I recently spoke with Sam Patten, an international political consultant, about the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential election in 2015. Patten worked as a media consultant for former President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party in 2007. He also helped opposition parties in Georgia defeat the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012. Patten has also managed Eurasia programs for Freedom House and served as the Moscow-based country director for the International Republican Institute.
MOTYL: As many, including myself, have observed, things seem to be getting worse and worse on the Ukrainian political landscape. How do you see it today?
PATTEN: More than halfway through his first elected term as president, Viktor Yanukovych has little to brag about. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs contradicted the government’s growth predictions and forecast that the economy will contract by nearly 2 percent in 2013. Pseudo-legal appropriations of businesses and property have also hit new highs. And the European Union is not bluffing, as the Ukrainian government believes, when it comes to the conditions for an accession agreement. Perhaps the best thing Yanukovych and his cohorts have going for them are the low expectations most Ukrainians have of their political leaders. According to a report by the civil rights watchdog Chesno, nearly three-fourths of Ukrainian politicians have betrayed or will betray the country’s interests. In public opinion surveys, Ukrainian politicians are nearly tied with prostitutes when it comes to trustworthiness. Only a hat-trick can save Yanukovych—who in his youth was convicted of stealing a hat—if the 2015 elections are anything close to free and fair. That’s why now is the critical moment for Ukraine’s opposition to present a strong and compelling alternative.
MOTYL: What should the opposition forces do to defeat the current government?
PATTEN: From the outside, it looks as though the leaders of the three principal parties that make up the opposition bloc in the Rada are walking in step with one another—certainly they have done so literally at recent rallies, and they have cooperated to stand up to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in the Rada. Should they be able to form something akin to a national salvation front in the coming year, it would give Yanukovych’s government real cause for concern. The elements of a winning team are all there:
Vitaly Klitschko stands as a civilized prizefighter, in bold contrast to brawling deputies in the Rada. His UDAR party produced the best news in last October’s parliamentary election, garnering nearly 13 percent of the vote. The tactically brilliant Arsenii Yatseniuk is no stranger to high office, having been speaker of the Rada and foreign minister, yet his stewardship of the Fatherland party during Yulia Tymoshenko’s imprisonment saw net losses in seats last October, even if it remains the largest of the opposition forces. And the nationalist Svoboda party’s Oleh Tyahnybok tapped a vein of voter anger against the skyrocketing corruption in today’s government, yet there remains unease about how extreme they will become.
Were Yanukovych to play Ukrainian politics in the same way the Kremlin played puppet-master in Russia back when there was a need to keep up appearances, he could conceive of many ways to pit these opposition forces against one another. Indeed, he may well be trying to do just that. This is precisely why today’s opposition leaders in Ukraine must work harder than ever before to put aside dueling egos, shelve wedge issues—like Svoboda’s new tilt toward a Ukrainian-only language law—and construct a new kind of leadership with different rules before electoral cynicism colors everything they do as 2015 approaches.
MOTYL: Is it enough for opposition forces simply to wait for Yanukovych and the Azarov government to drive the country so far into the ground that their electoral defeat becomes the only way of saving the country, or is there a better plan?
PATTEN: First, it is time to move beyond process in the national discussion of politics. Continuing to point out the falsifications in the October 2012 elections may be a worthy cause, but will not mobilize the nation. Instead, it’s high time to get down into the weeds on such topics as health care and education, which poll highly as concerns and to which the parties all tip their hats in elections, but for which there has been no meaningful reform. These are issues that actually impact people’s lives, and charting a path to improvement in both areas could open voters’ minds to the possibility that politicians care as much about them as they do about themselves.
Second, it is time to start thinking about justice not only in the breach, but also what it could look like were it a working notion in Ukraine. During a recent visit to Washington, Klitschko asked lawmakers to consider sanctions against corrupt officials in Ukraine, akin to a law Congress recently passed regarding corrupt officials in Russia. The law may have merit, but ultimately neither the US nor Europe will provide all the answers when it comes to holding criminals in Ukraine accountable. When the last president failed to go after the murderers of Georgi Gongadze or even his own attackers, it is unsurprising that people could turn a blind eye to the criminal past of the current president. With the unjust imprisonment of Tymoshenko creating a powerful and dramatic backdrop, now is the time to say in understandable language how to bring independent, and non-political, courts to the country.
Finally, there needs to be a pre-agreed mechanism for selecting the challenger to Yanukovych. Belarusian opposition parties did this admirably in 2006, but the playing field they faced was so lopsided that even a common candidate couldn’t unseat Aleksandr Lukashenko. But Ukraine in 2013 is not Belarus in 2006—not yet, anyhow, even if it is getting a little closer with each passing day. It will take time and practice for Ukrainian politicians to overcome their itch to stab one another in the back. Poetic though the question of “who will be the last to betray Ukraine” may be, it is time to start strategizing about what still can be done about the grand betrayal that is forcing the Ukrainian state off a cliff. Less than a month after the death of one of the major funders of the Orange Revolution, Boris Berezovsky, it is too late to pray for history to repeat itself. For Ukraine, it is time to try something new.