In Wednesday’s IHT, two former American ambassadors to Kiev argued that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s goal of integrating his country into the European Union was being undercut by his undemocratic actions. Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, joins the discussion.
After the first year of Viktor Yanukovich’s presidential term, it is possible to get the impression that Ukraine has been divided in two.
One Ukraine is the one presented by the president and his supporters. This Ukraine is politically stable, and economic reforms are at full speed ahead. The campaign against corruption is among the most effective in the world. Ukraine is as dedicated to democratic values as ever, and anyone who speaks of authoritarian tendencies is just trying to discredit Ukraine before the world. European integration is the priority of this Ukraine, but at the same time it has managed over the past year to restore damaged relations with Russia.
The other Ukraine is the one presented by the opposition and civil society. It is a state in which authoritarian tendencies are spreading at a furious rate and basic rights and liberties are rapidly deteriorating. In this Ukraine, it took Yanukovich only one year to seize all the levers of power — something Vladimir Putin required several years to achieve in Russia. The fight against corruption is but a cover for harassing political opponents. This Ukraine managed to repair relations with Russia only after several costly concessions.
The fact that each side presses its version of Ukraine has two advantages.
Firstly, the current Ukrainian authorities are highly conscious of their image in Washington and Brussels — they very much do not want Ukraine to be perceived as “Belarus-lite.” They do their best to assure Western leaders that Ukraine is still a democracy, except that under President Viktor Yushchenko democracy was synonymous with chaos, while now it means order.
It is also important for them that Ukraine not be perceived as a puppet of Russia. They talk a lot about European integration because the sooner they commit themselves to the European Union, the better they will be able to withstand the pressures from the Russians striking to push Ukraine into their economic integration projects.
The second advantage is that the authorities, much as they should like it, can not ignore the “other” Ukraine. Civil society in Ukraine is still much stronger and more active than those in other countries in the region.
The biggest challenge for Ukrainian civil society is not to become marginalized, as happened in Belarus. This is not easy, given that it has become clear in Yanukovich’s first year that the main driving force behind the power of the authorities is fear.
That was made clear by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov at a conference in Yalta last year when he said, “Fear is one of the main human instincts, and it has to be made to work.” Every action taken by the authorities — the arrests and interrogations of opposition leaders, the constant visits by the tax police to private firms — has one goal, to spread fear. And not only in the opposition, but in the ranks of the ruling party as well. It is no secret that senior officials in the party have differing views, but they keep them to themselves.
Which lesson should the West draw from the first year of Yanukovich’s presidency?
The West has no choice but to deal with the politicians in power today. And that does not mean dealing only with the presidential administration, but also with other government officials open to effective dialogue.
Everything should be done to make clear to antidemocratic ideologues that yes, Belarus-like sanctions can not be imposed now, but that can change.
While Ukraine still wants to be perceived as a democratic European state, and President Yanukovich does not want to be confused with the president of Belarus, officials in the West must do everything possible to send a clear personal message to the president: They too hope that he will not become the Ukrainian Lukashenko, and if he seriously heeds their concerns and takes certain concrete steps, he will not.
By Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev.