At a recent meeting with David Kramer, the Executive Director of Freedom House, President Viktor Yanukovych “underlined” that the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2012 “will take place honestly and openly.”
Don’t believe him for a millisecond. It’s not just that Yanukovych has a decidedly casual relationship with the truth. It’s that he and his Party of Regions know three things that all Ukrainians also know: that absolutely everything depends on their winning the elections, that they will never win in fair and free elections, and that the only way they can square that particular circle is by cheating.
The elections matter for two reasons. First, the fewer Regionnaires become deputies, the more Regionnaires will be open to prosecution for corruption, malfeasance, theft, and thuggery. Everyone in Ukraine knows that a seat in Parliament is the only real guarantee of immunity for crimes committed inside and outside that august institution. So it’s small wonder that the going rate for a slot is up to a million dollars. What looks like a lot of money to you and me is peanuts for the crooks that occupy the Ukrainian Parliament’s empty seats. Now, most Ukrainian parliamentarians have been known to line their pockets for years, but Regionnaire avarice takes the cake, both because they run the entire country and have nothing to fear from anybody, and because the greed of provincial politicos who finally make it to the big city probably exceeds that of non-provincial politicos with some sense of decorum.
Second, Yanukovych’s chances of getting reelected as president depend directly on continued Regionnaire control of Parliament. Here’s why. A recent public opinion survey by the Rating Sociological Group shows him losing in hypothetical run-offs against every respectable democratic politician: 30 percent to 36.6 percent against the imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, 29 percent to 38.1 percent against Front of Change leader Arsenii Yasteniuk, and 28.1 percent to 36.6 percent against boxer-turned-politician and head of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, Vitaly Klychko. Yanukovych manages to beat only his extremist alter ego: the head of the Svoboda party, Oleh Tyahnybok, by 31.2 percent to 24.4 percent. Now that most Ukrainians realize that Yanukovych is little different from the Regionnaires that misrule Ukraine, his chances of reversing these trends by the time of the next presidential elections in 2015 are nil.
Worse, the scandals keep on coming. The latest two nails in his political coffin are stories about the floating palace Yanukovych uses to entertain guests while at his sultan’s estate outside Kyiv and his preposterously over-decorated hunting lodge. The floating palace cost 75 million hryvnya (about $9 million), is decked out with elaborate chandeliers and marble floors, and belongs to a shady firm, Tantalit, affiliated with—guess who?—Yanukovych’s two crony sons, Viktor and Oleksandr. The lodge also appears to have some connection to Tantalit. You can be pretty sure that the president’s coalminer constituency from the Donbas will never be allowed to set their dusty feet in either place.
So what’s a hopelessly underperforming leader who prefers expensive kitsch to simple justice to do? Dictatorship is appealing, but it’ll never work in a big country whose people hate you so passionately. That leaves shenanigans, and the primary form of maneuvering back into office is to have Parliament change the constitution and assume responsibility for electing the prez. But you see the problem. If the opposition controls Parliament after October 2012, Yanukovych will have to face the voters in 2015 on his own merits, and it’s pretty clear that Ukraine’s next leader will then be President Anybody But Yanukovych.
Which brings us back to the parliamentary elections of October 2012. Since the Regionnaires are as unpopular as Yanukovych, their chances of winning a majority—and, especially, a constitutional majority of 300 of 450 seats—are zip if they play fair and square. Of course, fair play is antithetical to the Regionnaire mind-set, so expect anything but in the run-up and during the ballot. They’ve already begun gerrymandering districts, placing their people in charge of election commissions, buying off the opposition, and setting up dummy candidates and dummy parties. The latest Regionnaire gimmick was to get the Constitutional Court to limit the voting rights of Ukrainians living abroad. Since there are some five to six million such adult Ukrainians, many of whom have adopted Western values, the ruling is a transparent attempt to lower the democratic opposition’s vote total. But fraud is unlikely to work. After all, even if, as New York City’s Boss Tweed famously said, you vote early and often, no one will believe that a party with 16 percent voter support could possibly win an election. Heck, you can falsify 5 to 10 percent of the vote with impunity, but can you get away with 30 to 40 percent? No way.
Worse, the world will be watching these elections very carefully. The Europeans will want to know whether Yanukovych’s supposed desire to join Europe will be reflected in actual procedures. Russian democrats will want to know whether Yanukovych will try to emulate Vladimir Putin. The Americans will expect fair and free elections as a sign of the Yanukovych regime’s willingness to atone for its imprisonment of democratic politicians.
Ukraine’s president and ruling party are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they don’t cheat, they lose. If they do cheat, they also lose. Given such unenviable prospects for Regionnaire rule, expect Yanukovych’s cronies to resort to targeted violence and intimidation and develop contingency plans. Don’t be surprised if, like Yulia Tymoshenko, more democratic politicians get beaten up. Don’t be surprised if, as in Dnipropetrovsk, more bombs go off. And don’t be surprised if the Regionnaires intensify their theft of anything that’s not screwed to the floor, smuggle sacks full of dollars to the West, and go on a real estate shopping spree in London, Paris, Vienna, and the Riviera.
Most of all, don’t be surprised if the Regionnaires cheat for all they’re worth. And, after all they’ve purloined these last two years, they’re worth trillions.