15 January, 2010

Yushchenko's Place in History: A Leader who Failed his People?

For 200 years the bulk of Ukrainian lands were Russian colonies for
all intents and purposes. Ukrainians produced a humanist-cultural
elite within the empire, but not a national political or economic
elite. Between 1917 and 1947 this colonial legacy was compounded by
millions of unnatural deaths and massive in-migration of Russians.

Immigration is a normal phenomenon. But between 1930 and 1991 media
educational and publishing policies created a Russian urban public
communications sphere in Ukraine. This ensured that immigrant Russians
did not have to learn the language of the country they had immigrated
into, but rather, that Ukrainians in their own country had to learn a
foreign language to get an education and be socially mobile. Under
these conditions Ukraine experienced not immigration but colonization.
This had psychological consequences. Russians and Ukrainians in
Ukraine identified Ukrainian with Sunday folklore and Russian with
modern urban daily life and power. The provincial political elite did
not envisage their territory as an entity apart and distinct from its
imperial whole and behaved accordingly.

The peaceful collapse of the USSR left the old Russophile provincial
political elite in power. While the cultural elite concerned itself
with cultural issues, this old political elite stole Ukraine's public
assets and became an economic elite as well - urged on by neo-liberal
capitalist advocates like Anders Aslund. They subsequently did not
reinvest their wealth into infrastructure, services, manufacturing and
national culture. They send their capital offshore, invest abroad, buy
football teams, import luxury goods and finance Russian-language media
products and projects. While most of these "oligarchs" were born and
raised in Ukraine, few are Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians with sympathy
for national issues or culture. This is significant because it means
that as a group they cannot be considered a "national capitalist

After 18 years under their neo-liberal capitalist rule post-imperial
Ukrainian society has become "feudalized." A small group of very
wealthy surrounded by guards, fences, and darkened car windows, lords
over a mass of indebted poor living in dirty run-down cities with
undrinkable tap water. In the capital people must daily dodge empty
beer bottles, hordes of street peddlers and cars that litter the
sidewalks. Ukraine is a country where the average person still depends
on local bazaars and private relations to survive -- and not on the
newly established "capitalist free market." As in feudal societies,
many still retain pre-modern imperial or local identities and do not
consider themselves "Ukrainian" in either a national or civic sense.
Private shopping malls crawling with "guards" are clean and "secure"
like medieval castles, while outside them people must live with filthy
run-down streets and adolescent males who turn to crime because there
are few full-time well-paying jobs. The public space is polluted with
billboards. Even St. Sophia square is ringed with obnoxious
advertisements. Russian still dominates the public communication
sphere. While no-one died as a result of political violence in 1991,
since then the country has lost more millions in emigration and
unnatural deaths due to miserable public health services than had died
during the 1933 Famine.

Russians and Ukrainians disgusted by the still dictatorial
post-independence regime rallied in 2004. They hoped that Yushchenko
and Tymoshenko would "place the criminals in prison" and implement a
just re-distribution of the formerly stolen public assets. Yushchenko
failed to act decisively and thus make a place for himself as a great
man not only in Ukrainian but in European history. What he did was
merely supervise a seizure of power from one part of the clique of
oligarchs, to another part who had decided to ally with him - more
because he won than for any ideological or national reasons. To his
credit, Yushchenko ensured the last government controls over the media
were removed and established a division of power between the president
and prime minister. This ensured Ukraine would be a political
democracy rather than an autocracy. He gave full government support to
the cultural elite to implement national initiatives. These include
things like spreading education in Ukrainian and mass dissemination of
previously suppressed information about Ukraine's past. Yushchenko
also wanted Ukraine to belong to the EU, which for all its faults,
offers greater prospects for Ukrainian development than does Putin's
renewed Russian empire.

Despite these initiatives Yushchenko lost virtually all credibility
not only among Ukrainians but among Ukraine's loyal Russian citizens.
Instead of arresting the rich and powerful guilty of rampant
corruption, he gave them medals. Although this may have been motivated
by a plan to co-opt former enemies and transform them into a "new
national elite" nothing in the behavior of men like Kivalov ("seriozha
pidrahui"), or Kyiv's mayor Chernovetsky suggests they have been thus
transformed. Neither still can't even speak Ukrainian and historians
will one day undoubtedly debate whether he, Batu Khan or Bogoliubsky
did more to destroy Kyiv. Kyiv is turning into a vast filthy
Calcutta-like slum.The initiative did, however, make a mockery of the
awards system and the man who gave them.

Yushchenko's neo-capitalist "free market" economic policies also lost
him popular support. Oligarchs continued to steal public assets and
send profits abroad and Yushchenko did nothing to regulate or limit
Russian corporate take-overs in Ukraine. Most corporations work and
produce in Russian because there is no Ukrainian national capitalist
class. This keeps the public sphere Russian and reinforces the notion
that Ukrainian is suitable only for Sunday folk concerts - not
corporate offices. A few have become very rich but many more have
become poorer. The latter development is particularly troubling
because the resulting mass socio-economic dissatisfaction can be
exploited politically by revisionist imperial neo-fascist groups who
want to restore the old Russian Empire.

When Tymoshenko attempted to prosecute "non-Orange" oligarchs and
re-privatize in favor of her oligarch supporters, Yushchenko opposed
her. American corporations in Ukraine were not enthusiastic about such
an initiative either as they were also involved in the pillage of
Ukraine's public assets. The "Orange coalition" split and their
pro-Russian rivals have recovered the influence they lost in 2004.
Their leader, a former criminal who legally cannot hold any public
office and as governor of Donetsk closed the last Ukrainian school
there, is now running for president! Never having any principled
differences with Yanukovych and his oligarchs, the "Orange" oligarchs
would not have difficulties supporting them as their wealth and status
would not be affected.

Since clan divisions among the oligarchs are stronger than national or
political divisions they can easily support no matter who wins the
2010 elections and thus perpetuate their domination of the country.
Thanks to the proportional electoral system, they can easily buy
parliamentary seats and then determine the selection of bureaucrats
who would act in their interests.

It should be noted, however, that although most oligarchs have a
neo-soviet Russophile mentality, not all would welcome a reintegration
of Ukraine into Putin?s new empire. In exchange for cheap gas and a
?strong state? that could control democracy, unions and wages, under
Putin the oligarchs would lose the political power they have in
independent Ukraine. Alternatively, not all of them are keen on EU
membership either because there, at least until the Lisbon Treaty is
fully implemented, they would have to obey laws and regulations that
still limit corporate rapacity or suffer the consequences.

Thus, collectively, the oligarchs are quite happy to keep Ukraine in a
geopolitical no-man's land because that allows them to make profits
and decisively influence, if not control national politics, while at
the same time permitting them open access to places like Monaco and
Davos. But does such a state of affairs reflect the interests of the
population at large?

There are two major differences between Tymoshenko and Ianukovych. The
former is pro-EU and she opposes legal-status for Russian. Should
Tymoshenko win she would continue government support for national
development and ensure the country would not revert to the status of
a "little Russia" where "culture" was limited to happy natives singing
folk-songs. Ukrainian language-use in the public sphere would spread.
In the event of a Ianukovych victory, Ukraine's cultural elite,
without government support and with no national capitalist class to
back them, would be reduced to running private cultural clubs - much
as they did under the tsars and then the commissars. The country would
remain under the cultural dictatorship of the Russian minority.
Additionally, while Ianukovych would do nothing to restrict the
oligarchs, Tymoshenko, at least in principle, knows that Ukraine will
continue to decline unless she not only puts her opponents' oligarchs
in their place, but that she forces the oligarchs in her party to
realize that they must be subject to the government and law and not
above them. Government assets are not booty to be stolen for private
interest but wealth that must be nurtured for the public good. What
she will do, obviously, remains to be seen.

It might also be added that some European leaders on the left and
right don't understand that it is not in the interest of the EU to
have a powerful Russian empire on its eastern border. Such people
would obviously welcome a Ianukovych victory. Those who realize that
without Ukraine Russia will never again be an empire, however, would
welcome a Tymoshenko victory.

Ukraine after 2004 remained a Russian colony in the cultural and
economic sense ruled by a kleptocratic neo-soviet clan-oligarchy
primarily thanks to Yushchenko's failure to exploit his mass support
in 2004 to break their power. If they stole the nation's wealth,
Iushchenko did worse: he stole its hope for a better future. There was
only one 1917 revolution in the last century. It is unlikely there
will be another 2004 revolution this century.

Stephen Velychenko is a reseach fellow, University of Toronto and
Visiting Lecturer Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

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