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Power Politics in Ukraine's Parliament

The correlation of forces in the Ukrainian Parliament, the Rada, may have shifted. Not in terms of votes, of course, as the Regionnaires and their allies still have a majority of deputies.

But in terms of what really matters in the surreal world of Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine: fists.

With the election to the Rada of 38 deputies from the right-wing nationalist Svoboda party and of ex-boxer Vitaly Klitschko, head of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, the Regionnaires have been transformed from a gang of thugs willing and able to spring a pogrom on the opposition to a bunch of mostly overweight and balding bullies who know they’ve more than met their match.

The fisticuffs that broke out during the first two days of the newly elected Rada’s sessions demonstrated the shift in power. The Svobodites are big and strong and young and, unlike the diminutive democrats who would consistently get their butts kicked in the past, took no guff from the Regionnaires. And listen to the very big Klitschko’s veiled threat: “I understand many people’s desire that I join the attack, but I wish to remind them that, for instance, in the United States, a boxer’s fists are compared to a weapon, and a world champion’s fists to a nuclear weapon. And we will not use that weapon. Not yet.” You can be sure that the Regionnaires’ scrappy tough-guy-in-chief, Vladyslav Lukyanov, was listening attentively.

The brawls that erupted did nothing to enhance the Rada’s stature at home or abroad and they’re obviously no way to run a democracy, but, in putting the Regionnaires on the defensive, they could have enormous implications for the Ukrainian political system.

For the first time in many years, the Regionnaires know that their shenanigans—their steamrolling of the democratic process, their indifference to procedure, their violations of ethical norms, their adoption of outrageously self-serving policies, and their wanton use of violence against the opposition—will provoke brawls they will lose. Remember: most Regionnaires are immune to reason and want only two things, more power and more wealth. Some Ukrainians compare them to Nazis. And how, these Ukrainians argue, do you stop Nazis? Not with appeasement and not with appeals for compromise. Or, as one liberally minded Ukrainian businessman who detests Svoboda said about the Regionnaires: “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

Now that the Regionnaires understand they can’t run the Parliament like their gang turf, how are they likely to respond?

Although the Regionnaires know that the Riviera sun is only half the fun with broken noses and black eyes, their power itch will be irresistible. Their first impulse will be to buy the opposition’s tough guys, but that’s unlikely to work. The Svobodites will beat up potential turncoats, while Klitschko is a self-made millionaire and doesn’t need Regionnaire bribes.

Their second impulse will be to offset their physical disadvantage by arming themselves with chairs, microphones, lecterns, and the like. That, too, won’t work, because the opposition will respond in kind.

At some point down the road, when the Regionnaires finally understand they can’t win the arms race, a third impulse—call it the return to some rationality—may kick in. Since the Regionnaire desire for self-preservation should trump even their desire for lucre, there’s a chance they’ll eventually tire of bloody noses and tone down their excesses. The Rada could then become, for the first time in some seven or eight years, a semi-functioning institution. The new Rada speaker, Yanukovych crony Volodymyr Rybak, may have hinted at things to come when, on December 17th, he called on deputies to “listen to one another” and to “rise above party interests, acknowledge the importance of popular interests, and work on behalf of the people.” When representatives of the mafia call for reason, you know they’re in serious trouble. 

Now consider how President Yanukovych will respond to the fisticuffs. If the Rada becomes a barroom, he’ll have to take full responsibility for all of policy, be held accountable for the country’s descent into the third world, endure the indignity of having his regime compared unfavorably with the chaos of Viktor Yushchenko’s last two years in power, and suffer the consequences in the presidential elections of 2015 or before. Kyiv’s corridors of power are already abuzz with rumors of impending coups and the din will only increase as Yanukovych’s nakedness becomes increasingly embarrassing.

Dissolving the Rada and calling for new elections won’t work, as the democrats and Svoboda will only increase their share of deputy seats. And besides, given the Parliament’s current truculent mood, it’s a good bet that many deputies won’t heed the president’s call to go home and, instead, will declare the Rada sovereign, thereby directly challenging the authority of the hapless president.

And if the Rada actually becomes a semi-responsible institution and begins to play the role of a genuine legislature, Yanukovych may finally see his vast powers constrained and, far worse, his vast wealth subjected to public scrutiny. Whatever the scenario, the poor prez and his two sons will be in a major-league pickle.

Armies like to intervene in such circumstances, but Ukraine’s is a joke. The only two forces that could save the country from ungovernability will be the democratic opposition and the oligarchs. The former has the popular support and the legitimacy, while the latter have the money and the clout. Most of the democrats receive funding from the oligarchs anyway. The oligarchs must know that only democracy and rule of law can safeguard their wealth in the long run. An alliance, perhaps? With Yulia Tymoshenko, the democratic oligarch, as the next president? Why not? Besides, she’s the only Ukrainian politician who could outpunch Klitschko. 

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