Imagine a country with Russian politics and Greek economics, and you might have something close to the current state of Ukraine.
In the heart of its capital, Kiev, a 21st-century soccer stadium sits empty and chillingly distant from the teeming streets. Home to Euro 2012, the stadium is a stark reminder of all that the highly indebted people of Ukraine can ill afford. Farther afield, a gargantuan new airport terminal is equally ignored, bypassed by airlines that refuse its usurious fees.
Ukraine’s greater tensions are hidden from view. Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, she of the elaborate hair braids and simple political slogans, languishes in prison in ill health, serving a seven-year term for vague abuses of power when she was a challenger to the current President, Viktor Yanukovych.
Coincidentally, the country’s leading private TV station, TVi, has been dropped by dozens of cable networks outside the capital. And foreign currency has vanished, stashed away by rich and poor alike who expect a significant devaluation in the next month.
Just months after celebrating Euro 2012, Ukraine is now the centre of a grave showdown, one that pits free enterprise against kleptocracy, free speech against repression, globalism against isolation.
The political crisis may come to a boil after parliamentary elections set for Oct. 28. Mr. Yanukovych is hoping his loyalists will retain the upper hand. That’s not in doubt. His pro-Russian Party of Regions and its coterie of smaller, “technical” parties will almost certainly maintain control of parliament. The more serious question is whether the election campaign has already been manipulated enough for them to win a super-majority, one that might allow the President to change the constitution and extend his power.
Echoes of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And like his ally in Moscow, Mr. Yanukovych seems willing to stifle anyone who gets in his way. Government prosecutors have filed baffling tax-fraud charges against TVi, the country’s only critical broadcaster – for failing to file for a value-added-tax rebate. To make matters worse, Ukraine’s largest cable operator bumped TVi to its premium package this week, pretty much ensuring it will be irrelevant to the masses.
At the World Newspaper Congress in Kiev this week, the President heard directly how all this is seen elsewhere. The congress, which included The Globe and Mail, petitioned the government to restore the constitutional rights of free expression and fair treatment of media. It wasn’t just words.
When Mr. Yanukovych rose to give a politely vapid response, a group of Ukrainian journalists stood in protest, holding placards of dissent – an embarassing moment for the President as he was watched by hundreds of editors and publishers from around the world.
Unlike Mr. Putin, who can afford to antagonize pretty much anyone he wants (for now), Mr. Yanukovych seems to know he’s on more fragile ground. The marred election campaign may well cost his country any near-term hope of gaining associate member status in the European Union, something it dearly needs to open export markets to the West.
Senior officials also know that a disputed or discredited election may lead to so-called smart sanctions from the West, banning Mr. Yanukovych’s friends and allies from travel and freezing their bank accounts.
In the spirit of hitting them where it hurts, the International Monetary Fund has indicated it won’t be there to bail out the spendthrift regime, thus forcing Kiev’s hand to devalue its currency and accept the resulting wrath of inflation. Any favourable IMF loans shouldn’t come without a clean election.
In this drama on the Dnieper, Canada has played a significant role, underwriting a substantial election-monitoring effort, with 75 observers already in country and hundreds more due before voting day. Their assessment, as well as the views of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, will be essential to the IMF, to the financial regulators watching Ukrainian money seep out and, most important, to the Ukrainian people who feel they’ve been abandoned by the West since the ultimately failed Orange Revolution.
If Ukraine were to turn a corner – if an independent parliament could operate alongside the presidency, if the media and public could voice critical thinking – the country could once again become a bridge between Western Europe and Russia.
But the stakes are high. If the observers give Ukraine a yellow card, Mr. Yanukovych could ignore the judgment and draw more support from both Russia (hungry for gas pipelines) and China (hungry for farmland).
In the tragic sweep of Ukrainian history, another dangerous chapter has begun.
John Stackhouse is editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail.