Kuchmism 2?  Backtracking on reform in Ukraine
Kuchmism 2? Backtracking on reform in Ukraine

Kuchmism 2? Backtracking on reform in Ukraine

12:40, 02 April 2007
6 min. 1930

Today, Ukraine remains mired in corruption, the man who led the revolution has been forced into near irrelevance, those who were accused of rigging the election have returned to power, and the Ukrainian people face vigorous new assaults on freedoms that they only just won.  

In December of 2004, Ukraine was hailed throughout the world following its Orange Revolution.  The revolution – 17 days of massive demonstrations to overturn a rigged election – was “a powerful example of democracy for people around the world,” US President George W. Bush said at the time. (1)


What a difference two years make.


Today, Ukraine remains mired in corruption, the man who led the revolution has been forced into near irrelevance, those who were accused of rigging the election have returned to power, and the Ukrainian people face vigorous new assaults on freedoms that they only just won.  


In the last six months, Ukraine has seen a significant increase in contract killings, legal and physical assaults on media outlets, and the clear use of the prosecutor’s office to intimidate government opponents.   The country faces the prospect of seeing a return to the environment that prevailed prior to 2004, and Viktor Yushchenko, the man swept to power in the “people’s revolt,” seems unable to do anything to stop it.


For reasons perhaps only he understands, President Yushchenko did not move to consolidate his authority directly after taking office.  Instead, he chose to separate himself systematically from his closest allies, while reaching out to his former opponents.


 In the process, he also separated himself from promises he made during the revolution.  These included a commitment to solve high profile murders of journalists and political opposition leaders, stamp out corruption, codify freedom of the press and assembly and introduce a “Western” system of justice.


This pattern first became clear in September 2005 when Yushchenko dismissed his ally Yulia Tymoshenko from the post of prime minister.  The prime minister had used her position successfully to increase her popularity and had bumped heads with Yushchenko`s entourage on a number of issues – particularly those relating to their alleged business interests.


Further, in August of 2006, following a “Memorandum of Understanding” and a “National Unity Agreement,” Yushchenko nominated his defeated presidential and revolution challenger Viktor Yanukovych as the country’s prime minister.  At that time, Yushchenko seemed to believe Yanukovych’s lower popularity would ensure that he followed the dictates of the president.   It was an astonishing miscalculation – and one vehemently warned against by many of Yushchenko’s own colleagues.


Since that point, Prime Minister Yanukovych and his allies have battled Yushchenko for control over not only the economy, but also foreign policy strategy and the security services.  They appear to be close to winning, if they haven’t done so already, in part by using Soviet-style tactics.


On 20 March, representatives from the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office (PGO) searched the apartment of former Interior Minister and former Orange Revolution organizer Yuriy Lutsenko.


Lutsenko has been one of the sharpest critics of the Yanukovych government in recent months and spent February traveling through Ukraine’s regions, building support for his People’s Self Defense Movement.  He recently announced plans to hold a “March for Fairness” in Kyiv during the Spring.


The PGO announced that the search was part of a criminal case opened against Lutsenko, stemming from his work as Interior Minister.  Prosecutors charged that Lutsenko had distributed firearms inappropriately to individuals who did not have the right to possess them.  The office said 51 handguns had been issued on Lutsenko’s order during his two year term in office, and “not all” were justified.  (2)  The handguns apparently are categorized as “award pistols,” which are presented occasionally as gifts for some type of service.


The charge was immediately assailed by Lutsenko’s allies and the majority of Ukraine’s media.  The respected Dzerkalo Tyzhnia (Mirror Weekly) wrote:


“The prosecutors maintain that a person who does not serve with the Interior Ministry may not be awarded firearms on its behalf. Then, what about Lutsenko’s predecessor Mylola Bilokon and his deputy Gen. Vasyl Zhuk whose signatures stand under similar directives? …  Lutsenko’s predecessors must have handed out more than fifty award firearms to persons who were not militia officers. … It was only Lutsenko who was searched and questioned. Bilokon is not even wanted. Why is the PGO so selective?” (3)


As icing on the cake, the PGO also suggested that Lutsenko possessed an Israeli passport and had been granted Israeli citizenship, which would violate Ukraine’s single citizenship law.  In a country struggling with anti-Semitism, this charge seems well-crafted for the intended audience.


Lutsenko vehemently disputes all charges.  A Kyiv court agreed with him two days after the search of his apartment, when it invalidated the search warrant, cancelled demands from the prosecutor that Lutsenko come for questioning, and found that the prosecutor had not proved probable cause for opening the criminal case.  The case was closed.  (4)


Earlier, prosecutors claimed that they had found explosives in the offices of a group associated with Lutsenko.  Lutsenko and the group’s leaders (one of whom is his brother) angrily denied the charge.  The anger is likely justified, since trumped up explosive charges were used often in the past as excuses to arrest and/or intimidate political opposition or media members.  The apparent return of this tactic should cause grave concern to observers of Ukraine.


While Lutsenko was fending off the prosecutor, Yulia Tymoshenko was defending herself against a new attack from the Yanukovych-dominated parliament.


On 23 March, the Verkhovna Rada asked the PGO to investigate Tymoshenko’s dealings as head of the gas intermediary Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU) in the mid-1990s.  A parliamentary commission reported that it had questions both as to how UESU debts to Ukraine were eliminated, and how the UESU conducted its activities. (5)

Tymoshenko’s allies immediately attacked the vote (238 of 450 deputies supported the measure), calling it a “tool for political persecution.”  (6)


Indeed, the charges largely seem to be a rehash of previously aired—and dismissed—allegations against Tymoshenko.  From 2000-2004, while Tymoshenko worked as one of the leaders of the opposition movement against then-President Kuchma, at least half-a-dozen criminal cases were opened against her.  One of the charges led to her detention for 40 days.  All were closed by various courts for lack of probable cause.  Despite their best efforts, Ukraine’s prosecutors were unable to provide documentary proof of their allegations.


It is unclear whether the prosecutor will open a new criminal case against Tymoshenko.  It seems fairly unlikely, however.  With their focus on Lutsenko, it may be that the prosecutor and the government hope to undercut Tymoshenko’s popularity by elevating a new opposition leader.  Attacking her personally would achieve just the opposite.


Nevertheless, it is clear that they are watching Tymoshenko and her allies closely.


On 20 March, the State-Controlled Ukrainian National Television Channel 1 cancelled its only political debate program, Toloka.  The decision by the head of the station came the day after Tymoshenko and Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, leader of President Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine parliamentary bloc, appeared on the program.  The two representatives of the new “united opposition” received 80 percent of the support of callers participating in the program’s poll on the political situation.  Within hours, the program was off the air for good.


Our Ukraine said the action showed “a return to the use of old schemes and methods: censorship, repressions and political prosecutions.” (7)


The Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko suggested that Yanukovych “is afraid of the unified opposition and the growth of support for democratic forces,” and therefore, is returning to “methods of mocking the basic human right to get objective information.”  The Bloc also appealed to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to examine the issue.  (8)


The removal of Toloka from the state channel is only the latest in a string of attacks on press freedom in Ukraine.  A quick examination of the website of Ukraine’s Institute of Mass Information (IMI) tells a disturbing story.  The independent trade group has catalogued a string of increasing pressure on the media.


Since January 1, the office of a newspaper in Dnipropetrovsk investigating local corruption has been burned to the ground, another newspaper in the same region had its entire run of papers confiscated after investigating a local mayor’s use of budget money, journalists in Vinnytsia were banned from attending city council hearings because they were “not covering the council’s activity appropriately,” and a journalist in Dnipropetrovsk was severely beaten after reporting on a labor dispute at another television station.   (9)


These are but a few of the incidents listed by the IMI.


At the same time, libel suits by politicians against media outlets have increased sharply. The respected Ukrayinska Pravda website—one of the first truly independent investigative media outlets in Ukraine and an essential element in the Orange Revolution—has been sued six times over the last six months by Parliamentary Speaker Oleksandr Moroz, largely for printing statements made by other politicians.  It is rare for any media outlet to win a libel case, and UP is no exception.  It seems the pre-revolution practice of forcing press outlets out of business through libel judgments is alive and well.


The “united opposition” has announced a rally, “Betrayal, Out!,” for 31 March.  Tymoshenko, Kyrylenko and Lutsenko will address the crowd following a concert on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the main gathering point during the Orange Revolution.  It seems that Tymoshenko and Lutsenko have refused to "take the bait" and be used to divide their supporters.


In response, Yanukovych announced his party will bring “half a million” people to the Maidan at the same time, as part of a hastily announced Forum of National Unity. (10)


Meanwhile, Javier Solana, on behalf of the European Union, announced today that he had “concerns about the political situation in Ukraine.” (11) He is, no doubt, not alone.


 Source Notes:

(1) Washington Post, 5 Apr 05, A02.

(2) ITAR-TASS News Agency, 0629 EST, 20 Mar 07 via Lexis-Nexis.

(3) Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, No. 11 (640), 24 - 30 Mar 07 via http://www.zn.kiev.ua.

(4) Interfax-Ukraine, 1753 GMT, 26 Mar 07; BBC Monitoring via Lexis-Nexis.

(5) Interfax-Ukraine, 1000 GMT, 23 Mar 07; BBC Monitoring via Lexis-Nexis.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Press Service of Our Ukraine Bloc, 1130 CET, 21 Mar 07 via www.razom.org.ua.

(8) Press Service of Yulia Tymoshenko, 1521 CET, 20 Mar 07 via www.tymoshenko.com.ua.

(9) See http://eng.imi.org.ua/.

(10) UNIAN, 1409 CET, 29 Mar 07 via www.unian.net.

(11) ForUm, 1650 CET, 29 Mar 07 via www.for-ua.com.

By Tammy M. Lynch

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