Ukraine's Political Crisis: Patterns and Prospects
Specially for Eurasian Home
The current political crisis in Ukraine is not unexpected and should not be cause for skepticism regarding the future of democracy in Ukraine. The sacking of the Yuliya Tymoshenko government by president Yushchenko, high-level resignations starting with State Secretary Oleksandr Zinchenko’s over the week-end followed by Security and Defense Council head Petro Poroshenko and Vice Prime Minister Mycola Tomenko, widespread allegations of corruption and coalition in-fighting, disagreements over the “right” course for Ukraine’s reforms and increasing popular dissatisfaction with the pace and depth of economic, political and social transformation are all manifestations of the domestic turmoil that accompanies transitions to a democratic environment.
The lessons learned from the transitions of other Eastern European countries over the past fifteen years teach us that Ukraine is another instance of this difficult, yet necessary process.
For the sake of perspective, let us recall some of the lessons learned from other Eastern European transitions. Poland had and sacked six governments in the first two years of its transition (1990-1992).
Czechoslovakia split due to the inability of Czech and Slovak politicians to agree on a formula for shared leadership. Slovakia inherited Vladimir Meciar, a populist leader who damaged the country's reputation much like Leonid Kuchma damaged Ukraine’s reputation in late nineties, during the Kuchmagate scandal. Poor leadership in Slovakia under Meciar translated into damaged international reputation and credibility, and the country was left out of the first wave of NATO enlargement in 1999. Poor leadership and government performance in Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma translated into stalled negotiations on Ukraine’s status vis-à-vis NATO and the EU. It also led to a high-level shunning of Kuchma during the Prague NATO Summit when the language of negotiations was changed to French, to avoid seating president Bush next to president Kuchma. By mid-nineties, poor leadership and enactment of reforms throughout the region led to a wave of elections that returned socialists to power creating anxiety in West European capitals. A recurrent question was haunting everyone, “Is Eastern Europe returning to communism?”
Eastern Europe did not return to communism, but one after another, populations cast a protest vote and sent a unified message of dissatisfaction to their political elites. Bulgaria and Romania, the “lagers-behind” are still struggling politically and economically even as they recently joined NATO.
Bulgarian politicians took over two months this summer to form a cabinet due to the inability of political leaders to agree on a formula for leadership. Just as they seated the cabinet, disagreements among coalition partners were reported. Romania went from voting for former communist party activists in the early nineties, to sending the reform-oriented Emil Constantinescu to the presidency in 1996, to returning a former communist to power in 2000. Constantinescu changed three prime ministers on allegations of government corruption, incompetence and lack of sufficient reform. And yet fifteen years after the collapse of communism in the region, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovak Republic, Romania, Bulgaria are all NATO members and with the exception of the latter two, all are members of the EU.
Transitions to democracy and market economy are politically difficult and socially painful. If governments maintain the course, even if sometimes one step forward, two steps backwards, reforms eventually settle in. Eastern Europe provides perspective to what is currently happening in Ukraine. We should not regard the radical gesture of dismissal of the entire government as a sign of weakness. Such gestures are sometimes a necessary step towards a more stable, more determined and possibly more efficient governing team.
Such gestures indicate that instead of playing the blame game, president Yushchenko is determined to move the country forward even at a high political price.
Picking and choosing through Tymoshenko's cabinet for the "corrupt" elements would have taken time and energy, and would have come at the expense of urgently needed reforms. The new team will also make political mistakes and Eastern European patterns tell us that we should have modest expectations of the depth of reforms in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Yet we need to keep an eye on the bigger picture and judge Ukraine by the general direction of the country. To date, political and economic reforms are still the main objectives of the Yushchenko administration. The international community, particularly the wealthier Western partners should understand the current political crisis as another manifestation of the necessary labors of the birth of a truly democratic and prosperous Ukraine.
Published in: Eurasian Home