People power in Ukraine

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Even as Ukraine drifts towards ever-more authoritarian government, the people’s ability to challenge the authorities was illustrated recently by protests against the demolition of a historic squarter in Kyiv, says Roman Rukomeda.

Roman Rukomeda is a political analyst for the Ukrainian Foundation for Democracy ‘People First’.

“The Ukrainian authorities continue to test the limits of patience of their own people. A first example is the destruction of ancient buildings in a historic part of Kyiv, Andriyivskyy Descent, while another is the change of rules for the parliamentary elections due for October of this year.

In first case we have Andriyivskyy Descent, a short, ancient street in the centre of Kyiv where tourists could buy souvenirs and paintings and feel the spirit of traditional Ukrainian culture. It is now completely under reconstruction with several old buildings destroyed. Apologies to the tourists Ukraine is expecting for the Euro 2012 Football cup in June: they will not see it.

In a second case, the Constitutional Court of Ukraine has forbidden simultaneous balloting of parliamentary candidates on party lists and in first-past-the-post districts. It means that the opposition henceforth has even less chances of getting a majority in the new Parliament.

The reactions of two participants in the Ukrainian political process – civil society and the opposition – to the authorities’ actions are demonstrative.

First we have the community of Kyiv’s people. The very day when three ancient buildings at the Andriyivskyi Descent were demolished, protest groups were organised through the internet and people gathered to offices of the builders and organisers of the destruction of that historic part of Kyiv. They brought construction garbage and left it in front of the offices of the self-styled ‘modernisers of the capital’.

The reaction of the authorities was telling. All TV channels aired speeches of officials who assured that everything would be renewed in a short time frame. They recognised that the wrecking of historical buildings was a big mistake and said that those guilty would be punished.

The proactive actions of the public frightened the authorities and forced them to start a dialogue and seek compromise. Or else the bricks could fly through the windows of offices of builders and state and city officials. Kyiv’s civil society has demonstrated its capacity to protect the city and its way of life.

Regarding the second case, when the authorities took away the right of the opposition to double balloting by party lists and majority districts by means of the Constitutional Court, the opposition-minded forces and their leaders became confused and didn’t know what to do.

The opposition has once again shown its own impotence. A joint strong-willed decision on boycotting parliamentary elections by all opposition forces could become a way out of the situation. The authorities would be compelled to make concessions in the face of the threat of delegitimisation in the eyes of society and the opposition. But it seems that the current Ukrainian opposition establishment, unlike civil society, is unfortunately incapable of displaying maturity.

If we look at the future development of Ukraine, considering tendencies predominating now, the following picture emerges: Viktor Yanukovych’s regime will continue the process of growing authoritarianism of power.

This will be achieved through the conclusion of non-public arrangements on cooperation with a part of the opposition parties and their leaders. And in case someone won’t be cooperative, the state machinery of pressure in the form of law enforcement bodies, tax and control services will be applied to them.

It will deal a considerable blow to the possibilities of financing any mass oppositional or anti-government activities. The authorities will definitively monopolise their grip on any big and medium-sized businesses in Ukraine. There won’t be any foreign investment coming, as political risks will be too high.

At the same time there will be a large-scale backslide in the area of freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly and free movement. This will lead to intimidation of the population and strengthen the manipulation of public opinion. The authorities will be happy to introduce rigid control over the internet.

The authorities hope that the society will degrade to poverty, social apathy and to the basic level of survival. But without any doubt, radical anti-authority resistance will also amplify and it will be headed by the present public activists and leaders. This image of Ukraine in the near future has high chances of becoming reality.

In two to three years Ukraine could turn into a classic sample of an authoritarian state on the model of Belarus or the Central Asian post-Soviet regimes. But this is provided that external players, first of all, Russia and the EU, won’t influence the situation. And this is highly improbable.

Russia already now is actively developing variants of deepening cooperation with Ukraine. A latest example is provided by the plans of the Russian Federation to create a new advisory council which would deal with the promotion of Russian interests in the post-Soviet territories. The European Union is also trying to “not freeze” relations with Kyiv.

The only thing which can transform today’s Ukraine into a democratic country which will care about interests of its citizens, and not about officials and big business, is the Ukrainian people, and more precisely, its most active and most conscious representatives.

Those public activists who are now rescuing historical Kyiv from destruction, tomorrow will go out to rescue the whole state, and not only its capital. They won't be deceived by politicians any more, as it was the case in 2004-2005. External players who would like Ukraine to be democratic and not authoritarian will bet on them.

As long as the majority of Ukrainians don’t realise that they have influence, changes won’t come about.  But look at what public activists did at the Andriyivskyy Descent – they proved that their anger matters. Let’s not let our hope die! There is enough will for this.”

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