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Ex-U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine Says Democratic 'Space May Be Shrinking'

Steven Pifer (in file photo) served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000
A recent public opinion poll by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) found that a majority of Ukrainians are either concerned or alarmed about reversals of democratic rights and freedoms under President Viktor Yanukovych. RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service director, Irena Chalupa, spoke to Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998-2000, about the state of Ukrainian democracy.

RFE/RL: The last time we spoke was February -- just after the inauguration of President [Viktor] Yanukovych. We talked about the legacy that former President [Viktor] Yushchenko was leaving behind. You made the observation that Yushchenko “helped embed democracy in Ukraine” and that he “helped create a democratic space for all politicians to participate in, even his political opponents.” Do you think that democratic space still exists?

Steven Pifer: I think If you look at the last six months there are grounds for concern that that space may be shrinking with the reports about pressure on the media, the activities of the SBU - which appear to be in some ways relatively unconstrained -and I think there's a lot of concern in the West about the decision by the Constitutional Court [on October 8].

RFE/RL: Ukraine's constitutional court recently reversed constitution changes that had been enacted after the Orange Revolution -- that curbed presidential powers and expanded the powers of parliament. It looks somewhat like a power grab and it raises the question, why bother to go through the trouble of enacting these changes only to get rid of them a few years later? Is this a power grab in your view?

Pifer: I'm not a constitutional lawyer so I really can't debate the particulars of the court's decision. But when you stand back, the perception in the West is, in 2004, with the support of over 400 members of the Rada (Ukraine's parliament), Ukraine adopted these constitutional changes and they've been implementing them for five years. And all of a sudden the constitutional court comes out and says, "Oops, we made a mistake"? The appearance, I think, is not good for Ukrainian democracy. It does look like Ukraine is moving backwards. And I think from the perspective of many in the West, while the reform situation produced in some ways gridlock - and you saw it in terms of the battles between the executive branch and the Rada over several years during the Yushchenko presidency - it had a greater balance of power between the Rada and the president, and it provided for some checks and balances. And it seems that the government now, or the president now, wishes to move away from that system. And I think that will cause concern in the West, both in the United States and Europe, about where democracy in Ukraine is going.

RFE/RL: When you were U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, [Leonid] Kuchma was president - and he had all the powers to appoint and fire ministers, he was the ultimate authority. Now we're back to that kind of arrangement. Looking back on the kinds of things that were happening in the Kuchma years when you worked in Ukraine, would you say that was an effective form of government? As opposed to the Yushchenko years, even though the system was flawed, and not pretty and loud, was it a good way to practice democracy?

Pifer: I'll bring an American perspective to that, and it goes back to the American system of government where we've always preferred a system where there are checks and balances, where difference branches of the government have the ability to balance one another. And I think that was one of the problems of the model in the 1990s, the president in some ways had too much authority and it was difficult for the Rada, in many ways, to have an effective way of checking him or balancing him.

That's where the 2004 reforms, with all their flaws, were seen as an advance because [they] did create a better balance of power both between the executive branch in Ukraine and the Rada, but also between the president and the prime minister. And of course it didn't work as well as people had hoped in the Yushchenko years but that wasn't so much a flaw of the system as it was just a reflection of the different personalities.

But [looking at] what happened last week, just to suddenly say ‘oops' and turn back the clock like that by six years - if Ukraine was going to make that kind of decision, it would have been better if it had been done in an inclusive political process that took [into] account [the] views of all parties, including the opposition. I think people have to ask, this goes now to a system which gives a lot of authority to the president, and that may be of interest to the Party of Regions when their person has the presidency, but I think that if they're taking a longer term perspective they ought to be asking the question, what happens down the road when they're in the opposition? Is this going to the type of system that will serve them well politically, and that will serve Ukraine well politically?

RFE/RL: How does all of this look to a Western scholar like you?

Pifer: I wanted to give the Yanukovych presidency the benefit of the doubt because I think it was very important that they won a free and fair election [and] that they played by the rules to get there. It is of concern though, that they seem to be trying to change the rules now in ways that look like they're trying to turn the clock back and over the last couple of days I've talked to both American government officials and EU officials and there's a lot of concern about what's going on there.

I think it's important that the West stay engaged in Ukraine, but to the extent that Ukraine is seen as going backward on democracy, it will be harder to keep people in the West interested in where Ukraine is going.

RFE/RL: How so?

Pifer: Let me take the case of the European Union. The European Union now has a lot of issues that require an inward focus. The European Union is still trying to deal with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. They're just putting in place new foreign policy mechanisms, and I think there's still a little bit of a hangover from the last wave of enlargement. Looking at new states, looking at the periphery [of Europe] is not high on the EU's list. And if Ukraine is now seen as regressing on democracy it's going to be even harder to sustain that interest. If you take the American agenda, first and foremost the United States is going to be focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, understandably so. But sustaining interest in Ukraine is going to be harder if Ukraine is seen as moving backwards on democracy.

RFE/RL: What can the West to do keep Ukraine on the path toward democracy?

Pifer: I think it‘s very important, to the extent that Western governments have these concerns - and again, my perception is that they do - I think they need to make it very clear to President Yanukovych that this is causing a change in how Ukraine is viewed. I do believe that President Yanukovych is concerned about his image in the West, and that strikes me as giving the West some leverage.

RFE/RL: In our last conversation, you said the most important thing for a newly elected leader is to enact badly needed but painful reforms early in his tenure. Mr. Yanukovych has been president for a little more than six months; have you seen him implement any reforms?

Pifer: I will give him and the Ukrainian government credit for their decision -- and it's a hard decision, politically -- to raise prices for gas, which they did over the summer. And that's certainly hard and it will create some hardships for some, but it seems to be that that is a necessary step if Ukraine is ever going to put its gas sector into position where it's economically sustainable, where it doesn't have to soak up billions of dollars of subsidies each year. So it's a painful step, I think it's the right one, as politically unpopular as it may be, but it's necessary if Ukraine is going to put its energy house in order.

RFE/RL: Ukraine is getting ready to hold local elections at the end of October. The new elections law, which was enacted some months ago, is very crafty in that it doesn't allow small parties that aren't in parliament to have access to the district election committees. It's written in such a way that it gives the ruling party - the party with a parliamentary majority - almost complete control over the electoral process. In eastern Ukraine and central Ukraine we're seeing incidents where people aren't allowed to register their candidacy. This isn't a good beginning for an election that I would assume Ukraine would like to have the West judge as free and fair.

Pifer: It's not going to be good for Ukraine's image, or for the image of the current government, if the first national election held after the presidential election in February is seen as dramatically worse in terms of democratic standards. That's not going to be good. My worry about it is that it then becomes harder to keep Western interest in Ukraine alive.

RFE/RL: How do you view some of the steps that the Yanukovych government has taken that involve reversing steps Yushchenko had taken, in terms of reinstating national memory, all of the attention devoted to the dark periods of Ukrainian history -- the famine genocide, the repressions that took place during the Stalinist era? Yanukovych has sort of put this all on the back burner, changing history books, returning to what really is a Soviet mold. Do you think that the Ukrainian people are going to tolerate this?

Pifer: The Ukrainian population is going to decide how they react to that. It does seem to me that some of those steps are risky in political terms because they provoke controversy, which the new government might not need.

RFERL: The Ukrainian population is sometimes accused of being passive and long suffering. There hasn't been a general outcry against some of this shrinking of democracy that you talked about earlier. Why do you think there's this lethargy or apathy on the part of the Ukrainian public about what is almost a return to the past?

Pifer: One of the things that does make me optimistic about Ukraine in the longer run is that I do think there is a well established civil society and that it is resilient. Why aren't Ukrainians more actively protesting about changes in policy? I think part of this goes back to what happened after the Orange Revolution, which I still think was a hugely dramatic and a hugely positive event. But unfortunately - and a lot of the blame has to go to President Yushchenko on this -- in 2005, 2006, 2007, when there were huge opportunities to build on the Orange Revolution, the president, the government, missed a lot of those opportunities.

And so I think what's happened is that people feel let down by that and so that probably explains part of the passivity that you're seeing now. And the apathy is simply because the opportunities created by the Orange Revolution were really not built on. But I also think that in the longer term, Ukrainians do care about where their country's going and that there are civil society mechanisms that can act to express concern if it reaches a point where things go back too far, too fast.