BRUSSELS — There is no more depressing sight in politics than a leader who, desperate to cling to power, ruins his country in the process. By his recent actions, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine now looks like he has joined the long list of rulers who have sacrificed their country’s future simply to prolong their misrule.
Yushchenko’s recent moves in both politics and economics suggest that his instinct for self-preservation knows no limits. Once a proud supporter of the free market and the man who banished hyperinflation in Ukraine in the 1990s, Yushchenko has in recent weeks vetoed — sometimes on flimsy grounds and sometimes for no stated reason at all — a series of vital privatizations.
He blocked the sale of regional energy companies, for example, because he claims that their privatization will threaten Ukraine’s “national security,” though it is corrupt and incompetent state management of these companies that is threatening Ukraine’s security by making it vulnerable to energy cutoffs.
Yushchenko seems motivated only by a desire to damage his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who he perceives as the biggest threat to his re-election in 2010. To undermine the Tymoshenko Cabinet even more, Ukraine’s central bank, under the leadership of a presidential crony, is pursuing a policy that is importing high inflation.
When confronted about this, Volodymyr Stelmakh, the bank’s governor, is said to have told Tymoshenko that his policies would destroy her government before they broke the back of the economy.
In politics, too, Yushchenko is playing with fire, having lost the support of most of “Our Ukraine,” the party he created. Since his victory in 2004, Yushchenko’s popularity ratings have plummeted to around 8 percent. As a result, the party has been reduced to junior-partner status in Tymoshenko’s coalition government.
Instead of trying to recover support by pursuing the reforms and privatizations that he promised during the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko is planning to take the few members of “Our Ukraine” that he still controls and forge a strategic alliance with the Party of the Regions, the very party that opposed Ukraine’s turn to democracy and an open society. To clinch this deal, the Regions would dump their unelectable leader, Viktor Yanukovych, as their presidential candidate and adopt Yushchenko as their standard bearer.
Yushchenko has only himself to blame for his political predicament. His decision in 2006 to bring Yanukovych out of the wilderness and back into the premiership was an act from which he has never recovered. Only when Yanukovych sought to use Parliament to strip the president of his powers did Yushchenko summon the will to fight back, dismissing Yanukovych’s government and calling for a special election last year. That election, however, was won by Tymoshenko, who has parlayed her return to power into a commanding lead in the polls for the coming presidential election.
Throttling Ukraine’s economy and political system need not have been Yushchenko’s legacy. After he came to power in 2005 on a huge wave of popular support, he started off well. The economy was growing, and he and Tymoshenko began to tackle the country’s black hole of corruption. Moreover, he seemed committed to reconciliation between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west. Throughout his presidency, he has overseen fair elections and a free and vibrant press.
But Yushchenko’s chronic dithering and poor political judgment consistently undermine his fundamental democratic credentials. Sadly, he now appears poised to make another serious political miscalculation, because he is backing a radical constitutional reform aimed at creating a purely presidential system. That proposal has no chance of success in Ukraine’s Parliament. Yushchenko sought to circumvent Parliament by way of a national referendum, but Ukraine’s Constitutional court has ruled that only Parliament may determine how constitutional reform is to occur.
Although Yushchenko seems unable to save himself politically, Europe can help both him and Ukraine’s democracy. Tymoshenko is prepared to offer Yushchenko a compromise that Europe’s leaders should urge him to accept. Her proposals for constitutional reform would make Ukraine a pure parliamentary republic while retaining the president as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces.
Yushchenko can yet secure an honorable place in history if, instead of obstructing Tymoshenko at every turn, he supports her anticorruption initiatives and constitutional reform, the latter aimed at bringing Ukraine’s political system closer to Europe’s parliamentary democracies as well as to facilitate Ukraine’s European integration.
Given that Yushchenko has almost no chance of winning the next presidential election, Tymoshenko has made him a generous offer.
Elmar Brok is a Christian Democrat member of the EU Parliament from Germany; Jas Gawronski is an MEP from Italy for Forza Italia; and Charles Tannock is a British MEP for the Conservatives. © 2008 Project Syndicate. (www.project-syndicate.org)