Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, next president left with little room to maneuver

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Jan. 22, 2010, 12:32 a.m. | Op-ed — by Gwynne Dyer

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko presents the results of an exit poll on Jan. 17 that show she is trailing behind Victor Yanukovych.

Yulia Tymoshenko, Victor Yushchenko and Victor Yanukovych were once called the “eternal triangle” of Ukrainian politics, but eternity is not what it used to be. One side of the triangle has disappeared. Five years ago, when the Orange Revolution turned Yushchenko and Tymoshenko into democratic heroes, the villain of the piece was Yanukovych, the former Communist apparatchik who tried to steal the 2004 election. But Yushchenko was a very weak president except in one area: his obsessive feud with his former ally, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, which all but paralyzed the government of Ukraine for five wasted years.

It’s likely that she bears as much of the responsibility as he does for this disastrous clash of personalities, but she is a much more vivid personality and an adroit politician, so the public blamed Yushchenko. Now he has lost the presidency in the most humiliating manner imaginable.

In complete denial about his loss of public support, Yushchenko insisted on running again in the Jan. 17 presidential election – and got only 5 percent of the vote. It is “Yulia” (as she is known to everyone in Ukraine) who will slug it out with her old enemy, Yanukovych, in the second round of voting on Feb. 7.

Last time around, this was a confrontation that seemed to matter. It was a great story: the young democratic heroine Tymoshenko in her trademark braid, committed to modernizing Ukraine and bringing it into the European Union and the NATO military alliance, versus the corrupt and colorless Yanukovych, who wanted to drag Ukraine back into collectivist poverty and political subjugation to Russia.
But things look different this time.

The greatest difference is that there no longer seems to be such a difference between their policies. It’s now clear that Ukraine will never join NATO: the alliance does not seek a confrontation with Russia, and only 20 percent of Ukrainians would support membership in NATO anyway.
It’s also obvious that the European Union does not want to expand this far east. It is already suffering severe indigestion from its last round of expansion in Eastern Europe, and taking in an even poorer country with a population of 46 million people would not rank very high on the EU’s list of priorities, even if Brussels were not also reluctant to annoy Russia. So Tymoshenko and Yanukovych no longer have much to disagree about in foreign policy.

Neither is there much to argue about on economic policy anymore, since the country has few options left. Five years of political paralysis made Ukraine very vulnerable when the recession struck. Its apparent prosperity depended on a huge inflow of foreign investment, and the prosperity drained away as fast as the foreign capital itself. Ukraine’s economy shrank by 15 percent last year, and the national currency, the hryvnia, has halved in value.

Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko wins hardly matters economically. Only massive loans from the International Monetary Fund are keeping the economy afloat at the moment, and for some time to come it will be the IMF, not the new government, that makes the key economic decisions. So what’s left? Well, they could fight over national identity.

The west of the country is Ukrainian-speaking, and deeply nationalistic; the east is mostly Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized, and would welcome closer ties with Russia. So this is the ground on which the two leading presidential candidates have chosen to fight, with Tymoshenko promising to keep Ukrainian as the sole official language and Yanukovych promising equal status for the Russian language.
Given the demography of Ukraine, this probably means that Tymoshenko will win the presidency in the second round of voting. (The nationalist vote was split too many ways in the first round, with a total of 18 candidates running.) But who cares, apart from Ukrainians?

The glory days of the Orange Revolution were misleading. The key fact about the country is that Ukrainian per capita income is only about a third of Russia’s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine kept its steel and chemical industries, and even an aviation industry. But the oil and gas stayed in Russia. Ukraine has to pay through the nose for it, and it simply must stay on good terms with Russia.

With so little room for maneuver abroad, and such rampant corruption at home (it is said that 400 of the 450 members of parliament are millionaires), Ukrainians have grown very cynical about democracy. Indeed, a recent poll disclosed that only 30 percent of Ukrainians think that the change to democracy has been good for their country, whereas 50 percent of Russians think so.
And only 26 percent of Ukrainians say that they are satisfied with their lives. Democracy does not heal all wounds.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
The Kyiv Post is hosting comments to foster lively debate. Criticism is fine, but stick to the issues. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks will be removed from the site. If you think that a posted comment violates these standards, please flag it and alert us. We will take steps to block violators.
Anonymous Jan. 22, 2010, 12:45 a.m.    

"Democracy does not heal all wounds." That may be true but look at the genocide that rule by the Evil Russian Empires (Tsarist and then Komi-tsarist) brought!!!

Lets stick with DEMOCRACY!

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Anonymous Jan. 22, 2010, 11:35 a.m.    

I have been an election observer in Ukraine 4 times, in a few weeks it will be 5 times. I have seen the Ukrainian people in electoral polling stations diligently and honestly execute the responsibilities of their office. They have embraced democratic principles. They take responsibility for voting and in general, believe their vote can make a difference. The mood in polling station has gone from fearful and tense to relaxed and resembling a community social. I have seen a remarkable transition!

Democracy implies those elected have a responsibility to their electorate. It is at this point democracy ceases to exist in Ukraine. The 450 members of the parliament pay $6 - $10 million to buy as seat in the parliament for the right to represent whatever party that will accept their money. As a member of parliament, they are above the law. Meaning they can be engaged in any type of illegal activity and not be prosecuted. They have no accountability to their electorate. This does not follow the definition of democracy as the world knows it. The failure is not in the electoral process or the people. The failure is with the politicians who are supposed to represent their interests. Ukraine would be SIGNIFICANTLY better off if the members of parliament displayed one tenth of the commitment to family and society, patience, cooperation, respect for each other, civility and professionalism I have seen displayed in polling stations. People who are very poor. In general, the members of parliament behave like spoiled children, or worse, like prostitutes, willing to do anything for money. They are out of touch with their electorate. This is not democracy.

Democracy is more that running an election. We need to remember what democracy means. A definition of democracy found on the internet:

The term democracy comes from the Greek language and means "rule by the (simple) people".

Democracy - Key Elements

In order to deserve the label modern democracy, a country needs to fulfill some basic requirements - and they need not only be written down in it's constitution but must be kept up in everyday life by politicians and authorities:

* Guarantee of basic Human Rights to every individual person vis-&#224;-vis the state and its authorities as well as vis-&#224;-vis any social groups (especially religious institutions) and vis-&#224;-vis other persons.

* Separation of Powers between the institutions of the state:

Government [Executive Power],

Parliament [Legislative Power] and

Courts of Law [Judicative Power]

* Freedom of opinion, speech, press and mass media

* Religious liberty

* General and equal right to vote (one person, one vote)

* Good Governance (focus on public interest and absence of corruption)

Ukraine does not have good governance: there is no separation of powers, human rights are not guaranteed vis a vis other persons. Democracy has not failed Ukraine. What has failed the Ukrainian people are its politicians.

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Anonymous Jan. 22, 2010, 11:42 a.m.    

I think the gist of the first comment, albeit long, is that Ukraine can't simply set their political guidance systems to "DEMOCRACY" and expect to end up all fine and dandy. Ukraine has a long, LONG road ahead of it. They just need to find someone who can take at least a first step in the right direction.

In other news, Hayden Penettiere spends New Year with Vladimir Klitschko...WHAT THE WHAT?!

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Anonymous Jan. 24, 2010, 3:32 a.m.    

Sadly, even the democratic system has proven to have its own flaws. An individual's freedom of choice is a wonderful civic privilege and obligation. Their voice is all to often overshadowed by those that abuse their electorate. The potential for political & economic opportunism too often ushers in the potential for exploitation. Corruption places itself within the roots of commercialism and materialism.

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