Usurpation of Power in Ukraine 2010-2014: The Role of the National Media

Dmytro Potekhin & Eugenia Kuznetsova

We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. – George Orwell

Introduction

Ukraine is trying to do what probably no other nation has done before – protect its territory from Russian occupation and simultaneously implement reforms. To succeed in transformation, Ukraine needs much more efforts and resources compared to its Central European neighbours. To properly tailor the reform efforts a deep understanding of the quality of the country’s current political leadership is needed.

After the violent events that culminated the initially peaceful demonstrations in Ukraine in late 2013 and first months of 2014, the annexation of Crimea and outbreak of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, experts are still trying to find the answer whether violent events can be prevented in the country. Taking into account the experience of the peaceful revolution in 2004 that accomplished its aim of nonviolent and fair elections without any bloodshed, we attempt to understand the preconditions of the violent developments in 2013-2014. This research project looks into the role of the media in the coverage of the usurpation of power by the regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

The issue of usurpation is important for several reasons. The ability to recognize usurpation and oppose it non-violently helps not only to save lives, but improve governance.  Disobedience among police and special forces increases the probability not only of successful removal of oppressive regimes (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2008), but also helps to consolidate freedom and successfully reform states (Karatnycky & Ackerman, 2005). Knowledge about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian administration after the constitutional change would have helped to withdraw popular support and institutional cooperation, weaken and finally dissolve power (Sharp, 1993) of the Yanukovych regime non-violently.

In 2010, when Mr. Yanukovych took part in the presidential elections and was recognised by many as the president of Ukraine, Ukraine had been the only non-Baltic former Soviet state ranked in the Free category by Freedom House (Freedom House, 2009). After a year of Yanukovych’s presidency Freedom House and Amnesty International reported considerable deterioration of the observance of human rights in the country and Ukraine became one of only two countries worldwide to be downgraded to Partly Free in 2010 (Kramer, Nurick, Wilson, & Alterman, 2011).

The deterioration of the human rights situation in Ukraine has a political background. In 2010 Mr. Yanukovych initiated the adoption of amendments to the constitution that gave authoritarian power to the president. One of the major factors that led to his usurpation was the weakness of civil society institutions and media community, who did a poor job monitoring the 2010 elections and reacted inadequately to the illegitimate change of the constitution.

The demand for civil society actors in Ukraine has been expressed in reports by a number of international organisations with missions in Ukraine (UNDP and other UN agencies, USAID, media organisations) and in academic analysis (Ingram, 2014; Laverty, 2008; Phillips, 2009).

The 2004 Orange Revolution non-violently stopped the attempt by Yanukovych to usurp power via falsified elections. However, it did not achieve the expected revival of civil society institutions in Ukraine (Phillips, 2009; Laverty, 2008). Experts concluded that despite the pro-European choice that had been manifested clearly during the 2004 protests, civil society in Ukraine remained weak (Besters-Dilger, 2009).

The Orange Revolution was also regionally divided with western and central Ukrainians dominating the protestors and eastern Ukrainians opposing them and as a result civil society did not unify in the post-protests period (Kuzio, 2010). Numerous projects by international organisations that dealt with capacity building in the region had little effect on the development of civil society institutions in the country.

In 2009 Andreas Umland wrote that “whatever happens to Ukraine in the future, it seems to be destined to become a “crucial case” within comparative research into post-communist politics” (Umland, 2009). Although the 2004 experience of the Ukrainian protests was profoundly studied (Aslund & McFaul, 2006), just 10 years later Ukrainian society was unable to remove the same usurper non-violently.

Background

In 2010 the Constitutional Court, controlled illegally by Viktor Yanukovych, adopted amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine giving Viktor Yanukovych authoritarian power.

On 29 and 30 November 2010, the Venice Commission delegation travelled to Ukraine. The Opinion issued by the Venice Commission was adopted in December 2010. Even though the Venice Commission highlighted that it is not its task to review decisions by national constitutional courts, the Commission outlined the general remarks about the adopted constitutional changes. It was pointed out that the constitutional amendments were adopted too rapidly and with certain procedural violations. The Commission “observed a certain inconsistency in the case-law of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine” and evaluated as “highly unusual” that far-reaching constitutional amendments, including the change of the political system of the country – from a parliamentary to a parliamentary presidential system – (these amendments were declared unconstitutional by a decision of the Constitutional Court in 2016).

The general conclusion of the Commission was that such decisions as change of the political system taken in such a way raise the questions of democratic legitimacy and the rule of law in Ukraine. Taking into account the critical role of constitutional courts in putting democracy into practice, the rule of law and the protection of human rights, the Commission recommended the Constitutional Court of Ukraine to recognize violation of the procedures by the end of 2010 (it was not done). Using mild diplomatic language, the Venice Commission named dysfunctional institutions and a lack of checks and balances, especially with respect to the powers of the president, as the fundamental problem in Ukraine. The Commission clearly defined the strengthening of the powers of the president as “the obstacle for building genuine democratic structures that may eventually lead to an excessively authoritarian system” (Venice Commission, 2010).

Despite of warnings to journalists and opinion-makers of the threats of recognition of the Yanukovych group as legitimate power-holders (Potekhin, 2010; Ryabchuk, 2010), the media showed little concern and continued to recognize Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine. Ukrainian opinion-makers and NGOs kept addressing Yanukovych as “president” creating an observational learning (Bandura, 1961) environment for the rest of the society. While EU officials criticized the Kyiv administration, they kept negotiating the Association Agreement with the Yanukovych administration. At the same time, Western donors kept funding NGOs recognizing Yanukovych as the legitimate president and created positive reinforcement (Bandura, 1961) for such recognition and therefore decreased readiness for disobedience. NGO experts and opinion makers used geopolitical reasoning in demanding that the Yanukovych government sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

Disobedience among police and special forces increases probability not only of successful removal of oppressive regimes (Stephan & Chenoweth 2008), but also helps to consolidate freedom (Karatnycky & Ackerman, 2005). Knowledge about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian administration after the constitutional change would help to withdraw popular support and institutional cooperation, weaken and finally dissolve power (Sharp, 1993) of the Yanukovych regime non-violently.

The administration of Yanukovych was illegitimate after the change of the constitution by the Constitutional Court in 2010 and there was a proposal to recognize the administration illegitimate and address Yanukovych as “usurper” to help society, including officers of the law enforcement agencies, to understand and recognize the illegitimacy of the administration (Potekhin, 2010) or at least to start using parenthesis when calling Yanukovych “president” (Ryabchuk, 2010).

However, most if not all of the media – even those criticizing the Yanukovych regime for such practices as corruption – kept providing him with legitimacy and recognized Yanukovych and his administration as the legitimate authority. That’s how the power of the illegitimate Yanukovych regime was socially constructed even by those institutions and social actors who have always supported the idea of free, open and democratic society. Financial documents of the Party of the Regions released in 2016 show that members of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine and some other officials and media were on the shadow payroll of the Yanukovych group. In a 2016 interview the ex-deputy head of the Security Service of Ukraine Viktor Trepak stated the documents he handed over to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine prove that in 2010 Yanukovych took power illegally and was not the legitimate president of Ukraine (Trepak, 2016).

Analysis of the legitimization mechanism that was actually a three-year long usurpation of power leading to bloodshed and hundreds of victims is beyond the scope of this paper and needs additional study. Here we focus on the reaction by the media to the usurpation of power.

Taking into account the abovementioned, the conclusion of the Venice Commission and the significant role of the media in civil society building and democratization the question is how did the national media community react to the change of political system that gave the president authoritarian power?

Methodology

For our analysis we used the database provided courtesy by Mediapulse Monitoring Agency based in Kyiv, Ukraine. The database includes prime time political shows on the most popular TV channels in Ukraine (1+1, Inter, First National, ICTV, STB, TRK Ukraina, Novyi Kanal, Channel 5), national and regional print media. The database also includes a limited number of Internet sources. In 2012 only one-third of Ukrainians had access to the Internet (Internet Association of Ukraine, 2012), print media and TV remained the main source of information.

Applying the methods of content analysis, we automatically collected published texts where usurpation lexeme was mentioned. We intentionally ignored dictatorship, totalitarianism and authoritarianism lexemes, because usurpation lexeme is the general term for authoritarian change of political system. Dictatorship, totalitarianism and authoritarianism lexemes can describe different processes and require careful manual analysis of the much bigger amount of data. Thus it is easier to track the radical discussion about the change of constitutional order in the media analysing usurpation rather than other lexemes describing features of authoritarian power.

Combining automatic and manual analysis we divided the collected utterances into three groups according to the context in which usurpation was mentioned. The collected material demonstrates the dynamics of media coverage of the usurpation of power by Viktor Yanukovych.

Discussion

The collected data shows that after the rise of usurpation discussion in 2010 (we can see 164 mentions of usurpation in the first half of the year and 147 in the second) Ukrainian media almost abandoned the topic in 2011. Surprisingly, 2011 was the year with the fewest usurpation mentions (104 in general).

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The dynamics of the mentions clearly shows the decrease of utterances containing usurpation lexeme in 2011 and 2012, even though it was the first year after the constitution had been changed. The topic of the authoritarian power of Mr. Yanukovych started receiving media attention only in 2013 and was discussed until in the second half of 2014. After June 2014, when Ukraine had already adopted changes to the Constitution as recommended by the Venice Commission back in 2010, the topic began to disappear from the media.

We divided the collected data into three groups according to the context in which usurpation lexeme was mentioned. The first group includes all the utterances where the speaker or writer stated that constitutional changes were legal and there is no reason to mention usurpation. The second group collects utterances about the threat of usurpation (as if the constitution has not been changed yet). And the last group includes the utterances about usurpation as an actual fact.

Interestingly, throughout the researched period usurpation was mostly mentioned as a threat, not fact (see Fig. 3-6). e.g. “we have to prevent usurpation”, “Yanukovych is on the way to usurpation”, “the attempt of usurpation”, “probability of usurpation”, “the power will not be usurped”, “usurpation is becoming a real threat” and others.

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As we can see in the Figure 3 the number of utterances in the Threat and Fact groups was almost ­equal in 2011. Interestingly, even later, in 2013, right before the protests, the majority of media messages about usurpation still treated it as a threat. For instance, on December 23, 2013 when the Maidan protests had been active already for a month, we still see the message “Yanukovych aims at usurpation”. Arseniy Yatseniuk called people for action on December 8, 2013 by saying “We won’t let him [Yanukovych] usurp the power”.  Moreover, the opposition leaders were not consistent in their interpretations of Constitutional Court decisions. For example, in her interviews and speeches on TV and printed press Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the main opposition leaders interchangeably used “full usurpation of power”, “we are on the way to usurpation” and “we have to prevent usurpation”. Also, some print media put usurpation in quotation marks when quoting opposition leaders or political experts.

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Interestingly, even right before the Euromaidan protests began, the media messages that contained usurpation lexeme rarely included any prognoses about possible protests. Out of 52 mentions of protests in the context of power usurpation in the period from January to October 2013, almost half of them (23) stated that mass protests are highly improbable. ( e.g. “The ability of the opposition to organise mass protests, not the imitation of it, is very doubtful”, April 2013, Dzerkalo Tyzhnya; “The idea of president’s resignation is supported by the society, but (…) all the opposition protest actions will inevitably fail”, March 2013, Kommersant).

In their forecasts regarding rallies against Yanukovych, political experts defined either a united opposition or strong opposition leader (as it was in 2004) as factors that would make mass protests possible. The outbreak of protests not initially backed by any political groups was unexpected. At the same time, we could express the assumption that if there had been a strong voice of civil society and the media community in 2010-2011 when it was clear that Viktor Yanukovych took the Constitutional Court under his control, we could have hoped for effective non-violent resistance and removal of his regime.

Conclusion

The collected data show that Ukrainian mainstream media have been very cautious in the terms they use when discussing constitutional changes. Moreover, in 2011, immediately after the Opinion of Venice Commission was adopted the topic surprisingly received very little media attention.

Ukrainian opposition leaders whose interviews and statements were published in the media were inconsistent in their evaluation of the constitutional reform implemented by the Constitutional Court, defining it interchangeably as a “threat” or “path to usurpation” and “full usurpation” of power by Viktor Yanukovych. Among the collected messages from the mainstream media we did not see any profound legal analysis on the adopted constitutional changes. The lack of media attention to the topic of usurpation can be also explained by the general opinion among political leaders about a low probability of mass protests in the country.

In this context we consider the underrepresentation of fundamental constitutional changes that led to the usurpation of power in the media as one of the factors that finally made the non-violent political change in Ukraine impossible, as by 2013 the political crisis had deepened considerably.

Although Yanukovych failed to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and lost most of his public support by winter 2013/14 (his approval rating was only 16,7%) (Byk, 2014), the lack of knowledge of the illegitimacy of the constitutional order prevented a non-violent solution. It was caused by the lack of adherence to the basic principles of human rights, rule of law and liberal constitutionalism not only by the Yanukovych gang, but also by opposition leaders and media community.

The opposition was only warning about the threat of usurpation, not addressing the actual usurpation of power and falsification of the constitution in 2010. Although members of the Yanukovych administration, including officers of law enforcement agencies, orchestrated the usurpation, media, expert and civil society community members share the responsibility.

As a result, cases of disobedience among law enforcement officers took place too late. They occurred only after violent clashes pushed the Euromaidan towards its bloody resolution and made it easier for Putin to annex Crimea and take over Eastern Ukrainian territories to “save them from the radical violent nationalists taking over Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine”.

Real reformers are still in the minority in Kyiv. The anti-reform forces and old bureaucrats are not only preventing reforms but are at least partially responsible for the failure of a non-violent removal of the Yanukovych administration. They are trying to excuse the lack of reforms by shifting the focus to the war they failed to prevent.

The current “party of power”, Petro Poroshenko Bloc (BPP), claims that it supports reforms and is using the experience of successful reforms in Central Europe, but after two years it has become evident that most BPP politicians are trying to keep the current post-revolutionary equilibrium. Ukraine’s civil society has successful experience of nonviolent resistance to usurpation and it can be used to push reforms and liberate the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Ukraine still has a chance for successful reforms, but the current generation of Ukrainian leaders does not seem to be able to use this chance. The next generations must be better trained in independent media practices, human rights, civic studies, non-violent actions and other basic skills of democracy.

The illegitimacy of an authoritarian regime must be shown whenever possible, to let people know that they are not obliged to follow illegal orders and can disobey. This can increase chances for at least part of the security apparatus to change its loyalty in support of the resistance movement, prevent bloodshed and increase chances of a non-violent removal of the authoritarian regime. The role of the national media in such an effort is of crucial importance.

Acknowledgments

We are profoundly grateful to the MediaPulse agency, which has kindly provided us with gigabytes of media monitoring material for this project. We also thank Ulyana Suprun, Marko Suprun, Gennady Kanishchenko and the whole team of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University for the fruitful environments they have created for this study. Without helpful comments on an earlier version of this report from Mykola Ryabchuk, Dr. Tetyana Kloubert of the University of Augsburg, Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland it would not be such a brilliant paper. At the same time, the content of this study, including any errors, is the sole responsibility of its authors, so please don’t hesitate to contact us at dmytro.potekhin(at)gmail.com or jay.kuznetsova(at)gmail.com. The sponsors of this study (other than the authors) bear no responsibility for any omissions as there were no sponsors. Most of the errors (if any) in this study – as well as the study itself – became possible without any financial sponsorship or grant from any foundation, university or any private or governmental institution. However, since the purpose of this study is to advance the theories and practices of efficient nonviolent resistance against dictatorships around the world, we are open for proposals on further studies of and trainings on the ways legitimisation of usurpers by (un)civil societies works and can be prevented or – if too late to prevent – stopped.

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