Ukraine: One year (and 3 days) of Viktor Yanukovych

On February 25, 2010, Viktor Yanukovych was inaugurated as the fourth president of Ukraine. One year (and three days) have passed since then – time for a brief evaluation of his presidency up to date.

Most of the reviews of president Yanukovych’s first year published over the weekend were rather negative. Nearly every newspaper and media outlet had its own expert to say how Yanukovych was introducing ‘Neo-Soviet Rule in Ukraine‘ or ‘took an authoritarian path in his first year‘. But does it really look that bad? Unfortunately, it does. Ukrainian politics may not have taken a purely autocratic turn in the last year but instead of a continuation of the (partly imperfect) politics of democratic reform commenced by the Orange Revolution there has been a return to practices that made Yanukovych the winner of a forged presidential election in 2004. The fact that Yanukovych holds the highest ratings of politicians in Ukraine might be surprising to some but is indeed the direct result of his policies.

During his first year as president, Yanukovych has managed to re-arrange the polity and return to a pre-2004 state. After appointing more loyal judges to the Ukrainian constitutional court, the court suddenly decided that the constitutional amendments introduced in 2004/2005 were unconstitutional and that, thus, the constitutional in its original form was in place again. These amendments however, seen as great progress in the democratic development of the former Soviet republic, stipulated an independence of the prime minister from the president and laid the foundation for a healthy political competition and significantly increased the power of parliament. Now, as the president has again the power to deliberately fire the prime minister and appoint a new one, the political system rather resembles a presidential than a semi-presidential one; and Yanukovych made use of his newly won prerogatives. While a new prime minister was still installed before the constitutional court’s decision, last December Yanukovych exchanged nearly half of the government over night in the course of his ‘administrative reform’. Having regained the influence of the ‘old’ presidential office Yanukovych also managed to get rid of other obstacles. When constitutional scholars and opposition politicians declared that the constitutional court’s verdict had effectively been a constitutional amendment which would require early parliamentary elections, the president had the constitution amended and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections by organic law. A constitutional complaint filed by a group of deputies has little chances of success.

But why is Yanukovych so popular among the majority Ukrainian population (we should not forget that there are people who oppose quite rigidly)? First and foremost, Yanukovych has been able to present himself as a ‘man of action’. By vetoing several bills (1, 2, 3) – seemingly under popular pressure – and promising improvements, Yanukovych could show that he understands the needs of the people by simultaneously blaming the government for deficient policies. This, together with implementing other (questionable) populist policies such as a the introduction of a dress code for (female) employees of the government ministries and the abolition of luxury cars for government officials lets him appear as somebody who takes on the big problems of the country. The fact that of all things former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko is currently tried for fraud only reinforces the image that the president’s measures are already taking effect. Furthermore, one could argue that many Ukrainians whose country has been hit hard by the financial crisis currently have other things to worry than perfectly Western-democratic politics.

One year is certainly not enough to evaluate the long-term effects of Yanukovych’s presidency. There is still a chance that Ukrainian politics come closer to a Western-Central European ideal and that authoritarian structures in the begin of the term might result in higher political stability towards its end (even though the chance of the latter is rather small). Until then, Ukraine probably remains in the category of the ‘odd’ countries where government officials will soon drive Skoda instead of Mercedes but the president still takes his helicopter to work.

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