What Yanukovych Could Learn from Gorbachev

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Is a civil war brewing under Ukraine’s skin? Anna Kirillova points out that it’s not unthinkable if the president doesn’t take a lesson from history.

Working for “European Youth of Ukraine”, an NGO that aims to spread international awareness about Ukrainian democratization processes and witnessing the spread of the Milosevic virus across the post-Soviet space, I have caught myself trying to think of a more positive example of leadership coming from those countries. The name of Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the last President of the USSR and an outstanding social and political actor, is the first one that comes to my mind in this respect. Highly honored in the West and often subjected to rounds of applause, Gorbachev is truly basking in the rays of glory. What exactly did he do to join the ranks of leaders respected by the international community and what can Ukraine’s leadership learn from him?

After taking his position in the office as the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Societ Union, Gorbachev had to face the consequences of the Brezhnev-era stagnation. Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over the Supreme Council of the USSR from 1964 to 1982, managed to bring the country down into a deep economic, cultural and political stagnation. With virtually non-existent economic growth, basic civil freedoms were denied to USSR citizens. Freedom of speech was suppressed and dissidents were arrested and put in jail. Under Brezhnev and his successors the country’s prospects kept growing murkier and murkier until Gorbachev came to power in 1985.

There are several lessons to be learned from Mikhail Gorbachev’s successful leadership, that, if applied by some modern post-Soviet statesmen, could bring them the same laurels and worldwide recognition. Amongst them:

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 4.37.16 PM1. Mediate a peaceful resolution of ethnopolitical conflicts

Though Gorbachev still receives bitter criticism for having sent tanks to combat peaceful nationalistic demonstrations in Vilnius and Tbilisi, the number of victims from street riots, ethnic conflicts and nationalistic uprisings could have been higher had Gorbachev chosen to employ a stubborn authoritarian style pertinent to the leaders of that time. Things could have been much worse had he, for instance, refused to recognize the results of the national referenda according to which former socialist republics left the USSR.

2. Acknowledge the role of the political opponent

Although a Kremlin PR stunt, Gorbachev’s decision to pardon the prominent political opposition figure, Andrei Sakharov, and facilitate his return from inner exile (in the city of Gorky) back to the capital made a huge impact on the development of political pluralism in the Soviet Union. By expressing such an attitude towards the political opposition, Gorbachev managed to prove that his actions were consistent with his words about glasnost and perestroika.  (Glasnost (literally “publicity”) stands for the increased openness and transparency in government structures in the Soviet Union, while perestroika (literally “restructuring”) stands for political movement for reformation within the Soviet Union government bodies).

3. Kill the ruling political party

Gorbachev’s determination to bring democracy to the USSR manifested itself in a Supreme Council decree that, as of 1991, banned the ruling Communist Party. This didn’t solve all the country’s problems, since some rudiments of the old party elites were unfortunately still preserved (and later gave life to new authoritarian regimes across the post-Soviet space), but it was unquestionably a very important milestone in the country’s democratic development.

4. Leave the office in a gentleman-like fashion and facilitate a bloodless transfer of power

Voluntarily putting an end to his own powers of the office, Gorbachev drove away from the presidential residence seemingly into nowhere. He was able to do so without riot control from the provinces spraying tear gas at protesters. Perhaps his graceful exit can be ascribed to his high integrity; perhaps it was due to the presence of Raisa, the wise woman who stood behind him all those years.

Never have Gorbachev’s leadership lessons been so relevant for Ukraine, when it looks like this country is sinking deeper and deeper into the Brezhnev-era stagnation due to the mistakes of the regime since Viktor Yanukovych won the February 2010 presidential elections.

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 4.37.46 PMPessimists claim that the country is on the brink of a civil war with ethnic and linguistic tensions mounting ever since the far right party won a fairly large percentage of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections. One has to point out, however, that the growing popularity of the extreme right is mostly just a response to the Sovietization and cultural insensitivity that president Viktor Yanukovych and his regime have brought to Ukraine, for instance, when the pro-Yanukovych majority dominating the parliament passed the bill that discriminates the Ukrainian language in favour of Russian.

Things also started to look very nasty for Ukraine when Yulia Tymoshenko, a major political opponent of the current Ukrainian President, was jailed on clearly fabricated Soviet-era charges such as “abuse of office”, for brokering a gas deal with Russia in 2009. On October 11th, 2001 the Ukrainian court, presided by a judge who had been promoted from a provincial city just before the court hearings took place, found her guilty and sentenced her to seven years in prison. Yulia Tymoshenko received 45.4% of the vote in the 2010 presidential elections, versus 48.95% for Yanukovych. Many would argue that Tymoshenko was already slighted by losing the Presidential election by a very small margin, so jailing her on some clearly politically motivated charges could be the biggest strategic mistake of the Yanukovych regime. It became possible only due to the lack of division of powers in Ukraine in general, and the absence of an independent judiciary under the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, in particular. The combination of these two factors – the rise of the far right on the one hand and the imprisonment of the most outspoken, yet still moderate, political opponent on the other hand – could potentially bring about catastrophic consequences as extreme as the breaking out of civil war.

Though a long shot, Gorbachev’s decision to ban the ruling Communist party could inspire Yanukovych to do the same with respect to the ruling Party of Regions. Known for its corruption and striking incompetence in all spheres of public sector management, the Party of Regions still commands the parliament and, as such, represents a powerful stumbling block on the road towards social and democratic development.

Finally, having committed all the above-mentioned managerial mistakes, Yanukovych does not seem to get another very important message: his luxurious lifestyle irritates the general public very much. Given the fact the ordinary Ukrainians have not seen any economic growth for years and have been facing radical social security cuts, the consumption patterns of president Viktor Yanukovych really stand out; a newly-built luxurious palatial estate outside the Ukrainian capital being the most evident example.

In conclusion, one could say that Gorbachev succeeded in pushing the country in the right direction. He offered some very important lessons concerning the transformation of regimes that are characterized by a combination of murky economic prospects, the buildup of ethnic tensions as well as one-party dominance and president-for-life tendencies. And the implications of these lessons could be extended far beyond the post-Soviet space, North Korea being one of the important examples. It would also bring many short and long-term benefits to Ukraine as well as relieve it from unnecessary pain if Yanukovych agreed to take leadership master classes from Gorbachev.

Anna Kirillova (‘06) got an MSc in International Economics and Business from Utrecht University. She’s currently living and working in Kiev, Ukraine.