| 12Oct2006 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Old surprises; new realities in Ukraine’s Politics

History proves that freedom dies when criticism ends.

The announcement by President Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine (OU) party to go into opposition to the government does not surprise. The greater surprise happened a few weeks ago when the President called on Victor Yanukhovych to form a coalition government comprising the Party of Regions (PR), the Socialists (SPU), the Communists(CPU) and OU. Now OU is leaving.

In reality, the coalition is untenable. It has no ideological base, no common policies and no cohesion. Yesterday’s enemies artificially forced a relationship designed to achieve immediate political imperatives. The OU wanted to regain some power -- get appointed to head ministries after forfeiting a viable Orange forces coalition; the PR was anxious to neutralize opposition. To cover up major political fault lines the parties signed the National Unity Universal document. To her credit, Yulia Tymoshenko refused to join the coalition and formed an opposition to the government. Nor did she sign the document.

Now, it appears, the poyedynokl z dijavolom, the alliance with the devil as the Ukrainians call unsavory unions, is in jeopardy. Last week Roman Bezsmertnyj, the party leader announced that OU is joining the opposition and pulling ministers from the government. The immediate kicker was the Prime Minister’s negative stand to NATO in Brussels. However, OU accuses him of wider disregard for the Universal.

No surprise here. Once the Universal had served its purpose and once he was firmly in power, Mr.Yanukhovych was less bound to its principles like the European integration, quick move towards WTO, promotion of national Ukrainians symbols, freedom of the press, and, of course, NATO. Such principles never comprised his party’s political ideology to begin with. Moreover, it appears, the Universal is not enforceable by law; not worth the paper it’s written on. In reality, the Prime Minister can sign it then disregard it as much as he likes without political consequence. His position is secure as long as he controls the majority in the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, or until the people have had enough of these shenanigans and demand a new election.

It looks like the OU has been outmaneuvered. No surprise here. It has a history of political ineptness. Consider the following. Its forerunner, and still an influential component, Rukh championed the independence movement in 1991. Over 90% of the populations supported them. Since then, its force has disintegrated into several parties, including OU. The result? Failure to capture political control of Ukraine. Reunited in the 2004 presidential election, the now called Orange forces again rally tremendous popular support. They surprise and earn respect from most of Ukraine, the world, with this success. Not two years later, the political capital squandered by its leaders, parliamentary power is handed over to Russia’s preferred man Victor Yanukhovych.

The reinvention of OU as the opposition may be its political salvation. It has lost much support among the people and will no doubt lose more if it continues to associate with the PR which its electoral base does not. Ideologically, OU is a much better fit with BYuT than with the PR. It might distinguish itself once again by joining forces with her to raise Ukraine to a new level of democratic evolution: a two party system; one in power and one in opposition.

Democracy, as defined by ancient Greece, and still true today, is a society in which citizens take turns in being rulers and the ruled. Rulers are those who win control of parliament in a fair election; the opposition, those who lose but want to win and rule next. There were times in history when criticism of the government -- the main role of the opposition -- was considered treason, punishable by prison or worse. This was the reality in the USSR, a one party dictatorship with no opposition. And death for some 30 million who dared!

Such pathological paranoia may explain the loathing and scorn which still clings to many politicians, who come from the Communist formation, against opposition to their “correct” way. Such people are clearly identifiable. They hurl invectives at those not inclined to support them -- be it coalitions or other political views. Fascist nationalists and emotional national crisis generators come to mind, as does the appalling animal name-calling hurled by Mr. Yanukhovych at the Orange protestors of the falsified presidential elections. These are yesterday’s people who do not understand the indispensable value of an opposition and the need for Ukraine to go forward in its political evolution.

What does the opposition do? It debates and criticizes; asks embarrassing questions and makes statements to the press about government’s questionable dealings. When the public good is at stake, it has the right and duty to oppose the government’s policies and actions. By doing so, it is convincing the electorate to give it power to govern in the next election because it, the opposition, can and will do a better job.

In democracies, the evolution from multi-part to a two-three party systems clarified the role of the opposition. It became the party whose elected members do not support the government and who offer themselves to the voters, not just as individual candidates, but as an organized and alternative government. This is exactly what Yulia Tymoshenko did when she declared that BYuT would not join the PR but sit in parliament as the opposition. If Ukraine is to continue its transformation into a modern state, it is imperative that it move in this direction. The OU’s decision to join the opposition is a good step forward. What might be some others? What is in Ukraine’s best interest?

Ukraine needs what every democracy needs -- a strong, forceful opposition, ideologically united to fight policy battles on important issues with the government on behalf of the citizens, and in so doing get itself ready for the next election. And victory.

To win the next election Ukraine’s opposition, like those throughout the world, needs a winning strategy. To begin, here are six key steps:

** Decide that it is an “Orange opposition” -- understanding that the greater the integration and movement towards a single party, the greater its chances of galvanizing the electorate’s support.

** Distance itself from losers -- former political lights that have disgraced themselves. The people do not forget.

** Seek models of how other oppositions do it -- the Poles, the Brits, the Americans. Use what fits. Learn quickly, elections are but a few years away.

** Establish a shadow cabinet using the best people for the job -- sharing positions among the various factions to strengthen cohesion. Reallocate portfolios periodically to broaden experience, reward talent and deal with inadequate performance. Develop winners.

** Provide solid debate on issues facing Ukraine -- energy and the Russia factor; foreign affairs; the despicable social inadequacies. The budget is an excellent time to query spending and financial accounting. Use the media as much as possible.

** Be fearless in criticizing the government in parliament, the media, in meetings with the electorate, but be fair. Remember, their turn to criticize will come when they are in the opposition.

Surprise Ukraine again by leading it to a new political reality.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, President U*CAN a consulting firm is writing a book about her experiences in Ukraine.
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