Despite the appearance of success in 2012’s parliamentary elections, Ukraine’s government suffers from internal divisions, an unfavourable international climate and a rejuvenated opposition, writes Josh Black.
The morning of 29 October 2012 should have been a happy one for Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych. Parliamentary elections the day before had gone well – in due course his Party of Regions would be rewarded with 12 additional seats, while coalition partners also did well and the opposition fractured. The Party of Regions last managed to construct a majority in 2006, but precipitated a constitutional crisis by clashing with President Viktor Yushchenko. Now, the President and Prime Minister appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet, yet the chaotic world of Ukrainian politics has delivered almost nothing but problems, leaving the impression of a government caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
On the one hand, the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov promises a more centrist direction this time around, with EU negotiations high on the agenda. Azarov, seen as dependent on Yanukovych’s patronage, had a first term notable for three developments; the signing of the Kharkiv Accords, offering Russia a lease over a portion of Sevastopol’s harbour in return for discounts on gas imports; the passing of a law designating Russian as Ukraine’s second language; and the imprisonment of former-Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. All three infuriated the opposition, but the emergence of Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR Party and the nationalists, Svoboda, meant that their message was often confused.
As a result, the opposition have quickly turned to more aggressive tactics. Beginning in February, opposition deputies in the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) physically blocked the government from convening a session. Indeed, UDAR deputies held a day-and-night vigil to prevent the government convening a session in secret. The issue was resolved on 22 February 2013 when President Yanukovych conceded an institutional reform called for by opposition parties and by the wider political community, including groups involved in the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Fortunately, the likelihood of a Russia-style crackdown appears to be receding. In 2012, the government passed a law called for and praised by the European Union guaranteeing certain freedoms to NGOs in Ukraine.
Yet Yanukovych’s own supporters offer little respite from the problems presented by the opposition. The Party of Regions itself is a curious beast, comprised of pro-European oligarchs like Rinat Akhmetov (and until last year, Petro Poroshenko), and by ethnicity or inclination, Russophiles. Then there is the cabinet, described by Anders Aslund as a balancing act between Yanukovych’s ‘Family’ (meant in the literal and Mafioso sense) and the Akhmetov group. The veteran commentator, Taras Kuzio, sees the Family’s dominance of politics largely as a hindrance to fulfilling reforms.
Even if Yanukovych can square European integration with cultural concessions to the Russophiles, Russia itself is uncompromising, suggesting that if Ukraine were to forego its European ambitions and join a Eurasian Customs Union it would benefit from badly needed gas discounts. This would present problems for Ukraine not just in terms of prospective-EU Membership, but also in its obligations to the World Trade Organisation. Unlocking this international dimension might steal the opposition’s thunder and increase the prestige of both Yanukovych and Azarov, yet seems far from likely.