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December 9, 2004

Something Rotten in the State of Ukraine


by Chad Nagle

One of the advantages of writing anonymous editorials is that you can wantonly spew forth bile without worrying about anyone pointing the finger at you individually. In the Dec. 2 issue of the pro-Yushchenko English-language Kyiv Post newspaper, an editorial entitled "An Orange March East" featured the following passage:

"What should Viktor Yushchenko and his team do next? Go east. One of the many positive things this presidential election has done is remind people in cosmopolitan Kyiv of the Appalachian levels of ignorance and alienation that remain in Luhansk, Donetsk, and other hardscrabble parts of Ukraine's industrial east – in Viktor Yanukovych country, in other words. The so-called Donbas – a massive ghetto full of miners and steelers exploited, robbed, and manipulated by the region's presiding tycoons and Soviet-style government bosses – might as well have a fence around it, sealing it off from the country its citizens are instructed to distrust. Fed lies by the media, isolated and undereducated and saturated with leftover Soviet propaganda, many Donbas residents seem really to believe that Yushchenko is an American puppet, set on enslaving them in the name of Yankee imperialism and the CIA; that western Ukrainians are fascists bent on eliminating the Russian language; and the like."

The first thing I thought as I read this was: the poor people of the Appalachians. Myself a native of Virginia, I had many times driven around the Appalachians, enjoying not only the scenery but also the warmth and hospitality of the native inhabitants. I could only wonder what the "hardscrabble" folk of the Appalachians would make of such cosmopolitan, urbanite-sophisticate commentary from faraway fellow Americans.

The next thing that sprang to my mind was the tone of hatred running through the piece, which I read immediately on my return from Ukraine's three eastern-most regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkov. Far from a "massive ghetto," my discovery was a relatively prosperous region densely scattered with economically active cities, which, I could tell through the layer of sleet and snow, were remarkably clean. Traveling by road through the area, I noticed that even villages were well-kept, and the complexes around the huge mines and industrial enterprises were pristine and affluent looking. I even stopped off for a night in the town of Gorlovka at the suggestion of someone I'd met in Kiev, a 24-year-old who had moved to the capital from Donetsk region a couple of years earlier. With a look in his eyes apparently intended to convey Apocalypse Now-type horror, he told me of a sprawling "worker colony" – more populous than Kiev – that I had to see to believe. What I found was a fairly typical, small Soviet-era city where all the lights were on, shops were full, and my hotel – the Rodina – cost $20 a night for a Euro-renovated room with cable TV that showed all the main "opposition channels." The friends of the Donetsk émigré were nice enough young chaps who met me at my hotel and took me to their favorite bar. It wasn't my sort of place – an alternative rock bar with entranced twenty-somethings swaying to and fro – but I was preoccupied with the revelation that, while Gorlovka might conceivably have been a nightmare when the young émigré still lived there, in November 2004 I could have been inside a bar in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Pittsburgh – hardly Kurtz's Horror.

I had visited eastern Ukraine two and a half years earlier, going to Kharkov for the parliamentary elections in March 2002, then visiting Donetsk in April. Kharkov was an almost unspeakably foul dump with garbage strewn everywhere, miserable looking inhabitants, and a forlorn and crumbling old town. In "Freedom Square," formerly Lenin Square, the huge statue of Lenin gestured down toward the makeshift go-cart course some enterprising individuals had set up, using old tires to create the boundary of the racetrack. Donetsk was the best put-together city I had visited in my travels outside Kiev in 2002, including jaunts to destitute western Ukraine. Lenin presiding over a depressing little "fun fair" in the central square put a damper on things, as did the endless commercial billboards (like in Kiev), but in 2002 the natives expressed no problems with infrastructure – gas, water, and electricity were in abundant supply, unlike in the west.

By late 2004, the area had clearly undergone a striking transformation in the previous two years, much as central Ukraine had. When I arrived in late October for the first round of the presidential election, it was obvious Kiev was doing better in material terms. Trips to Zhitomir (notoriously one of the worst-off districts in Ukraine) and Chernigov conveyed similar impressions: Ukraine had never been doing so well economically since I had started visiting the place in 1992. The filth of Kharkov was gone, its now-spotless subway system having received a facelift, although the monitors in each station playing pop videos were a bore. Historic buildings were repainted and renovated. In Donetsk, Lenin Square was unrecognizable except for the statue. The fun fair was no more, and nearby was a beautifully renovated opera house where the charming chief administrator – Tatiana Melnikova – took me on a tour and told me in glowing terms of how much had been done for culture and the arts during Yanukovich's tenure as governor. She had been commission chairman for the polling station housed in the theater, and tried to convince me that, while the 96% for Yanukovich in the area may have seemed ridiculous, she knew her neighbors. Their massive turnout was not out of pressure from any authorities. It was more out of fear – the fear of people who feel they actually have something to lose.

Why were things so visibly better? Dare it be suggested there is more than coincidence in the fact that the period in question – coinciding with the tenure of Viktor Yanukovich as premier – has been a time of gently-accelerating economic reintegration with Russia? Could it be that this reintegration has accrued to the benefit of ordinary Ukrainians? Proponents of Ukraine's "integration with Euro-Atlantic structures" might get red in the face about this (I hope so), but it feels very natural that Ukraine should benefit as a whole from closer ties to Moscow. After all, trying to "tear away" a state that has been closely economically integrated with Russia for its entire existence – as our more fierce Western commentators advocate – could not but cause serious harm to the lives of that state's ordinary citizens. But then, maybe these people aren't cosmopolitan enough to matter.

Some might argue that ripping Ukraine away from Russia is stern medicine that must be administered if Ukraine is ever to become a true democracy and "civil society." Listening to the "opposition" and its foreign supporters, one would think the place has turned into a tyrannical despotism worse than at any time since the break-up of the USSR. But having taken a close look at how people in Ukraine live relative to the rest of the ex-Soviet bloc, one can only describe the line that eastern Ukrainians are "fed lies by the media, isolated and undereducated and saturated with leftover Soviet propaganda" as the rant of adolescents, or liars, or both.

That isn't to say everything is perfect in Ukraine. Of course it isn't. Plenty of corruption here as elsewhere (e.g., Poland and Lithuania), but things are getting better – politically and economically – and that is what the West can't tolerate. Because when things improve, people become happier, and sovereignty, democracy, and the rule of law become strengthened. The economy flourishes in an atmosphere of greater order, and a potential regional "rival" starts to emerge. That's what is happening in Ukraine. President Leonid Kuchma was once feted by the West and promised more financial aid for Ukraine – in real terms – than for Russia, at a time when mob murders in Ukraine were at an all-time high and the name "Ukraine" was almost synonymous in the world with the term "corruption." By 2004, with things starting to look up and life achieving some stability, Kuchma and his government had to be removed and replaced by – to use the Kyiv Post's words – an American puppet.

Formally, this does in fact have something to do with democracy and the rule of law: you have an election, you have accusations of fraud, you have thousands of people blocking traffic and public areas in central Kiev on a daily basis, and you have an "Orange Revolution." It's "democratic" because it's on behalf of a mythical majority of "The People." You keep the accusations of falsification going and pretty soon the charges themselves become Truth. You assume massive falsification until no one questions it any more, and those making the charges become the heroes, democracy's rebels fighting the tyranny. Finally, you get a craven-looking "supreme court" (rule of law) overturning the results of the election (democracy), and the whole world can see democracy's formal triumph. So you have a happy ending: Democracy and the Rule of Law forever.

I rather feel I shouldn't mention it but, assuming for the sake of argument that "democracy" really is winning – that a majority of the electorate really supports the leader of the Orange Revolution – the concept of the "rule of law" must surely be on very shaky footing worldwide. The West does sometimes refer to the rule of law, but it is never expounded on. Some of the teachers in my law school used to pay lip service to the idea, but our leaders in the West don't like to talk about it as much as democracy or "freedom," George W. Bush's favorite term.

Georgia's "Rose Revolution" is a good test case for studying the rule of law. Exactly one year prior to the second round of the Ukrainian presidential election, an armed mob stormed the Georgian parliament building and a trembling President Eduard Shevardnadze – supported and rewarded carte blanche by the West for more than eight years from 1992-2000 – fled in fear. On the eve of the Georgian presidential election of January 2004, candidate Mikheil Saakashvili (Shevardnadze's former close lieutenant) appeared on TV (in violation of the election law) to urge people to vote in the presidential election on Jan. 4. He declared the need to "legitimize our victory in the eyes of the world" – i.e., his victory wasn't "legitimate" yet. The "extra-constitutional" power transfer had to be "legitimized" with an election. As it turned out, Saakashvili won almost 97% of the vote in a poll in which the Central Election Commission (CEC) estimated an 83% turnout. In reality, hardly anyone showed up on the day, but "legitimacy" had been achieved and, so, the rule of law had prevailed.

Now we have another "legitimizing" exercise. Viktor Yushchenko and his Orange Tide scored a victory – after occupying public areas in Kiev and blocking access to state buildings – when an evidently bought-and-paid-for supreme court ruled on Dec. 3 that the second round of the 2004 presidential elections had to be held again because of "massive falsification." The court didn't order a re-run of the whole election, even though it received evidence that in western Ukraine – Yushchenko country – 100% of ballots had been cast for Yushchenko in several precincts. This was when 24 candidates were competing. One would have thought that, at very least, the representatives of the other candidates on the commissions in these polling stations, as well as other candidates' observers, would have voted for their guy. Unless, that is, they didn't really represent anyone but Yushchenko to begin with, which means the so-called "regime" had no one looking out for procedural fairness on its behalf at all. But the first round wasn't important because Yushchenko had already made it through to the second round, so why risk putting him up against the whole range of original contestants?

It was also no matter that – much like the November 2003 parliamentary election in Georgia – the 2004 elections in Ukraine were probably the most procedurally correct, orderly, and clean in the history of post-Soviet Ukraine. In the places where I observed, I did so randomly, and had no reason to believe I had stumbled into pockets of law and order while ballot-stuffing mania was happening everywhere else. The important thing was that Yushchenko had come out a loser, and Washington had invested too much in the ex-Gosbank USSR official – a perfect Sorosian New World Order candidate – to accept that the provincial Viktor Yanukovich may (God forbid) have actually enjoyed more support than Yushchenko among the citizenry. It was time to get the grungy punks into the streets, get the "Rock the Vote" concert going, and jam the center of the capital (with the help of the city government) until the right result was obtained. This mob was the "cosmopolitan" Kievans, more sophisticated and cultured than their compatriots from Donetsk and Lugansk. They cheered on the usual array of depressing rock and rap, Mahler and Wagner being conspicuously left off the repertoire, and the ubiquitous orange lent a Satanic air to the festival, with Viktor Yushchenko's disfigured face a Halloween mask under the stage lights. The favorite chant of the mob: "We are many, and you will not defeat us" (i.e., "My name is Legion, for we are many"). Images from Channel 5, the Ukrainian version of Soros-financed Rustavi-2 TV in Georgia, would provide all the images the world needed to believe that a spontaneous nationwide revolution was taking place. Those Appalachian-level ignoramuses from the more populated eastern and southern areas … well, they could go to Hell.

So what were the protesters in the east like? Not terribly impressive, to be honest, although the crowds at the demonstrations I briefly attended in Donetsk and Lugansk looked no more disreputable, ignorant, or uncultured than their cosmopolitan counterparts in Kiev. There were too many leather jackets for my liking, but their wearers looked like average working-class stiffs in duffle coats and woolen hats as opposed to high-brow Kievan fashion victims sporting their own, more cosmopolitan leather garments. People of all ages packed into Lenin Square in Donetsk to hear the various speakers denounce the "orange orgy" going on in Kiev, the CIA, etc. It was almost unbearably cold, making it a wonder that a crowd of 5,000-plus could stand out there for so many hours. After all, they were essentially preaching to the converted. They didn't need to block public areas to get their way. In Lugansk, about the same number packed the square in front of the Taras Shevchenko statue on the evening of Dec. 1 to hear a series of speakers denounce the American-financed "coup" that was already "winning," and to say that Ukraine now faced the same fate as "Serbia and Georgia." These Donbas residents seemed "really to believe" this stuff! People in "cosmopolitan Kiev" know it's all just the ranting of Appalachians "saturated with leftover Soviet propaganda."

That said, after I took time to talk to officials in Donetsk, Lugansk, and Kharkov, I was sadly left with the distinct impression that the "frightening" Soviet holdover areas of eastern Ukraine were not about to threaten the "eastern march" of the New World Order. Accusations of "separatism" sprang up after a congress of pro-Yanukovich officials from 14 of Ukraine's 27 regions was held in the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Nov. 28. I watched the congress, and do not remember a single speaker calling for "independence" or "secession." Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters found it advantageous to demand prosecution for the "separatists," but there was nothing of the kind on offer in Severodonetsk on Nov. 28. Yanukovich himself made a speech calling on his supporters to refrain from "radical acts," observe the law, and respect the constitution. In fact, some of the officials simply spoke of the right to raise the issue of "autonomy" (a vaguely defined concept) in light of the actions of the pro-Yushchenko mob in Kiev. It was all nebulous waffle about Ukraine's constitutional structure, but never came close to advocating civil war.

The head of the pro-Yanukovich "Party of the Regions" in Donetsk, Alexander Bobkov, told me his party had always favored more rights and powers for the regions vis-à-vis the center. It didn't make sense for people in Kiev to allocate funds from the budget to the regions while retaining the power to specify how those funds were spent. Kiev-based officials were unlikely to know how best to dispose of resources in the region in question, since each region had its own strengths and weaknesses (yawn). The Party of the Regions supported Yanukovich because he personified the "opposition" (!) to current state policy, and had always advocated devolution of power to the regions. However, Bobkov didn't even go so far as to advocate replacement of the unitary state with a federal model, meaning that his party's position ultimately represented little more than the usual tinkering characteristic of limp-wristed reformers.

In Lugansk, the head of the internal affairs department of the regional administration, Vladimir Zablodsky, engaged in similar waffle for my benefit. He seemed almost apologetic as he explained that it would be "unheard of for a region not to support its native son," so Donetsk and Lugansk really had voted 90-something percent for Yanukovich. He explained that a "Soviet" mentality still prevailed in the east to the extent that, well, people expected to work until retirement and then collect their pensions(!), and they voted Soviet-style as well, as if in huge "blocks" – like block voting by labor unions in the West. Zablodsky looked vaguely embarrassed for some reason, but the pivotal moment in our talk came when I asked whether people realized they had something to lose. The West would operate very fairly: it would come in, offer to buy up enterprises for a song, then shut them down once they were "privatized," putting millions out of work. The region would suffer, but it would all be fair because the "free market" and "freedom" would be working. This appeared to register briefly with Zablodsky before his eyes glazed over, and for a moment I almost thought I could see the dollar signs ring up in his eyes as he said: "But … moshnii kapital." "Powerful capital" was the point. When the privatizers arrived they would, after all, pay for the resources. It wouldn't be much relative to actual value, of course, but it would certainly be enough for regional government officials to benefit handsomely. As for ordinary workers and pensioners, well…. Our conversation was over.

As I headed off to Kharkov, I started to sense the plot becoming clearer. The Ukrainian government had fixed the country up handsomely, like a homeowner fixing up his house for the market. The current, post-election crisis period was "Let's Make a Deal" time, and apparatchiks all over Ukraine were drooling at the thought of the Western takeover, the American puppet in the top slot ensuring that the fire sale went off without a hitch. Statements by Kuchma and Yanukovich after the mob started filling Independence Square on Nov. 21 – that everything must proceed through "negotiations" – took on new meaning. "Negotiations" would be over the "price" of the Ukrainian presidency. All the talk about Yanukovich as pro-Russian authoritarian was hot air. Quite the opposite, Yanukovich was the soft-in-the-middle ex-Party man, and no Lukashenko in Belarus. He might have proven himself a competent administrator who had presided over the betterment of ordinary people's lives, but he could be relied on to serve as the more naïve, popular candidate who would ultimately take the fall, fulfilling the Party's will.

Everything was going according to plan. Soon the OSCE would succeed in removing the chairman and deputy chairman of the CEC and imposing more outside control on Ukraine's electoral process. It was not a total victory for the OSCE, not yet, since the original demand had been a replacement of the entire CEC and all the regional election commissions. But then, Ukraine has nothing to fear from increased OSCE involvement, since the OSCE is a "European" organization and, of course, completely objective. Everyone wants to belong to the OSCE, just ask Tatiana Prosekina, head of the Secretariat of the Kharkov District Soviet. She told me she had met with several OSCE representatives before and during the election. On the subject of Viktor Yushchenko's demand that the OSCE administer (not merely observe) repeat elections, Ms. Prosekina said that if Yushchenko had so little respect for his own people that he would recommend that outsiders control the electoral process, "Who needs him?" But, she added, she had "no evidence" the West was disappointed by Yushchenko's electoral loss, and at this she diverted her glance down toward the desk. She'd make a perfect OSCE official one day.

So the stage is set for a happy ending to the Orange Revolution. Yanukovich has said he will compete in the third round, and may now – buoyed by the taste of victory – really believe he can win. It doesn't look encouraging that his campaign manager, Sergei Tygipko, resigned and appeared on TV with members of his until-recently pro-government party, wearing orange and congratulating each other on their conversion to the forces of freedom. Likewise, Yanukovich's decision to portray Yushchenko as a representative of the "old authorities," and himself as the candidate of the "new power," does not offer much hope. In a sense, Yanukovich is a "new power," in that he is from Donetsk, not Dnepropetrovsk, origin of most of the post-Soviet Ukrainian political elite (including gas queen Yulia Tymoshenko) until now. But Yushchenko is far worse than the "old authorities," since his presidency would be something "new" to Ukrainians: total collapse. If, by some fluke, Yanukovich managed to win what promises to be a chaotic shambles of a third round (i.e., a return to the conditions of previous polls in Ukraine), then the tall man from Donetsk could look forward to a Western bid to remove him from office à la Rolandas Paksas of Lithuania, on trumped-up charges of corruption. He would then be replaced by Yushchenko, U.S.-backed counterpart of unpopular septuagenarian President Valdus Adamkus, in Kiev so much lately to lecture the Ukrainian leadership about democracy and the rule of law.

Then it will be on to the next Victory of the People somewhere else. As Mrs. Tymoshenko has promised: "As soon as our Orange Revolution has been completed, we'll transfer it to Russia." Some opposition politician in Armenia recently referred to a coming "Apricot Revolution" in his country. I'm not sure how the Azeris will take this, since I remember about 10 years ago they used to tell me the best apricots in the world grew in Azerbaijan, not Armenia. The Azeris may feel slighted, but why not go for something a bit more unusual, say, a Persimmon Revolution? In any case, for some reason the Directors of the New World Order have chosen brand names of fruits, flowers, and nuts for their various enterprises so we'll have to wait and see. How sad, though, that far from bringing forth the flavors and scents of a lustrous spring, it all smells rotten and tastes rancid.

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Chad Nagle observed the first and second rounds of the 2004 Ukrainian elections on behalf of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group.

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