The State of Democracy in Ukraine

Ukraine”s Euro-Atlantic Future:
International Forum VI

Ukraine at the Crossroads

The State of Democracy in Ukraine

Oleh Rybachuk

Keynote by Oleh Rybachuk, Former Deputy Vice Premier for European Integration, presented at Ukraine”s Euro-Atlantic Future Forum VI in Ottawa, Canada on March 8, 2012.

Good Morning. Yesterday, the Canadian Minister mentioned International Women’s Day in her remarks. I know that in Ukraine this year we ended up having what amounts to a 4 day holiday with some seeing it as a reason to imbibe. And I know that, for us, in the past the holiday was often overloaded with ideological content. But it is a holiday that rightly and globally celebrates the role of women and particularly, I suspect, “strong women”. I mention the subject in that spirit, because I wish to recall and honor the words of one particularly strong woman, Lady Margaret Thatcher, who once said: “You may have to fight a battle more that once to win it”. That sentiment is very closely related to the issue I wish to discuss this morning. namely, ‘the state of-or the prospects for-democracy in Ukraine’.

In 1991, Ukraine gained its independence. The event happened as a gift of history, though admittedly, generations of Ukrainians fought and died to see the day. In late 2004, Ukrainians were blessed with another victory. This time, through the courage of millions of ordinary citizens, Ukraine was set on the path to democracy, which they rightfully defined as the ability to select a government by popular choice. In the years that immediately followed, I guess we believed-I certainly believed-that Ukraine was gradually but steadily stepping up the ‘ladder of democracy’ and that we would continue to move ever higher to meet world standards. It turned out to be that we, rather that climbing ever higher on a democratic ladder, were instead riding a ‘roller coaster’-what we call ‘American hills in a Ukrainian reality’-with some very steep ups and very steep downs as well as moves sideways.

Keeping that metaphor in mind, let us begin our discussion. We should start on the macro level-by taking a look at the issue of the ‘world’ and its impact on the state of Ukrainian democracy; we might call it ‘external factors’ impinging on popular political choice in Ukraine.

Not surprisingly for someone who was once Deputy Vice Premier for Euro-Integration, I will start the exercise with Europe-or more precisely, with the impact of the European Union. Probably, many of you have already read-I, for instance, saw it on my website, on my facebook, in my e-mail-the “Letter of Five”, published by five EU Country foreign ministers just a couple of days ago, which evaluates Ukraine’s contemporary political situation and, with that, equally touches upon the condition of democracy in the country.

The basic message relayed is simple: Ukraine, or the Ukrainian leadership, should forget about any real progress with Euro-integration-or any pact to that effect-until the moment when the opposition is out of prison and basic ‘democratic’ values are re-embraced as the foundation stone of the country’s political process. Here, we should note and understand the value of the referenced pact-an agreement which is practically ready to be signed by Ukraine and Europe; by that, I mean the Political Association and Free Trade Agreement.

For the first time in Ukrainian history, we have a document which summarizes the negotiations between Europe and a few generations of Ukrainian diplomats concerning Ukraine’s closer ties with and possible accession into the European Union; from among those Ukrainian diplomats, we have Borys Tarasyuk sitting with us today. A good five years was spent to put all of the issues in order-to find the compromises and solutions to make the agreement a reality. What makes it different from the Action Plan, as a example, which I signed as as Deputy Vice Premier in February 2005? Interestingly enough, the new pact-the Political Association and Free Trade Agreement-has a number of points that actually oblige the Ukrainian government to stick to democratic values and processes and indeed calls for all sorts of practical reforms in the legal and judicial sphere.

Because of this very fact, there is a fierce debate going on-to sign or to sign; to initial or not to initial. Even the political opposition, which is clearly under fire, is involved in the debate. On the one hand, there are many who are worried that support of the signing will a signal to the Yanukovich government-the ‘vlada’-that they can pursue less than democratic practices with impunity. On the other hand, there a good number of democrats, and I include myself in that category, who have written to show support for the initialing of the agreement because it can benefit Ukraine regardless of the short term political climate in the country.

We ask not for ratification, but ‘initialing’-so that the thousands of pages that have been written can be verified as having validity once ratification arrived. Apparently, both the Yanukovych government and the opposition sense this technical procedure-the ‘initialing’ or initiating-will take place in mid March (of this year). Experts speculate that such an initialing would constitute a smart first stop-with a second step involving ‘ratification’, or implementation, happening once there was a different government.

An example of such a move at an earlier stage was exactly the EU-Ukraine Action Plan which I signed in 2005. The work on the Action Plan had been done during the later Kuchma years, when Kuchma was pursuing less than democratic methods of governance. Not wanting to give Kuchma the ability to profit from the process, the EU waited for a more apt opportunity-which the Orange Revolution provided-to move forward with actual implementation. So again, the EU, after initialing or initiating the Political Association and Free Trade Agreement, can wait for a more propitious time ratify or implement the process-a time when a new generation of more democratic political leaders can really put matters on a better road.

Speaking of the ‘world’-or external factors-influencing the state of democracy in Ukraine, it would be impossible not to mention Russia. I don’t want to stray into James Sherr’s territory; I know he is preparing to discuss in overarching fashion the ‘Russia Question and Ukraine’ this afternoon-to deeply peer, in only the way he can, into the ‘Russian political soul’. But I would be remiss in my own assignment, if I did not touch briefly on Russia’s impact, for better or worse, on democratic processes in Ukraine.

Here, I would start with the Putin-Yanukovych relationship and what the relationship means for Yanukovych, who was publicly saying that after Putin’s re-installment as president, Russian-Ukrainian relations would gradually improve. I honestly think that his attitude is based on wishful thinking. I say this as someone who has spoken with Putin about Yanukovych and you ought to see the body language when he mentions that name. My sense is that you can bet that Putin will probably double or triple his efforts to manipulate matters in Ukraine to his liking and not forget Yanukovych, who in his mind always remains tied to the humiliation of 2004.

What might all this mean in practical terms for Ukraine-both the ‘vlada’ and the opposition? For one, Putin will try to get control of as much of the economy as he can. In some part, one should expect that Yanukovych will put up some resistance.
After all, he will see his Texans-excuse me, his Donetskis-as having the right to run roughshod over Ukraine’s resources without outside intrusion. But resistance will be tough to mount or maintain. Yanukovych, thru his various shennigans- including the Tymoshenko arrest, has lost the trust of major players in the EU, in the US and here in Canada. Meanwhile, Putin can play a powerful trump card: energy.

Why is Tymoshenko in prison? What is the formal explanation? The accusation is that she signed an agreement that is impossible to implement-that the formula that she agreed to has made the price of gas higher in Ukraine than it is in most European countries. The argument by the Yanukovych government-the ‘vlada’-is that the contract must be revisited and restructured; otherwise, the Ukrainian economy will suffer devastating damage. To emphasize that fact, the whole Yanukovych team, has been tasked to try finding ways to negotiate lower prices.
We know that the Russian side is standing firm. It is saying that it will negotiate a lower price. It is saying that it will negotiate, but that Ukraine has to offer something substantial.

Here, Yanukovych has a huge problem. It has already given away a huge bargaining chip away by easily signing a 25 year rent lease deal for the Russian Fleet in Sevastopil without getting anything serious in return. Worse yet, it has given up on Ukraine’s prospects for NATO accession without getting anything at all in return. Indeed, there are not significant chips left for Yanukovych to use.

Have found that putting Ukraine in an energy vice is easy, the Russians have had their appetite whetted. Why not go for the entire Ukrainian economy? And there seems to be little that can stop them.

Once the economy begins to slip away, so will security. It is amazing what important changes we have seen lately in the so-called ‘strong’-or ‘silovik’-ministries. It is all individuals who have backgrounds in the ‘old KGB network’.
We have Valentyn Nalyvaichenko with us who will be formally addressing the sea-changes in the personnel of the Ukrainian security services, but most political experts, whether security is their specific forte or not, have noted a ‘mind numbing
new reality’-not very surprising when one looks at Ukraine’s new Interior Minister, new Head of Security Services or new Minister of Defense. The said experts are shocked by the backgrounds and the lingering ‘Soviet mentality’ of the appointed who don’t even pretend to hide the fact.

Just think that the head of Yanukovych’s personal security is said to still have Russian citizenship and is said to have received an award from the Russians very recently for have arduously promoted better ‘bilateral relations’. In other countries, this would be a bad joke. And this is a character who is influential with both the Yanukovych family and key players throughout the security apparat of Ukraine.

One more matter on the Russian front-‘Russki Mir’. The ‘Russki Mir’ project is very active in Ukraine today. Moscow Patriarch Kirill-Head of the Russian Orthodox Church-spends months and months in Ukraine badgering those he considers his faithful-adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church swearing fealty to the Moscow Patriarchy-with the notion that they are members of a ‘great Russian world’. Additionally, one of the major pillars of the Russian Orthodox message is that Putin is delivered by God to keep the ‘Russki Mir’ from evil-that, in fact, Putin, like the Czars before him, is divinely ordained; hence, it is an obligation for the faithful to pray for him. In one of Ukraine’s grandest religious shrines where the Moscow Patriarchy retains control-the ‘Lavra’ in Kyiv-‘believers’ are asked to beseech the Lord on Putin’s behalf because of his enormous contribution to the cause.

It is a dangerous game which ultimately will try to squeeze out of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches who take their orders from Kirill and Co. any and all Ukrainian minded bishops and priests. We have seen a move lately that seems dedicated to removing, under the cover of ‘fears for his health’, the Head of the MP Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Metropolitan Volodymyr. None of this portends well for anyone in Ukraine-‘vlada’ or ‘oppositsyia’.

From Russia, we can move to another major ‘external factor’ impacting on the condition of democracy in Ukraine -the United States. It is now, in retrospect, clear that President Obama’s ‘reset’ policy vis-a-vis had a major influence on the present Ukrainian government’s attitude towards democracy and, for that matter, on how the Kremlin viewed the Ukraine’s democratization process. The policy is still hotly debated by all sides that were effected in Ukraine. And people are still uneasy about the signal that the new US administration sent to Putin and his regime in 2009. I remember how the US position was first received in the Ukrainian corridors of power; I also remember how it was received in the Russian corridors of power. The latter undoubtedly saw it as legitimizing a ‘right’ for Russia to influence its near abroad. After a time, I saw Europeans picking up on the Russian argument; I always wanted to ask German diplomats and European diplomats generally-exactly what kind of legitimate ‘right’ Russians had to influence its neighbors and which ones in particular.

What, however, is strange is that any potential negative impact from the ‘reset’ policy on Ukraine has been eventually neutralized by the Yanukovych government itself . Its bad behavior , possibly encouraged by the notion that neither Putin nor it would be scolded, led it to unconscionable political behavior culminating with the arrest of major opposition leaders. In crossing a basic red line in democracy-by harassing opponents-the Yanukovych team woke up the US-and, interestingly enough, Europe as well.

We now finally have a single policy emanating from DC and Brussels-and it all specifically started when Yanukovych began jailing his opponents. As a result, the US State Department, the European Union, indeed democracies globally have found one voice-a voice willing to express unhappiness. We should probably talk about what actual impact this change has had on the Yanukovych government, but the fact that the democratic world is united is a fact-and an important one.

As evidence, I can cite a critical shift in the US State Department’s approach. I am talking about Secretary Clinton announcing that from now on “Ukrainian civil society is a partner of the United States”; I was there when she announced it. This is not simply a US related or even European related issue; it has global implications if it succeeds. And we have already witnessed how it is working out.

Somewhere here in the audience we have Thomas Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, who introduced “high level civic dialogue” to ongoing government to government discussions. You know that the present Ukrainian government is not very excited to talk about the rule of law or democracy, etc. So there was not much initiative coming from the Ukrainian official side on the subject. What the State Dept. did-what Thomas Melia personally did-is a great deal. Now, every time that the US and Ukraine have government to government discussions about priority matters-the next one is coming up in May-they are preceded by one day by a meeting of of level Ukrainian NGOs with top flight American NGOs and think tanks; at these gathering, we identify matters of the Ukraine’s ‘maturation as a state’ in addition to divining the issues surrounding our bilateral relations. We help set the ‘agenda’-that is a good word for it-for meetings between our two governments.

While Ukrainian deputy ministers may not be happy with the topics raised, they have to be ready to discuss them, because their American counterparts-with the ranks of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and the like, in consultation with their own NGOs, have become aware of and interested in the said subjects. Indeed, those Ukrainian officials are forced to humbly attend the NGO events precisely because their US counterparts, to be truly prepared, had done so. In this way, Ukrainian civil society sometimes gets to talk to the ‘vlada’ in DC in a way that it could not back home. Further, there is a cultivation of continuity. The various NGOS on both sides continue to stay in touch to see whether the governments are following any of the ‘expert advice’; this allows them to issue ‘progress reports’. The whole practice is becoming a prime example of how public or civic pressure could be used to upgrade government policy.

I think a similar approach is very possible in Canada. When there is discussion about what Canada can do or how Canada can increase its influence, it is clear that it is not so much about trade, though important, or about high level contacts, though also important, as it is about helping Ukraine in a strong bipartisan way-and I was left with that feeling at the Parliamentary hearings I witnessed-achieve a take off point where its democracy & national sovereignty will not be in question. Hence, when recently both the Canadian Foreign Minister and the Canadian legislators visited Kyiv, we broached the subject of having a NGO-NGO component attached to various government to government events similar to those established between Ukraine and the US.

Finally, I come to the question of democracy in Ukraine-i.e.-how democracy is perceived in Ukraine and what influences democracy in Ukraine. Obviously, I will start with the Tymoshenko factor; it is clear that happens there will influence how the world sees democracy in Ukraine. To my mind, it is a simplified approach or an ‘easy way’ to grasp matters-to see everywhere Julia behind bars along with other major Ukrainian opposition leaders. Frankly, the subject is far more complicated.
Let’s image that tomorrow Yanukovych suddenly frees Tymoshenko. Does that suddenly mean that all is well with democracy in Ukraine? Not in the least! Just look at the Ukrainian courts and the percentages of guilty verdicts with regard to what might be perceived as political issues. The percentage is .2%; that means that the guilty verdict rate is 99.8%. We are talking about hundreds, if not thousands, of civic activists who are put in jail without the least bit of justification-incarcerated for exercising their fundamental right to protest. We are talking about journalists who are faithfully exercising their craft by investigating suspicious behavior by the government. Indeed, we can talk about many many violations. But, for all that, the incarceration of opposition political leaders is so obviously a gross violation of democratic principle, that it alone keeps the world weary of anything the Yanukovych team does.

Next, while the Yanukovych government has gone beyond the pale and therefore obviously, at some point, must go, there is always the question of ‘what’s next’. One: Is the opposition strong enough to replace the Yanukovych regime? And, two: Will it be different enough to properly change things?

To the first, there are positive signs; apparently, much progress has been made to have a unified list of oppositionists in their upcoming parliamentary elections in October. To the second, the jury is out! We need to know a couple of things. Who will be on the upcoming list? Will the list be simply based on an agreement of the party leaders without input from the ‘grassroots’? Will the society have something to say or will we see the ‘turncoats’-‘tushki’-again in the new parliament?

In asking these questions, I think I can segue into my final remarks-my conclusions. I have long been asked why I don’t belong to or create a political party and why I stepped away from positions of power six years to work strictly with ‘civil society’ in the subsequent period. My answer is rather straightforward. Ukraine does not need another political party; we already have 200. What we now desperately need is an informed Ukrainian voter-one who would understand the ‘Spirit of the Maidan’, transcend its eventual disappointments and take renewed responsibility for the fate of his/her country. With enough such voters-electors who would demand better quality, we could make a difference.

Today, the Party of Regions is losing votes rapidly, but ironically the opposition is not gaining them. Why? Because the ‘people’-the voters-do not see a substantial difference. As an example, we know that that a major Kuchma advisor is being groomed as leader in the Tymoshenko Bloc. What is needed is for the those voters to get up and actually say something-i.e.-to call for a better choice.

I and my colleagues are working on precisely getting such a voter, a voter who will tell politicians that his/her vote is not free-that the politicians have to abide by certain core democratic values in order to be entrusted with power. If society can do that, the state will undoubtedly improve-or so we fervently believe.

All told, let me say that democracy in Ukraine is like the weather in Canada. When I arrived in Ottawa on Sunday, it was -21 degrees Centigrade. Today, it felt like spring is finally coming. Democracy, like spring, is unavoidable, but we have to be more prepared to recognize it and embrace it when it arrives. Thank you.