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Europe

How Ukraine takes a page from Russia's book

Observers say Ukraine is becoming increasingly like Russia - less democratic and more authoritarian. President Viktor Yanukovych seems to be inspired by President Vladimir Putin - but the comparisons only goes so far.

This Sunday (05.08.2012), Yulia Tymoshenko will have spent one year in jail. That was when the former Ukrainian prime minister was arrested, before she was later sentenced to seven years in jail following a controversial trial. The Ukrainian judiciary convicted her of abuse of office for signing gas contracts with Russia.

But the criticism from abroad did not seem to impress the leadership in Kyiv. Tymoshenko is currently facing another trial, this time on charges of tax evasion. Other members of her government, such as former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, are also in prison.

Turning Russian

It's a scenario that might remind one of Russia, where Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oil magnate and critic of President Vladimir Putin's regime, has been languishing in prison for nine years, convicted of business-related crimes.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko shows what she claims is an injury in the Kachanivska prison in Kharkiv,

The Tymoshenko case has been condemned in the west

Western observers consider the trial against Khodorkovsky politically motivated, a charge that that Moscow denies. The Tymoshenko case is also often used by Western media as an example of how Ukraine has become more like Russia since President Viktor Yanukovych's came back into office two and a half years ago.

Gerhard Simon, a political scientist specializing in Eastern Europe at the University of Cologne, said, "The purpose of the current leadership is to ensure they will never have to give up power."

As in Russia, Ukraine has a "party of power," explained Simon. That party attempts to dominate the political system at both the regional and national levels. Another parallel is Kyiv's desire to make "the opposition weak and controllable," Simon said.

"Russia has been setting the example for several years, and Ukraine is on exactly the same path," he added.

Companions from Donetsk

The comparisons do not end with the political system. When former KGB agent Putin became president of Russia in 2000, he made sure to put former or active secret service agents from his hometown of St. Petersburg at the head of key departments. Yanukovych has done the same, filling key positions with people from his hometown of Donetsk. Half of the Ukrainian government, including the prime minister, has worked in Donetsk at some point.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych attends his inauguration in Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv

Ukraine has become more draconian under Yanukovych

The Ukrainian legislature has also apparently taken a few cues from Russia. The Russian parliament recently introduced a new law imposing more severe punishments for defamation, an act that garnered much condemnation from human rights groups. A similar bill is about go before the Ukrainian parliament.

More differences than similarities

But despite these parallels, Andreas Umland, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-MohylaAcademy, said there are many more differences. "There are attempts to create vertical power, to control parliament, to strengthen the president's power, to intimidate or silence political opponents," Umland said, but unlike Russia, Ukraine does not have optimal conditions for such a system.

"There is no money, no wide support from the people, no uniform elite, and no uniform apparatus that stands behind the president, as there is in Russia," said Umland, who said he considers "Ukraine's semi-authoritarian regime more unstable" than its Russian counterpart.

Ukrainian journalist Vitaliy Portnikov also said he thinks the conditions in Ukraine are very different from those in Russia. He said Russia has introduced an "oligarchic model" since the fall of the Soviet Union. "Different groups of oligarchs and officials essentially agree amongst themselves," said Portnikov, editor-in-chief of Ukrainian broadcaster TVi.

A Ukrainian woman passes in front of the voting boxes at a polling station in Kyiv, in February 2010

Observers have held Ukraine's elections to be generally fair - that may chance in October, some say

He added that Ukraine did have a similar system, but Yanukovych altered it. "Yanukovych makes decisions on his own," Portnikov, who worked for many years in Moscow, told DW. "But Putin doesn't."

Danger of further loss of democracy

Portnikov added that press freedoms in Ukraine could also be limited soon. He said TVi has been put under more and more pressure since Yanukovych's tenure began. The broadcaster's general director was being investigated for tax fraud, though that case has been suspended for now.

Upcoming parliamentary elections at the end of October could bring the situation in Ukraine closer to that of Russia. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, all Ukrainian elections have been considered democratic by Western observers. But there could be a serious step backwards this time. "I'm expecting total election fraud," Portnikov said.

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