Ukraine's pugilistic democracy

By bne IntelliNews March 26, 2013

Ben Aris in Moscow -

After a four-week hiatus during which Ukraine's feisty opposition blocked the workings of parliament in protest at President Viktor Yanukovych's heavy-handed policymaking, the Rada resumed work in the middle of March - and opened with a full-scale brawl between deputies.

The opposition had been blocking parliament's work as part of a demand to introduce personal voting as opposed to the current bloc voting by factions, which would have the effect of increasing the opposition's sway. The blockade had to be broken for one day because if the assembly doesn't meet for 30 days, the president has the option of dissolving it under Ukraine's constitution - and no one wants that at the moment.

At the March 5 session, MPs of the opposition factions immediately again tried to block the rostrum, in protest against a government-inspired lawsuit that resulted in Serhiy Vlasenko, a defense lawyer for former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, being stripped of his parliamentary powers on the grounds that he had been doing business while a member of parliament. The move by the government was deeply ironic, as the majority of Ukraine's deputies are businessmen who are specifically there to promote their own interests.

Vlasenko's dismissal will have wider consequences too, as it caused a storm of criticism from Europe and adds another new obstacle to Ukraine's attempt to reach a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule lambasted the court ruling, saying: "Stripping a parliamentarian of his mandate like in the case of Vlasenko is not the European way. Does this bring Ukraine closer to the EU?" Fule asked rhetorically on Twitter.

No it doesn't. The EU has already dug its heels in over Tymoshenko, explicitly linking her release from prison to the trade deal. Kyiv's response has been to start a murder investigation that could see Tymoshenko jailed for life. Tim Ash, head of strategy at Standard Bank, says stripping Vlasenko of his seat would seem at odds with the government's stated intention of pushing ahead with the FTA. "The EU has made it crystal clear in recent weeks and months - including presumably during Yanukovych's visit to Brussels [in March] - that the application of selective justice had to be ended as the price of getting agreement on a FTA by the May deadline set by the EU," says Ash. "At face value the Ukrainian government would seem to be burning its bridges with the EU and the West and undermining its negotiating position with Moscow in the process."

These pugilistic debates in the Rada are reminiscent of Russia's parliament in the 1990s when the ultra-nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, shot to fame after he started punching more liberal female colleagues during policy discussions. But the scene coming out of Kyiv put even Zhirinovsky's antics to shame: the fracas looked more like a clash between rival football fans at a match.

These fights have become a regular feature of policy debates in Kyiv. One of the most memorable sessions occurred in April 2010, when deputies arrived in the chamber armed with eggs and flour. Then-parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn found himself taking up a defensive position in front of the lectern hiding behind two umbrellas as he was bombarded by the rest of the assembly. To his credit, he resumed his speech without showing any discomfort.

Russia's parliamentary clashes are a lot calmer these days. Fisticuffs has given way to more civilised protests, such as the wearing of white ribbons (the insignia of Russia's nascent opposition movement) or holding up placards during debates.

Ukraine's Rada is almost evenly divided between the ruling Party of Regions and their redoubtable opponents from the opposition. In Russia, the ruling United Russia has a larger majority, but since the Kremlin started launching corruption investigations into its own loyal deputies the mood has become a lot more dour. Moreover, Russia's opposition is rapidly fragmenting and these deputies have spent more time recently fighting each other rather than their enemies in United Russia.

Both these parliaments stand in stark contrast to the political millponds in the rest of the former Soviet Union, where the "opposition" are a few token representatives of parties not obviously aligned with the president (but nevertheless mostly loyal to him). In Turkmenistan only one party is allowed, the democratic party of Turkmenistan, which holds all the seats; deputies in Ashgabat have no one to fight even if they wanted to.

Take to the streets

Work at Ukraine's parliament has been frozen since February as the opposition attempts to turn the screws on Yanukovych, who is rapidly and successfully dismantling the structures that underpin democracy.

With tensions rising, the leader of the Batkivschyna faction in parliament, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, called on the population to take to the streets over the next two months in what could possibly turn into an Orange Revolution Mark II (the first Orange Revolution of 2004 overturned a dubious presidential election and propelled Viktor Yanukovych and Tymoshenko into power).

However, observers are sceptical that Yatsenyuk has the charisma to pull it off. His choice of "Nobody will ever overcome us. We are strong and we are heading for victory" as a rallying cry for the street action to come is a good example. "Catchy, inspiring, memorable and convincing eh? - Yes, quite - it's awful! Even the slogan isn't convincing as a slogan - despite what it says is probably quite true.... eventually...," Nikolai Holmov, a blogger living in Kyiv, wrote in March.

Yatsenyuk's team realized their mistake and quickly changed the slogan to the far more suitable "Arise Ukraine!" But even if the crowds have something catchier to shout, they are unlikely to show up on the day. "[Yatsenyuk] does not... enthuse as a personality. He does not make you want to get out of your chair, clench your fist and punch the air shouting 'Rise Ukraine!' He is more likely to make you want to put the kettle on, make a cup of tea, and discuss with your wife what he said, over a biscuit," says Holmov.

The pugilism in the Rada is understandable, as the opposition must be getting frustrated. Despite the blatant grabbing of the country's assets by Yanukovych and his so-called "Family" clan, led by the president's eldest son, the population remains more resigned than angry.

A recent poll by the Razumkov Center found that President Yanukovych would win the presidential election slated for 2015, if it were held now: 20.7% of respondents would vote for Yanukovych, 14.4% for UDAR Party leader and boxer Vitali Klitschko, 11.3% for Yatseniuk, 6.6% for the right-wing nationalist Svoboda Party leader Oleh Tiahnybok, and 4.8% for Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko. Clearly, the citizens of Ukraine have become weary of all the arguing amongst their "representatives", who seem to pay little attention to their problems or needs, distracted by the cut and thrust of politics.

An even more telling poll in March found that Ukrainians trust the church and TV more than the country's banks, parties and courts put together. The church enjoys the most trust, having the faith of just under two-thirds of the population, according to the Razumkov Center, followed closely by the media, which has the trust of 61.9% of respondents. The rest come a long way behind with 22.4% for the courts, 20.5% for all political parties, and 17.3% for the commercial banks.

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