A Kinder And Gentler Party Of Regions

KIEV, Ukraine -- Gone is the old Viktor Yanukovych, the tough street kid who as a young man was convicted and jailed for robbery and bodily injury.

Gone is the regional politician in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk oblast who has reportedly lobbied the interests of local organized crime in Kyiv since the late 1980s.

Gone is the politician who as premier was rumored to have used fisticuffs to drive home a point home with members of the presidential administration. And gone is the leader of the Regions Party who allegedly helped engineer the very fraudulent presidential election of 2004, but was never charged.

Enter the unarguably legitimate leader, and party, that received a third of the electorate in a parliamentary election last March that was hailed internationally as fair and free.

A party whose deputies in the new parliament simply ask for an end to the incessant political feuding and an opportunity to get on with their important work: to unite the country and tackle its economic and political problems.

Today, we have a new Yanukovych and Regions Party, a kinder, gentler, and more responsible one. Or do we? Are we, in fact, witnessing a fundamental transformation of the Regions Party and leadership, a genuine effort to embrace what President Yushchenko, on so many occasions, has called a "European political culture" with its democratic standards of parliamentarianism?

Negative images of Yanukovych and his party still abound and evoke strong emotions from citizens. However, psychologists remind us that such negative images cannot easily be erased. They are alive and well and evoke strong emotions from citizens who supported democratic forces in last March's parliamentary election.

Keenly aware of this fact, Viktor Yanukovych and his deputy party leader, Mykola Azarov, have launched a sophisticated and intensive image campaign to chip away at these negative images.

Assisted by Taras Chornovil, Hanna Herman, and numerous other Regions deputies, they have been working overtime during the recent parliamentary crisis, appearing on countless Ukrainian television and radio programs, and spreading a consistent, simple message: Party of Regions is a democratic party whose representatives to the new parliament have been elected by the people, have a solemn responsibility to them, but are not allowed to work effectively because of endless feuding among politically ambitious former Orange Revolution allies.

Moreover, they assert that they place the nation above all other interests and are uncompromising in their principles. According to Yanukovych’s personal website, these principles are: “Equality before the law, fair government, and supremacy of rights.” A casual survey of this website also reveals strong party support for European standards and, interestingly, even Jeffersonian democracy.

From the many recent appearances of Regions Party spokespersons on Ukrainian media, we can cull a following fresh new line of positive images of Yanukovych and his party: a savior-unifier of the nation at a time of great peril; the people's choice for prime minister; a strong, decisive, and effective leader; a de facto guarantor of the Constitution, given the country's weak president; a selfless party that can rise above ideological differences and join other parties to form a broad parliamentary coalition in order to pull the country out of crisis; and an enlightened, tolerant, and legitimate party.

When we look beyond these images and messages projected by Regions party leaders and turn to their recent behavior, what do we see?

The intense daily drama surrounding Ukraine’s parliamentary crisis during the past few months has opened a rare window to the operational style, core motivations, and ambitions of Viktor Yanukovych and other Regions party leaders. Close scrutiny of this behavior can shed light on the vexed question of Regions’ commitment to a European political culture and democratic standards of parliamentarianism.

Operational style: Behind the democratic veneer and forced smile displayed publicly by Yanukovych during the protracted parliamentary crisis, there lies a very authoritarian ultimatum-punctuated style of governance with strict party discipline.

His frequent promises to quickly reach European standards in parliament ring hollow in light of the tactics employed by his party during the parliamentary crisis.

As soon as it became apparent that President Yushchenko was reluctant to quickly nominate Yanukovych as premier in the new parliament, the Party of Regions cast aside their kinder, gentler, and more responsible European standards approach and embraced the maxim, all is fair in love and war.

The tactics that followed were heavy-handed and reminiscent of those many Ukrainians had come to know and fear during recent election campaigns. They included active measures to incite public unrest and civil conflict.

For example, on 25 July in a speech to parliament Viktor Yanukovych resorted to scare tactics in order to place greater pressure on the president to send his nomination as premier to parliament. He asserted that the parliamentary crisis had led to widespread chaos in the country and that prospects for civil conflict were growing daily.

To provide added support for such assertions, the Regions Party unabashedly created evidence. Acting in a very provocative and irresponsible fashion, they bused reportedly upwards to 2,000 mostly very poor supporters from Eastern Ukraine to picket and march in the nation’s capitol.

The protestors were fed ice cream and beer to fend off the scorching heat, and many even received a meager stipend for their few days in Kyiv. Significantly, they were mostly well behaved and hardly poised for the serious civil conflict or separatism which Regions spokespersons had advertised.

As their patience with President Yushchenko quickly wore thin, Regions party leaders in Kyiv and the Donetsk region, notably, issued a barrage of public ultimatums which, in effect, ordered the president to deliver the nomination of Yanukovych as premier to parliament within 72 hours, rather than the 15 days guaranteed by the Constitution for careful deliberation.

It is also worth noting that the Party of Region’s operational style during the parliamentary crisis included the offer of bribes, ranging from $3-7 million, in return for membership in their new majority coalition, according to several members of Yuliya Tymoshenko’s bloc.

Further insights into this very authoritarian and intolerant style of leadership may be gleaned from the official website of the Party of Regions which contains an interesting recent document titled “The Ultimatum of the Political Council of the Party of Regions.”

Core motivations: The collapse of the new democratic coalition in parliament on 6 July and the escalating parliamentary crisis provided a unique opportunity for Yanukovych and the Regions Party to fill the political vacuum and acquire greater power in parliament by forming a new majority coalition. Although this required abandoning some fundamental principles and recent election campaign promises, Regions did so effortlessly.

Motivated conspicuously by their overwhelming desire to control parliament in Ukraine’s new parliamentary-presidential system, they embraced the Socialist and Communis parties, whose fundamental principles, at least ostensibly, were aliens. To add insult, they even actively sought to add the president’s Our Ukraine bloc in parliament to their new majority coalition, trumpeting the incredulous slogan, “2 Viktors (Yanukovych and Yushchenko), 1 Ukraine.”

In doing so, Yanukovych broke a grave promise to supporters made during the parliamentary election campaign, when he solemnly swore that, “The Party of Regions considers it impossible to collaborate with Orange forces which took responsibility for the state of affairs but did not fulfill their obligations.” Regions leaders justified this grab for more power as the selfless act of a party rising above ideological differences to form a broad coalition that would pull the nation out of crisis.

Ambitions: Regions leaders endlessly assert that the Ukrainian nation must come first - above all other interests. Yet their recent behavior illustrates that they care primarily about climbing the power pyramid and even taking immediate family members with them.

It’s no secret that Viktor Yanukovych is an extremely ambitious politician, who sought the premiership in the new parliament, in no small measure, as revenge for his defeat in the 2004 presidential election. However, it is surprising that he would put personal political ambitions above the interests of his own party. He did just that recently when, on several occasions, he had a potential opportunity to defuse the parliamentary crisis.

Instead, he categorically refused to step aside and allow another Regions Party candidate, one more palatable to President Yushchenko, to be nominated for the coveted post of premier. This act of political expediency heightened the risk of having parliament dissolved and the Party of Regions, along with the entire country, put through another election.

Yanukovych also zealously seeks political power for his immediate family. Although his young son is unqualified to carry the heavy manteau of one of nation’s 450 key lawmakers, this did not stop Yanukovych from adding his son’s name to the Region’s list of party candidates for the last March’s parliamentary election.

This act ensured that Viktor Yanukovych, Jr., at the ripe age of 24, would become a member of parliament. Equally disturbing is the fact that senior leaders of the Regions Party, members of the Political Council, glibly endorsed his candidacy.

In Ukraine this brazen act has outraged ordinary citizens who view it as nothing other than nepotism: an especially egregious form of corruption which openly mocks rhetoric about equality before the law and fairness, and reflects a conspicuous double standard in society.

Viewed in this light, it is not difficult to see that a wide gap exists between image and reality; a great discrepancy between the projected image of a party leader who allegedly seeks to unify a very polarized nation, and at the same time, in the heat of a crisis, sanctions tactics which breed division and even incite separatism.

Yanukovych and his party have failed to grasp a simple truth: as long as they resort to non-European standards of parliamentarianism in their hour of need, they will only reinforce existing negative stereotypes of their party, and will be their own worst enemy.

Prediction in a highly dynamic political environment is always foolhardy. The best we can do is to identify key trends that offer a more informed basis for speculation. Yet it is not at all hard to imagine, given current trends and political realities here in Ukraine, a day when Yanukovych will be president and with lightning speed will nominate and obtain parliamentary approval for a Regions party leader to be premier.

This would give Yanukovych and his party virtually full control of the governmental machinery and the option to dramatically shift Ukraine’s foreign policy and economic course to better suit their personal interests, those of their Donetsk business-elite investors, and their Russian supporters. Till that fateful day, we can expect to see a kinder, gentler, and more restrained Viktor Yanukovych and Party of Regions.

Source: Kyiv Post