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Ukraine After One Year of Yanukovych

May 31, 2011 // 12:00pm1:00pm

"When President Yanukovych was elected a year ago I hoped that he could bring change. I was wrong," said Alexander Motyl, Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark, at a 31 May 2011 Kennan Institute event, "Ukraine after One Year of Yanukovych." In Motyl's view, the current Ukrainian regime is a failure on several levels.

At the time of his election, many wondered whether Victor Yanukovych might bring stability and progress after years of elite bickering and the failed reforms of the "orange leaders." "But since Yanukovych took power on February 25, 2010, Ukraine has witnessed a coordinated effort to concentrate greater power in the president's hands along with backsliding from democratic principles," Motyl said. Such actions include illegal constitutional changes, the persecution of opposition leaders, and more media censorship. The new president quickly accumulated more power than even the quasi-authoritarian former president, Leonid Kuchma.

At the same time, the Yanukovych regime failed to implement other needed changes. In spite of its rhetoric, no systemic and structural reforms have been introduced. Most of the Yanukovych's bureaucratic regime, as well as the president's Party of Regions -- to which most officials belong -- consists of Soviet-style managers at best and incompetents at worst. "Even during the signing of the well-known Kharkiv agreements with Russia, which provided for the prolongation of the stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea beyond 2017, Ukraine's leadership couldn't ask for a good bargain," said Motyl. The proposed new tax code, Motyl said, was another example of the government's incompetence. Opposition to the code was so strong that thousands of Ukrainian entrepreneurs turned out to protest in Kyiv's Independence Square. Yet the proposed new code "was not seen in advance by the President," according to one of the officials, Irina Akimova.

The reality, Motyl contended, is that Yanukovych has violated every single one of his promises. Many voters who gave him the "benefit of the doubt" during the elections last year feel betrayed by his presidency. Yanukovych is losing support not only in Western and Central regions of Ukraine, but also in the Eastern part of the country, the area of his core support, including his native Donetsk region. According to recent polls, 40 percent of Ukrainians would be willing to defend their rights and interests by means of protests. Only 16.7 percent would vote for Yanukovych again.

While discussing possible scenarios for Ukraine's future, Motyl stressed that Yanukovych would not be able to emulate Russia's authoritarian system. According to Motyl, a strong authoritarian regime requires state capacity and resources, a popular ideology, and a charismatic leader. Ukraine lacks all of these.

That does not mean Yanukovych will not try to build an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. Motyl believes that the concentration of power in the president's hands, the government's lack of professionalism, and the lack of reforms make the Yanukovych regime very fragile. "In order to retain power," Motyl predicted, "the regime will stoke the culture wars, playing on tensions between the Eastern and Western halves of the country, especially between radical Ukrainian right-wingers and Russian neo-Stalinists." Ukraine's active civil society may thus be tested again. Motyl concluded that a new revolution against the regime which can unite people of different political camps is a growing possibility.

By Nataliya Jensen
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

 
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  • Professor, Department of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark
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