February 15, 2006,
Kiev, Ukraine A British acquaintance here learned a few months ago, much to his dismay, that a gleaming new residential complex was about to go up on his doorstep, on land deeded to his building. He mustered the paperwork and made the usual appeals to the usual authorities, but this led to an even bleaker discovery: The developers were the authorities, more or less. That is to say, they were close associates of President Viktor Yushchenko, and nowadays his people are making the rules. “I should want [Viktor] Yanukovich to win,” this acquaintance now says, referring to the former presidential candidate who could soon become prime minister. Different crooks, different crimes, he figures.
Even Ukrainians with somewhat less exposure to the new elite seem to have concluded that Yushchenko is like all the others, or at least is no better. His political party fetches no more than 15 percent in national polls ahead of critical parliamentary elections next month. And as Yushchenko goes, so goes the Orange Revolution that he once embodied. The deputies elected to the next session of the Verkhovna Rada will have the choice of prime minister, and if Yushchenko’s pathetic numbers stay where they are now, this selection is bound to cost him dearly. At the farthest end of unthinkable scenarios is the elevation of Yanukovich, the goat of the revolution now with greater power than if he had been elected president in the first place and the protests had never happened.
Only mildly less distressing would be the re-appointment of ousted prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the most dynamic and untrustworthy politician this side of Edwin Edwards. Though it was the pretext for her dismissal, corruption was perhaps the least of her problems. An inept administrator with no economic program except populism, she moved to sharply increase social spending while crusading to “re-privatize” former government holdings that were sold off by the previous government under questionable circumstances. This became a circus, as Tymoshenko estimated that “thousands” of properties may need to be redistributed. Investors fled. One year on, Ukraine’s gross domestic product has gone from twelve-percent annual growth to near zero. Yet if Yanukovich does not emerge as prime minister after the balloting in late March, it very likely will mean that Tymoshenko gets the nod instead.
Corruption-Weary CountryAs an outsider, it is difficult to know what Ukrainians expected to find in their country one year after the revolution. Sure, everyone wants to live in a country with a strong economy and no corruption. But looking at Ukraine, who would even know where to start? Public institutions have been debased to the edge of rot by decades of abuse and official cynicism. The courts are rife with graft, and will probably need to be rebuilt from the ground up. Like HAL the supercomputer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ukraine’s bureaucracy manages nothing so well as its own survival. Yet battling corruption in Ukraine without first attacking the vast and impenetrable bureaucracy is an impossible task. When even the simplest projects can take years to get the necessary approvals, bureaucracy becomes big business.
What’s more, who will enact the reforms? The safest place in Ukraine for a criminal is still the country’s parliament, where membership confers absolute immunity from prosecution. It’s anyone’s guess how many crooks are hiding out there, but several of the country’s more brazen “oligarchs” have seats, just to be safe. (And seats can literally be purchased, under the chamber’s absurd rules of appointment.) In 2004, one of these deputies, Viktor Pinchuk, purchased the country’s premier steel mill at a bargain-basement price from the government of Leonid Kuchma, who happens to be his father-in-law. Perhaps a blind trust is too much to ask, but what about basic shame? Deputies in parliament own banks, which in Ukraine collect taxes and utility payments, among other receipts. Who will mess with that arrangement?
Add to this the unique illogic and disorder of the Soviet system lovingly preserved since independence in 1991 like an embalmed Lenin and it’s a wonder that Ukraine’s revolutionaries were ever illusioned enough to be disillusioned now. The problems Ukraine faces are going to take years perhaps generations to correct. They don’t get swapped out with a change of government.
Yushchenko has not been ideal, by any measure. He has introduced corruption-wearied Ukrainians to the wearying possibilities of feebleness. He has failed to mediate a dispute between Tymoshenko and his close personal friend Petro Poroshenko, the state security chief, which led to the collapse of the first post-revolution government. More egregiously, he has been suckered into a written agreement with Yanukovich that, among other things, extends the immunity of the Rada to more than 2,000 other politicians across Ukraine. (This was the price he paid to win the approval of Yuriy Yekhanurov, the current prime minister, after dismissing the Tymoshenko government in the fall.)
Episodes such as these have prompted Pora, the youth-led reform movement that played a key role in the revolution, to form its own party ahead of the parliamentary elections. Its “list” topped by retired boxer Vitaliy Klitschko will need to break three percent at the polls in order to be represented in the Rada. Otherwise, all Pora will likely do is take votes from Our Ukraine, Yushchenko’s party, at the ballot box.
All the same, it is important to bear in mind that Yushchenko is not “like all the others.” (Although some of his courtiers may be a different story.) He is attacked in newspaper editorials that could not have been written in the climate of fear and intimidation that preceded him. Part of his problem, in fact, is that Ukrainians have already, for better and for worse, internalized the victories of the revolution: They have their new rights, and they’re done thanking Yushchenko for them. Now they are worried about the sputtering economy, high inflation, the country’s tetchy relationship with Mother Russia and, of course, signs that official corruption endures.
Some Ukrainians I’ve spoken to are perfectly willing to acknowledge the new freedoms and yet remain ambivalent about the possibility they may wind up saddled with Yanukovich, who combines the grace of a thug he was jailed twice for assault and robbery as a young man with a Russian accent and the predictable blessing of Vladimir Putin. His appointment as prime minister would certainly be an odd conclusion to the Orange Revolution’s narrative arc: He sought permission to order the military to open fire on the protestors in Independence Square.
A Time for Choosing“People in Ukraine will never believe any government!” a schoolteacher assured me recently in the town of Malin, about 90 miles north and west of Kiev. Malin is reasonably near Chernobyl, and the woman recalled how the Soviets denied reports of a disaster there for days while people sat in harm’s way. On television, the same old movies played. They heard something vague about a fire, but it was “under control.” Many had relatives who lived nearer and knew different, though. Finally, days into the crisis, she was relocated to Latvia.
It is not really a question of whether Ukrainians want change. It is more useful to ask how long they are willing to pursue it before they revert to the usual choruses of doubt. The difficulties of the post-revolution period have awakened the old spirit of fatalism in Ukrainians, who take almost an anti-pride in their centuries of suffering and betrayals. (The country’s slogan no joke is “Ukraine has not yet died.”) This is, after all, the land of the Holodomor, the Stalin-era famine which claimed as many as 10 million lives. Trust at your own peril.
The country’s history helps make sense of the speed with which disillusionment took hold here after the revolution. Why be a chump? But that’s not really the choice anymore, of course. The choice, just like in American politics, is one of whose chump you would prefer to be. You cannot elect a perfect politician. But you can choose defeat.
Ethan Wallison is a journalist living in Kiev and the publisher of Room12A.com.