Yanukovich After 100 days: Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

June 10, 2010
Experts Roundup

As has been noted by a number of observers, including the American Institute in Ukraine, the administration of President Viktor Yanukovich got off to a fast start early with a strong showing at President Obama's nuclear security summit in Washington, a deal with Moscow on gas pricing and the Russian fleet at Sevastopol, and an upward adjustment in Ukraine's Standard & Poor’s rating. This has been accompanied by mostly positive foreign official comment and media coverage, even from quarters hostile to him five years ago.

A record of “achievement,” however, is to some extent in the eye of the beholder: achievements are credited only to the degree to which they advance a country in the direction the observer desires. By that measure, it is worth examining Mr. Yanukovich's progress to date from the standpoint of his most bitter critic, former Prime Minister and defeated presidential rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who along with outgoing president Viktor Yushchenko refused even to attend Mr. Yanukovich's swearing in. As characterized in the June 1 issue of Inform, the English-language newsletter of her eponymous Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) , Mr. Yanukovich's course so far has been one of "Back to the USSR" and undoing "the hard-earned achievement of the Orange Revolution" of 2004. Among the specifics cited are a Ukraine that is more regionally divided, failure with international lending institutions and on energy policy, getting too close to Russia, and backing off from NATO.

Are the BYuT criticisms valid? Are the facts cited by Ms. Tymoshenko's supporters accurate? Is Mr. Yanukovich's record already one of failure compared to that of the "Orange" administration he replaced? We asked western experts who have participated in AIU programs in Ukraine:

James Bissett, former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania

While it is expected that Viktor Yanukovich's first 100 days in office would bring criticism from his political opponents his new government has in fact accomplished a great deal. His announcement, at the April 2010 nuclear security conference to give up Ukraine's stockpile of highly - enriched uranium was rightly praised by President Obama and demonstrated Ukraine's commitment to maintain good relations with the United States and to play a positive role in international affairs. His primary achievement, however, has been to recognize - in a geopolitical sense - the fundamental reality of Ukraine's national interest by strengthening the economic and political ties with Russia. This he has done by the gas price deal signed with Moscow which brought an end to a serious problem between the two neighbors and more importantly, from the point of view of Realpolitik, by renewing the Russian lease on naval bases in the Crimea and withdrawing enthusiasm for joining NATO. Of course, Ukraine continues to experience serious economic problems but these existed long before Mr. Yanukovich assumed power. Moreover, these are problems shared by many of the other former East bloc countries. Nevertheless, in recognizing that Ukraine's destiny depends, as it has in the past and will in the future, on a strong and mutually beneficial partnership with a resurgent Russia, he has turned his country in the right direction after its dangerous flirtation with the Orange Revolution fantasy

Ivan Eland, Senior Fellow and Director, Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute

Although the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko accuses the recently elected President Viktor Yanukovich of taking Ukraine "Back to the USSR," Mr. Yanukovich's rapid policy achievements have been largely in Ukraine's national interest. Mr. Yanukovich obtained cheap Russian natural gas in exchange for a long-term ratification of the status quo in letting the Russian Black Sea fleet continue to use the military base at Sevastopol. Also, Mr. Yanukovich has thankfully buried any potentially provocative attempt to gain Ukrainian membership in the NATO alliance. The former deal is simply satisfies both Ukrainian and Russian interests. As for NATO expansion, Russia's war with Georgia illustrated that countries in Russia's near abroad might be unnecessarily and unwisely exposed by relying on paper security guarantees from a faraway superpower lacking local military superiority and operating at the limits of its power projection forces. In the future, some politicians in Ukraine, standing behind the alliance's paper shield, might recklessly provoke the Russia, instead of living realistically in the neighborhood of a great power.

Despite such laudable realism, however, Ukraine has shown that it can be friendly to the United States too. At President Barack Obama's nuclear security summit in Washington, Ukraine was the star of the show by agreeing to get rid of its stock of highly enriched uranium by 2012--enough to make a few nuclear bombs. In addition, despite resisting the meddling International Monetary Fund, Mr. Yanukovich's short tenure also has seen Ukraine's Standard and Poor's credit rating jump upward.

Instead, Ms. Tymoshenko's bloc encourages inefficient energy autarky, tax subsidies for small businesses, and imprudent reliance on distant superpowers to provide Ukraine's security. Because the Tymoshenko bloc's criticisms of Mr. Yanukovich's rapid policy changes are largely facile--except for the critique of the erosion of democratic and press freedoms--it focuses on non-policy trifles such as the age of the members of Mr. Yanukovich's cabinet and where they hail from in the Ukraine.

James George Jatras, Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

“Orange” partisans like to claim that theirs was a movement to establish democracy in Ukraine, despite promoting a concept of “the Ukrainian people” that effectively defined half of the country’s population as a kind of “non-people” or “anti-people.” Such a radical drawing of militant lines between those citizens whose opinions are “democratically” acceptable and those whose are not has more in common with Bolshevism than with any notion of democracy as normally understood at the beginning of the 21st Century. Talk about “Back to the USSR”!

To the contrary, as we at AIU have maintained, it is essential that a government in a country as diverse as Ukraine respect the unique perspectives and historical experiences of different regions while trying to achieve a reasonable consensus. We believe the Yanukovich administration, while clearly weighted towards the Russophone parts of the country, has come far closer to achieving such a balance than its predecessor did, or even tried to do given its mono-dimensional, unrealistic, and unrepresentative “pro-Western” vector.

The recent criticisms of BYuT show that far from accepting the role of the “loyal opposition” essential to the maturation of a democratic political system, some of Ms. Tymoshenko’s supporters seem more interested in infantile name-calling. This builds upon Ms. Tymoshenko’s pointless boycott of Mr. Yanukovich’s swearing in, hardly a demonstration of dignified acceptance of the results of the electoral process. To the extent the opposition to the current administration has honest differences of opinion with and constructive criticism of the mistakes Mr. Yanukovich’s team has made and will make in the future, BYuT can and must be part of a healthy national dialogue. I have to wonder, though, who is the intended audience of diatribes distributed in the English-language Inform. Surely not citizens of Ukraine but western governments and NGOs who might -- perhaps, somehow, someday -- provide support for a future replay of 2004. Aside from the distinct unlikelihood of such a scenario, appeals of that sort hardly contribute either to addressing Ukraine’s current difficulties or consolidation of its young democratic institutions. They are a disservice to honest backers of the “the hard-earned achievement of the Orange Revolution” to whom BYuT supposedly direct their message.

Anthony T. Salvia, Executive Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Since taking office 100 days ago, Viktor Yanukovich has moved to “create new facts,” as Menachem Begin would say. He has taken NATO membership permanently off the table and moved to restore good relations with Russia. Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council of the United States, no opponent of Ukraine’s pro-western orientation, has noted (critically) the “fear and loathing” Mr. Yanukovich’s policies have unleashed among some Ukrainians. He contrasts their reaction with the “far more restrained and nuanced view of developments in European capitals, [and] in Washington . . .”

Certainly, Europe welcomes stability on its eastern frontier. More than this, Mr. Yanukovich has given impetus to a new European rapprochement involving Berlin, Paris, Kiev and Moscow, an incipient concert of the main powers that may yet include Warsaw. It is based on this calculus: The key to Ukraine’s integration into Europe is Moscow (as Europe will never embrace Ukraine as long as it is at loggerheads with Russia); the key to Moscow’s concern to prevent strategic encirclement is Ukraine; and the key to Europe’s desire for energy security is Russo-Ukrainian rapprochement.

There is, of course, a contradiction between an emerging pan-European entente and a U.S. quest for global strategic predominance (if, indeed, that remains America’s goal under Mr. Obama) — but that’s a problem for Washington more than for Kiev. Far from exerting sway over every nook and cranny of the globe, we in the U.S. cannot control our own borders, reign in our deficits, or even plug a leaky oil well.

This may explain why Washington has been, as Mr. Karatnycky accurately points out, restrained in its reaction to Mr. Yanukovich’s rejection of NATO membership and other moves to back away from Russia’s strategic encirclement: President Obama appears to want a new kind of American foreign policy, one that deals with the world as it is, rather than seeking to remake it, violently if necessary, in the U.S.’s own image.

It remains to be seen how Mr. Yanukovich’s policies pan out. But give him credit for doing as president what he promised to do on the campaign trail, for giving new impetus to pan-European unity at a time when Europe seems to have run aground, and for standing for Ukraine’s national interest (as he understands it). As for the critically important matters of the economy and the fight against corruption, it is still too soon to tell, but the initial indicators are mixed at best. This will be the subject of a future commentary.

Vlad Sobell, Daiwa Institute of Research, London

It is in the nature of democracy that losers of elections waste no time in attacking the policies of the winner. Indeed, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has not disappointed, having subjected Ukraine’s new President Viktor Yanukovich to harsh criticism on multiple fronts.

However, her arguments lose any iota of credibility if we recall the desperately sorry state of affairs in which her regime left the country when it was voted out of office. The IMF has been urging the new government to become more ambitious on structural reforms and the negotiations have been far from easy. But we should not forget why the preceding agreement with the IMF was suspended and why fresh negotiations are now necessary.

While the trigger for its suspension was a populist social spending bill pushed through the parliament by Yanukovich-led opposition, this was, in fact, merely the straw that broke the camel’s back: the Tymoshenko government had reneged on several key conditions of the previous program, including the promise to raise domestic gas prices and launch the reform of Naftohaz. Ms. Tymoshenko’s inability to establish constructive relations with President Yushchenko repeatedly thwarted the formation of credible economic policy. For these reasons the IMF had given up hope on Ukraine well before the death throes of the Orange regime.

And if Mr. Yanukovich is lurching towards Russia, it is because constructive relations with Moscow offer Ukraine the only credible way out of its present dire predicament. The EU – never keen on drawing Ukraine into its orbit – is currently preoccupied with its own pressing problems. In due course, it will re-activate its Eastern policy and the issue of closer relations and eventually EU membership will re-surface. In the meantime, Ukraine must push ahead to achieve renewed growth and structural reforms. Mr. Yanukovich’s strategy is the only game in town if Ukraine is to resuscitate the economy and become a credible partner for the EU.