Back to basics in Ukraine

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May 3, 2011, 5:05 p.m. | Op-ed — by Boris Danik

Boris Danik

Boris Danik is a retired Ukrainian-American living in North Caldwell, New Jersey.

News from and about Ukraine has become worse since 2010. It is not like in 1991, when Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, during his courageous stand for democracy against the hardliners in Moscow, made it easy for Ukraine to assert its independence.

Ukrainians then proceeded to dissipate it, despite the rousing and uplifting events of the Orange Revolution in 2004 – described as “irreversible” in academia. The reality is that the current generation is hampered by discord, disillusionment, and a historic regional corrosion of national identity.

Lackadaisically, in February 2010, mainly because of the bad economy, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, who is in tune with Ukraine’s recidivist southeast, was elected president. As everybody knew or should have known (political science specialists are excused), he was and is determined to marginalize Ukrainian content in the public sphere, as well as to ravage the country’s fragile democracy.

Right now the exasperated patriots seem to be incapable of achieving some degree of unity and become an effective force. The Region Party, with 36 percent of the vote in the local elections in October 2010, rules as if it were a majority party. The democrats excoriate Yanukovych. He is getting bad press. But criticism alone is no substitute for building up a unified democratic front and running an effective election campaign, despite the murky outlook for honest elections under the present regime.

The proliferation of small political parties in the democratic neck of the woods is appalling. Their “coalitions” appear and disappear, and cannot be taken seriously.

This political meandering is not surprising after the sad performance of the top inner circle during President Viktor Yushchenko’s era, which was played out mostly by the same people who are now out of official favor if they have not switched sides.

The enormity of the consequences of the damage to the shaky pyramid of Ukrainian independence, coupled with the loss of presidential elections by Yulia Tymoshenko in 2010, has not yet fully settled in the collective mind of the democratic camp. There is no evidence of repentance among enablers of this defeat – the aspirants who lost in the first election round and then were engaged in a mind-boggling aberration of urging the voters to scuttle their ballots by voting “for no one.”

Even though a bad economy was the main factor in the 2010 election outcome (the Orange camp received over two million fewer votes than it did in 2005 elections, while the Party of Regions got about 400,000 votes deficit), the against-all crowd is also cited as a factor.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, most supporters of Yushchenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tiahnybok – all first round losers -- actually ignored the call for not voting in the runoff, and voted for Tymoshenko. This appraisal may be startling to some, but it comes from a careful number-crunching of election results. One extrapolation showed that to come to within 3.5 percent of a tie in the runoff (as she did), Tymoshenko had to get the vote of 88.5 percent of those who had voted for the above three candidates in the first round.

She would have to get close to 100 percent of them to achieve a tie.

At this time, press publicity about erosion of democratic freedoms in Ukraine under the present regime, its kleptocratic aspects, and the allegations of connections to criminal clans is not what Yanukovych wants as he tries to fake a decent image in the West.

Wakeup calls from such publicity are not likely to mobilize Western governments into action that could help achieve “regime change” in Ukraine, but nevertheless they rattle the caboose. And so, in the absence of more than expressions of concern from Western governments, the next goal of Yanukovych will be total control of media channels.

Unfortunately, the lingering showings of “strategic partnership” between Ukraine and the USA are cosmetic at best.

The West has had a taste of “Ukraine fatigue” during Yushchenko’s presidency. Although not buying Moscow’s opinion that the Ukrainians have no business governing themselves, the West is in no mood to strain its relations with Russia. The USA, for one, apparently prefers to spend its power and treasure on involvements in Asia rather than tangle with Russia’s proxies in Ukraine and with Russia itself over the latter’s sphere of influence.

Libya, historically Western Europe’s backyard with a huge pool of oil, is a glowing example of who among NATO members is willing to go where and how far. There, the culprit is not someone supported by a nuclear power, but a petty tyrant in a conflict with population standing up in an open revolt. Refusals within NATO to join collectively approved action in Libya shows that the alliance is not quite what it was cracked up to be.

The Arab spring with its thirst for freedom, democracy, and human values is a mixed bag for Western powers. These Arab countries, now in turmoil, have been for a long time

under foot of autocratic rulers mostly known as allies if not puppets of the United States. The people of Libya, who rose against dictator Muammar Qaddafi in a bloody struggle, have better reasons to be resentful towards the West than the Ukrainians might have. After all, it was the voters in Ukraine that blithely brought Yanukovych and his Party of Regions to power in largely fair elections, after the national democrats had demonstrated a dismal political sense and leadership failure at the highest level.

Is there a silver lining for Ukraine in this less than wonderful view? Absolutely.

First, my take of the 2010 election results suggests that the Orange camp rank and file voters had more political awareness than some of their leaders had then and have now. Democrats, socialists, nationalists and others clearly understood the difference between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko agendas. This explains the very close election outcome, despite the drag of bad economy, for which the governing party is usually blamed.

Secondly, the seemingly monolithic Party of the Regions is due for showing some cracks -- as the economy malaise is continuing and is aggravated by the Party structures - peculiar scandals and clashes.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the entire recent socio-economic paradigm in Ukraine, built on a reactionary 19th century unfettered oligarchic capitalist model, is not consistent with Ukraine’s populist tradition expressed in the legacy of its national iconic figures.

Witness the everlasting zeitgeist of the writings of Ivan Franko, Taras Shevchenko, and ideological greats Mikhailo Drahomanov and Dmytro Dontsov (on both sides of the spectrum). This inconsistency is likely to exacerbate the public perception of archaism and backwardness of the ongoing governance.

Toxic economic systems cannot last without drastic changes. They have faded away in the West, except in the recalcitrant ravings of America’s Paul Ryans and Mike Huckabees of the Republican Party and the Tea Party, who see anything beyond the 19th century sweatshop as a left-wing plot.

In Ukraine, a growing resentment is magnified by the existing unlimited non-Ukrainian ownership of the nation’s economic resources. It reminds of vast land grab by foreign overlords in past centuries.

The egalitarian tradition is deeply rooted in all parts of Ukraine and is a factor in its unity. It has existed long before it was articulated as a progressive Western tenet.

Boris Danik is a retired Ukrainian-American living in North Caldwell, New Jersey.
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