Ukraine’s Revolt of the Oligarchs

KYIV – Ukraine’s parliamentary election on October 28 will be neither free nor fair. After eight unproductive years since the 2004 Orange Revolution, the democratic opposition is depressed and demoralized. Even so, the elections may check President Viktor Yanukovych’s power.

Yanukovych came to power in February 2010, in elections that were rated free and fair (and at a time when Freedom House still ranked Ukraine as democratic). But he quickly consolidated power and turned Ukraine into a mildly authoritarian state. A dozen prominent opposition politicians have been sentenced to prison, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the former interior minister, Yuri Lutsenko.

Tymoshenko, who was and remains the leader of the liberal and pro-Western opposition, was sentenced to seven years in prison for a gas deal with Russia in which she was not even accused of having benefited personally. Without her, the democratic opposition has no strong leader. But Yanukovych has not stopped there. He exerts heavy pressure on private television channels, and has blocked licenses and cable access for the independent television channel TVi, which has exposed the most serious corruption cases of his administration. Moreover, he uses the civil service and law-enforcement authorities extensively to repress the opposition and promote his protégés.

And yet the upcoming election matters. Ukraine has a vibrant civil society and excellent free Internet media. But the opposition, which comprises half the country, is badly demoralized after five years of stalemate among the Orange Revolution’s leaders, for which the largest share of blame falls on former President Viktor Yushchenko, who by almost all accounts has betrayed the democratic breakthrough that he represented. He now leads a party that supports Yanukovych, who has even allowed Yushchenko to remain in the presidential residence since leaving office.