The Wall Street Journal picks a loser

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Sept. 11, 2012, 10:17 a.m. | Op-ed — by Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko speaks with journalists near the Pecherskiy District Court in Kyiv on Aug. 17, 2011. Ukraine's ex-president arrived in court to testify for the prosecution at the trial of his one-time prime minister and fellow Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, a former Canadian government executive, is a founding member of the Canadian Group for Democracy in Ukraine.

 It is highly unlikely that a Western political has-been who squandered four years in office and positioned his country on the road to autocratic hell would warrant prime space in a global newspaper to promote further decline--on Ukraine’s Independence Day, no less-- after 21 years of freedom from Russia, the country determined to swallow it up again. 

Clearly, former President Victor Yushchenko has clout.  Is it because his Wall Street Journal piece (Aug. 23 "Ukraine’s democracy hasn’t come of age") supports Russia’s imperial goals? Or, is he a gofer for President Victor Yanukovych, by downplaying the current leader’s illegal incarceration of opposition leaders while calling on the European Union to grant Ukraine a free trade and association agreement?  These are issues dear to the president’s heart and he buys American advisers’ know-how to get his message to decision makers. 

Much is at stake.  Either the EU signs and in so doing abandons incarcerated opposition leaders, or it stands firm and upholds democracy. Yushchenko does not seem to want the latter.  His writing helps to deliver a win-win for the president.

The EU should not listen.  Here’s why.

In The WSJ piece, Yushchenko hails his own democratic achievements--dubious to many-- while condoning the incarceration of his former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and warns that non-signing of the agreement because of her has “serious consequences.” This is true. But first things first. Europe’s reluctance to sign stems from the president’s actions. His disregard for his country’s Constitution and laws are criticized by most of the free world. Yushchenko fails to say that and though silence legitimizes the president’s behavior.

 Were Yushchenko the democrat he claims to be, he might have written the piece differently.  He might have pointed, for instance, to the astounding accumulation of wealth by the Yanukovych family; his son’s meteoric rise to power, and that of his chums; the president’s personal palatial estate constructed at the state’s expense.  But then, Yushchenko is no stranger to cronyism.  He and his family still reside in the official presidential palace.

            A democrat taking advantage of the West’s free media might contrast it with the situation in Ukraine, where journalists are bought-off or intimidated by violence or even death.  This week, the last independent television station, TVi has been dropped by major cable providers.  Its editor-in-chief, Vitaliy Portnikov, may be in danger.  Other  stations are controlled by the government.  Many fear the Internet is next.

Furthermore, Yushchenko the democrat would have warned that there’s little hope for change under the current regime as the judicial system is corrupt and parliament is a joke.  Laws are passed by absentee deputies whose interest in being there is the immunity from prosecution it provides, or to favor Russia’s demands.  The handover of internal security and defense demonstrate this amply.  In short, the political system in Ukraine is corrupt, dysfunctional; even seditious.  It serves the politicians not the people, and Russia rather than Ukraine. 

The Wall Street Journal article deals with none of this. Instead, the author is up to his elbows supporting the president’s agenda to pacify global anti-Yanukovych criticisms and capture some of Ukraine’s pro-West votes by discrediting Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s key symbol of resistance. This, in turn, is meant to undermine the United Opposition, the party that can break the stranglehold the president has on Ukraine during the Oct. 28 election.  

Yushchenko’s own party, dressed up to look pro-West, may have the same purpose.  Recently, it joined another habitual loser, Yuriy Kostenko, whose key contribution to Ukraine’s politics--starting with Vyacheslav Chornovil, the legendary late Rukh leader of the 1990s -- has been to fracture the opposition.  Their party has no prospect of reaching the 5 percent threshold of voter support needed to enter parliament, but it can draw votes away from the opposition. This could tip the balance in favor of the Party of Regions. With the Communists getting 8 percent support, the leading parties are neck-in-neck in the polls.  However, with some 30 percent of Ukraine’s electorate is uncommitted, Yanukovych is seeking support wherever he can get it.  

Many mistrust politicians-- no small thanks to Yushchenko’s betrayal of the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought him to power. Others, however, are loath to give up on him.

The Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, historically a feisty fighter of foreign imperialism, has joined his fold and still considers him to be the champion of Ukraine’s nationalism--read World War II symbolism -- rather than one who uses them to serve his ends. Yushchenko’s piece in the The Wall Street Journal provides comfort to such supporters and seeds doubts about the value of voting for the United Opposition when Yushchenko’s party seems closer to their hearts.  How ironic that the very symbols of freedom for which so many perished in battle and in the Gulag are now being used to lure supporters away from Ukraine’s independence. 

 The battle is intense.  If Ukraine’s next parliament is formed by the Party of Regions, there is good reason to fear that it will lead to further dismantling of democracy and integration with Russia.  No wonder many call Yushchenko Judas Iscariot. 

Not a noble choice, Wall Street Journal.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is a former director of the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

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