The curtain falls on reform
by Taras Kuzio
Fifteen years to the day after the Chornobyl nuclear plant exploded and sent radioactive contamination across Europe, the Ukrainian Parliament suffered its own meltdown. Its members overwhelmingly passed a no-confidence motion in the government of reformist Prime Minister Viktor Yuschenko, leader of Ukraine's eighth government in 10 years.
It was the Chornobyl accident, all those years ago, that bolstered political opposition in Ukraine and helped bring about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Whether Ukraine's deepening new political crisis will have positive results is less clear.
The answer depends in part on the actions of the rest of the world. The day the Yuschenko government was ousted, the Council of Europe gave Ukraine just two months to meet the council's concerns about fiscal and political reforms, or face suspension. The threat may not be enough.
Since 1991, when Ukraine won independence from Soviet domination, there has been an uneasy alliance between reformist democrats and Communists-turned-oligarchs. The alliance's slow disintegration accelerated in November 2000, after a rogue security service guard produced tape recordings that implicated President Leonid Kuchma in illicit activity.
The tapes showed evidence of high-level involvement in the murder of a journalist, Heorhii Gongadze; embezzlement of large sums of money; political intimidation; the muzzling of the media; and the falsification of the 1999 presidential election and the 2000 referendum to grant additional presidential powers. The tapes' release spurred Ukraine's largest opposition movements to demonstrate, thousands strong, in support of Mr. Yuschenko.
So far, however, the protests have been unable to change Ukraine's direction, and Parliament is poised to quash reform and nudge Ukraine back towards Russia. What opposition there is consists of national democrats such as the center-right Rukh party, students and center-left parties such as the one led by Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic former vice prime minister in the ousted Yuschenko government. Such a broad coalition agrees on little except the need to get rid of Mr. Kuchma - through resignation or impeachment.
In Ukraine, normal political rules don't apply. As in other former Soviet republics, groups of oligarchs have established political parties that aren't what they claim to be. The Green Party, for example, is led by oil tycoons; Labor Ukraine is led by the secret police and a banker. The tax police (a group more feared than the old KGB) dominates the Regions of Ukraine Party, while the Democratic Union Party is chaired by a fugitive from Belgian police with links to organized crime.
Such parties have only one reason for existence: making money through corrupt relationships with the state. Ukraine is ranked the third most corrupt state in the world by Transparency International, the U.S.-based monitoring group. As the world's largest producer of pirated music and CD-ROMs, Ukraine has attracted U.S. sanctions and been blocked in its plans to join the World Trade Organization.
Mr. Yuschenko's attempts at reforming all this made him a target. Ukrainian state television, controlled by Kuchma loyalist Vadym Dolhanov, consistently portrayed his government in a poor light, while private, oligarch-controlled television stations added an avalanche of personal abuse.
Despite all this, the Yuschenko government pulled the country back from the brink of bankruptcy, reduced foreign debt for the first time since independence, and recorded a trade surplus. Receipts from privatization in 2000 exceeded all those collected in the previous nine years; foreign investors began to put money into Ukraine. The GDP grew by more than 6 percent in 2000-2001, and industrial output by 17 percent, making Ukraine the fastest growing economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States. The country's inherited debt of $300 million (U.S.) in pension arrears was paid back and most of the $1.26 billion in wage arrears was cleared.
The Yuschenko government's downfall was its reform of the highly corrupt energy sector. When Vice Prime Minister Tymoshenko successfully eliminated many of the sector's barter schemes, and filled state coffers with funds previously siphoned off by oligarchs, her husband was arrested to pressure her into backing off. When she refused, she was herself arrested on charges of corruption. (She was released after the charges were revealed to be politically motivated.)
Unlike his seven predecessors, Prime Minister Yuschenko was committed to Ukraine's integration into Europe. Thus, Communists saw him as a threat to their hopes to re-integrate Ukraine with Russia.
While the Council of Europe presses Ukraine to clean up its act, the fact is the country's Communist-oligarch alliance has little interest in meeting European demands. Ukraine may well be suspended this summer, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of its independence. But neither this, nor the threat of being denied membership in the EU, holds much weight.
The head of the European Parliament's delegation for cooperation with Ukraine, Jan M. Wiersma, recently reminded Ukraine that the "first condition" for EU membership is "democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights." Ukraine under Mr. Kuchma abides by none of these values, and Mr. Yuschenko's ouster confirms that contempt.
What should the West do? Mr. Yuschenko has a popularity rating of 60 percent, broadly based throughout the country. If he returns to politics, as he has said he will, to lead the anti-Kuchma opposition, the West should drop any illusions it has about Mr. Kuchma and wholeheartedly support Mr. Yuschenko.
Too often, in Latin America and the Middle East, Washington has backed rogue leaders who pay lip service to its geopolitical objectives. The United States should reverse the flawed policies that were pursued during the Clinton years. Only then does Ukraine stand a chance to clean up its latest meltdown.
Taras Kuzio is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at York University, Toronto, and author of "Ukraine: Perestroika to Independence." This article was originally published on April 30 in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, and is reprinted with permission.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 13, 2001, No. 19, Vol. LXIX
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