Democracy on the run

Ukraine follows former Soviet neighbours on path to corrupt, ruthless autocracy

By David Marples, Edmonton Journal

Belarusians vote Sunday in the presidential elections, the first since 2006. In Kyiv, Ukraine, anyone with access to the Internet could watch the mass brawl in the Parliament on Thursday. Meanwhile, in Moscow, thousands of extremists rioted and attacked anyone who appeared to have a darker complexion after the death of a soccer fan in ethnic clashes in the city.

The first decade of the 21st century is not ending well in the Slavic heartland of the former Soviet Union.

The Belarusian election is a ritual. The winner is already known because Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the first and only president of Belarus, is assured of victory in the first round over nine opponents. Every facet of the election has been under government control, and the nine alternative candidates are dismissed as "enemies of the people." They were introduced on national television as "nine identical candidates."

However, Lukashenka's situation was uncertain for several weeks because of a well-publicized spat with Russia. On Dec. 9, this ended during his visit to Moscow when President Dmitry Medvedev, who had accused Lukashenka of crossing all boundaries of human decency during the recent trading of barbs, decided after all that he was the best candidate from Russia's perspective.

In return, Lukashenka has agreed to join a common economic space with Russia and Kazakhstan, and to accept the Russian ruble as the sole currency, effective Jan. 1, 2012. He is also under severe pressure to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (shunned by most of the world), and heavily reliant on Russia and the IMF for future loans. Belarus, however, is back into the Russian fold, though the European Union had not rejected him.

The EU's Eastern Partnership badly needs Belarus because few of its members are very reliable. One is Ukraine, where the democratic structure is crumbling rapidly. President Viktor Yanukovych and his Regions Party are constructing a power base while trying to ensure the complete demise of the opposition.

Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchyna faction in the parliament, has been accused of illegal use of funds during her term as prime minister from 2007-10. In protest, members of her faction surrounded the rostrum to block procedure. About 40 members of the Regions faction removed them by force, using fists and, in one case, a chair. Three Batkivshchyna deputies required treatment in hospital. Tymoshenko, meanwhile, has been told not to leave the country.

The episode is the latest in a series of actions conducted by the Regions Party. Ukraine today is under the sway of a group of politicians from the Donbass who are turning the country into a fiefdom. Only the wildest optimist could anticipate that Yanukovych will be voted out of office in 2015. Though he is four years older than Lukashenka, he has initiated moves to consolidate a personal presidency that if unchecked could last for a decade or more.

Russia, the neighbour of both Ukraine and Belarus, abandoned democracy several years ago as a recipe for chaos. In a sense, it was. The amassing of wealth by several oligarchs with their own personal kingdoms, bodyguards and control over Russia's natural resources repelled many Russians. Today they still have corruption, but they also have order and control under the dual regime of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Two weeks ago, through what can charitably be described as quiet pressure, FIFA, the body that controls world soccer, awarded Russia the 2018 World Cup. It beat bids from England and Spain-Portugal, among others. It is a fitting stage for a country in which extreme racists are allowed to roam the streets of the capital attacking innocent victims. The fact that Russia has no soccer stadiums suitable for games, or that fans may have to cross seven time zones for individual matches, evidently made no impression on the FIFA selection committee.

In 2012, Russia will have another presidential election. Who will run? It doesn't really matter. Perhaps Putin will be president, in which case he will no doubt appoint Medvedev prime minister. Or we will have more of the same. The only prospect of any excitement would be if a rift developed between the two politicians. But that is not likely. They have too much to lose.

This week as well, former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and owner of the Yukos oil company, went on trial again for the embezzlement of millions of rubles. Putin stated that "a thief must sit in jail" and favourably compared the victim's likely sentence of 17 years (he has served seven) to that of Bernard Madoff in the United States. Khodorkovsky and partner Platon Lebedev are accused of theft of oil from their own company.

Khodorkovsky is an unlikely symbol of the demise of democracy in Russia, but he is in jail less for illegally amassed wealth than because he presented a political challenge to Putin. There is no fighting in Russia's parliament because it is firmly subdued, as is the assembly in Belarus. But Ukraine is also moving toward a presidential autocracy, with a power vertical (a highly centralized political system) and an entrenched ruling elite.

Imagine the heroes of Goodfellas in power and one has a fairly accurate picture of the mentality of these ruling elites: power-hungry, selfish, corrupt, increasingly wealthy and utterly ruthless.

In this respect, they deserve the title "post-Soviet elite." Stalin would have been proud of his offspring.

David Marples is a Distinguished University Professor in the department of history

and classics, University of Alberta


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