We all remember the Orange Revolution of late 2004. Regular readers will know that since liveblogging the thing, I’ve occasionally returned to the complex and heated world of Ukranian politics to try and work out just what the hell’s going on over there – and more often than not, what’s been going on is petty squabbling, infighting, broken alliances, team-ups with former enemies, disillusionment and political stalemate. Wikipedia has a good round-up of the events of the last few months.
The latest development? Only the banning of the main opposition party. It’s just the newest madness after months of political stagnation caused by the fracturing of the old Orange alliance of President Yushchenko and his “revolutionary” partner Yulia Tymoshenko (his erstwhile Prime Minister), and the return of Viktor Yanukovich to the office of Prime Minister.
To recap, Yanukovich was the guy the Orange Revolution was set up to oppose after Yushchenko’s supporters claimed Yanukovich’s lot had rigged the presidential elections (Yanukovich was also rumoured to have been involved in the alleged pre-election poisoning plot that so disfigured Yuschenko’s face). He also has the support of pretty much 50% of the population.
Yep – Yanukovich is not just some random despot, as much of the Western media made out during the Orange Revolution, but a genuinely popular leader who speaks for a sizeable chunk of the population. The country is one utterly divided between two parties with very different ideologies, balanced on a knife-edge even finer than that that splits the Democrats and republicans in the United States.
Or, at least, it used to be between two main parties, but since the Orange Revolution a newcomer has emerged – the fluffy-looking BYuT, or “Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko”. With a heart straight off a Valentine’s Day card as its symbol, and with the best-looking former Prime Minister in the world as the almost messianic leader of its cult of personality, BYuT may lean ideologically closer to Yuschenko than to Yanukovich, but Tymoshenko’s recent refusal to play ball with the president despite their earlier Orange Revolution alliance has ensured that her new party has effectively become Ukraine’s kingmaker. In fact, based on the last parliamentary elections, it may well even have eclipsed the old “Our Ukraine” bloc that led the Orange Revolution, and with which Yushchenko is most closely associated. Tymoshenko, at any rate, has been keen to portray herself as the true heir to the early promise of the Orange Revolution.
Which is, of course, no good at all to current Prime Minister Yanukovich – hence his arranging this weekend for Tymoshenko’s party to be blocked from participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Due to BYuT’s current popularity, that’s effectively the equivalent of Gordon Brown arranging for the Conservative party to be banned a month or so before a general election, or George Bush blocking the Democrats before the midterms.
Yes, it’s unlikely that Yanukovich’s lot will succeed in keeping Tymoshenko’s people off the ballot paper (although there’s only a week to sort this), but that’s not the point – it’s the fact that such a blatantly dodgy move would even be tried in a country that is not only a member of the Council of Europe but also one of the EU’s closest eastern neighbours (as well as a strategically vital region for European energy supplies thanks to the various pipelines that run through Ukraine from Russia).
In other words, for the EU to maintain its pretence of standing for the advancement of democracy and human rights, this latest bit of dodgy political manoeuvring by Yanukovich’s bloc needs to be condemned utterly and immediately in the strongest possible terms, quite probably with a few threats of heavy sanctions to back the thing up.
Of course, there is the danger that, as it’s more in the EU’s interest for Tymoshenko’s party to gain power than for Yanukovich to maintain his hold, this could be seen as an attempt to influence the elections (with Russia being a prime candidate to complain, being a keen supporter of Yanukovich), but still.
Ukraine is simply too important a neighbour to just sit back and ignore – yet that is what the EU has largely been happy to do for much of the last few years, despite it becoming increasingly apparent that Ukraine is in the midst of a major identity crisis that could well have major implications for the stability of Europe’s eastern border.
Sod the strange position of Transdniester – it’s not inconceivable that, left unchecked, this rumbling political crisis could lead to the splitting of Ukraine itself. If that were to happen, the potential for a major Russo-European clash over influencing the wreckage would be very high indeed.