POLTAVA – During the five years of the Orange leaders’ “incompetent rule” Ukrainian society not only got used to endless scuffles among the recent comrades in arms or to the permanent siege of the parliament by oppositionists from the Party of Regions, but also to living in a democracy of sorts. So when Viktor Yanukovych’s rise to power in 2010 became a fait accompli, many believed that even with a president like this, the nation would nevertheless continue moving in the European, democratic direction. They argued that the Party of Region had changed with time, having evolved from a close-knit fraternity to a political force on the national scale, with an average, centrist ideology, while its leader, thanks to his American councilors’ recommendations, had considerably changed and made some progress as a politician.
Some experts and journalists augured that Yanukovych might become the Ukrainian Kwasniewski. In particular, Marcin Wojciechowski, a columnist from Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote about this possibility in June, 2010: “Poland had a rather similar situation during the presidential elections of 1995. As a reminder, democratic changes had been occurring in Poland since 1989, when the former oppositionists from Solidarnosc took power over to form the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe. Although Solidarnosc soon split into separate political groupings, they managed to stay in power till 1993, when the parliamentary election was won by post-communists. I think that back then, many Poles perceived them just as today many of my Ukrainian friends treat the Party of Regions. However, Lech Walesa’s presidency was a guarantee that Poland would not relapse into past. But even he lost the fight for his second presidency, by a very narrow margin, to the then young and largely inexperienced post-communist leader Aleksander Kwasniewski.
I still remember the atmosphere of mourning, my friends’ despair. Some were going to emigrate, others drank for days on end. Poland’s future looked exceptionally gloomy. There were expectations of a post-communist revanche, the revival of censorship, crisis of democracy, and relapse from market capitalism into planned economy. But none of this actually happened. For 10 years Aleksander Kwasniewski was a very good president. He led Poland to NATO and the EU. He has consolidated our international position. He has become one of the best known and respected politicians in our region.” However, this did not stop Kwasniewski from taking part in numerous projects by Kuchma’s family (more precisely, by the former president’s son-in-law, oligarch Viktor Pinchuk). Meanwhile, a lot was written about the ex-president’s involvement in the “Gongadze case.” Anyway, such hopes and expectations as Ukrainian society and experts still had, vanished pretty soon. Instead of “Ukrainian Kwasniewski,” the nation got a cross between Lukashenka and Putin.
The team of the new leader, who had promised to put things to rights and restore stability, surprised the country, subjugating almost all of state power in one fell swoop, building the notorious “power vertical” and virtually completely ignoring the system of checks and balances. In only a few weeks they were able to form a pro-government majority in the parliament, which was created in an anti-constitutional manner, thanks to pirating defectors from the BYuT and NU-NS MPs. However, under Ukrainian law, a coalition can only be formed by factions, not individual MPs – just as the Constitutional Court had explained before in plain language). Still, soon afterwards this did not stop that same court from passing a contrary ruling (let alone the revival of the 1996 Constitution), which legitimized the parliamentary coup and the dubious (putting it mildly) procedure of government formation. Meanwhile, the West, fed up with the trouble that the Orange leaders had caused, leniently turned a blind eye, thus granting Yanukovych a carte blanche to implement the transformations he had declared.
Actually it is during the Party of Regions’ rule that many procedures have become blatantly dubious. The “legislative activity” of many members of parliament is a case in point. They have elaborated a smoothly-running system of “voting in absentia.” The MPs hardly took pains to debate and amend laws. Today, as commentators sadly note, you need no political views as an MP: the only view you want is that of Chechetov’s famous hand, signaling pros or cons during votes. And should someone fancy obstructing another crucial vote and block the rostrum, the strapping boys from the power team will “gently, tolerantly, politely, in an intelligent and civilized manner” restore the parliament to normal working order, reinforcing their exhortation, for greater persuasiveness’ sake, with heavy punches and even chairs.
The parliamentary opposition tends to lose all the battles under the Verkhovna Rada’s dome, arousing justified criticism from their own sympathizers, who would not forgive the ratification of the Kharkiv Agreements or the “language law,” pushed forward by the smug, insolent Regions, communists, Lytvyns, and turncoats, with the president subsequently setting his hand to all that. The democratic electorate’s disappointment was also aggravated by the endless feuds in the Orange camp, whose most charismatic leaders have been imprisoned and effectively eliminated from active, public political struggle. The “lust-for-power syndrome” seemed to be on the point of frustrating the democrats one more time. It looked as though they would never unite, even in the face of imminent death. But in 2012 something changed, and the BYuT and the splinters of the NU-NS were up to consolidate their forces to create the United Opposition. Moreover, they seem to have given up the sad tradition of grappling with each other and made a “non-aggression pact” with their political partners from Freedom and UDAR, agreeing on common opposition candidates in some simple-majority constituencies. They also seem to have learned some lessons from the experience of local elections in Kyiv and Obukhiv. True, this time around the stakes are much higher: the forthcoming election will be held on the national, not municipal, level. Of course, this is no grand achievement, and the list of failures could be continued. Nevertheless, the readiness to sacrifice a part of one’s ambitions for the sake of common success is praiseworthy.