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.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

If Nixon could go to China, Brown can go to Brussels

by Hugo Brady

W.B. Yeats lamented a Europe where, in politics at least, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. As Tony Blair bows out as UK prime minister, British pro-Europeans will identify with his sentiments.

The British eurosceptic lobby and media have reorganised, regrouped and become more sophisticated in recent years. The predominantly eurosceptic Conservative party could be back in power by 2009. And Blair, the first convinced pro-European in a generation to occupy 10 Downing Street, leaves office with his ambition to change the terms of the tortured British debate on Europe utterly unfulfilled. His certain successor, Gordon Brown, a Euro-agnostic at best, thinks talk of EU integration is an old hat.

Blair’s European legacy is no unmitigated failure. True, he has not managed to make Britons sentimental about their membership of the EU. But he has done much to strengthen Britain’s standing in Europe, advancing British priorities constructively and cleverly. With France in 1998, Blair launched the European security and defence policy, giving the EU a military capability for the first time. While promoting closer European co-ordination on immigration and counter-terrorism, he simultaneously pushed British ideas and priorities in these areas. And in 2005 Blair used his time as head of the European Council to re-focus the EU from debate on treaty change to issues that matter for the people, such as jobs, energy and migration.

No, his failure has been a missed opportunity to challenge British domestic attitudes towards the EU. Britons have never been more familiarised and at ease with their European neighbours. Yet – fed on a regular diet of tabloid hostility – voters remain suspicious and resentful of the EU. Things might have been different, argued the Financial Times, if Blair “had given half the time he devoted to Iraq to Europe”. See Last week Michael Howard, leader of the Tory party during the Iraq crisis, admitted that he had been “terrified” Blair would do just this: use his unique powers of persuasion to change the British European debate forever.

That would be a tall order, even for Blair. Forces outside of his own control robbed him of the opportunity to wade into such a debate. Blair committed to referendums on British membership of the euro and, some say foolishly, the European constitution. Both would have involved a tough, but possibly cathartic, public debate on Britain’s European identity. But Chancellor Brown ruled out the prospect of euro membership. And events outside Britain killed off the constitution.

One could also argue that the man who famously told the French Senate “je suis un homme d’Europe” could not have sold the treaty to a sceptical British public and hysterical media. Blair’s messianic style, so relied upon to make the case for Iraq, would have been ill-suited to selling this complex treaty with constitutional pretensions.

In fact, the chancellor’s less indulgent stance on Europe, proud sense of Britishness and conviction politics are a great asset to British pro-Europeans. Brown’s instincts on Europe are more representative of the public than Blair’s. Only he can strike a new deal on changes to the EU’s treaties and convince the UK parliament and media that such an agreement is worthwhile and safeguards British interests. He will enjoy another opportunity to move forward the UK's European debate, albeit in a more incremental way that sits more comfortably with notions of British identity.

Historians like to say that only Richard Nixon – a conservative Republican with an uncompromising stance on communism – could “go to China” in the 1970s and re-establish US-Chinese relations. Is it too tongue-in-cheek to make the same parallel with Brown’s perceived euroscepticism? Pro-Europeans in Britain should not be so glum.

Hugo Brady is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Nicolas Sarkozy: Turkophobe and protectionist?
By Charles Grant

Most EU governments wanted Nicolas Sarkozy to win the presidential election. They think his liberalising economic agenda stands a fair chance of boosting France’s lacklustre economic performance. And they believe that his support for a ‘mini-treaty’ will make it easier for Chancellor Angela Merkel to get the whole EU behind her plans for an ‘amending treaty’ that would save parts of constitutional treaty. Furthermore, several governments – including that in London – are particularly happy that Sarkozy says he will not hold a referendum on any new EU treaty, since that diminishes the pressure on them to hold referendums of their own.

However, on two subjects Sarkozy worries other European governments: Turkey and protectionism. He has made his opposition to Turkish membership of the EU very clear, suggesting that instead it could join a ‘Mediterranean Union’. Most European leaders – including Merkel, who is no fan of Turkish membership – believe it crucial to maintain the process of Turkish accession, whatever its long-term outcome. They would echo what Ségolène Royal had the courage to remark during her TV duel with Sarkozy, namely that to slam the door in Turkey’s face could destabilise the country’s fragile democracy. An end to the accession talks would certainly strengthen the authoritarian Turkish nationalists who oppose closer ties with the EU.

I have no doubt that leaders such as Merkel, Tony Blair, José Manuel Barroso and George Bush will all ask Sarkozy to moderate his line on Turkey. They will tell him: by all means say you will oppose Turkish membership, if and when the accession talks conclude; but for the time being let the talks continue, for they play an important role in promoting economic and political reform in Turkey.

Sarkozy could disregard that advice, and give greater priority to his domestic opinion poll ratings, in which case his election would be very bad news for Turkey. But he might well think it in his self-interest to avoid annoying a group of the world’s most influential leaders, with whom he will have to work on many other subjects. So I would not be surprised if he lets the accession talks continue. If he does, the Turks may even – one day – welcome his coming to power. That is because he offers a real prospect of reviving the French economy. And I don’t believe the French will ever vote in referendums in favour of new EU members, so long as they feel insecure about their future, threatened by unemployment, and hostile to globalisation. Sarkozy offers France at least a chance of breaking out of its vicious circle of slow growth, introspection and lack of confidence.

The other worry about Sarkozy is the apparent contradiction in his thinking. He supports Thatcherite policies at home – he promises to slim the state, cut taxes and liberalise labour markets – but attacks the Commission’s trade and competition policies, as well as the monetary policy of the European Central Bank. In his first speech as president-elect, he asked France’s partners “to hear the voice of the peoples who want to be protected”. In his recent book, I was struck by his vehement opposition to the foreign ownership of French companies (for my review of this book in Prospect, see I suspect that his support for economic autarky reflects what he really thinks, and that he does not say it merely to win votes. But its impact on voters should not be ignored. As Jean Pisani-Ferry of the Bruegel think-tank notes, “In a country where 55% of voters rejected the EU constitution on economic grounds and more than 70% see globalisation as a threat, a sure recipe for losing support is to wear the clothes of the Brussels-Frankfurt orthodoxy.” (See
If Sarkozy does try to combine economic liberalism at home with protectionism at EU level, he will be heading for a big clash with his EU partners – most of whom support the EU’s broadly liberal trade and competition policies. However, as with the case of Turkey, his astute understanding of power-politics, and his strong desire to be an influential European leader, may moderate his hostility to the Brussels orthodoxy. If he wants other EU leaders to do him favours on issues that matter to France – and he will – he will have to learn to play the European game. And that means treating the Commission and its policies with some respect.

Furthermore, Sarkozy is unlikely to share Chirac’s visceral hostility to reform of EU farm policy – Chirac had been a farm minister and prided himself on his rural roots, which Sarkozy does not have. In any case, whatever Sarkozy’s own views on foreign investment and foreign trade, if he succeeds in reviving the French economy, the pressure from French voters for protectionism will dwindle.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

What Turkey’s crisis means for the EU
by Katinka Barysch

Turkey has aborted its presidential election and called for an early parliamentary one. The army, it appears, is still on stand-by. Prime Minister Erdogan accused the country’s highest court of having fired “a bullet at democracy” by declaring the first round of voting on his presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, invalid.

As the drama unfolded, the EU remained largely silent – as it should. The current stand-off in Turkey is about secularism, about the mix of religion and politics, and about the role of an army that has traditionally seen itself as the defender of the Kemalist constitution. These are issues that the EU does not have much to say about. Individual EU countries would offer rather different answers. France would probably have a problem with a head-scarf wearing presidential spouse. The UK might well be more relaxed about it. All Europeans would abhor military intervention in politics. And few would share the army’s fear that a Gul presidency could tilt Turkey towards Islamism.

What matters for the continuation of the EU accession process is not who become the next Turkish president, but the way he is chosen. Democracy is about process, not personalities. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has rightly sent a thinly veiled warning to the Turkish generals to stay out of politics and respect the rules of democracy.

If the army interfered actively in the process, the EU would have to freeze the membership talks. The fulfilment of the political part of the Copenhagen accession criteria is a precondition for conducting negotiations. Turkey could not plausibly claim to have a ‘well-functioning democracy’ if unelected generals had the last say in politics.

But if the army keeps making angry noises but otherwise stays on the sidelines, the accession process can and should continue. Indeed, the current turmoil could be a sign that Turkish democracy is maturing. Turkey may be undergoing a necessary – though stressful – convulsion on the way to a more solid and stable democracy. It may be dawning on the generals that in a ‘well-functioning democracy’ they can no longer be the ultimate arbiter of who runs the country. If Turkey gets through the current crisis with its democratic institutions intact, it will have taken another important step towards becoming a mainstream European country.

Katinka Barysch is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.