The chief hallmarks — corruption, cronyism, vindictive use of the courts — are in place. But Ukraine is missing the wealth from oil and gas that has bolstered Putin’s government, and the cracks are not hard to find.
“Ukraine is not Russia, of course,” said Arkadiy Bushchenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
It was Ukraine that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union when it charted its own course in 1991, and it was Ukraine that emerged after the Orange Revolution as the country that was going to embrace Western values and Western ways, and in turn expected to be embraced by the West. There was talk of Ukraine in the European Union, even in NATO.
Yanukovych derailed that journey, but he has been unable to cement his grip on the country. Civil society organizations have pushed back. So, to some extent, has the news media. Opposition parties are in power in some regions. And, with October parliamentary elections on the horizon, Yanukovych’s hugely unpopular Party of Regions expects to get a shellacking.
Yanukovych’s one strong card is the widespread disgust with politics that extends almost as much to the fractious opposition as to him. And a loss of parliament, if it were to happen, wouldn’t bring down his government — he’s in office until 2015.
But it would turn up the heat. For the past 10 months, authorities have been easing off on the cruder sorts of crackdowns. Officials have quietly engaged in discussions with interested civic organizations on the question of reforms in several key areas.
“I can’t say it’s impossible to work with these guys,” Bushchenko said. “It’s not Belarus, it’s not Kazakhstan.”
But it’s not Western Europe, either, said Yevhenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of Yanukovych’s chief rival and Ukraine’s most famous prisoner, Yulia Tymoshenko. The discussions, she said, involve “pseudo-reforms with a thin veneer of European norms.”
Window dressing or not, the talks to some degree probably reflect pressure from Europe, which Ukraine can’t ignore, analysts say. Ukrainian oligarchs reportedly aren’t thrilled with the government, either. They’ve watched while Yanukovych’s family and cronies from the coal mining center of Donetsk have snatched up one business after another, usually with the connivance of tax authorities. The president’s son, Oleksandr, saw his net worth increase 18-fold after his father took office.
Isolation over Tymoshenko
But one question overshadows everything else. Yulia Tymoshenko was Yanukovych’s opponent on the streets during the Orange Revolution and at the ballot box in 2010, and now, with the upper hand, he has thrown her into prison, along with three ministers who worked in her government. Currently under guard in a hospital, she was convicted of misuse of office for a natural-gas deal she negotiated with Russia when she was prime minister in 2009.