Not since the possible intervention of Russian tanks to stop Ukrainians from electing their man during the cold days of December 2004, has Ukraine needed good pro-West advisers as much as it has recently. Kyiv is teeming with them and those from Russia. Russia’s deserve their high per diems. Their protégées from the Party of Regions may/will form the government in Ukraine. Those offering advice to President Victor Yushchenko -- at least those in the so called pro-West category -- should be fired. The president’s actions have been so bad, they defy understanding.
To begin, he created a political vacuum, one of the greatest hazards in politics. Yulia Tymoshenko, understood the danger and set out to cobble an Orange coalition as soon as her Block won the most seats among the three Orange parties in the March 26, 2006 elections. Instead of support, the president’s Our Ukraine Party gave her grief. The on-again off-again talks protracted the vacuum for three months. It allowed the fraud, Victor Yanukhovych and his pro-Russia oligarch Party of Regions to snatch/ to nearly snatch victory from the Orange forces.
The political vacuum was an opportunity for Western friends to provide advice on how to move forward. Pressuring the President to do the right thing and give Ms. Tymoshenko the prime minister’s job would have consolidated power and provided Ukraine with a reform-minded, pro-West government. Of immediate concern, it might have safeguarded Ukraine’s energy sector from Russia.
There is little evidence of such mentoring taking place. Last March, before the election, I was assured by highly placed western advisors that the best thing for Ukraine would be a three-way coalition: Our Ukraine’s president would be the national figurehead; the prime minister’s job would go to Ms. Tymoshenko, or the Party of Regions; and the remaining one would become the speaker.
I was troubled by this scenario. What about punishment for the fraudulent presidential elections? What about the vast differences in policies? What about the Russia focus by the Regions? Who would form the opposition? None of this seemed to matter. Having helped to topple Communism in Ukraine in 1991; having prevented the fraudulent Victor Yanukhovych from stealing the presidency, some western advisors were ready to reverse these achievements. As it turned out, no such reversal was needed. The Orange forces buoyed by Ms. Tymoshenko’s significant victory had the numbers. They did not need to compromise with the Regions. So why did the President compromise by failing to act in a timely manner and creating a political vacuum?
A nasty joke is circulating in Ukraine. The president, boxer Volodymyr Klichko, football star Andrey Shevchenko are pushing strollers in the park; discussing the future for their baby sons.
"Take a look at his jaw and big fists," Klichko says, "he has the makings of good boxer."
Shevchenko’s baby is kicking up a storm with his legs. ”Undoubtedly, my son will become a world-class soccer player.”
"What future awaits your son?," they ask Mr. Yushhchenko. The president bends over, sticks his head into the stroller and replies, "He’s soiled his pants and he’s quiet now."
History will not remember bad advisers. It may be unforgiving to the president for forfeiting an Orange government and taking Ukraine to the next level of democratic maturity. His popularity is below 10%. Many reasons are offered. It is becoming clearer by the day, however, that Ms. Tymoshenko was frozen out to accommodate Russia’s control of Ukraine’s energy sector. The people are horrified that currently the president is allowing questionable sales of Ukraine’s energy assets to Russia -- the four refineries, the most lucrative aspect of the energy sector. Even more inexplicable, is the possible ceding of control of the Ukrainian pipeline to Russia.
Had Ms. Tymoshenko been the prime minister of Ukraine’s government, many believe this would not have happened. She would have fought Russia’s control over Ukraine’s energy assets and argued the danger of such concentration to the West.
It is hard to understand why the West, the United States in particular, would allow the political situation in Ukraine to deteriorate this far at a time when Russia’s energy dominance is causing global concern and when it’s political tone is turning bellicose. It is inconceivable that America and others fell asleep in Ukraine. Yet it happened. And, this is not the first time.
Recall, how the West, following the lead of the United States, agreed to centralize the nuclear capability of the former USSR -- shared among Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan -- in Russia’s hands. Also, how Ukraine’s interests in joining NATO, some ten years ago were scuttled to accommodate Russia’s objections. Bad decisions then; now, another bad one. Allowing Russia to gain control of the USSR’s decentralized energy sector through the purchase of Ukraine’s refineries and pipeline, gives Russia an energy advantage not just in Ukraine, but globally. Like the nuclear power and NATO membership, energy is a political weapon. It has just been handed to Russia. As the Ukrainians say -- with such friends and advisers who needs enemies?
Ms. Tymoshenko appears to understand the importance of timely political moves and the danger of political vacuums. She understands the value of keeping energy control out of Russia’s hands. She understands power. At the time when she still might have been the prime minister, she articulated clearly that she would not share power with the Party of Regions. It would need to become the government’s opposition.
At that point in the Orange coalition talks, it would have helped enormously if knowledgeable Western friends and advisors had offered basic lessons of good democratic governance: an opposition to government ensures its service to the people rather than to itself. Such enlightenment might have made a difference. Instead, in the president’s quarters, there was much muddying of political waters with talk of sharing power and heading-up ministries and committees between the Orange forces and the Party of Regions. This talk continues.
After her right to lead the government was trumped by Oleksander Moroz, as much as by the political vacuum, Ms. Tymoshenko demonstrated once again her knowledge of how democracy works. Unlike the president’s Our Ukraine members, she did not opt for the trough by pleading for left-over positions from the Regions. She recognized this would neutralize political effectiveness. Instead, she declared her intention to become the government’s opposition.
This should serve her well. If she follows the western parliamentary model she will empower her team by creating a shadow cabinet, critically follow the government’s policy, respond with better options, and be visible in the media as the alternative to the government. All of this to be ready when Ukraine goes to the polls again.
Ukraine is learning political lessons the hard way. Perhaps it’s the only way. None the less, bad calls by politicians and advisors need accounting and given the developments of the least three months, heads should roll. This too, is part of learning how democracy works.
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, consultant, travels regularly on business to Ukraine. She is authoring a book about these experiences.