Fancy cars and hope clash in Ukraine

Fancy cars and hope clash in Ukraine

Strolling through Kyiv nowadays, opinions are easy to come by.  Just ask a question about politics, and the answers received are uninhibited and blunt.  The latest (and most free) parliamentary elections in Ukraine’s history may be over, but...

Strolling through Kyiv nowadays, opinions are easy to come by.  Just ask a question about politics, and the answers received are uninhibited and blunt.  The latest (and most free) parliamentary elections in Ukraine’s history may be over, but Ukraine’s voters have not lost interest in politics.  And for good reason.  The battle going on now over who will head the government – Yulia Tymoshenko or another more favored choice of President Yushchenko – is captivating.  But it also is undermining the trust of both Ukraine’s voters and representatives of Western organizations who wonder if the country’s focus on real reform has ended. 

“I think Ukraine is moving forward and will continue to do so,” one mother holding her baby in downtown Kyiv said when asked about progress toward the goals of the revolution.  “But it’s because of the people. They [politicians] just want to keep their fancy apartments and cars, not change anything.  Just look at what’s happening.” 

 

A student at Taras Shevchenko University echoed the sentiment.  “I stood in line to vote for three hours for Yulia to be prime minister, but they don’t listen to us,” he said, shaking his head. 

Nearby, a middle-aged plumber added, “I never thought I would, but I voted for Yulia.”  Then, for emphasis, he pointed in the direction of the government buildings.  “They, up there, won’t let her have any power.  I think they’re afraid they’ll lose their cars.”

In fact, fancy cars and the saga of whether Yulia Tymoshenko will become prime minister seemed to be the theme of the day on 15 April – at least in Kyiv.  The uncovering by the media of the purchase of a $200,000 Mercedes by Naftohaz head Oleksiy Ivchenko with state funds (who then was told to sell it by the president) clearly made an impact, as did the twists and turns of the project to reunite the orange coalition in a parliamentary majority.  And while the impressions of a few of Kyiv’s citizens may be unscientific and based on unknown facts, they parallel in many ways the concerns  expressed privately by international officials representing the organizations which Ukraine aspires to enter.

The primary question for these officials is Ukraine’s commitment to structural reform and anti-corruption measures.  When viewed through these lenses, the current battle over who will be Ukraine’s prime minister leads to a number of questions. 

Unfortunately for Ukraine, whether true or not, the impression conveyed is one of a hesitance to implement significant reforms and a lack of commitment to rooting out corruption.  For better or for worse, Yulia Tymoshenko now is viewed by many as having the will and ability to eliminate some of Ukraine’s greatest sources of corruption.  Even more, she has been successful to a great extent in painting those opposed to her candidacy for prime minister as corrupt officials attempting to cling to power. 

But let us quickly review. 

In the parliamentary elections of 26 March, the Party of Regions, led by President Viktor Yushchenko’s previously discredited presidential opponent Viktor Yanukovich, placed first with 32% of the vote.  While this pales in comparison to the 44% he garnered in the valid third round of the presidential election, it is an impressive achievement.  The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc placed second with over 22% of the vote, with Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine in third at just under 14%.  Combined with the Socialist Party’s 6%, therefore, votes for former “orange” parties totaled over 40%.  Even more, votes for “orange” or orange-leaning parties that did not pass the three percent threshold to enter parliament totaled almost 5%. 

Ukraine is now a parliamentary-presidential republic, with a parliamentary majority forming the government.  Ukraine’s constitution also states that the president must agree to introduce the name of the prime minister for confirmation.  According to Western parliamentary coalition-building standards, then, the election results give the parties supporting what has become known as the “orange agenda” – membership in Western organizations including the EU, and adherence to Western democratic, economic, health and safety standards – a mandate from the voters to form a government. 

But not so fast.  Also according to Western parliamentary coalition-building standards, the largest party in the coalition would have the right to name the prime minister – particularly if the difference in number of seats is large.  But since this would mean a return to the premiership for Yulia Tymoshenko, a group within Our Ukraine has objected to this possibility.   In fact, just one day after a preliminary agreement to form a coalition government was signed with great fanfare by Tymoshenko, Our Ukraine and the Socialists, Our Ukraine’s political council reneged, refusing to support the point that would allow The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc to name the prime minister.   While the bloc may revisit the issue on Tuesday, the message was clear.

These members of Our Ukraine reportedly are concerned that Tymoshenko’s economic policies would be harmful for Ukraine.  Whether there is a basis for this claim is debatable.  But regardless, in the preliminary coalition agreement, Tymoshenko already had agreed that as head of the government she would follow a detailed program of action, negotiated with, and approved by, all three of the orange coalition partners, including Our Ukraine.  Not following the program would presumably mean an end to the support of the majority and an end to her premiership.   Moreover, Tymoshenko’s cabinet – like her first government – would include a significant number of representatives from Our Ukraine and the Socialists.  If Our Ukraine negotiates well and chooses competent ministers, they should have no problem with Tymoshenko’s economic policies. 

Why, then, should there be so much resistance to Tymoshenko?  A common refrain is that many people, including the president, simply don’t like her.  She is, after all, not an easy person, and her work habits differ greatly from the president and those around him.  She is also ambitious and a fierce competitor.  But her bloc handily beat Our Ukraine by campaigning on the idea that Yulia Tymoshenko would return to the premiership, reunite the “orange team,” and fulfill the ideals of the revolution.  In a democracy, this success cannot be ignored simply because somebody doesn’t like someone else or fears competition.

There is also the suggestion that a majority based on 54% of the seats of the parliament (including the redistributed votes of parties that didn’t pass the threshold) will “divide the country.”  This is said to be particularly true since the votes for Viktor Yanukovich’s party largely came from one region of the country.  But, the one basic standard of democracy is that the majority, no matter how small, is given the right to rule, while the opposition is provided the opportunity to influence policy and to improve its status in the next election.  Majorities are rarely more than 55% in today’s democracies, and are based not on geography, but on ideology.

So, then, what is left?  Why is there such opposition to Tymoshenko?  What remains is the impression that is apparent when talking to both people on the street and international officials behind closed doors.  Maybe, they say, some members of Our Ukraine really are worried that Yulia Tymoshenko means what she says about cleaning up the “corrupt schemes” of the government.  Maybe she really will take away their “fancy cars.”  And maybe they are willing to ignore the will of their voters, and possibly harm the political future of their president, to protect themselves.   It makes no difference whether these concerns are valid; the impression has been created and appears to be growing.

Of course, the vast majority of the members of Our Ukraine are, like the president, honest, committed reformers.  In private, these Our Ukraine members will tell you that they can accept Tymoshenko as premier as long as she follows a program and agrees to work closely with the president.  In fact, they view this possibility as preferable to her leading an opposition in parliament. 

But there is the remaining question of the small group with big power inside the party.  This is the problem now faced by President Yushchenko – the man whom every single person on the street said they still admire and respect.  To whom will he listen?  The voters?  The members of his party committed to fulfilling the goals of the revolution?  Or a few voices who appear to be protecting themselves?   When the prime minister is announced in Kyiv, we will have the answer.

By Tammy Lynch

Senior Fellow

Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy

Boston University

Massachusetts, USA

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