Following up the post from Tom Oates last week, reader Dan Hardie sends another (long) piece, by Tarik Amar, who, Dan says, is doing a PhD on Soviet history and speaks Ukranian, German and Russian, among other languages, and knows the place very well. Lacking any of these qualifications, I can only pass his analysis on to you with the observation that it’s well worth reading, and gives lots of detail on the machinations of the incumbent president.
From what I’ve read, including Tarik’s piece, this all seems very similar to Marcos in the Phillipines and Milosevic in Serbia, and hopefully will be resolved in a similar fashion.
Into the Zone? – The Coup in Ukraine
However divisive the recent US Presidential Elections were, nobody suggested they might end in a coup or a revolution. Ukraine was not so lucky. That country’s Presidential race has led to a coup, in which the serving pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is clinging to power by stealing the clear victory of pro-European reformer Viktor Yushchenko. Nobody in Ukraine, outside the government, knew in advance whether this contest would be decided by ballots or by force. By now all would agree with the Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, that Ukraine is at a turning-point as important as the achievement of independence thirteen years ago. Since then the capital Kyiv and the country have not witnessed demonstrations on the current scale.
The Yushchenko victory has opened the way for an eastern-Slavonic, largely orthodox nation to leave the shadow of an – again – increasingly authoritarian and plainly meddlesome Russia and orient itself towards the European Union, with a real chance of establishing not a corrupt post-Soviet but a genuinely non-Soviet state. If Yanukovych’s seizure of power succeeds, Ukrainian elections will finally be reduced to the empty formality they are in most post-Soviet states.
For the Russian government, Ukraine’s cultural and historical links with Russia may now turn out less a source of strength and influence in the Ukrainian “near abroad” than a reason to fear that Ukraine may set an example for the Russian population. While Putin has successfully established a state in which a third of all government offices are taken up by secret service officers and democracy has been “directed” into a coma, a real election – with a result contrary to the express wishes of the government – in Ukraine raises the possibility that not only Polish and Czech Western Slavs can practice democracy but orthodox Eastern Slavs, too. Perhaps, this is more important than the often noted geopolitical anxieties of a Russia whose increasingly ostentatious nationalism does not seem to help in dealing with the pain of imperial contraction. It is hard to explain otherwise the international isolation into which Russia has manoeuvred itself with its rushed recognition of Yanukovych’s usurpation.
The first round of the elections ended on 31 October and eliminated all candidates but the two Viktors. Even then the bad non-news for Ukraine was that its leaders were trying to cheat it of its choice. The good news was that they did not manage to do so at once. Ubiquitous electoral fraud and a demonstrative display of military hardware in the capital Kyiv on election night number one suggested a will to do what is being done now: impose regime candidate Viktor Yanukovych by fraud and the threat of force. Yet, with Yanukovych and Yushchenko both – officially – polling around 40% of the vote, the stalemate had to be broken in a run-off on 21 November.
A smooth hand-over of the president’s wide-ranging powers has always been unlikely. Ukrainians have all been talking about electoral fraud since Ukraine’s Central Electoral Commission, Ukraine’s universally distrusted and by now widely despised chief vote counter, was unable to count a remnant of about three percent of the vote for ten days after round one. I have not found a single Ukrainian who does not take it for granted that this was intended to diminish Yushchenko’s real success in round one and keep him from campaigning for round two, which by law he could do only after the final announcement of the results of round one. Now, two members of the Commission, admitting that the Commission has failed, have resigned and called on their remaining colleagues to do the same.
The opposition has piled up thousands of cases of evidence of electoral fraud in favour of Yanukovych: Blank protocols, signed and sealed, odd delays and detours in the transmission of results, and multiple voting by ballot-box stuffing squads. Those were the final touches to the regime’s abuse of its incumbent position, composed of monopolization of the media, the purging of electoral rolls, and systematic smear campaigns and panic-mongering. Even after round one the facts of large-scale fraud were hard to dispute. While the opposition said that three million Ukrainians were deprived of their franchise in round one, a member of the Central Electoral Commission thought one million was closer to reality. The same official rejected allegations that the head of the Commission, Sergey Kivalov is being blackmailed through the business interests of his daughter in Odessa, but admitted that Kivalov at any rate is not independent.
During the campaign, the major TV channels, controlled by the state and oligarchic clans, made no pretence of giving the opposition fair news coverage. In their reporting it occupied a void between horrid and unmentionable. Viewers were systematically frightened with dark prophecies of “instability” in case of an opposition victory. A few days before round two, a pro-regime crooner launched a new song shmaltzing away about how beautiful “our Ukraine” can be, as long as there is no civil war – here his clip, much aired on state television, showed footage of the opposition leaders.
Those opposition spots that did make it on the screen were framed by smear adds imitating the opposition look. It has remained a transparent mystery who paid for this. Entirely unmysterious was their aim of associating the opposition with servility to the United States and unpatriotic intentions to discriminate against eastern Ukrainians. One add showed a cowboy rodeoing over a map of Ukraine, in another the same map was subdivided into three zones marking out – from western to eastern Ukraine – superior and inferior sorts of Ukrainians. This type of far-below-the-belt campaigning has been practiced virtually exclusively by the government camp and much of it has been done locally. Reports that women in several places only got to see a gynaecologist after signing declarations of support for Yanukovych have yet remained uninvestigated but are very typical.
In best Soviet tradition, the regime sought to exploit the memory of World War Two. In a particularly cynical move, the opposition’s “Nasha Ukraina” block, led by a man whose father saw German camps as a Soviet POW, was termed “Nashists” to rhyme with fascists, while Yushchenko himself was depicted on billboards with Hitler moustache and top boots. Taking the Kyiv underground before round one, I happened on an elderly gentleman who gave a rambling and crudely nationalist speech ostentatiously in favour of the opposition, which he concluded by a loud “Gott mit uns!” – in the original German. Looking around, I saw annoyed embarrassment at this silly but not unusual attempt to smear the opposition with “fascism.” Yet, the brutal abuse of the memory of a war which left Ukraine in ruins may have backfired. Shortly before round two, an amateur filmed Yanukovych munching sweets, while taking a World-War-Two memorial parade. Russian President Vladimir Putin standing at his elbow declined an offer to have some, too.
Outgoing president Kuchma’s prediction, or rather statement of intent, that these elections would be the dirtiest in independent Ukraine has come true. After round one, Yanukovych’s staff tried to counter-spin the evidence of pro-regime fraud by accusing the opposition of electoral fraud, too, and the Ukrainian general prosecutor opened investigations exclusively into cases of alleged opposition fraud. Given the Ukrainian prosecutor’s reputation, this most likely helped the opposition. With hindsight, Yanukovych’s managers may even regret the amount of cheating in their candidate’s favour in round one. By the time Ukrainians went to the polls again for round two, they were prepared for the worst. The rigged “defeat” of the opposition in the run-off served as the standard of rebellion. The student activists of “Pora” had stocked up on the tents and sleeping backs they are now using to occupy a freezingly cold Kyiv.
Yanukovych has always seemed perfectly fitted for this campaign to lay waste any remnant of civic trust. A big man of few words and two criminal convictions (strictly not political), Yanukovych confirmed his image as the candidate from the “zone” – i.e. jail – by publicly abusing his opponents and their voters as “goats”, prison slang for stool-pigeons and passive homosexuals. His penning his profession into official papers as the Ukrainian equivalent of “pryme-meenister” and his – very dubious – academic degree as “proffessor” were the comic relief of the campaign. Yanukovych’s tough order to his bodyguards to sort out a Second World War veteran, who dared challenge him, starkly contrasted with his already famous dying-swan performance when hit by a raw egg. Collapsing, he was hurried away in best line-of-fire fashion. Yanukovych’s talking Tarantino and turning tail, capped by his initial refusal to join a legally obligatory TV debate with Yushchenko before round two, hugely popularized jokes about eggs and Yanukovych – with eggs, by a simile common to many languages, standing for male courage or its absence.
The funny part is obviously over and his brutal attempt to usurp the presidency has made him widely hated. Walls in the capital now bear the defiant slogan “Kyiv won’t take the felon” and the crowds shout “Yanukovych must go.” Grotesquely, Yanukovych himself seems genuinely incapable of grasping just how much the majority of his countrymen wants him to leave them alone. In a surreal post-“election” appearance, the man who would be president by all means stretched out a hand to the cheated, assuring them they would also have a place in his Ukraine if, of course, they “reconciled themselves” to his “victory.” It is a statement of fact that, by now, most Ukrainians would not touch that hand.
While Yanukovych has tried to sell himself as a good manager, the economic situation is bad enough for all to see. Very little of some recent improvement in macroeconomic indicators has filtered down to the general population. Of more immediate combustibility, Yanukovych and his campaign manager, Tihipko, who also happens to be the head of the National Bank, have doled out pre-electoral cash to pensioners and students. Both groups suffer from long-standing but hitherto ignored poverty. Yet the government cannot show any way of financing the sudden fit of compassion and Ukrainians believe it will vanish as suddenly as it appeared. The opposition has been able to produce leaked documents showing that the cash was planned to dry up again immediately after the elections. Two days before round two, President Kuchma refused to sign a law to raise the minimum wage from about 90 dollars to 102.
Yet, Yanukovych literally went for broke before round two. He announced the coming of “social Ukraine” and promised benefits best summarized as everything for all at once. The sudden cash injection has made various price control schemes totter. While the official exchange rate with the dollar has scarcely changed, it has been difficult to buy dollars at the ubiquituous money changing booths. In a country where the dollar is still an indispensable second currency, it is hard to imagine a surer way to impress on Ukrainians that something is amiss with their meagre income.
Even before round one the government suffered two signal defeats. An attempt to shut down Ukraine’s only pro-opposition TV channel failed. More than 200 journalists from the state and oligarch controlled channels declared their solidarity with their hunger-striking colleagues. The Ukrainian Constitutional Court also broke with submissive tradition and blocked a government initiative to open about 40 additional electoral precincts in Russia, which were widely suspected of increasing the opportunities for fraud. On election night of round two three of the scheduled chief presenters for the election night special publicly declined to appear because they would not take secret propaganda instructions from the government anymore. After most prominent news presenters joined the rebellion, the main state channel has difficulties putting together its usual news show and is now feeding its audience a balanced diet of American blockbusters and Soviet oldies. Ukrainians joke that, at least, it’s not Swan Lake. As everybody in post-Sovietistan knows, Swan Lake was broadcast non-stop during the coup attempt in Russia in 1991.
The regime’s brazenness has promoted unprecedented unity among the opposition. Complaining that they have been cheated of most of their vote, the Socialists, the only important opposition party missing from Yushchenko’s block, joined it after round one. The regime’s heavy-handed attempts to repress a quickly growing student movement were counterproductive. The planting of explosives on students labelled – sign of the times – “terrorists” was widely mocked, while the expulsion of the “terrorists” from their universities mobilized more of them. The unwelcome attention of foreigners has also been attracted. Amnesty International has recognized as prisoners of conscience six students arrested for – correctly – insisting during round one that their local electoral commission announce its results publicly. By now, the students are an indispensable part of the resistance against the coup.
Crucially, even in round one the opposition managed to win all Ukrainian regions in the West as well as the Centre of the country, including – by a large margin – the largely Russiophone capital city Kyiv. The government has always liked to pretend that the opposition’s base was restricted to the Ukrainophone West, implying that it was “nationalist”, even “separatist.” Some Western observers still cling to these facile stereotypes. It is Yanukovych who has been cornered in a minority of eastern oblasts. If anybody represents an above-regional Ukrainian solidarity, it is clearly Yushchenko. He speaks proper Russian as well as Ukrainian and his being a native of one of Ukraine’s most eastern oblasts and having spent his student and working life in western as well as central Ukraine cannot be matched by Yanukovych, whose biography is strictly mono-regional and whose Ukrainian is not perfect.
It is a much abused quarter-truth that Ukraine divides between a “nationalist” West and a “Russophile” East. While there are important differences between regions in Ukraine, the West-East divide has been deliberately talked up by President Kuchma’s regime to enable it to pose as a neutral arbiter. Now his chosen successor Yanukovych is escalating this reckless rhetoric to threaten with “civil war” a recalcitrant society whose political ethics and maturity seem to simply elude him. It is true that the quintessential Eastern, Russified region of Donetsk has voted overwhelmingly for its ex-governor as well as ex-petty criminal Yanukovych. Yet, a local voter turn-out of about 95 per cent, at some precincts even of 104 per cent, should make everybody very careful about attributing these results to the way its inhabitants have really voted or would have liked to vote. Donetsk is firmly in the hand of Ukraine’s most ruthless oligarcho-mafiotic clan, of whom Yanukovych is a card-carrying member. As the ex-governor told President Kuchma long ago, the Donetsk clan could get an “Orang-Utan” elected. Independent trade unions report that workers and miners in the region had to sign undated dismissal requests. They were told these would be put to punitive use if Yanukovych obtained too few votes at their precinct. During the election campaign, Ukraine’s only neutral, hence by now pro-opposition, channel was deprived of its cable licence in the region.
Russia has certainly not forgotten Ukraine. In a prime-time appearance on Ukrainian TV just before round one of the elections, Russian President Vladimir Putin regretted the end of the Soviet Union, conceding that “it cannot be restored in its former shape” but promised to introduce double citizenship for Ukrainians. Putin avoided any mention of opposition leader Yushchenko and praised Yanukovych. Russian advisers in Yanukovych’s camp – allegedly including a make-up artist from Moscow –, Russian-sponsored exit-polls of curious methodology and election observers who see no evil are assisting the Ukrainian regime.
Putin went back for a second visit before round two. President Kuchma and Prime Minister Yanukovych hurried to meet him on the Crimea, demonstratively snubbing Polish foreign minister and Council of Europe chairman Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, who was also visiting and, as a result got to meet only Yushchenko. The Russian intervention has been brazen but not effective. Apart from international isolation, what President Putin may have achieved with this open pressure is a growing mood against Russia all across Ukraine, and not only in the traditionally Russia-weary West. Rumours making it into several reputable Ukrainian newspapers about Russian special forces in disguise taking part in the coup may or may not be true. They are, at any rate, indicative of Putin’s successful if unwitting raising the spectre of the imperialist “ugly Russian.” Demonstrators have now started chanting “Ukraina bez Putina” – Ukraine without Putin.
One prediction has always been easy to make. Ukraine was going to change after these elections. The tense and unstable status quo of the discredited but tolerated Kuchma Presidency could not last. If Viktor Yanukovych “wins”, the state is likely to be colonized by his Donetsk clan for good. Ukrainians in and outside Donetsk will adapt but few will prosper and many will retreat into depressed niches. What is happening in Ukraine is not about “Cold War” hangovers, and certainly not about “Western aggression.” It is the Ukrainian opposition which has been against sending Ukrainian soldiers to Iraq from the beginning of the war, while the regime has sought to buy American good will and toleration of its retrograde domestic policy by providing an underpaid, badly equipped contingent, a large share of whose casualties have been due to accidents and suicide. Even if some Western minds jaded by overfeeding on “Civil Society” rhetoric may find it old hat, for Ukraine things are at stake that were achieved in Poland in 1989: essential respect for the law and the sovereign people, pluralism, and, indeed, freedom from fear.
Ukraine is facing a choice not between different policies or regions but between mutually exclusive political cultures. Without undue idealization, the opposition stands for a reasonable understanding of rules, laws, and good faith in observing them. There is no lack of promises in Yushchenko’s program and in an impoverished country many of them will remain long unfulfilled. Yet he is perhaps the only Ukrainian politician whose curriculum vitae combines long and prominent public service, first as head of the National Bank, then as prime minister, with enjoying the trust of the majority of the population. Regime attempts to depict him as a disappointed careerist bent on a comeback have overlooked that crucial fact: none of the current regime figures would ever stand a chance at a comeback by a popular vote. A Yushchenko government, successful or less so, would at least enable Ukrainians to feel, for better or worse, that Ukraine is their country.
On the other side, the current regime’s election spoliation campaign and its usurpation attempt have proven a Ukraine-fatigued Western observer’s bitter quip: Those ruling Ukraine now seem unable to grasp the difference between playing by rules and playing with them. Worse, as bad losers they are now not only bending the rules but breaking them to fight to stay in power.
Dark references to a coup were made even before round one. In case it succeeds, independent Ukraine’s prospects will be bleak even by comparison with its cheerless past. Ukrainians are clearly afraid. Before the election, recognizing a foreigner, Ukrainians asked me what I think about their prospects. Usually, they provided the answer themselves: Bida, misery. In a recent interview, the head of the Institute of Philosophy of Ukraine’s Academy of Science called on the West to recognize the exceptional nature of these elections, which would either finally turn the country into a genuine democracy or usher in a hopeless authoritarianism – “possibly bloody, too.” Yet, even the Minister of the Interior, who loves to remind the population of the special forces and armoured personnel carriers at his disposal, has talked about the dread “Georgian variant”, i.e. a rebellion against electoral fraud. This is precisely what the student activists of “Pora”, inspired by Serbian and Georgian examples are doing now. The minister insisted, it would not happen here. Yet it is happening. Ukrainians are rightly afraid of rule by an ex-convict who is proving he won’t be a useful member of society. The most important news from Ukraine is that they are also willing to stand up for their vote. If that is the courage of despair, the current regime has done everything to make the people desperate.