Ukrainians will take part in elections for a new parliament on Sunday, the first national vote since President Victor Yanukovych repudiated the Orange Revolution by coming to power nearly three years ago. His Regions Party is expected to win in voting few Ukrainians expect to be fair.
That’s testament to how much the country has changed since 2010, when international observers applauded the presidential election as its best ever, an affirmation of one of the Orange Revolution’s most tangible and important effects. Yanukovych has since embarked on a drive to entrench himself in power by reversing many of those gains, something Sunday’s elections appear set to reinforce.
Although Ukraine’s depressing turn away from democratization and integration into the international community was entirely predictable back then, most observers at the time said it didn’t really matter who won. Yanukovich, a onetime street thug who served time in jail for assault before becoming a Communist Party functionary, may have helped prompt the Orange Revolution in 2004 by claiming victory in rigged elections. But surely he’d mend his ways once faced with the constraints of office — so held the conventional wisdom.
Besides, Tymoshenko — a billionaire who made her fortune in the highly shady gas trading business — was no less corrupt. And she did nutty, populist things as prime minster, such as promising to renationalize industries and whipping up fears about bird flu.
The conventional wisdom couldn’t have been more wrong. For all her faults, Tymoshenko was the country’s best hope in January 2010. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the difference between the two campaign headquarters set up in fancy hotels within several ice-covered blocks of each other. Tymoshenko’s traditionally well-catered affair buzzed with some of the best and the brightest young journalists, scholars and observers who mixed easily until the rock-star candidate made her glittering appearances. Yanukovych’s resembled an ex-cons’ convention: ruddy faces ill at ease in shiny suits sipping champagne by themselves around big round tables.
When Tymoshenko failed to immediately concede the election, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe accused her of threatening the country’s democratic gains, which they said would be best served by a quick handover to Yanukovich.
The truth emerged very quickly. Yanukovych set about pressuring critical media into dropping reports about corruption. He changed the law to appoint judges, used police to pressure the opposition and installed cronies in office.
Charged with abusing office, Tymoshenko languishes in jail for signing a gas deal with Russia that would have helped transform notoriously closed gas industry and minimize Russian influence by agreeing on internationally competitive prices. It also ended Moscow’s insistence on using a notorious middle company, a typical way profits are skimmed from the state gas monopoly Gazprom. Tymoshenko’s ally, former Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko, is also now in jail on charges his driver embezzled $45,000. Other opposition leaders, too, have been arrested or forced into exile.
Perhaps most damaging for the country’s future have been Yanukovych’s moves to divert Ukraine from its westward course. The new government ended the drive to join the EU and NATO, and extended Russia’s lease on the Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol. In return, Moscow gave Ukraine a discount on the amount it pays for gas in a deal that helped roll back the previous administration's policy of minimizing Moscow’s influence.
The kind of corrupt business practices Gazprom exports to other countries take place behind the scenes. But there are more visible signs of regression. Ukraine apparently is no longer a haven for Kremlin critics who fear for their safety at home, after an activist from a group the Russian government is systematically targeting was abducted and returned to Moscow last week after he applied to the UN for political asylum.
That doesn’t mean relations with Russia are good. Yanukovych hasn’t proved to be the pliant client the Kremlin had hoped he’d be. Ukrainians have bridled at the Kremlin’s condescension, which appeared to reach a high point when Russian President Vladimir Putin kept his Ukrainian counterpart waiting for hours while he met with a group of leather-clad bikers on a visit to Ukraine last summer.
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The past three years have demoralized an electorate already disillusioned during years of infighting that tore the Orange Revolution coalition apart. One poll says only 46 percent of those surveyed said they’d certainly vote on Sunday. Most believe the Regions Party is reinstating the kind of fraud Ukraine once had in spades, including ballot-stuffing, vote-buying and censoring the press.
The party is expected to win about half the parliament’s 450 seats. The outcome will help set the stage for a presidential election in 2015, when some believe Yanukovych may seek to stay in power by changing the constitution to give parliament the right to choose the president. For that he’ll need a constitutional majority of 300 seats.
Even if the unpopular president is voted out in two years, the political foundations he is laying will influence the country for many years if not decades.