Expect 2012 to be a wild ride for Viktor Yanukovych and his merry band of Regionnaires. Indeed, they may even fly off the roller coaster.
Consider the following likelihoods.
For starters, the world will squeeze the Regionnaires until they turn blue in the face. The European and American economies will remain weak, while Russia’s and China’s will continue to stagnate. Foreign direct investment will dry up, Ukrainian exports will decline, and Ukraine’s industries, especially in the Donbas, will contract. Worse, Russia may be in for a time of troubles. It’s not inconceivable that Vladimir Putin’s fascistoid regime could collapse. And even if it doesn’t, Russian civil society is unlikely to stand still and watch its liberties be whittled away. Since an embattled Putin is likely to play the only card he has left—appeals to Russian greatness and neo-imperial manifest destiny—Viktor and the Regionnaires aren’t going to get any breaks from big brother in the north. Meanwhile, both the United States and Europe will have too many of their own problems to worry about Ukraine. As a result, the Yanukovych regime will be completely isolated.
While the world economy weakens, Ukraine’s could go into a tailspin. With export markets withering, with outside credit drying up as Europe’s overextended banks stop lending to risky borrowers such as Ukraine, with the price of Russian gas likely to stay high, with taxes remaining regressive and unfair, and with IMF money entailing the kind of conditionality (reforms and honest government) that is anathema to the Regionnaires, real GDP growth will be minimal, unemployment is likely to rise, inflation will go up, and budget deficits will balloon. Ukraine could even default. Since it would never occur to Viktor and the Regionnaires not to exploit the working poor to make ends meet, the only way the regime will be able to pay for its expenses—everything from the UEFA football championship to the toilet seats in Yanukovych’s villa outside Kyiv—is by squeezing the population. Naturally, that’ll just drive more economic activity into the shadows, increase corruption, and force desperate people into the streets.
Under conditions such as these, Ukrainian politics will become significantly more volatile. The regime and its president are corrupt, unpopular, illegitimate, unstable, weak, incompetent, and thuggish, and everybody knows it. Faced with the daunting challenges described above, the crooks and scoundrels will not embark on bold reforms. Instead, some will jump ship, while the others close ranks, sit tight, and hope that the football games divert popular attention from their misrule. That won’t happen, because too many people are too angry at too much thievery by too many thugs, and the UEFA games, rather than distracting people, will only energize and anger them even more. As a million or more tourists descend on Ukraine next summer, Ukrainians will have the opportunity to exchange horror stories with those of them who are Russian and to see from those of them who are European that misery is not a natural state of affairs, that if Poles and Czechs and Slovaks and Estonians can live decently, so too can they.
Passions are likely to boil over during the October elections to the Parliament. The Regionnaires will only be able to win if they falsify the election results. They know that, and the people know that. And, now that the Russians have exposed United Russia’s electoral shenanigans, the Regionnaires know they won’t get away with falsifying too much. But that raises the possibility that they could actually lose. Ironically, if the Regionnaires just barely win, perhaps more or less fairly, people may be most likely to believe they engaged in fraud and take to the streets in mass protests.
Orange Revolution redux, anyone?
In sum, 2012 could be the Regionnaires’ last year in power. While nothing is certain, the odds are high enough for Ukraine’s democratic opposition to start getting its act together. It may be taking over the reins of government sooner than anyone expects under crisis conditions that will not permit Ukraine’s democrats to do what they do so well: squabble, dawdle, dither, and fight over portfolios. If the democrats screw things up again, there may be no next time—for them or for Ukraine.
The democrats will have to realize that the currently incarcerated Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko are most likely to become the opposition’s leaders, less because of their intrinsic qualities and more because tyrants always endow victims of tyranny with stature. The longer Tymoshenko and Lutsenko stay in jail and the more they hover between life and death, the greater their moral authority will be when they are released—as they inevitably will be if and when the Regionnaire regime begins to crumble. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that Yanukovych will try to save his skin by freeing one or both of them. If and when that happens, you can be pretty certain that the regime is on its last legs.
Tymoshenko and Lutsenko would be wise to model their leadership on that of two other prisoners-turned-prophets, Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela, and not on Viktor Yushchenko’s or their own during the wasted years of Orange rule. They’ll have to restrain their hunger for power and extend a hand to all democrats, enlightened oligarchs, and honest Regionnaires, while practicing ethical, open, and honest government, divesting themselves of their filthy lucre, and embarking on radical reform. Ukraine’s impoverished 99 percent will support leaders who walk to work, speak the truth, tighten their own belts, and promote the interests of the people, even if it hurts.
And if, by then, Putin is on a slow boat to China, Germany finally understands that tyranny is too high a price for gas, Europe begins to get its act together again, and America has elected a president, a democratic Ukraine might just be a reality in 2013.