Ambition Trumping Vision

Ukraine’s political leaders still haven’t managed to form a coalition government, although they’ve explored a variety of combinations. President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc and the Socialists — once allies in the Orange Revolution — have tried to cobble together a reformist, pro-Western coalition. A “national unity” option has been discussed, involving Yushchenko’s party and the pro-Moscow Party of the Regions, led by Viktor Yanukovych, but excluding Tymoshenko. There have even been rumors of a red-blue coalition that would bring together Yanukovych’s party, the Communists and the Socialists. But none of these attempts has succeeded. The most obvious factor standing in the way of a coalition government is the ambition of Ukraine’s political leaders. Yanukovych longs to avenge his loss to Yushchenko in the 2004 presidential election. Tymoshenko has already been prime minister and won’t settle for anything less. Socialist leader Alexander Moroz once had his eye on the presidency, and now insists on being named speaker of Ukraine’s parliament as a consolation prize.

The stalled negotiations actually benefit Yushchenko, whose party performed miserably in the recent parliamentary election and cannot appoint its own prime minister. Under Ukraine’s reformed constitution, Yushchenko will have to surrender significant power to the next prime minister. If the parties fail to hammer out a coalition by the end of this month, Yushchenko can call new elections. The current confusion also gives Yushchenko the opportunity to postpone government reform or to abandon it altogether — his barely concealed objective.

Observers of Ukrainian politics have been busily assessing the chances of rival parties and discussing the possibility of new elections, but surprisingly no one has addressed the issue of the future government’s platform — as if the composition of the coalition will have no impact on the country’s direction.. The ambitions of individual politicians come to the fore when party leaders refuse to discuss issues of substance. What matters to the average voter is not who the prime minister is, but what the government does. And this is where all of the politicians jockeying for position come up short. None of them has revealed his or her vision for Ukraine.

The underlying problem for Ukrainian politicians is that the people’s expectations and those of the business elite are mutually exclusive. Most voters cast their ballots for Yushchenko or Yanukovych because they believed that their man would improve the country’s socio-economic situation. Big business backed one candidate or the other on the assumption that he would preserve the status quo.

Businessmen, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Western, all insist on the necessity of liberal economic reforms such as scrapping what’s left of the social welfare system, pushing forward with privatization and reducing real wages in order to improve the competitiveness of Ukrainian goods. Russia has contributed to this process by raising natural gas prices. The Kremlin defended this move by saying that Russia should no longer provide discounts to Ukrainian customers. And why should it when the government makes no allowances for its own citizens?

Ordinary Ukrainians want the government to maintain the existing social welfare system. They responded positively to the discussions on renationalizing key industries that were held in Kiev shortly after the Orange Revolution. And they do not support neo-liberal economic policies. The business elite holds diametrically opposed views on all of these issues.

Whatever government is eventually formed in Kiev will have to tackle a fundamental dilemma: It can satisfy the demands of the population and incur the wrath of the ruling class, or it can implement policies favored by the elite and risk a popular uprising. Ukraine’s political system became far more democratic following the Orange Revolution, and politicians can no longer ignore the will of the people with impunity. Yet oligarchic clans continue to dominate the country’s social system, allowing democracy no chance to function.

No political party dares to challenge oligarchic structures, dominating Ukraine’s economy. The left is not capable of even speaking about social change. Most moderate welfare programs seem to be far too radical for people calling themselves Ukrainian Socialists and Communists. And even populist Yulia Tymoshenko decides not to provoke anger of the elite – even at a price of losing her appeal. A few months when she led the government were marked by some attempts of nationalization and redistribution policies for which she was sacked from her job. The lesson was learned well. She doesn’t speak about nationalization any more.

Ukrainian political commentators long ago joked that Yulia Tymoshenko wanted to be a local Evita Peron. Now they joke that her model isn’t the real Evita, but rather a character performed by Madonna in a Hollywood movie. The only difference is that Tymoshenko doesn’t sing.

Oligarchic clans have many disagreements among themselves. But one thing in which they are united is that Neoliberal policies must continue, no matter what Ukrainian people think about this. In this situation Kiev’s politicians have found it much simpler to hide behind a show of raw ambition. The real issue is not that all of them want to lead the government, but that none of them is prepared to accept responsibility for the government’s policies. They cannot publicly renounce their claim to the throne, but they find it a lot easier to remain in opposition.

Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.

Leave a comment