Thursday, May 31, 2007

On oligodemocracy and people power in Ukraine

by Tomas Valasek

There shall be no war, at least not now. On Sunday, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich agreed to hold early elections in September. In doing so, they halted the country’s slide toward violence, which began with Yushchenko’s dissolution of the Ukrainian parliament in April and culminated this weekend with a standoff between Interior Ministry troops (loyal to Yushchenko) and traffic police (controlled by Yanukovich). But even if the Sunday agreement holds – and law-makers from the prime minister’s side already dispute it – Ukraine has become an uglier place for it. In the end, it was political and military muscle that settled the differences. A conflict may have been averted but Ukraine’s tentative steps to build democracy based on rules and institutions were dealt a severe blow.

The political damage is all too clear. Like two elephants jostling in the jungle, Yanukovich and Yushchenko have trampled over Ukraine’s fragile democratic institutions. Yanukovich rewrote the presidential competences – a constitutional matter – without the necessary super-majority in the parliament. He then proceeded to build a constitutional majority by bribing parliamentarians (or so everyone in Ukraine believes). Faced with a political death by a thousand cuts, Yushchenko dismissed the parliament in April and called for new elections in summer. But his first decree on dissolution was so blatantly illegal that he himself tore it up and issued another one. When Ukraine’s constitutional court moved close to finding the second decree, too, unconstitutional, the president declared the court corrupt and ordered his prosecutor-general to investigate the judges. The list of trespasses could go on.

It is unclear whether, following the melee, the political elites and the public can ever recover trust in the democratic system. That would be a double tragedy. In the 16 years since independence, Ukraine has built an original but functioning political system, with big business directly controlling all major political parties as well as the executive and legislative branches. It could probably be best described as an oligodemocracy and while its inner workings are as convoluted as the term itself, it has served the country well, for the most part. When it did appear to be failing – as when former President Leonid Kuchma and his designated successor, Yanukovich, attempted to steal elections in 2004 – people power intervened. The Orange Revolution was the ordinary Ukrainian’s way of telling the oligarchs that they can keep running the country but they have to respect a modicum of democratic principles. The revolution also opened a chance for Ukraine to build a more stable system based on universally accepted rules and institutions, such as a constitution and courts. But now, the crisis damaged the credibility of the institutions, and it also cast doubt on the continued role of people power in Ukraine’s political life.

Ukraine’s politics is an open marketplace that trades not ideas but power. The parliament and all the main parties are controlled by powerful business people who, in turn, seek mostly to protect their gains and their access to yet more money. Ideology, for all the slogans behind the Orange Revolution, has little place in Kyiv’s day-to-day politics. Yet, the country has remained strongly democratic in one important way. Its oligarchs are in full-blown competition with each other. They also seem to have come to agreement that democracy, meaning an open political competition between parties that represent their interests, is a useful way of preventing any one of them from accruing too much power, and that power- (and profit-)sharing is a better arrangement than an all-out clash, which could destroy their economic base.

And yet, even though all main actors seem to understand the need to work with each other (Yanukovich and Yushchenko met daily during the current crisis), they seem almost pathologically incapable of doing so on any constructive and consistent basis. Yanukovich in particular deserves the blame. He had barely assumed the prime ministerial chair when he set about dismantling the limited authority of the one remaining power centre outside his control: President Yushchenko and his National Security and Defence Council. Instead of co-operation, Yanukovich showed an immediate urge to rid himself of any constraint on power.

This is consistent with Yanukovich’s role in 2004, when he helped rig the elections to prevent a handover of the presidency to Yushchenko. Yanukovich and the oligarchs he represents, such as Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, show too little confidence in their ability to protect their gains and interests in an open political environment. That’s the flaw in the oligodemocratic model. Ukraine has few democratic traditions or institutions to speak of; the model functions only when and if all key business and political players believe it to be to their advantage and when they co-operate to maintain it. Every now and then – such as during the latest crisis – the leaders seem more interested in revenge than order. Yanukovich seems unable to make up his mind. Oligodemocracy brought him back to power: he won free and fair elections in 2006. Since returning to government Yanukovich said all the right things about the importance of free elections. Yet his acts showed little confidence in democracy’s other key principles, such as checks and balances and constructive opposition.

When that happened in the past, in 2004, the people intervened to put Yanukovich back on the right track. Spontaneous and by all accounts surprisingly vigorous demonstrations forced him to call – and ultimately loose – repeat elections. Popular will is the safety switch of oligodemocracy. So perhaps the most worrying aspect of the current crisis is the complete absence of popular outrage at Yushchenko’s and Yanukovich’s blatantly unconstitutional deeds. Life in Kyiv went on as normal, notwithstanding the few thousand-strong rent-a-crowds demonstrating in support of Yanukovich (bussed in from the countryside, all expenses paid, and more interested in the sights than politics). The Dynamo Kyiv – Shahtar Donetsk football game drew a far bigger crowd on Sunday, at the height of the crisis, than Maidan, the downtown square made legendary by the Orange Revolution.

Many Ukrainians believe that things are not serious, that Yanukovich and Yushchenko are posturing, and that they will eventually find a solution. The Sunday agreement would seem to bear them out. But even so, that is a deeply cynical and ultimately self-defeating stance. Yanukovich and Yushchenko may have reached an agreement, but it came at far too great a political cost. The credibility of key institutions – parliament, constitutional court and the police – is in tatters. Things should have never come this far.

More others are simply disillusioned. There are no more heroes and villains. Yushchenko has turned out to be every bit as ruthless in tearing up the constitution as Yanukovich himself – if not more. He also fell out with Yulia Tymoshenko, another fallen hero of the Orange Revolution, and it was their squabbles that essentially handed power back to Yanukovich. Unlike in 2004, there is little to demonstrate for, only against. The safety switch seems to have burnt out. Next time another power struggle breaks out, why should anyone care for what people have to say? Ukraine’s oligodemocracy may be in real trouble now.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy at defence at the Centre for European Reform.

3 comments:

Alena said...

Thank you for very interesting article, I think that situation and political crisis is very much as you have described it, but is one thing, which cannot be ignored. Since any businessman (so called oligarch) came into political power as politician, he has to play in other game, not just business but political, which have different rules. As politician an oligarch became a public person with certain level of responsibility, and it can prevent him to make just beneficial him interests decisions. Especially, if politician is acting in free and fair elections society. He will think also about his image among population.
This is just small comment on your article...

Alena said...

Thank you for very interesting article, I think that situation and political crisis is very much as you have described it, but is one thing, which cannot be ignored. Since any businessman (so called oligarch) came into political power as politician, he has to play in other game, not just business but political, which have different rules. As politician an oligarch became a public person with certain level of responsibility, and it can prevent him to make just beneficial him interests decisions. Especially, if politician is acting in free and fair elections society. He will think also about his image among population.

USInfo said...

Judges may be either appointed or elected to office, and hold office for specified terms or for life. However they are chosen, it is vital that they be independent of the nation`s political authority to ensure their impartiality. Judges cannot be removed for trivial or merely political reasons, but only for serious crimes or misdeeds--and then only through a formal procedure, such as impeachment (the bringing of charges) and trial in the legislature. . http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/whatsdem/whatdm4.htm