What Is Ukraine Playing At?

An interview with Mykola Riabchuk by Filip Memches

The strategic aim of the Party of the Regions is to gain a constitutional majority. Victor Yanukovych wants to introduce changes in the constitution so that in three years the president would be elected by the parliament. This is the only way to guarantee his re-election—says the columnist Mykola Ryabchuk in an interview with Filip Memches.

What will change in Ukraine after the October parliamentary elections?

The result of the elections was predetermined by the change in the voting system. It guarantees a majority in the Supreme Council for Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. If necessary, it will be helped by some of the so called independent candidates, chosen not from party lists but in first-past-the-post constituencies. Most of them are business people, who generally side with those in power.

The strategic aim of the Party of the Regions is to gain a constitutional majority. Yanukovych’s party wants to have enough deputies to introduce changes in the constitution so that in three years the president would be elected by the parliament rather than in a general election. This is the only way to guarantee his re-election. Leonid Kuchma attempted something like that once. He came six votes short of this goal.

The Party of the Regions cannot claim any successes. The social security programmes failed, people are tightening their belts but get nothing in return. The discontent is huge. So the Party of the Regions tries to persuade its solid voting base that it is at least defending the rights of Russian speakers from the East and South of the country. Hence the law on the languages of ethnic minorities passed in July 2012, which raises the status of Russian.

Otherwise some supporters of the Party of the Regions would vote for the opposition?

The fear is that they would not vote at all. Two years ago, Yanukovych won the presidential elections, for two million disaffected supporters of the Orange Revolution did not want to support Julia Timoshenko and in the second round they stayed home.

Unfortunately, now the Orange people have no such leader as Victor Yushchenko eight years ago. He was perceived then as a genuine alternative to the politicians who had been in power before him.

And how does it look like now?

There is a general feeling that all political forces are the same.

Is the Yanukovych administration trying to follow in the Russian footsteps and create a kind of licensed opposition?

There is no direct proof of that but we are seeing things which seem to point in that direction. The nationalist Svoboda Party is taking votes away from the moderate opposition in the west of the country. And the beneficiary of that is the ruling regime for its main competitor is weakened. Besides that Svoboda plays the role of a nationalist scare shown to the international public opinion. Of course, nationalism in Ukraine does exist and Svoboda is part of that, and what is more, all over Europe we are observing a growth of nationalist tendencies.

There are also projects implemented directly by the regime. I mean here Natalia Korolevska’s grouping Ukraine—Forward! This party came out of nowhere. It is headed by a pretty businesswoman, who had been an ally of Julia Timoshenko. The president’s administration created such a mock liberal party for the voters disenchanted with the Party of the Regions.

But this is a constituency wanting more welfare rather than liberal solutions.

Yes, and this is why on the left we have the Communist Party, also supported by the regime. The increased popularity of the communists is perhaps surprising. It has risen twofold—from five to ten percent. The communists and the Party of the Regions appeal to the same electorate, to people openly or covertly nostalgic for the Soviet times, while Ukraine—Forward! resembles the Strong Ukraine of Serhiy Tyhypko. This politician came third in the last presidential elections. He was to be an alternative both to the Blue ones and the Orange ones. But right after the elections he became deputy prime minister in Mykola Azarov’s government and joined the Party of the Regions. And this is also remindful of Russia. Putin’s regime also has an offer for voters disenchanted with its policy. Licensed opposition on the left is Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party and on the right we have the liberals under Mikhail Prokhorov.

Svoboda would be an equivalent of Vladimir Zhirinovski’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia?

This is a wrong analogy. Zhirinovski’s grouping is a project of the KGB. Besides, in Ukraine nationalism enjoys a significant support in the west of the country, while in Russia it is a nationwide phenomenon. In Ukraine the nationalists and the communists are fighting each other, for the Communist Party is siding with Russian rather than Ukrainian interests. In Russia the nationalists and the communists take a common stance on many issues.

What is happening with Victor Yushchenko?

He is completely out of touch with reality. He is plagued by various traumas, for example, he considers himself a prophet rejected by his own nation. He believes he has been betrayed. He is surrounded by people who exploit all this, for his name remains a valuable brand and can be used, for example, to raise funds for political activity from sponsors. And this is better than nothing. Besides it is possible that the campaign of the coalition endorsed by Yushchenko is actually financed by the regime. For it is hard to imagine a businessman investing in such a hopeless project. But for the Yanukovych administration the presence of Yushchenko in the Ukrainian politics is useful, for his appearances are discrediting for the opposition. And the two percent of the votes he can count on will be taken away not from the Party of the Regions but from Batkivshchyna—a broad coalition of Orange forces. Yushchenko himself probably does not understand that, but someone manipulating him is well aware of that.

So Yushchenko was wrong to run an independent campaign rather than join Batkivshchyna?

He would not have been admitted, for no one needs him. No serious politician will offer to join forces with him, for he would only lose. Yushchenko lost everything and he still has not grasped what has happened. Of course, there is a handful of people who have an affection for him because of his role in the Orange Revolution and his later initiatives regarding historical policy, especially cultivating the memory of the Great Famine.

And Julia Timoshenko? Is there a myth growing around her prison stay, which may become a trump card for the opposition?

Public opinion is convinced that Timoshenko is innocent and that she is a victim of revenge. But that is all. The former prime minister is not an authority for anyone. People feel sympathy for her but this does not mean supporting her as a politician who could rally the nation behind her. Timoshenko does not provide an alternative for Janukovych. Generally speaking, in Ukraine there are no politicians capable of bringing about the expected changes. We are still waiting for our own, Ukrainian Solidarity. The oppositionists are in fact former members of the establishment, who for various reasons found themselves outside it and are out of touch with the society.

Does the opposition expect any actions from Western countries, as in the period of the Orange Revolution?

It would be good if the opposition resolved its problems on its own. Counting on help from abroad is naïve and irresponsible. But it is important for the West not to forget about the Ukraine’s existence, as it has happened with many countries in Asia and Africa. Thanks to the activity of the opposition and the development of civil society Ukraine is not a country without any prospects for the future. Belarus too, despite being ruled by an authoritarian regime, remains in the Western sphere of interest.

Meanwhile Putin’s Russia is building the Eurasian Economic Community. The majority of former Soviet republics is to join it. Will Yanukovych’s Ukraine also enter this organisation?

Russia has many ideas for reintegration of the post-Soviet area but for more than twenty years none of them has been implemented. It is true that Moscow possesses the means to blackmail the former Soviet republics but the elites of these young states are not eager to reintegrate with Russia. No one wants to renounce the sovereignty achieved in 1991. The leaders of such countries as Belarus or Kazakhstan are playing a smart game with Putin. They speak about friendship but they do nothing about it. A good example of that is the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Can you say the same about the Ukrainian ruling elite?

A weekly 2000 is published in the Ukraine, obviously representing the point of view of the FSB. I recently read an article there, attacking prime minister Azarov for being pro-Russian only verbally and for aiming at integration with the European Union. Of course, these are also empty gestures. The Ukrainian establishment is simply playing a double game of appearances—for Russian and European consumption.

Why is it so?

No former Soviet republic stands a chance in confrontation with Russia. And the West will not help them, as Georgia learned in 2008. So the only option is an ambivalent policy towards Russia: on the one hand assenting to Putin, on the other hand quietly sabotaging him.

But Belarus and Kazahhstan joined a customs union with Russia. It is undoubtedly a serious step towards integration.

We don’t know what will happen to the union. Obviously Russia does not want to share its natural resources with anyone. And a customs union means that Russia is a net payer in this business. It can afford that with small countries like Belarus or Armenia. But Ukraine is a huge country. Selling natural resources cheaply to Ukraine would have a negative impact on the Russian economy.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.