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Ukraine: Government Throwing Apples After Oranges

Has Viktor Yushchenko's government lost its revolutionary shine? A survey by the Razumkov Center polling agency from 5-12 August confirmed what was signaled earlier by other Ukrainian pollsters -- namely, that the new government of President Viktor Yushchenko is gradually losing its popularity, following its installation in February on a nationwide wave of enthusiasm incited by the November-December 2004 Orange Revolution. In an April poll, the Razumkov Center found that 52 percent of Ukrainians thought that the new authorities were better than the old ones; in August this indicator fell to 37 percent.

It appears that apart from any other consequences, such a public mood primarily indicates that the probability of any radical socioeconomic reforms being launched by President Yushchenko prior to the parliamentary elections due at the end of March 2006 is virtually nil. The government will almost certainly focus on short-term measures, both economic and propagandistic, to keep the electorate from turning against the new authorities completely, rather than make any reformist steps that would require everyday austerities.

As reported by the "Zerkalo nedeli" weekly in its 24 August-2 September issue, the Razumkov Center found in August that for the first time since the Orange Revolution more Ukrainians think that things in the country are going in the wrong direction rather than the right one -- 43 percent versus 33 percent. In April the analogous indicators in a similar poll were fairly upbeat -- 23 percent versus 54 percent.

Moreover, the number of respondents who think that the country's economic situation under the Yushchenko government has deteriorated is more than double the number who think that it has improved -- 41.5 percent versus 20.5 percent (19 percent versus 27 percent in April). Ukrainians' confidence in the future has also shrunk considerably -- a mere 12 percent of respondents now think that prospects for the future improved versus 48 percent of those who believe that they have worsened (in April the proportion was 32 percent to 26 percent).

On the positive side, Ukrainians in August still tended to believe that the level of democracy and media freedom under Yushchenko's rule increased rather than decreased -- 38 percent versus 20 percent and 46.5 percent versus 14.5 percent, respectively.

The Razumkov Center confirmed that the popularity of the ruling parties is also sliding. In August six political parties were potentially able to overcome the 3 percent vote threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation. The Our Ukraine People's Union was supported by 20 percent of those polled, the Party of Regions by 14.2 percent, the Fatherland party by 10.5 percent, the Communist Party by 5.5 percent, the Socialist Party by 4.2 percent, and the People's Party by 4.1 percent. In a similar poll conducted in May, Yushchenko's Our Ukraine People's Union and Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko's Fatherland were backed by notably larger electorates -- 31.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively.

The results of the survey are rather surprising, given the government's reports on the allegedly improving financial situation of Ukrainians. According to the government, real incomes rose in January-June by some 27 percent. And the average monthly wage in Ukraine by the end of June officially stood at some 820 hryvnyas ($160), exceeding by 80 percent the country's subsistence minimum. Hence, why should people be dissatisfied?

Former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych criticized the Yushchenko government as early as April, saying that it was sacrificing the country's economic development for temporary social benefits. Ukraine's economic growth in 2005 slowed to some 5 percent from the 12-percent growth reported in 2004 by Yanukovych's cabinet. According to Yanukovych, the pension and wage increases that the new government "thoughtlessly" introduced to reinforce the postrevolutionary enthusiasm in the country were actually devoured by a subsequent inflation jump. And Yanukovych argued that in April Ukrainians already had to pay three times more for food and other necessities than a year before.

Tymoshenko's cabinet has officially admitted that inflation in Ukraine in the first half of 2005 was 6.7 percent. However, International Monetary Fund experts estimate it to be 15 percent. The latter figure may explain why Ukrainians now tend to believe that their economic situation has worsened rather than improved, particularly if we take into account that most of them spend their incomes almost completely on food and other essentials.

"Zerkalo nedeli" also points to another potentially hazardous misstep that the Yushchenko government has made in bestowing its postrevolutionary generosity on the populace. The weekly argues that Yushchenko's pension and wage hikes embraced generally pensioners and the poorest segment of Ukraine's workforce, that is, the people who categorize themselves as the "lower class" (approximately 30 percent of Ukrainians). However, this largesse -- the weekly adds -- did not produce any lasting shifts in this group's political sympathies. In April Yushchenko was backed by 45 percent of lower-class voters and opposed by 25 percent of them, but in August support for the president in this social group fell to 32 percent, while opposition rose to 35 percent.

But the most dismal indicator appears to be a drop in enthusiasm for Yushchenko among those Ukrainians who classify themselves as the "middle class" (some 60 percent of the population). According to the Razumkov Center, in April Yushchenko was backed by 51 percent of middle-class voters and opposed by 21 percent of them, whereas in August these indicators were 34 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

According to sociological surveys, more than 70 percent of Ukrainians supporting Yushchenko at rallies during the Orange Revolution belonged to the middle class. Arguably, representatives of this social group are the most likely candidates to form the backbone of a future society that could wholeheartedly accept a market economy and parliamentary democracy. For them time-serving state charity seems to be not so important as a purposeful policy to recast the current mix of Soviet-era socialism and post-Soviet oligarchic capitalism in Ukraine into a transparent and civilized market-economy system with a strong middle class as its stabilizing core. Regrettably, Yushchenko has so far failed to show or even convince the public that he intends to make any steps in this direction.

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