Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych meet in the Livadia Palace, just outside Yalta, in the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine, Thursday, July 12, 2012. The sign in the background reads "The 5th session of the Ukrainian- Russian state commission." (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)
In recent months there have been unexplained bombs exploding and injuring 30 passers-by in Dnipropetrovsk, allegations in the British media of far-right extremism and racism among football supporters, alleged physical abuse when the imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was transferred from prison to a hospital in Kharkiv, a diplomatic boycott and cancellation of a prestigious central and eastern European leaders’ summit in Yalta and reports that President Viktor Yanukovych has been identified as a dictator by the German chancellor.
All this has culminated in a widespread diplomatic boycott by the European Union and its member states’ governments of the Euro 2012 matches being staged in Ukraine because of Tymoshenko’s imprisonment and the supposed existence of political persecution and the absence of the rule of law.
In all the vitriolic media coverage – the Gorshenin Institute report that 82 percent of international mass media reports about Ukraine between October 2011 and March 2012 were negative in character – tendentious journalists have challenged Ukraine’s democratic, European and modern credentials.
Yanukovych, hailing from the eastern Russian-speaking industrialized core of the country, has been absurdly likened to a Soviet politician.
The domestic political landscape is dominated by an executive and legislative authority controlled by the Party of Regions that is trying to consolidate the political system and which regards the co-hosting of Euro 2012 as a symbol of their efforts to radically modernize the country, including closer integration with the EU.
The government, which is facing a decline in popularity having followed – for a while – an IMF-scripted austerity programme, has been trying to improve its opinion poll ratings ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 28.
The government has embarked on a pre-election spending splurge worth around 1.5 percent of GDP, to be paid for by increased taxation and privatization revenues, intended to stimulate a slowing economy – real GDP growth fell to 1.8% in the first quarter of 2012 – negatively affected by the Eurozone crisis and the slow-down in China.
In another populist move, designed to appeal to its core electorate in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, the government has introduced legislation to recognize the Russian language – along with a host of other languages – as an official state language at the regional level.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the language legislation was accompanied by a bloody brawl on May 25 among parliamentarians which was also broadcast around the world. Small-scale demonstrations outside the parliament against the bill merely provide evidence for the largely passive mood of the electorate.
Party of Regions is reined against the self-destructive contrarian politics of a self-appointed “democratic” opposition, led by Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, which believes its leader has been unfairly persecuted and imprisoned.
Nevertheless the increasingly united opposition (Batkivshchyna and Arsenyi Yatsenyuk’s Front Zmin party will run together in the upcoming elections) are reconciled with a recently amended election law which is likely to allow all parties to manipulate the composition of the next parliament by temping parliamentary deputies to switch parties after the election.
The opposition, which hopes to participate in a new coalition government after the election, foretells darkly of possible electoral fraud and a possible Orange Revolution 2.0. Here the Western vitriol and domestic electoral politics coincide as Western countries may well declare the elections as not free and fair if the opposition’s leaders’ imprisonment prevents their participation in the election.
So what is going on?
Well, it is clear what is not going on.
Yanukovych, for all his undoubted faults, is not a Soviet-style dictator but a pro-market politician elected in probably the most competitive presidential election ever staged in the former Soviet Union.
He has even repeatedly stated that his strategic aim is to integrate his country with the EU and to co-operate with NATO. Ukraine may suffer from endemic corruption but it is not an authoritarian let alone totalitarian state but enjoys a plural, even divisive, political culture, a very broad spectrum of party politics, a relatively weak state and a largely free press where human rights are upheld. For these reasons, any attempt at Putinization in the country is likely to fail.
Rather elements in the West whose proxies and instruments of power in Ukraine were removed from political office in 2010 cannot directly influence the president and the ruling Party of Regions which they regard as strategic political opponents.
The West abhors the ruling party’s suspicion of Western geopolitical power despite its desire to sign an association agreement with the currently hamstrung EU. But the Party of Regions’ suspicion is understandable, after all in 2004 the west attempted to prevent Yanukovych from assuming the presidency triggering election fraud and the Orange Revolution and when he subsequently became prime minister under then-President Viktor Yushchenko, the West plotted in 2007 to unseat him and replace him with their proxy Tymoshenko.
TheWest fears that the Party of Regions’ cultural affinities with Russia mean it will be less willing to withstand Russia’s geopolitical goals in the country and the wider Black Sea region. The west also rejects the ruling party’s economic nationalism whereby they privilege the interests of domestic capital over Western companies (and Russian ones for that matter).
The West also rejects Ukraine’s desire to be a strategic energy transit state between Russia and the EU. However, unable so far to ferment signs of a popular uprising against the authorities within the country, elements in the West have made the Western media its mouthpiece and resorted to an propaganda war to discredit and destabilize the country and intimidate and harass its leaders.
The crux of the propaganda war is the trial, conviction and imprisonment of Tymoshenko.
In a giant game of Chinese whispers, Tymoshenko’s understandable defense that the case was “politically motivated” was reformulated first to “some” and then to “most observers regard the trial as politically motivated” and transformed once again into an uncontested fact that the trial was prime facie evidence of selective justice.
Dismissing Ukrainian justice, rarely do journalists ever consider the details of and the background to the case. The court which sentenced Tymoshenko to seven years in prison and disqualified her from future elections found that she had issued a government directive without having the legal authority of the Cabinet of Ministers to the country’s gas company ordering it to sign a contract with Russia’s Gazprom.
She threatened to replace the company’s director, without possessing the legal authority, if he failed to sign the contract. These events centered on a puzzling dispute between Ukraine and Russia in January 2009 which halted the flow of Russian gas to Ukraine and the EU.
Despite undertaking preparations Tymoshenko failed to sign a fixed price contract with Russia by the year-end triggering the “gas war” only to sign a much more unfavorable variable 10-year contract nearly three weeks later when the world was distracted by President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
At the time it appeared Tymoshenko had been a pawn in a grand geopolitical gambit cooked up in Washington. The gas war undermined Russia’s status as a reliable energy supplier and focused the EU on energy security and in particular on the need to integrate its member states’ gas supply networks and coordinate their supply contracts with Gazprom.
Domestically Tymoshenko blamed Yushchenko for initiating the dispute and assumed the credit for ending it and in the process eradicated a company from the gas sector partly owned by a significant source of political funding for her other rival Yanukovych. Meanwhile the new punitive gas contract was a ticking time bomb intended to cultivate on-going anti-Russian sentiment and to sour relations between Russia and Ukraine.
All this helps to explain the authorities’ scrutiny of Tymoshenko’s activities and the West’s exaggerated sensitivity to her conviction and the rubbishing of Ukraine’s judicial system.
The Ukrainian authorities have responded to the West’s ire by initiating yet further criminal cases against Tymoshenko and by introducing a new Criminal Procedure Code to enhance the rights of the defense in criminal trials, which was recently described by the Council of Europe as “providing a sound foundation for a criminal justice system that is fair, just and effective.”
Yet the West disingenuously calls on Yanukovych to uphold the rule of law by interfering in his country’s judiciary in order to ensure Tymoshenko’s release. The question remains as to the extent to which the West – and for that matter Ukraine - should sacrifice the modernization of the country over a populist maverick politician widely regarded as flawed even by her own supporters.
Adam Swain teaches geography at the University of Nottingham.