Backing the bad guy
Issue: 4 December
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The sleeper train from Kiev to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine offers
more than mere physical transport — it is a time machine. For £20, a
cabin decorated like a little rolling dacha will take you from the
relatively contemporary capital across frozen plains to Stalin’s
heavy industrial heartland c. 1970, and onwards to a Kievan Rus of
This is the Russian-speaking heartland of prime minister Viktor
Yanukovich, the man who allegedly stole the Ukrainian presidential
election. The stampede of western hacks to Kiev, the centre of
Viktor Yushchenko’s orange revolution, may have left some readers
with the impression of a gangster government trying to stamp on the
flower of liberty. There is something to be said for this view. The
Kuchma regime has been marked by the murder of opponents and
wholesale criminalisation, while the evidence of vote-rigging is
Yet the fact remains that many in the east of Ukraine fervently
support Kuchma’s anointed heir, Yanukovich. Where Kiev is a sea of
orange, in Donetsk only Yanukovich’s blue and white is to be seen.
The Donetsk regional assembly is now considering a referendum on
autonomy, which could precipitate the break-up of Ukraine, so
incensed are the people with the Yushchenko movement. Can all of
these people be completely misguided?
On Lenin square in Donetsk there have been daily pro-Yanukovich
demonstrations under the steely gaze of a huge statue of ...Lenin.
Thousands are turning out here every evening, their motives ranging
from the sensible to the outlandish. Anatoly Polyakov, a pensioner
and victim of Chernobyl, said, ‘If Yushchenko wins, the Nazis will
return. I was in the west of Ukraine recently and saw columns of
foreign troops, fascists. If war comes, I will fight until the last
cartridge.’ Among the elderly, memories of the second world war
remain strong. Donetsk is close to Kharkov and just over the border
in Russia is Kursk, scene of the greatest tank battle in history.
Western Europe remains a vague and threatening entity for many
people, a conflation of the fascist invader and the imperialist
threat of the Cold War. Xenophobia is almost palpable (especially in
the faces of the golden-toothed babushkas who belabour foreign
journalists with their handbags) and Yushchenko is viewed as the
agent of foreigners. If Kiev feels rather like Warsaw, a
progressive, developing central European city, then Donetsk is
something far more oriental and alien.
But alongside such obscure views of the world, there is no
denying that people are content with the modest prosperity and
stability Yanukovich has brought as governor of Donetsk region and
latterly as prime minister. For free-market theorists, this could be
something of an anomaly. Much of eastern Ukraine’s economy is
controlled by a network of oligarchs such as Donetsk’s Renat
Akhmetov, and his financial-industrial conglomerate Systems Capital
Management (favourite for this year’s all-Ukraine sinister name
competition). In Dnepropetrovsk to the west, the president’s
son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk and his Interpipe Group rule the roost.
Oligarchs such as these enjoy mutually supporting relationships with
Yanukovich and Kuchma, who help them to win privatisation tenders on
on what one analyst described as ‘obviously’ rigged terms.
All very reprehensible, no doubt, but one fact cannot be ignored:
the people in much of eastern Ukraine are delighted with the deal
they’re getting. At the state-owned Oktyabrskaya (October) coalmine
on the edge of Donetsk city 1,500 miners labour in filthy, freezing
and often dangerous conditions for 1,200 hryvna per month — about
£160. As prime minister in 1999–2000, Yushchenko closed several
mines as part of a restructuring policy and, unforgivably in the
minds of the people, failed to pay salaries and pensions for as long
as six months at a stretch.
Yuri Mikhailovich, a manager at the mine, said, ‘Yushchenko’s
“restructuring” brought the mining industry and many towns to the
verge of extinction. There were hunger riots.Yanukovich reversed
these criminal policies. Now the workers are paid promptly, they
received a 50 per cent pay increase, and we have new British and
German machinery.’ This alone goes some way to explaining why
exhausted miners are willing to stand in the falling snow on Lenin
square after a day underground to show their support for Yanukovich.