determined by Gazprom, and that discounts on as-yet-unknown figures could turn out to be much less beneficial than they look today.
The Kharkov Accords expanded the scope for bilateral cooperation with Russia. Some of these projects, concerning further integration in the energy sector and economic cooperation, are to be revealed in the near future; but in giving up its key leverage in the field of security, Ukraine has lost much of its power to negotiate.
A lack of clarity and strategic vision in relations with Russia marked Yanukovych’s visit to the US – and was the key reason for its failure. On 12 April the Ukrainian president took part in the Nuclear Security Summit, where he promised to get rid of Ukraine’s stocks of highly-enriched uranium in return for a set of standard formulas of mutual support. Yanukovych didn’t seem disappointed – it looks like he doesn’t expect much from President Barack Obama. Close relations with the American administration don’t fit into his vision of strategic partnership with Russia.
As a result, just three months after Yanukovych took office, Ukraine finds itself in a very different strategic environment. The pro-Western foreign policy of Viktor Yushchenko seems to have faded, opportunities for counterbalancing against interests of key geopolitical actors have dramatically narrowed, and the framework for regional security is menacingly shifting.
Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, and a former US Ambassador to Ukraine gave an exclusive commentary on the current foreign policy of Victor Yanukovych:
‘It was no secret that Victor Yanukovych, if elected president, intended to change Ukraine’s relations with Russia. When Strobe Talbott, Javier Solana and I visited Kiev at the end of March, senior Ukrainian officials told us that President Yanukovych would first address relations with Russia but that Ukraine would maintain a balance between Russia and the West. They said, for example, that Ukraine would not join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan because of Kyiv’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation and because Ukraine’s priority was a free trade arrangement with the European Union.
‘What did surprise many observers in the West was the pace of the change in policy. As a sovereign government, Ukraine has the right to decide about the presence of foreign military forces on its territory. This includes the Black Sea Fleet. But was it appropriate to ram the BSF extension agreement through Ukraine’s Parliament so quickly – with no real discussion of the constitutional question, the economic impact or the meaning for Ukraine’s overall foreign policy? The economics of the deal are unclear: Ukraine will receive a cut in the price of gas on a contract that runs through 2019. But what happens afterwards, when the BSF extension agreement runs to 2042? What about suggestions that Kyiv and Moscow have also discussed merging their aircraft industries or combining Naftohaz with Gazprom?
‘It would be useful for the Ukrainian government to explain fully the arrangements it is negotiating with Russia. It would also be useful for the government to explain its overall foreign policy, including how it plans to develop its relations with Europe and the US as well as with Russia.’
Along with consolidating hard power assets, Russia is also strengthening its cultural influence in Ukraine.
On 27 April President Yanukovych asserted in Strasburg that the Holodomor – the mass famine of 1932-33 brought about by Stalin – was not genocide. Not only has Yanukovych restated his personal version of history, but he has also provided Russia with yet another advantage over Ukraine – soft-power abilities to impose cultural contexts, interpretations and symbols. This will take a dangerous trend even further. Whether Ukraine will be able to escape being fully reinstalled within Russia’s sphere of influence depends on its ability to preserve democracy, which will either succeed or fail together with the country’s national security.