“Democracy and Generation UA”
Lviv Today publisher Peter Dickinson on the challenges facing Ukraine’s post-Orange generation of young patriots as they face up to the country’s new geopolitical direction
After five years of post-Orange press freedoms, an ill wind appears to be blowing through the country’s media sector. It took President Kuchma a decade in office before the nation’s journalists finally came out in protest against state censorship, but the new Yanukovych administration has provoked the same reaction within just three months. Journalists at a number of national channels threatened strike action in May in response to the selfcensorship
and biased news reportage which they claim has accompanied the arrival of the new government. Meanwhile, commentators complain that the free-for-all of modern Ukrainian political debate has been replaced by a sanitized version of events which bears an uncanny resemblance to the humourless coverage favoured by the Kremlin’s power vertical. The sheer speed of this journalistic response is proof positive of the enduring effects of the Orange Revolution – but it remains unclear whether these fresh free speech protests will actually have any impact on the broader geopolitical situation which is transforming rapidly. The first months of the Yanukovych administration have left observers in no doubt that the new government intends to pursue an ambitious policy of reintegration with Russia and will seek the support of the country’s media barons to promote this agenda. Initial hopes that President Yanukovych’s narrow margin of victory in the presidential elections would necessitate a government of consensus have been dashed, and the new head of state has instead consolidated his grip on power.
Russia reloaded: the reconquest of the Near Abroad
President Yanukovych’s confidence has no doubt been boosted by the knowledge that he can count on the backing of a resurgent Kremlin. Recent regime changes in Kyiv and Kyrgyzstan have merely confirmed a Russian revival which has been gaining ground throughout the Near Abroad for the past few years, reversing the setbacks of the colour revolution era. In geopolitical terms, the Kremlin has never really looked back since successfully calling the West’s collective bluff during the August 2008 war in Georgia and discovering that the capitalist colossus had feet of clay. With Georgia reduced to amputee status, Ukraine effectively muzzled and the democracy bubble well and truly burst everywhere from Moldova to Central Asia, Russia can currently survey the horizon with a sense of both security and accomplishment. No wonder President Yanukovych feels safe enough to act boldly.
Divided means conquered: political opposition in utter disarray
Ukraine’s national democratic opposition appears utterly unequal to the challenge of resisting efforts to drag the country back into the Kremlin’s orbit. Divided and discredited, opposition leaders have spent much of their time recently complaining about political harassment and a media blackout, but in reality they would probably struggle to make any headway in the present climate even without having to face the allegedly undemocratic tactics of the new government. The Ukrainian general public has simply lost faith in the figures most closely associated with the political failures of the Orange era and it remains to be seen whether a Tymoshenko or a Yatsenyuk could now command mass support among the country’s demoralised democratic forces. Nor is there much chance of outside intervention from the international community. With the European Union currently preoccupied with its own economic problems, Ukraine’s hopes of making any progress towards EU integration are slimmer than ever. Meanwhile, America’s much hyped attempts to reset relations with Russia have necessarily meant a toning down of direct US support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. For the foreseeable future, Ukraine is likely to remain off the radar in both Brussels and Washington.
Responding to democracy fatigue: Apathy or activism?
If a credible opposition is to develop it will need to engage the country’s emerging generation of teens and 20-somethings. While many older Ukrainians may be comfortable with the idea of a return to the Russian embrace and a rejection of the country’s democratic experimentation, for those Ukrainians under the age of 25 the recent change of geopolitical direction has proved far more controversial. This is a generation which has no memory of the shared Soviet experience and has only ever known life in an independent Ukraine. These young Ukrainians have had their political consciousness forged in the furnace of Orange Revolution polemic: they are politically literate, take freedom of speech for granted and overwhelmingly identify themselves as both European and democratic. However, this demographic is also notoriously fickle – it was largely a lack of support among younger voters which cost Yulia Tymoshenko the presidency in this year’s elections, whereas in 2004 the opposite was true as Yushchenko was swept to victory. Much will now depend on whether enough members of Generation UA rise to the challenge and move to fill the political vacuum created by the current lack of a credible opposition in the country. As the Yanukovych administration moves to bind Ukraine ever more tightly into the Russian embrace it runs the risk of provoking a backlash of Orange Revolution proportions, but with the country’s pro-democracy forces so hopelessly divided it is easy to see why the government might currently believe that it has nothing much to fear.