20 May 2004
Russia now has its "managed democracy" -- what it does with it is a different matter. In Ukraine, however, the October 2004 presidential election is still a genuine contest, not just between politicians and parties, but between two different political cultures -- broadly, between "political technology" and a genuine opposition (even if one of the standard techniques of political technology is to try to blur that line). As well as marking possible decisive domestic changes, the election will therefore have a vital demonstration effect for the region as a whole. If the management of Ukraine's democracy becomes as brutally effective as in Russia, Ukraine (and other states) will more easily slip back further under its influence. If a victorious opposition is able to enact real changes to foreign policy and the model of domestic political economy, the shock waves will be felt in Russia, too.
The West, on the other hand, is unlikely to intervene as decisively as it might. The EU is preoccupied with enlargement and has made it clear that it is up to Ukraine to catch up. The United States is preoccupied with Iraq, and mindful of its overambitious intervention in Belarus in 2001, has confined its concerns to the "quality" of the elections.
This at least will have an indirect effect. Ukraine is therefore a testing ground for the export of the Russian political technology industry. Despite many apparent failures at the last parliamentary elections in 2002, the Ukrainian elite continues to put its faith in the talismanic expense of northern "experts." One key way in which Ukraine is different, however, is that one-shot strategies have never worked. Ukraine has never had the equivalent of the Unity party in 1999 or Russia's anti-oligarch campaign in 2003.
In the 2002 elections it took at least four projects to prevent former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine Bloc's winning plurality (23.6 percent) from becoming a majority. The first, the would-be Ukrainian party of power, For a United Ukraine, won only 11.8 percent; the second, the smear campaign against the so-called nashisty, may have trimmed Our Ukraine's vote by 5 percent to 10 percent, mainly in eastern Ukraine; the third, the various "clone" parties run as covert projects by the powers-that-be, nibbled away at another 10 percent; it was only after the opposition's victory had been minimized in this way and Yushchenko demoralized by the peons and picadors, that operation No. 4 -- hoovering up independents and intimidating and purchasing opposition defectors to create a majority in parliament -- became possible.
Why so much history? The authorities have no silver bullet for their "stop Yushchenko" campaign this year. Instead, they are again reliant on the cumulative effect of a new compendium of dirty tricks. Many of the Russian political technologists who were employed in Ukraine in 2002 admit that their first task this time is to complicate the process. Many of their previous efforts failed because the last election became too polarized. If this time the electorate still thinks in simple binary terms of (honest) "us" versus (corrupt) "them," then their efforts will again fail. The overall project is therefore dubbed "toad's eye": an attempt to distract the toad -- that is, those voters who backed the opposition in 2002 -- from its original object of attention with a big show of vigorous but superficial movement.
The plan to reform the constitution earlier this year by making the government answerable to the parliament rather than the president was therefore both an end in itself and part of the show. The aim was to deny Yushchenko the possible fruits of victory and redefine the political game away from the binary simplicities of 2002. In this sense, the protracted saga before the final vote on April 8 worked well for the authorities. The opposition camp was distracted and divided, and looked impotent and confused. On the other hand, the final defeat of the plan by 11 votes and the opposition's celebration of the failure of so much blatant arm-twisting partially recreated the binary stereotype.
What comes next? Option two is to hold the election as normal and back a single candidate for victory. However, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych versus Yushchenko makes only partial sense. Despite some delusional thinking in the president's entourage, Yanukovych cannot win with a simple rerun of Kuchma's original 1994 campaign. Kuchma was then sold as an east Ukrainian everyman running against a "nationalizing" incumbent (Leonid Kravchuk). This time Kuchma is the incumbent, there is no "nationalist threat" and Yanukovych is narrowly associated with one particular region, the Donbass. Nor can Yanukovych easily be sold as the "Ukrainian Putin": He does not represent the "strong hand" of the KGB, but that of the Donbass economic elite, whose muscular business practices are pushing other nervous clans into putting out feelers to the Yushchenko camp.
The authorities need much more if Yanukovych is to win or, more exactly, to put him within reach of a victory obtainable with minimum use of "administrative resources" so as not shock the West too profoundly. Unlike Russia in 2003, the authorities will also seek to puff up the Communists as an extra obstacle in Yushchenko's path; although Communist leader Petro Symonenko and Yanukovych may take votes off each other in eastern Ukraine. Yushchenko is also likely to face more obvious "clones" in the political center, such as the former Economics Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovsky or National Bank head Serhiy Tyhipko. Tyhipko's PR men are busily appropriating credit both for current growth in GDP and the introduction of the "new" hryvna (the same but shinier) to "replace" the currency Yushchenko successfully introduced in 1996.
The authorities will also foment trouble on the right to try and pull Yushchenko away from the center ground (where he must stay to win). Even if Yulia Tymoshenko cannot be bought, she or her supporters can objectively play this role. Too many members of the opposition fell into the obvious trap of the "Village News" affair (involving a racist article probably planted in the largest circulation opposition newspaper as an excuse to shut it down), their longstanding rhetoric against the "alien" rule of "creolic" (Ukrainian but culturally Russophile) oligarchs being too easily converted into anti-Semitism. Divide-and-rule tactics also seem to be working with the Socialist Party, whose support for the constitutional amendment project almost delivered the necessary 300 votes in April. Kiev is awash with rumors of a Russian-inspired project to detach the Socialists from the opposition in return for posts in some future government and/or protecting the commercial interests of party businessmen like Mykola Rudkovsky.
Even if the various strands of the opposition eventually pull together later in the campaign, the damage may already have been done.
As in 2002, the authorities' technologists will also try to depict the opposition as "just as bad" as, implicitly, themselves. In 2002, they produced "cassette scandal 2," but Yushchenko chatting on the phone with Kiev Mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko about removing Viktor Medvedchuk as deputy chair of the parliament had nothing like the political resonance of the murder of Georgy Gongadze. This time the authorities' more exact aim is to clone the success of Russia's "anti-oligarch" campaign in 2003. True, there are many ambitious small oligarchs in Our Ukraine who would like to become big oligarchs after a Yushchenko victory, such as the "chocolate king" Petro Poroshenko. But there is no equivalent of Yukos lurking in their ranks. The public perception, quite rightly, is that most of the oligarchs are on the government side.
Yushchenko's strength is that he has been flat-lining in the polls since 2002 -- none of the technologists' tricks have yet made a decisive difference. But this is also his weakness. There is no dynamism in his campaign. He is always in defensive mode for whatever dirty trick comes next and his lead in the polls is small. A minority of the electorate has firmly made up its mind. It would only take a drop of five percentage points or so to put Yushchenko in the danger zone, where anything can happen. Ukrainian sociologists are often suspected of manipulating data, but one institute (www.niss.gov.ua) recently had Yushchenko at 21.8 percent and Yanukovych at 16.4 percent. Just as tellingly, in the same survey 26 percent of those polled expected Yanukovych to win, and only 20.3 percent expected Yushchenko to win.