Despite rampant poverty and deteriorating protection of human rights, the Ukrainian authorities seek acceptance in Washington, the American capital, and Brussels, the European Union administrative capital, of their guardianship of democracy and suitability for visa-free travel.
Fumbling protection of human rights
The 2010 worldwide report from Human Rights Watch shows Ukraine to be troubled in the key areas of racism, migration, censorship and pressure on the media. The judicial reform program appears to ignore the requested European recommendations, diminishes the quality of public justice and further complicates the enforcing of human rights. In this light, the prejudicial treatment of immigrants, the massive emigration issues and the pressure on human rights advocates may worsen.
The Human Rights Watch report also refers to some positive developments in Ukraine, namely the establishment of political stability and the normalization of relations with Russia. Stability, it seems, comes at a cost - the large-scale reforms initiated by President Viktor Yanukovych are being developed and implemented beyond the scope of the democratic mandate and deaf to the protests of a disunited people. Perhaps when the national appetite is whetted to the taste of free trade and visa-free travel, the authorities will have a stronger impetus to value human rights – as economic relations with Washington and Brussels will hang in the balance.
People First Comment: Would anybody knowing the whereabouts of the Ukrainian parliamentary opposition please wake them up and tell them it’s time to come back to work? Yanukovych may well have created a formidable vertical power structure, but this does not mean that democratic due process should be abandoned. The Regions Party and the authorities can only get away with exceeding their powers if the opposition, representing almost 50 percent of the population, do not do what they are paid to do by the taxpayer and openly resist government plans, in parliament, on television and in the media. Currently their silence is deafening. Where are [former Verkhovna Rada speaker] Arseniy Yatsenyuk and his party? Where is Our Ukraine? Is the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko also such a vertical structure that nobody else can lead the attack while their leader is indisposed? If stability means the ability to ravage the nation unopposed, then do not be surprised if the people decide otherwise.
Uninterrupted descent into poverty
Neither the former government's activities nor the current government's reforms have proved sufficient to stem the nation’s descent into poverty. The State Statistics Committee reports 585,000 additional unemployed as of January 2011; a 7.5 percent increase since December. Employers’ estimates put the number of Ukrainians receiving wages under the table at around 5-7 million. The average citizens’ means are starkly contrasted by high mortgage arrears, totalling Hr 110.7 billion ($13.84 billion) as of December 2010.
Experts note that if the minimal living wage increases to Hr 1,200 ($150), in line with inflation, 35 percent of Ukrainian families will still be officially considered as living below the poverty line.
The State Statistics Committee reports that the income of more than 12 million people is currently below the minimal living wage; set at Hr 894 ($111.75), February 2011. Experts note that if the minimal living wage increases to Hr 1,200 ($150), in line with inflation, 35 percent of Ukrainian families will still be officially considered as living below the poverty line. Considering this delicate issue, the Cabinet of Ministers rejected the proposal to hold a review of social standards in July 2011; despite it being a key promise of Yanukovych's election campaign. Ukrainian families watch their pay drop, while their debts grow heavier; further burdening an already crippled national economy. The population’s debt for utility services increased by 5.5 percent between November and December last year, increasing the total to Hr 11.4 billion ($1.43 billion). The widening gap between the impoverished population and the big business minority sets the scene for massive social upheaval in Ukraine.
People First Comment: For the past eight months, Democracy Watch has been warning of the growing levels of real poverty in Ukraine. Today the minimum state salary is Hr 941 ($117.63) and a minimum state pension is Hr 750 ($93.75). To put this into perspective, a tank of fuel for a small car currently costs around Hr 400 and a loaf of bread between Hr 4 and Hr 6. Life on a minimum state salary is, in reality, no life at all. The government has made a huge issue of their policy to increase the minimum salary and pension levels. In April, the minimum state salary will be raised by Hr 11 and pensions by Hr 14, hardly recognition of the economic reality of the nation. At the same time Ferrari has just opened a showroom in Kyiv and Bentley Ukraine has the longest waiting list in Europe. The gap between those that have and those that have not is possibly the widest in Europe and is equal to many of the more questionable dictatorships in central Africa. Just how the poor got so poor is obvious. The parliamentary system is completely geared to personal wealth creation. Money siphoning systems are so commonplace that few try to hide them while corruption is just about the only lubricant that works. The question is why the people of this country simply accept induced poverty as if it were their fate. The problem lies in the fact that the people of Ukraine, after centuries of oppression have been beaten into subservience and this is now relied on by those in power to ensure their dominance. However, as events in North Africa have so graphically illustrated, even the most oppressed eventually find courage.
Gryshchenko professes success of democracy
During the third meeting of the U.S.-Ukraine Partnership Commission in Washington, Kostyantin Gryshchenko, Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs, made a bold comparison between the level of political transparency in Ukraine and that of Western democracies. While commenting on Yanukovych's reforms, Gryshchenko stressed that the Ukrainian government has no alternative but “operate as a bulldozer.” Gryschenko also made public his belief that democratic freedoms in Ukraine are not deteriorating.
Responding to the minister’s illustration of the successful and transparent development of democracy in Ukraine, attributed predominantly to President Viktor Yanukovych, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the government move to reach common understanding with Ukrainian civil society, before pleading the support of the United States to the development of a more secure, prosperous and democratic Ukraine.
Members of the U.S. Congress remained skeptical and expressed concerns over: political freedom in Ukraine, pressure on media, manipulations within judicial system and violations of election rules and procedures. According to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Democrat-Ohio), Gryshchenko does not yet fully appreciate the level of concern the U.S. government has over democracy in Ukraine.
Members of the U.S. Congress remained skeptical and expressed concerns over: political freedom in Ukraine, pressure on media, manipulations within judicial system and violations of election rules and procedures. According to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Democrat-Ohio), Gryshchenko does not yet fully appreciate the level of concern the U.S. government has over democracy in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Washington meeting and Gryshchenko’s statement that the development of democracy is an integral part of the national modernization strategy, bring fresh hope for the evolution of democracy in Ukraine.
People First Comment: The minister is absolutely right. Democratic freedoms for the ruling elite are unchanged. Deputies and in this case ministers, by their own making, live above the law. In their rarefied atmosphere many would see no change whatsoever in the state of democracy in Ukraine. The papers say what they want to read, the television expounds the party line, the courts find in their favor, the roads are cleared for their motorcades and by owning the voting ballot paper printing offices they win elections. In their world, their “democracy” is perfect…
If you look at the way information flows within the governmental system, ministers are subject to a reality that is created for them by fawning civil servants and currently by a media system that tells them only what they want to hear. One has to question just how any minister can base their comments on reality when they rarely if ever visit their electoral constituencies and have little or no contact with the public at large. The longer they stay in power, the more isolated they become, to a point where it must be virtually impossible for them to differentiate between fact and fiction. Giving the minister the benefit of the doubt, he may well have truly believed that what he was saying in Washington was absolutely correct.
Unfortunately, his Washington audience, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters without Borders and around 46 million Ukrainians living in the real world tend to disagree. Perhaps it is time for the minister to get a good dose of Ukrainian reality before his erroneous perspective destroys not only his own credibility but also that of the government and the president he represents.
Ukrainian authorities move towards EU requirements
In response to the European Union-Ukraine Summit in November 2010 and the adoption of the action plan for visa liberalization, Kyiv has started moving towards fulfilling its obligations to Europe. The government approved the official plan of action, regulating the fulfillment of obligations, which is scheduled for implementation by the end of 2011. The government has also created a Coordination Committee, headed by First Prime Minister Andriy Kliuev, with ministers assigned responsibility for the successful implementation of the action plan. The plan includes: introduction of biometric passports, adoption of new citizenship laws, upgrading of the State Border, development and implementation of a plan on combating human trafficking as well as other vital issues.
Therefore, both the president and the government of Ukraine should take into consideration the fact that further violation of human rights and failure to improve citizens’ well-being may jeopardise their efforts for visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU.
Ukraine should also be credited for ratifying the EU-Ukraine Readmission Agreement and the effective reformation of the border service. Considering the announcement that the Ukrainian government intends to execute the actions required by the plan by the end of the year, and that they have made ministers accountable for the results, Ukraine may indeed fulfill the requirements of Europe for visa-free travel and gain the chance to sign a visa facilitation agreement. In this regard, the Ukrainian authorities say that the EU's decision will be solely political. Therefore, both the president and the government of Ukraine should take into consideration the fact that further violation of human rights and failure to improve citizens’ well-being may jeopardise their efforts for visa-free travel between Ukraine and the EU.
People First Comment: While the government’s pursuit of a more liberal visa regime with Europe may on the surface seem to be a step in the right direction, one has to question just who is going to benefit from this new environment. Some 35 percent of the population already lives below the poverty line so it is unlikely that they will be able to afford the bus fare let alone European prices. The government’s policy toward the small-and-medium enterprise sectors and private enterprise will result in less money in circulation and therefore they too will be less likely to travel. The cost of education is going through the roof so even students will be more likely to stay at home while most of the pensioners and children that make up the rest of the population cannot travel without assistance…
The only people who are likely to benefit from this new regime will be the political and business elite, their families and hangers on. Hopefully by the time the EU finally agrees to the scheme, they will have imposed travel bans and frozen the assets of the elite making it impossible for them to travel as well. Perhaps the government would be better off spending their time dealing with the real issues instead of such meaningless and self-serving games designed to mislead an already bewildered population.
Note on education
Last week we posted a special report on the state of the Ukrainian education system. In the report we outlined that the amount spent on the president’s new helicopter would have purchased more than 30,000 school computers. On March 1, the Cabinet of Ministers announced a 350 percent increase in the 2011 budget for school computerization from Hr 31 million ($3.86 million) to $110 million ($13.75 million), still not quite as much as the president’s helicopter, but certainly a step in the right direction. Thank you ministers for such a positive initiative and for putting our children’s education first.
Viktor Tkachuk is chief executive officer of the People First Foundation, which seeks to strengthen Ukrainian democracy. The organization’s website is: www.peoplefirst.org.ua and the e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org