Ukraine and the Politics of Euro 2012

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Ukraine and the Politics of Euro 2012

Hosting Europe’s football fiesta was meant to offer Ukraine a rare chance of opening up to its neighbors, perhaps, more so, as an incentive for it to consolidate efforts toward democratization and European integration, building on the gains of the popular Orange Revolution. In Ukraine’s case, co-hosting the tournament has put the country’s political caricatures before the spot light—the type that would better be concealed within the bunkers of undemocratic regimes. Euro 2012 has thus become synonymous with political brouhaha with frequent threats of boycott by EU leaders of all games hosted by Ukraine to protest political persecution of ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko et al1.  

Miss Tymoshenko, the charismatic heroine behind the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is languishing in a penitentiary in the eastern city of Kharkiv, convicted for exceeding her authority in signing a natural gas deal with the Russian Federation. The politically motivated trial that eventually convicted her is symptomatic of just how Ukraine is backsliding in democracy against the backdrop of a revolution that was supposed to chart the country’s future.

How did the country backslide into such an abyss of inept democratic governance? In an analogical fashion, like the Fascists, there was no doubt what a Yanukovich-led Party of Regions had in store for the country once elected. One just has to look at their records in the past2. Thank heavens, true to their nature Yanukovich is making good the commitment to living up to the true nature of the “political clan” he leads.

Defying the freezing winter frost of 2004, thousands of Ukrainians congregated to Kiev’s central square Maidan Nezalezhnosti in what was widely conceived as the final bout to safeguard what was left of the sorry state of democracy in this ex-Soviet nation. So profound was the urgency that it galvanized bonding sentiment of national pride a lingering testament to the longing for national salvation from the demons of plutocracy and all its vestiges of economic oligarchy that had become the Achilles heels of the country.

 Reverberating sounds of “Ukraine without Kuchma” and “bandits belong to jail” were heard all over the country, albeit with plugged ears in the Eastern and Southern3 regions. President Kuchma and his protégé Yanukovich with their entire corrupt dispensation saw their fate written on the wall, as a determined opposition united under the Orange banner. Alas! The Orange platform had its charismatic leadership pool of Yulia Tymoshenko, Victor Yuschenko and Yuriy Lutsenko to thank for the lure and charm that poured out popular support en masse. To their credit, they offered the Ukrainian people the desperately needed break from the canker of political corruption that saddled its entire post-independence history.

History vindicated the pro-democracy Orange platform by entrusting what was widely seen as the task of reconstructing the destiny of Ukraine into the hands of the charm offensive Tymoshenko and Yuschenko the avowed pragmatist reformer. Returning protesters took home to their kith and kindred the joy of prevailing against the forces of evil with a much greater hope of a better Ukraine under a new breed of leadership. Western capitals were also beaming with confidence in the new government under the presidency and premiership of Yuschenko and Tymoshenko respectively, whose declared policy was greater integration with Europe, with an even greater ambition of seeking NATO membership as its cardinal policy.

Nerves in Moscow were wracking as Yuschenko aggressively pursued closer European partnership whilst out rightly downplaying relations with Moscow. Naturally, there was little room for Moscow to maneuver. Thankfully, Moscow did not have to wait for long for the fervor of the Orange Partnership to be consumed by internal wrangling between the top brass culminating into the axing of Tymoshenko from her premiership office, ostensibly setting the stage for a mutual antagonism that failed to achieve the ideals of the Orange Revolution.

Tymoshenko’s dismissal brought with it a domino effect of fragmentation and bad blood between the Orange partners. Half-way through his five year mandate, being the lame duck that he had become President Yuschenko contending with the reality of the failure of the Orange Partnership was resigned to fighting for his own political future even against Tymoshenko. So vicious was their antagonistic strife that they made it easy for their real foe to take advantage of the ensuing public disillusionment to ride back to the presidency that evaded him 5 years earlier.

An electoral defeat in and of itself should not necessarily cause one to loose sleep, but not in the case of Ukraine where it has come to represent what Tymoshenko herself called 2010’s election “Ukraine’s missed opportunity” to consolidate democracy4. On the superficial level, Tymoshenko appears to be right, but the real deal is that the Orange Revolution was Ukraine’s actual missed opportunity to progress on the democratic rung. Voter apathy especially in the traditional stronghold of the Orange movement became the crowning glory of Yanukovich’s victory. But how did the country get that point within such a short span of time?

Brussels’ current policy approach of capitalizing on European cooperation and possible integration towards Kiev is bound to fail even before it gets any further. For starters, unlike the erstwhile Orange coalition, Yanukovich’s Party of Regions does not live and die for European partnership, thereby leaving little to no room for maneuver on this card. It is no secret that Moscow currently exerts a stronger clout on Kiev than it did during the Yuschenko administration. As long as Yanukovich is left with a fallback strategy in the wake of strong patronage from Moscow then definitely concessions cannot be extracted from him, as it were.

Another linchpin of the Yanukovich government is to consolidate its grasp on power at all cost by resorting to undemocratic mediums, one of such is to make sacrificial lambs of all who stand his way. By their political calculation, Tymoshenko’s freedom amounts to undermining the core doctrine of their political machinations. If for nothing at all, their brief sabbatical afforded them enough space to recuperate from the near fatal sting of the Orange Revolution. With Yuschenko now technically a toothless bulldog and a fragmented opposition, under-estimating Tymoshenko’s ability to galvanize a resurgent forceful impact will be very unforgiving therefore, their cause is better served with her behind bars. After all, President Putin and his United Russia Party offer Yanukovich some graphic precedence by their treatment of billionaire Mikhail Khordorkovsky.

Typical of its tacit approval, Moscow has gone under the veil of sovereignty to absolve itself from the domestic political developments in its neighboring country. With such high stakes, Moscow’s voice would carry much weight than any threat to boycott Europe’s football fiesta to be co-hosted by Ukraine. Western leaders may have to be a bit more discerning in interpreting President Putin’s response to the proposed threat to boycott games hosted in Ukraine, when he cautioned against mixing politics with business. In order words, the sooner the West came to terms with the source of the real power behind the reign of Yanukovich the better their chances of achieving the goal of a change in heart that could potentially lead to the release of Tymoshenko from prison.

Of greater concern is how the release of Tymoshenko and other political prisoners such as Yuriy Lutsenko will impact the political landscape of Ukraine presided by Yanukovich. It is an irony of history that Western leaders expect Yanukovich to tear down the stables of his own handiwork when the Orange Coalition whose historic mandate it was do so woefully failed. With a very disillusioned electoral base, Tymoshenko is highly unlikely to command the same type of popular ground swell that was manifested in the heydays of the Orange Revolution.

If judging the Orange Coalition on its merit, then Tymoshenko will not be able to stand the scrutiny of concrete providence. Tymoshenko and Yushchenko made fetish the Ukrainian people’s chant to get the “bandits to jail.” They have nothing to show for breaking the corrupt culture of impunity, just as their inability to boast of any foreign policy gains. Had they kept faith with the masses that propelled them to power or even for the least, placed the supreme interest of the people above their personal differences then they would have effectively condemned the gangster political culture of the Party of Regions to the marginal fringes of obscurity, only to be numbered amongst the dead and curious historians.

References: 
  1. See “EU ministers to meet over Tymoshenko amid calls for Euro 2012 boycott” Accessed from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/13/eu-yulia-tymoshenko-euro-201...
  2.  Under President Kuchma, Ukraine witnessed authoritarianism, corruption, political assassinations including the infamous abduction and execution of investigative journalist Georgiy Gongadze by state security forces. Refer to Alexa Chopivskiy (September, 2010), “Ukraine: Don’t Ask Who Killed Georgiy Gongadze,” Accessed from http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/alexa-chopivsky/ukraine-don%E2%80%99t-ask-who-killed-georgiy-gongadze
  3. Language status is a very divisive subject in Ukraine, where the Eastern and Southern states are native Russians and the Central and Western states being ethnic Ukrainians. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/25/ukraine-row-russian-language-split
  4.  See “Viktor Yanukovich’s Thuggish Autocracy is heading in a Dangerous Direction,” http://www.economist.com/node/21554187