Ukraine's playground politics

Ukraine's playground politics

The casual observer of Ukrainian politics has long grown used to the incessant mudslinging, the supremacy of self-interest, and the chaos bordering on absurdity. Such is the game of politics anywhere, one might note...

The casual observer of Ukrainian politics has long grown used to the incessant mudslinging, the supremacy of self-interest, and the chaos bordering on absurdity. Such is the game of politics anywhere, one might note. True, politics in many countries is often described in a similar light, but the hyperbole of such descriptions is usually taken for granted. In Ukraine, it`s hard to exaggerate just how much things really have gotten out of control; so much, that the country`s political arena could fairly be likened to a children`s playground, the kind found behind the ubiquitous block of flats in every post-Soviet city.

One of the stock characters in any playground, post-Soviet or otherwise, is the bully. For years, this position has been filled by two-time former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the strongman from Donetsk replete with a criminal record from his youth. Mr. Yanukovych was the ideal bad guy for the country`s 2004 Orange Revolution, which captured the imagination of Western television audiences as they cheered for another victory of freedom in an area of the world long burdened by authoritarian repression.

When Yanukovych`s mild-mannered opponent and the darling of democracy, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned during his revolutionary fight for the presidency, when the elections were nearly stolen in the most crass and obvious use of fraud, all the playground actors seemed to be acting according to character. And most importantly, the good little wimp Yushchenko prevailed.

However, as our good little wimp (the second stock character in our playground scenario) settled into office, things went from bad to worse. First he fell out with stock character number three - the apple shiner Yulia Tymoshenko. In adult political language, Tymoshenko is known as a populist. However, her primary personality trait for our purposes is the inclination, habit and talent to appear like Miss Goody Two Shoes without being hindered by considerations of ethics or principles.

Being an apple shiner, it`s not surprising that Tymoshenko initially appeared as Mr. Yushchenko`s staunchest democratic ally during his rise to power. After all, the chance to address throngs of hopeful street demonstrators on the world stage was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for self promotion. Ms. Tymoshenko had, of course, earned her stripes as a fierce opposition politician long before 2004, but apple shiners always distinguish themselves early on by pointing out the faults and foibles of `bad people`.

After being fired as Yushchenko`s first premier in 2005, Tymoshenko continued to develop her reputation as Ukraine`s public finger pointer; only increasingly her target became Mr. Yushchenko. The growing acrimony between the two politicians is what has fuelled the country`s political dynamics for the past three years, even allowing the playground bully to make an amazing comeback as an unintentional side effect.

However, the real political benefits of the infantile Orange bickering have gone - as is often the case - to the apple shiner. Yanukovych has yet to shed his image as a clumsy thug, with even his support in Moscow and eastern Ukraine coming into doubt after he allowed Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to push him out of office through snap elections held last year. As for Yushchenko, his ratings have plummeted to an all time low, presumably for not showing the strength expected of a president.

In 2005, Ms. Yulia dramatically portrayed herself as Yushchenko`s spurned political spouse. Then, in 2006, with Yanukovych returned as premier, she became the Orange Joan of Arc, the champion of revolutionary values in opposition. By 2007, she was again in control of the government and threatening the re-election hopes of Yushchenko.

This year, she is on the defensive, with the wimp and the bully threatening Tymoshenko with early parliamentary elections - the country`s third in as many years. "This is madness. It`s got to be stopped!" the premier has protested. "Everything has to be done so that these elections don`t take place," she told a live television audience on October 12.

And "everything" is exactly what Ms. Tymoshenko is doing to try and keep herself in power. First, she got a court with no jurisdiction over such matters to overrule Yuschenko`s snap election decree. When that didn`t work, she refused to provide necessary funding. In between, lawmakers from her BYuT faction have organized pickets that turned into brawls at public buildings.

In short, the apple shiner has pulled every stunt that she called foul when Yanukovych was resisting early elections last year. Worse yet, she appears to have betrayed the pro-Western values that have formed the only intelligible basis for her political platform.

The one thing that has distinguished Yushchenko and Tymoshenko from Yanukovych, the villain of the Orange Revolution, is their staunch advocacy of Ukrainian sovereignty, especially against the revival of Russian hegemony. When the Russian army invaded Georgia last year, no one was surprised to hear Viktor Yanukovych back the Kremlin, just as the Kremlin had supported Yanukovych in his failed bid for the Ukrainian presidency four years earlier. Tymoshenko, who has been more outspoken in her criticism of the Kremlin than Yushchenko, was conspicuously silent. When challenged on the issue, her faction voted along with Yanukoych`s Regions Party to strip the president of significant executive authority.

Tymoshenko and BYuT have since backtracked on both these dubious policy decisions, but not before the president dismissed the parliament and called fresh elections. Although often lacking in leadership skills, Mr. Yushchenko has been consistent in his principles, never wavering in his support for NATO and EU membership, promotion of the Ukrainian language, recognition of the 1930`s famine, etc.

"As president, I will ensure that extraordinary elections are held," he pledged on October 15, "Early elections will take place regardless of the stunts being pulled by the premier and her team."

But alas, the Ukrainian president remains a creature of the same political sandbox that his opponents play in. Mr. Yushchenko is no stranger to backroom deals with the Regions Party, and often displays a pettiness that makes Tymoshenko looks sober minded. For example, when the apple shiner was about to embark on a recent trip to Moscow, the president`s team allegedly commandeered her plane without warning in an apparent attempt to embarrass her.    

It`s this kind of political competition that has allowed the otherwise awkward Yanukovych to hold his own. Regions representatives have been as forceful as the president in pushing for the fresh elections this year, although their message is mixed on whether the eastern looking party would form a coalition with BYuT or the president`s fragile Our Ukraine faction, who, for their part, have both denied such a possibility.

With stability no where in sight and two more elections just around the corner, Ukraine`s political playground is proving to be increasingly fractious. More importantly, the lunch mothers in the West are more concerned about a looming world recession, leaving Ukraine more and more to the over-protective oversight of Mother Russia.

John Marone, a columnist of Eurasian Home website, Kyiv, Ukraine

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