Viktor Yanukovych made an astonishing admission recently. In his annual address to the Parliament on April 7th, Ukraine’s faltering president stated that “Of the intentions and plans we had for 2010, we succeeded in accomplishing at most a third.” In a word, Yanukovych’s presidency has been a bust—and he knows it. And if you consider that he, like any politician, exaggerates, then that third probably amounts to a sixth.

Remember the swagger that Yanukovych and his Regionnaires displayed just one year ago, after they squeaked into power and proceeded to twist every possible rule in order to consolidate it? Well, that bravado and braggadocio are all gone. The Yanukovych bulldozer has broken down, and it sits, dripping oil and emitting gusts of brown steam, in a deep ditch on the side of the road.

A one-sixth success rate is about as impressive as former President Vitkor Yushchenko’s, and you know what happened to him. And don’t forget that the things Yanukovych accomplished—such as dismantling democracy, concentrating all power in his own hands, and creating a sultanistic regime—would have been better not accomplished.

What went wrong?

According to Yanukovych, the reasons are three, and—surprise!—none of them has anything to do with his administration’s faults. First, the “bureaucratized state machine” is unwilling to abandon its corrupt ways. Second, “national business, both large and small, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.” And third, “millions of our people have after 20 years of independence genuinely tired of waiting for qualitative changes.”

Yanukovych is right, of course, except that he doesn’t address the causes of these problems. After all, how can you expect a state apparatus that is dominated by one of the world’s most corrupt money-making machines, the Party of Regions, to warm up to reform? Why should business trust a president who’s done absolutely nothing to earn trust and keep the fat cats from the trough? And why shouldn’t people be tired now that months of presidential tub-thumping have resulted only in higher prices for everything?

But readers of this blog know that the Yanukovych regime and real reform are pretty much antithetical notions. What’s much more significant than the breakdown of the bulldozer is Yanukovych’s public recognition of that breakdown. He clearly understands that he’s losing, that his regime is tottering on the edge of disaster, and that the result could be a social explosion on the order of the Orange Revolution. According to recent polls, the “alienation index” of Ukrainians has reached 83 percent; 40 percent would be willing to defend their rights and interests by means of protests; only 16.7 percent would vote for Yanukovych; and 15.7 percent would support the Regionnaires. The president has good reason to be desperate.

Desperate people often do desperate things. One analyst suggests Yanukovych has embarked on a “thaw.” True, there have been some personnel changes, but there has still been no change of course—a genuine cultural thaw would have to start with the firing of the Russian-supremacist education minister—and there certainly hasn’t been anything resembling “deyanukization.” But some bold move will become increasingly necessary if Yanukovych hopes to avoid a second humiliation that would earn him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records among other stupendously failed leaders.

Investigating former President Leonid Kuchma’s role in the disappearance, murder, and cover-up of journalist Heorhii Gongadze could be one such bold move. Alas, like so much that Yanukovych does, it smacks of populist seat-of-the-pantism. Only a truly desperate leader who knows that his back is against the wall would try to save himself by taking on the establishment that made him possible. Kuchma, after all, doesn’t just represent himself. He’s got the backing of heavyweight state administrators and oligarchs, all of whom will fight Yanukovych to the finish.

Yanukovych’s apparent seriousness about moving toward the European Union and resisting Vladimir Putin’s blandishments about joining the Russia-led Customs Union could be another such bold move. Domestically weak presidents often look for salvation in foreign-policy victories. Alienating Russia would certainly alienate much of Yanukovych’s constituency, but many of them hate him anyway. On the other hand, effectively courting Europe has cross-national appeal throughout Ukraine and would enable Yanukovych to argue that he is the people’s president.

Ironically, if unsurprisingly for an entity that preaches soft power but responds mostly to its hard variant, Europe may be more serious about courting Yanukovych than it was about courting Viktor Yushchenko. A democratic Ukraine with pro-Western leanings could easily be taken for granted, found fault with, and subordinated to Europe’s geopolitical interest in Russian gas. An authoritarian Ukraine with pro-Russian leanings could actually threaten the stability and security of Europe and might therefore need accommodating. Yushchenko’s pro-European policy foundered on Europe’s hypocritical commitment to promoting democracy. Yanukovych’s pro-Yanukovych policy may actually resonate with Europe’s genuine commitment to promoting its self-interest.

You’ll know that Ukraine is really moving closer to Europe when former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder calls Yanukovych what he called Vladimir Putin during the Orange Revolution—a “true democrat.” 

Alexander J. Motyl




Ukrayinska Dumka


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