Ukraine At Half-Past Yushchenko

KIEV, Ukraine -- Sometime in June, President Viktor Yushchenko will mark two-and-a-half years (or about one-half) of his presidency. The anniversary is likely to be a quiet affair.

President Viktor Yushchenko

The ongoing political turmoil is just one reason that may dampen a celebratory mood. The other lies in the sad reality that Yushchenko’s tenure has so far failed to achieve a qualitative breakthrough in moving Ukraine from the post-Soviet era.

In foreign affairs the country’s standing is continuously declining. Consider the recent condescending remarks by Russia’s President Putin about the guys in Ukraine who screwed up.

Ukrainian Euro-Atlantic ambitions are in tatters. The prospect of NATO membership has turned into a specter that haunts Yushchenko, or anyone, for that matter, who dares to dream of it.

All the talk about the country’s EU aspirations remains a compilation of buzzwords with little substance and, at this point, with little potential. One can only imagine the thoughts of EU bureaucrats as they watched the burly lads of Berkut storming the general prosecutor’s office.

As a result, on the international arena, Ukraine finds itself once again in a strange place. Being neither a success nor a failure, it is reminiscent of a perennial teenager who, years after his high school graduation, still cannot figure out who he is or wishes to be and, more importantly, what he wants to do with his long-acquired independence.

On the domestic front, the president has failed to make the democratic gains of the Orange Revolution irreversible. His wobbly attitude toward the 2004 constitutional changes continues to keep the door half-open for future amendments.

This, in turn, generates the feeling of uncertainty sufficient to keep all the major players vigilant for a window of opportunity when the fundamental institutional arrangements can be redefined in a wholesale manner.

It also allows the political establishment to stay engaged in a futile debate on the theoretical merits of a particular model of government (a task better left to political scientists) at the expense of specific economic and social reforms.

The resultant institutional and political volatility retards progress in other areas. The fight against corruption, which Yushchenko promised to wage so vociferously, is now the source of acerbic jokes and sarcastic smiles.

Perhaps inadvertently, the presidential decree to dissolve the parliament delivered a lethal blow to the country’s already feeble judicial system. Put together to be a magic wand in the hands of a semi-authoritarian ruler, the Constitutional Court is inherently incapable of functioning in a democratic environment.

Unsurprisingly, the institution is collapsing slowly, yet spectacularly in its own impotency. To sum up, the president’s domestic agenda can be described as a failure, which in the end has further deepened the chasm between those in power (regardless of their political affiliation) and the “little Ukrainians.”

Against this depressing backdrop, there are unending rumors that in April Yushchenko was pushed to action in part because of the intention to revive his lackluster second-term chances.

Yet one should hope that his re-election bid extends far beyond a reshuffle of the parliament that is widely expected to produce the same electoral outcome.

Profound changes are in order if Yushchenko does not want his presidency (irrespective of how many times he will get elected) to become a footnote in Ukrainian history.

They need to begin with more sensible personnel decisions. Recent appointments look like a Brownian motion of molecules rather than a thought-out process with some logic and purpose.

Candidates’ competence should finally trump the president’s personal comfort with the individuals he appoints. This is the only way to ensure that a healthy amount of dissent and introspection are always present in his decision-making process.

The second step should involve taking a closer look at the 2004 presidential promises to see which ones can be watered down to concrete proposals with achievable and demonstrable results.

The revolutionary fatigue, which overwhelmed many Ukrainians, is partially a result of general slogans and hyped expectations that were initially impossible to fulfill.

The advantage of a clearly stated agenda lies in the ability to track down its fulfillment. It also helps avoid the perils of power that include squabbling among the allies (the relationship between the president and Yulia Tymoshenko is an obvious example) and distractions on currently peripheral, yet emotionally explosive ideas (like Yushchenko’s worthy, but untimely suggestion of building a museum of Soviet occupation).

Luckily, the president has no shortage of issues to solve. Ukraine’s dependency on Russian energy supplies and a non-existent diplomatic engagement on that matter with Central Asian states immediately come to mind.

Other areas encompass serious reforms in such sectors, for instance, as education and healthcare that would bring the country to EU standards in real, not rhetorical terms.

Implementing large-scale changes is, of course, not a one-man show, and Yushchenko will need all the help he can get. This brings us to the third point.

Because the elections in September are an attempt to remedy the utter mess, which the parliament has become as a result of irresponsible coalition-building efforts within the Orange lot, the president should forge a firm commitment on the future alignment of the pro-Orange forces, no matter whether they gain the majority or remain in opposition.

Otherwise, post-election developments will be a re-run of the travesty that we saw in April-August 2006.

It is clear that the next two-and-a-half years will be critical not only for Yushchenko’s political viability as a second-term presidential candidate, but also for the viability of democracy as a form of governance in Ukraine.

The skyrocketing levels of apathy and contempt by ordinary Ukrainians toward politicians of all colors may create a dangerous longing for ‘an iron fist’ and engrave the idea that a Western-type democracy is somehow not applicable for Ukraine.

To see what happens in a country where the public gets disenchanted with politics, one should look no further than neighboring Russia.

If Yushchenko fails to bring about a real change in the second half of his presidency, this may be the only legacy that he will hand down to his successor.

Source: Kyiv Post