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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The threat of the “putinization” of Ukraine

Boris NEMTSOV: It would be great if the opposition created a coordination council for the defense of Ukrainian democracy
5 August, 2010 - 00:00

Experts name the restoration of the power vertical as one of the positive steps taken after Viktor Yanukovych moved to Bankova St. Despite having just as much power as his predecessor, Yanukovych now has control over the government, the coalition, the military, police, security forces, as well as the governors. It should be noted, however, that building the power structure “to his taste” took place in an anti-constitutional manner and involved illegal methods of forming the coalition, the cancellation of local government elections, and the confirmation of Kharkiv agreements. This is where the alarm starts to ring — especially in the light of the recent talks on the necessity to change the Constitution in order to reinforce presidential powers, or, to put it in a nutshell, the return to the Constitution of 2004. All these changes, including those in ­fo­reign policy, such staying away from ­NATO, the declaration of Ukraine’s non-bloc status, and friendly relations with the Russian Federation, made many in Kyiv and elsewhere speak of a “Russian scenario” for Ukraine.

The hidden and the obvious in Ukraine-Russia relations, as well as the possibility of implementing so-called managed democracy — as in Russia, were discussed in The Day’s talk with Boris NEMTSOV, a well-known Russian opposition activist.

Mr. Nemtsov, during the Orange Revolution, you stood in the Maidan together with Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko, and other Ukrainian politicians. Could you assume back then that Yanukovych would become president a couple of years later? Who do you think helped (by their actions or, maybe, passivity) the leader of the Party of Regions to win?

“In a democratic society it is only the people who can predict the next president. That is why back then, in 2005, I could not predict anything of this kind. For some reason, many will take the defeat of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, and the victory of Yanu­kovych, as the failure of the Orange Revolution. This is wrong. The main outcome of the Orange Revolution is that Ukraine is a democracy, with freedom of speech, political competition, etc. Besides, and this is important, you have elections which are perhaps the fairest of all of the post-Soviet territory (barring the Baltics). This, too, is the result of the Orange Revolution. So, this result is real, and no one has doubted it, or will ever doubt. The main thing is that the results of the election were acknowledged by the Ukrainian people and the world.

“Yanukovych won the election with a minor advantage in a tough struggle. Tymoshenko, who was prime minister during the crisis, was able to garner the unheard-of 45 percent of votes, although she ought to have come a cropper.

“Why did Yushchenko lose? There are two factors. The first is that the people in the Maidan had pinned great hopes on him. Ukrainians, just as Russians, tend to believe in miracles. They thought that throwing out Kuchma and replacing him with Yushchenko would suffice to instantly bring living standards level on par with those in Germany, or at least Poland.

“Secondly, Yushchenko got bogged down in a quagmire of scandals, quarrels, and conflicts with his former companion-in-arms and, unfortunately, did very little for the social and economic progress of the country. There is virtually nothing, save for joining the WTO, that Ukraine could boast of in the sphere of economy — and of course the ­Ukrainian people were not going to forgive him for that.

“Today, the problem is whether Ukraine will be able to resist the open and barefaced pressure on the behalf of Yanukovych, who is trying to curtail the principles of democracy by establishing repressive rules. The situation depends not on Yanukovych who, like any other person in power, wants to take up the entire political space. He aspires to expansion, and this is obvious. It rather depends on the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian opposition, journalists, and business owners. I think that the putinization of Ukraine is extremely dangerous.

“It can result in nothing else but lawlessness, deprivation of rights, and corruption. Today the threat of putinization is in the air. Whether it will become reality or not depends exclusively on you. It is obvious that Yanukovych is not a democrat, he is not immune to authoritarianism. The only thing that can stop him is the citizens’ resistance. If you resist, you will not be destroyed; if you won’t, you will be gone before you know it.”

During the presidential election many experts maintained that Yanukovych ought to win, at least, because the country would have a strong opposition in the person of Tymoshenko. It looks as if the ex-prime minister’s abilities were overestimated. The opposition of today is pale and inconspicuous. What is your opinion on the activities of the Ukrainian opposition of today, and not only as represented by Tymoshenko, but as a whole?

“You know, it seems to me that the people are sick and tired of Tymoshenko’s aggression, of her contentious and somewhat hysterical temper. This is the first issue. Second, the people associate their own social and economic problems with the actions of Tymoshenko’s government. I am no great fan of Mrs. Tymoshenko, but for the sake of justice I have to say that she was very unlucky to be prime minister in the time when Ukraine, just like the rest of the world, was engulfed in the crisis. Of course, the depth of Ukraine’s crisis is a lot greater than even that of Russia’s. In my opinion, this results from the erroneous economic policy pursued by Tymoshenko. This is the second reason for her present ‘weakness.’

“The opposition should garner all its patience, it should learn to wait. The opposition is strongly divided. Besides, new personalities have appeared. They are very ambitious, but have not been able to consolidate efforts so far. The new ones believe that Tymoshenko’s mission is already over, while Tymoshenko looks down on them. This disunion certainly damages the opposition’s cause.

“I think the opposition should not make too much fuss and become hysterical for no good reason. Let us take a look at the treaty on the Black Sea Fleet. I think this treaty to be Yanukovych’s success and at the same time an act of robbing Russia. Yanukovych has nothing to do with that, he is not in charge of Russia. Meanwhile, both our leaders must have clearly gone nuts. That fleet is not a military unit, it’s a museum. And for that museum they paid 40 billion. Is that a sound thing to do?! However, there is nothing surprising about it. It is the usual style of the present Medvedev-Putin regime. But for Yanukovych it is a success, and this success must be acknow­ledged.

“His second success is the arrangements with the International Monetary Fund and European Bank, and curbing the deficit. I believe these are objective things, and neither Yanukovych nor Azarov deserve to be bad-mouthed for them. They did it? Great, good for them. Everything for the sake of Ukraine, so to speak.

“But what they do deserve to be upbraided for is their attempts at establishing censorship, amendments to the election legislation, attempts at criminal persecution of the opposition, and the desire to man all the important posts with their people.

“In my opinion, Tymoshenko, Yatseniuk, Tihipko, as well as Yushchenko —if he wants to return to politics — have to unite around one idea. It might make sense to create a kind of coordination council for the opposition forces, whose task would be to defend the freedom of speech, elections, political competition — in short, to defend democracy. It would be a good idea to invite influential journalists, public activists, and perhaps business owners, to join this council.

“Why business owners? The thing is that the reinforcement of Yanukovych involves the reinforcement of the ­Donetsk group. It means that the others risk losing their property and businesses. Which is why business circles are vitally interested in the Ukrainian democracy. By the way, I think that Rinat [Akhmetov – Ed.], being a far-sighted and intelligent person, is also interested in this. You know, life is long, and this is a small world. Today, they are winners who take it all, and tomorrow someone else will win and rob them of everything. Who needs that? And business owners want to have predictable rules.

“I think if such a broad coalition is ever created, everything will be just fine. What has already been done? A great organization ‘Stop Censorship!’ has been created. Great guys: they presented Yanukovych with a bike so he stops making traffic jams in the streets and does not foolishly keep increasing his army of bodyguards.”

So far, the situation is as follows: the opposition is weak, and the authorities are ceaselessly increasing in strength. However, the Party of Regions is a mixed bag, with lots of clashes of corporate and personal interests. Do you believe that a split in the party can actually become a joker for the opposition?

“There will always be conflicts within any party in power. But at the same time, there is the instinct of self-preservation. The instinct which boils down to this: if we split, we will get eaten up. This thesis of being ‘eaten up’ stops people short of taking unpremeditated steps. Now Yanukovych has the power: he has the majority in the Rada, a loyal government, and each MP wants to get into a cushy position. That is why I don’t think that the scenario of a split in the party of power is likely. It can be likely when the people feel that Yanukovych has become weaker. If he does become weaker, if his popularity rating drops, and so on, the probability of a split will grow considerably.”

Now I would like to go back to the “gas and fleet” agreements, and more specifically, to the contrast between the ratification of the treaty in the Duma and Rada. There are no questions as to the Duma. However, what do you think of the Ukrainian opposition who used striking “special effects”: did they really mean to prevent the ratification or to put up a show?

“Yes, indeed, ‘contrast’ is an understatement. During the ratification, the Rada looked like a mental hospital. Meanwhile, the Duma suggested a ­poli­tical graveyard. Both created pictures which are far from perfect, but you know, I liked the mental hospital better. I’ll explain why. There is a chance for recovery, while at the cemetery there are no chances at all. The ratification scene in Moscow was much more dismal. Just disgusting... Even Zhirinovsky (who seemed to be the only one to have abstained from voting) could not animate the sad scene.

“Now about the amusement and theater provided by the Ukrainian opposition. There certainly was theatricality, and there is no denying the fact. However, nowadays politics itself is a theater, so no wonder. How sincere were they? I think one cannot make any generalizations here, there were very different individuals there. Some sincerely believe that the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet is a threat to Ukraine’s ­sove­reignty.

“By the by, I do not think so, and that is why: the Black Sea Fleet has stayed on the territory of independent Ukraine virtually for 20 years already. There has been no — I reiterate, no — single occurrence of its intervention into any domestic political conflict. Even during the ­Orange Revolution there were threats of riot police units that might interfere, but no one said that the sailors of the Black Sea Fleet would come to Kyiv.

“That is to say that the Black Sea Fleet obviously plays no role in domestic politics. Absolutely none. And on the whole, people in museums are not generally prone to aggression. Have you ever seen aggressive people at a museum? I haven’t.”

But if you recall the events in the Caucasus...

“That’s true, but I’m speaking of the domestic political situation. As to the Georgian conflict, the valor of the ­Rus­sian Black Sea Fleet consisted in sinking two Georgian patrol boats. That’s the entire story. In reality, it’s an utter shame. It is clear that for many in Ukraine, even this ridiculous situation seems a threat, but I would not exaggerate the significance of the fleet, especially in domestic politics.

“But there was something that made my day. I saw opinion polls held after all this egg-and-smoke-bomb-thowing in the Rada. Apparently, most Ukrainians support this agreement. And they are right, because the treaty is truly advantageous for Ukraine, and poses no threats. It is all to Russia’s disadvantage, it’s sheer bondage. The US pays 800 million dollars rent for the biggest naval base in the world, Okinawa. That’s five times less! That’s for an active base which has a strategic significance in the region. Whereas these smart guys paid four billion for a museum.”

President Yanukovych recently signed the Law “On the Principles of Ukraine’s Home and Foreign Policy,” which perpetuated our country’s refusal to join NATO. The Party of Regions believes that the new bill conforms to the political reality after the presidential election. Conversely, the opposition is sure that this law is another step on the way of involving Ukraine in the sphere of Moscow’s military influence. What do you think of this?

“I think it’s a matter of time which depends on public sentiment. For instance, Yushchenko was eager to join ­NATO while the Ukrainian people were not. I have seen no opinion poll where most Ukrainians would support joining NATO. What can politicians do? They can either persuade the people, which they are bad at, or agree with the existing opinion. This opinion is as follows: we do not need the NATO, nor do we need the CSTO for that matter. They actually recorded the status quo which is formed in the country, and I see nothing bad in it.

“On the other hand, this doctrine says that Ukraine has made its choice, and it is Europe, right? In my view, this is a very important thesis in the doctrine, which no one will dare deny. By the way, this choice stipulates the attitude to things like the Customs Union, the CES, the CSTO, and the like. I think Ukraine will maintain a calm attitude but won’t aspire to participate in those structures.”

By Natalia ROMASHOVA, The Day