Adrian Karatnycky writes: There are unmistakable signs of modest political liberalization.
The recent indictment of former President Leonid Kuchma for abuse of power in the Sept. 16, 2000 murder of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze has sent shock waves through Ukraine’s body politic.
The opening of a criminal process against a former patron of President Viktor Yanukovych is something few expected, as Kuchma was protected from prosecution during the five-year presidency of Viktor Yushchenko.
Neither ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko nor Yushchenko, two politicians whose rise to power was fueled by public discontent over the Gongadze murder, proved capable of doing what has occurred under Yanukovych.
Launching of a case against Kuchma, a pillar of Ukraine’s establishment, defies reason and requires the weaving of complex conspiracy theories about.
For some, the charges are said to be part of an arcane and cynical plot that will eventually find Kuchma innocent and put the matter to rest. But that is unlikely.
The resurrection of this case, its public humiliation of Kuchma and the renewed spotlight on crimes that occurred during his reign is having the opposite effect. It is raising demands that a transparent and fair process occur. Any hint of a cover-up will only undermine Yanukovych’s image.
As importantly, the international community knows that of more than 140,000 cases brought to trial in Ukraine last year, only 100 or so ended in acquittals. Thus, the news for Kuchma appears grim, as does the accumulating weight of evidence.
Journalist Andriy Kulikov (R) and Darka Chepak, a former journalist who is now President Viktor Yanukovych’s press secretary (C), talk with police during the “Stop Censorship!” demonstration in Kyiv on June 6. (Yaroslav Debelyi)
Taken on its own, the launching of a case against Kuchma, a pillar of Ukraine’s establishment, defies reason and requires the weaving of complex conspiracy theories about -- such as revenge by Yanukovych for Kuchma’s alleged abandonment during the 2004 Orange Revolution, which denied Yanukovych the presidency in a rigged election, or the coveting of the vast fortune the Kuchma family has accumulated.
But recent trends point to another explanation.
There are clear signals of the beginning of a political thaw that reflects a return to the policy course many expected at the outset of the Yanukovych presidency.
These early hopes, however, were dashed by signs of authoritarian behavior by police against protesters, the launching of criminal cases against Tymoshenko and other opposition leaders, and security service efforts to intimidate university rectors and leaders of non-governmental organizations.
Such authoritarian acts obscured positive policies in the areas of deregulation, tax policy, the opening of corruption cases against ruling party officials and political allies of the president, the downsizing of government, fiscal stability and the establishment of a more effective administrative system.
Ukraine’s president should be encouraged to continue his government’s hard look at the crimes of the Kuchma era as well to deepen his attacks on corruption by political allies in Kyiv and in the Crimea.
Authoritarian policies also strained relations with Europe at a time when Ukraine’s leadership is signaling that it is firmly committed to a deep and comprehensive free trade area with Europe and an association agreement despite Russian financial incentives and other blandishments.
As a result of this commitment to a pro-European course, we are seeing unmistakable signs of modest political liberalization and a policy shift aimed at reducing domestic Ukrainian political tensions.
The appointment to the Yanukovych administration of respected journalist Darka Chepak – a founding member of the “Stop Censorship” movement – as the president’s press spokesman and the naming of Maryna Stavniychuk, former top legal aide to Yushchenko and a respected member of the Venice Commission (a European rule of law monitor), as a key advisor underscore this shift.
Other signs of the thaw include recent government responsiveness to the demands of mass protests by students angry at the introduction of new fees, small entrepreneurs dismayed by tax code revisions and educators angry at cutbacks.
The chastising of the highly divisive Russophile Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk for his dismal relations with educators opens the door to his possible dismissal.
Such a move, coupled with Yanukovych’s restatement on April 7 that Ukrainian will remain as the sole state language, would represent a move away from policies provoking tensions between the country’s Ukrainian-speaking west and Russophone east.
Opening of a criminal case against Kuchma seems less of anomaly and more a part of a pattern by Yanukovych to restore the trust of his people.
Yet another unmistakable signal is the improvement of the media environment at state-owned First National Television Channel, for years a government propaganda vehicle.
Now the channel is offering prime time news programs hosted by one of Ukraine’s most respected journalists, Savik Shuster, who consistently gives equal time to civil society and opposition leaders.
The recent flurry of prime-time TV appearances by Tymoshenko and the decision to allow her to travel to Brussels while under a pending criminal case is another sign of change. So, too, was passage with Yanukovych’s support of Ukraine’s first comprehensive freedom of information legislation.
In this context, the opening of a criminal case against Kuchma seems less of anomaly and more a part of a pattern by Yanukovych to restore the trust of his people, of Europe and of the United States as he seeks to move his country closer to European integration.
However, just as was the case under the Orange government of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, there are powerful rent-seeking interest groups that continue to use their presence in and influence over the government to advance their narrow interests. Their avarice needs to be controlled.
Thus, just as when he was sharply criticized by Western leaders as Ukraine began straying from democratic practices, Yanukovych now should be saluted for the recent steps he has undertaken in the political sphere, though they are modest in scope.
And Ukraine’s president should be encouraged to continue his government’s hard look at the crimes of the Kuchma era as well to deepen his attacks on corruption by political allies in Kyiv and in the Crimea.
As importantly, Yanukovych and Ukraine should be given clear-cut signals by the international community that such positive trends by Ukraine will open the door to full-fledged integration into the European Union.
Adrian Karatnycky is senior scholar at the Atlantic Council of the United States and coordinator of its Ukraine-North America Dialogue.