Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

Is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko destined to become Ukraine’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

January 21, 2011  |  Comments Off

With each year that passes since the fall of Communism, one might hope that Ukrainian society (defined in its narrowest sense to include only the elite – after all who else matters?) should be converging in their thinking on what form the Ukrainian nation state should take. What will be its values, its history, and what will unite the country?

 Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be so, as the first news stories of 2011 relate.

 On New Year’s Day a statue of Joseph Stalin was blown up by Ukrainian nationalists, and shortly after a court annulled a decree to posthumously decorate a nationalist leader from western Ukraine whose insurgent army supported Germany for part of World War II. President Yanukovych failed to congratulate the 5 millions of the Greek Catholics who also celebrate Christmas on the same day as the Orthodox; they live predominantly in western Ukraine which is an opposition stronghold.  Then intellectuals signed a letter that urged Ukraine’s president to end political oppression of oppositionists, starting with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (The former Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications, and Ukraine’s ex-Interior Minister are already facing criminal charges). And to top off a busy week, the leader of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs was killed by an unidentified attacker as he left his house in Odessa.

 Almost a year after his election, the wily 4th president of Ukraine may well be moulding the country according to his own blue-print, and excluding any credible opposition.

Let me explain.

 In the period after World War II, it was common to believe that industrialisation, urbanisation, and the strong centralist Soviet policies would erode ethnic or national characteristics. Many Western historians, journalists, and writers also concluded incorrectly that the nationality issue had been solved. For example, in the mid-1980s, a few years after my first visit to the Soviet Union, Colin Thubron wrote his now famous classic, Among the Russians*, which is described by his publisher as “A vivid account of a journey he made by car from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Baltic States south to Georgia and Armenia towards the end of the Brezhnev era.” Nowadays, it would be a considerable faut pas to refer to the locals of those countries as “Russians.” Each has a unique identity. And to give one example, the latest census data of Ukraine (2001) shows that more than one hundred and thirty nationalities and ethnic groups call Ukraine “home.”

 Neither of the first two presidents of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, were heroes of the people, and neither demonstrated loyalty to the idea of Ukraine as a nation above that of their own personal enrichment. To Ukraine’s credit, however, the transition from Communism was managed without the violence that has been a characteristic of other former Soviet states. And numerous challenges could have provided the tinder for a conflagration, but the Ukrainian skills of compromise, dogged determination, and expedient inaction enabled them to muddle through.

 As faithful sons of the communist system, it must have been difficult for those presidents to fully embrace the idea of a division of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or to the concept of elections. Why a powerful person would base his livelihood on the outcome of an unpredictable event, such as an election, is an anathema to many Ukrainians who have grown up in a system where having power means shaping the outcome of events to your advantage. “Who wouldn’t fix the election,” they ask rhetorically, “if it was in their power?” But pushed by those in Ukraine who genuinely wanted a democratic system, and pulled by the lure of the European or American aid donations, the institutions of democracy did emerge. In reality, however, they had more form than function. 

 Then came along Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko. As personalities they were like chalk and cheese — Yushchenko, the articulate diplomat willing to compromise, and Tymoshenko, the determined, passionate popularist — but they found sufficient common ground on which to work together. As advocates of central and western Ukraine who leaned towards Europe rather than towards Russia, they appeared to represent a new option for voters.

 People realised that the presidential election of 2004 might, for the first time, offer a credible reformist opposition. The outcome of the “Orange Revolution” is, to use the cliché, history. With Yushchenko as the third president he brought in a younger team, less influenced by the values of the Soviet Union and with an average age of forty-eight years, compared with sixty-eight for the previous administration. This difference of a generation gave impetus to the idea that a fresh image of Ukraine might emerge.

 But, it was not to be. Social justice was a fundamental expectation of the Orange Revolution — that people should be equal before the law — but Yushchenko seemed to forget this promise rather quickly. Though the Supreme Court ruled that there had been massive electoral fraud, no senior figures were charged; in fact, they were promoted. His commitment to punish the killer and those who ordered the killing of the beheaded journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, came to nought; in part, because he allowed Kuchma’s Prosecutor General to remain in his post. Perhaps most incredulous of all is that Yushchenko’s would-be assassin – the person who disfigured his handsome face – remains free, and is suspected to be living a comfortable life in Moscow.

 Yushchenko behaved presidential from the start, and this was his downfall. He was top dog, but he rarely showed his teeth.  Instead of removing his opposition, or changing the game – the two main strategies for silencing the opposition in the game of post-Soviet politics, he traipsed around the world declaring that Ukraine was open for business.

 After 5-years of aligning first with Tymoshenko, and then with Yanukovych, all the while knowing of their indiscretions but doing little to stop them, Yushchenko was more compromised than a married man caught in bed with a lover. His weak strategy to unite the nation by looking to Ukraine’s past — to the defeats in battle and to the days of subjugation — for historical events around which to build a nation, failed.  Not surprisingly, given that different parts of the country have such different histories, it was seen as divisive and negative as anything done by previous presidents. His withdrawal from politics following his humiliating defeat in the 2010 election was no surprise.

 Yulia Tymoshenko also stood in opposition to Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 elections and achieved a creditable result. Her desire to be president still burns brightly.  Her signature plaited hairstyle and stylish appearance may no longer carry the novelty they did in the Orange Revolution but her relative youth, and, by implication, long political shelf-life, means she is now the only credible opposition force in Ukrainian politics.

 Whether she is any more capable of forging a nation state out of Ukraine than President Yanukovych is doubtful, but the question I want to ask is, will she get the chance?

 The shrewd president is unlikely to make the mistake of his predecessor. Newspaper stories have reported numerous legal transgressions committed by Tymoshenko during her volatile political career, and a determined president, with the full force of the state’s organs at his disposal, should have little difficulty in catching her out.

 The challenge of caging the determined, passionate popularist must be considerable. It would attract international attention and, probably, approbation, but the delight in some circles of having a version of Mikhail Khodorkovsky languishing in a Ukrainian prison cell, with barely a mirror and a hairbrush to occupy the long days, must be tempting.

* I offer a hat tip to Mr. Thubron whose title provided the idea for the title of my own book, Among the Ukrainians.

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Presidents and the People

Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

Long Odds: Visa-Free Travel and the Winter Olypmics

June 9, 2010  |  Comments Off

Anyone visiting Paris from the United Kingdom will immediately notice the absence of chippies (the colloquial name by which the fast-food outlet, the fish and chip shop, is known in the UK). A visitor to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will not find the Queen Victoria Arms public house on the city’s main thoroughfare King Fahd Road. For people visiting or relocating to a new country these things are more or less immediately obvious.

But some differences are less obvious. It took me quite a while to notice that there are no funeral parlours in Ukraine. Nor, incidently are there funeral cars. (For more on this intriguing absence you should read the chapter “Religious Wars” in Among the Ukrainians.) It would be a strange fellow, indeed, who on arriving in a new country asks his new friends, “I’m new here, where is your nearest funeral parlour.” And more recently I was struck by the absence of bookies, or betting shops. I’m not a gambling man, but perhaps I should have noticed sooner.  One might have expected such shops to exist given that Ukraine is so keen on football and that lotteries are common. Even horse racing has a history; most cities have a racing track, though most were abandoned a couple of decades ago.

Where is all this leading, you might be thinking. Well this week, President Yanukovych made two statements which immediately had wanting to place a bet against them happening. Don’t get me wrong, I would love them to happen; it’s just it doesn’t seem at all likely.

First, he announced that the paperwork making way for visa-free travel for Ukrainians to Schengen countries would be signed before the end of 2010. Secondly, he suggested that the Carpathian region could be a suitable venue to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Both events would be good news for Ukraine, in general, and nothing less than transformational for western Ukraine.

Visa-free travel would allow all Ukrainians freer access to western European countries, and the experience of seeing those democracies and systems would be a good thing. For western Ukraine, in particular, the freer movement of people across the western border—even if employment was prohibited—would open up many opportunities.

As for hosting the Winter Olympics in the poorest region of Ukraine, well, one only has to think of the inward investment required for the development of regional transport and tourist infrastructure to recognise it would have a huge impact.

So, why do I think both are unlikely?

Well, visa-free travel has been much talked about, but it proved impossible to achieve even under the presidency of the pro-European President Yushchenko. To say again, I hope to be proved wrong, but this sounds to me like a sop, and at some later stage we’ll hear that, “the conditions laid down by the Shengen countries were so onerous that no one could meet them” (or some such phrase). Let’s not overlook the reality that Russia wants Ukraine to be a barrier against the eastward movement of people, and it would object to the reciprocity of visa-free travel (people from Schengen countries visiting Ukraine). Ukraine was a barrier for the advancing armies of Napolean and Hitler, and Russia was resolute in its objection to Ukraine becoming a NATO country.  Russia “insists” on Ukraine being a buffer. (For more discussion on this idea read the chapter “Vikings and Cossacks” in Among the Ukrainians.)

As to the idea of the Carpathian region hosting the Winter Olympics, frankly, the idea is laughable to many Ukrainians. Somewhat akin to Bangladesh landing a man on the moon (and having visited that country half a dozen times, I feel I at least have a rudimentary understanding to their potential). Yes, Carpathia has some mountains and snow (and its beauty is outstanding), but it has little else. With limited tax receipts and no local oligarchs to fund the venture or to promote the concept in Kyiv, one wonders where the money and influence will come from. I doubt that anyone will invest until the venue is secured, and the Olympic Committee are unlikely to offer the carrot of hosting without some commitment to develop the region.  So, it appears a non-starter.

Finally, there is the intriguing link to UEFA 2012, the football championship to be hosted jointly by Ukraine and Poland. In an earlier blog, I commented on some of the uncertainties surrounding the success of UEFA 2012. For President Yanukovych to consider hosting the Winter Olympics before the success of UEFA 2012 is “in the bag” suggests either a supreme confidence about the football championship or he knows that talk of the Winter Olympics is, just that, talk.

In neighbouring Russia, the entire Sochi 2014 Olympic project is under threat even though it has received enormous support from Prime Minister Putin, who sees it as a reflection of his legacy. As I write it appears he might be about to appoint a well-known businessman (rumoured to be Vladimir Potanin) as head of the Olympic construction agency. So, if Russia struggles to meet the challenge, supported by the strong guidance of it leaders and the “guided investment” of its oligarchs, what chance Carpathia?

Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book Review: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

June 9, 2010  |  Comments Off

There aren’t many pieces of modern fiction part-set in Ukraine and only a few of those address the issue of the Holodomor. But Child 44 scores on both counts. The premise of the book is that a murderer wants to draw attention to himself and so commits forty four heinous murders of children in Russia and Ukraine (in Kharkov, Gorlovka, Zaporoshy, Kramatorsk, and Kyiv).

According to the plot, almost nobody within the Soviet security apparatus can believe that these crimes are work of a single man, because that would imply a rejection of communist values and, therefore, a failure of the state.

The contention raises some issues not dissimilar to ones I raise in Among the Ukrainians. For example the sale of church candles was considered illegal in the Soviet Union, whereas prostitution was not. The line of thinking was that prostitution could not be made illegal because it could not exist (at least not permanently) in a utopian society (see the chapter, “Sex and the Soviets”).

Child 44 is an exciting read that is in—or certainly close to— the can’t put down category. Soviet society in the 1950’s has hardly been tapped by modern fiction writers and it offers a rich seam of material. In particularly it feeds the curiosity about what lay behind the iron curtain, and provides insights into the final years of Stalin’s control of society and of the transition to the Khrushchev era. The period is politically intriguing.

(I should point out that the plot is not original. In many aspects Child 44 follows closely the real life story of Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered 53 women and children between 1978-1990.)

The pace of the storyline is fast and the sentences are terse and spartan, conjuring up the greyness and staidness of Soviet society in the 1950’s. The pay-off is that there is very little description of either people or places. Characters lack dimension. We never learn if the main character is tall or short, clean-shaven or hirsute, broadly built or thin, for example. Description is sparse to the point of being absent; the hero uses his gun on numerous occasions but we’re never told even basic information, such as what sort it is. Some critics have suggested that this style of writing—lacking dimension— is more akin to a film plot rather than a piece of fiction, and it is certainly true that shortly after the book’s publication the leading actors of a soon-to-appear film were being cast. Tom Rob Smith has not hidden the fact that he wanted the book to be made into a film; a key inspiration was the TV series 24.

The author’s descriptions of places and events are similarly sparse, to the point, even, of wondering if he has actually been to Russia. And he almost certainly didn’t have the final text read by a native Russian/Ukrainian or expert. The book is punctuated by errors, whether he’s referring to Lubyanka procedures, sausages, vetinary clinics, or Kolkhoz (collective farms). And on at least one occasion he has a character (Vasili) appearing in a city (Voualsk) that he could not physically get to in the time frame required by the plot. Most readers are not aware of these points of detail and so they cannot detract from the novel, and, as I said, it is an enjoyable, well-paced read.

The one thing I did find unsatisfactory—and where I can raise a point that I’ve not seen made anywhere else— concerns the central plot and should be relevant to all readers.

If the intention of the killer was to attract the attention of a man high up in the Soviet hierarchy, why did he kill only 4 of the forty four children in Moscow? The other forty children were killed hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the capital, yet, the odds were overwhelming that this important man would work in Moscow. The centralised planning system of the Soviet Union would have meant that it would have been easier for the killer to get a job which involved commuting to Moscow than to any other city.

Add to this, as I mentioned earlier, that no one in Soviet society was likely to believe that these murders—across a geographical area larger than the size of France—were likely to be the work of a single man, the plot suddenly becomes very illogical.

On reflection, I can only think that author felt that using the Soviet Union’s geography, and the shenanigans of a chase around Russia, adds interest to the plot. For me the contorted plot is weaker as a result, and it doesn’t do full justice to the rich potential of the book’s setting – the 1950s in the Soviet Union.

Child 44 has sold more than one million copies and for a writer’s first book that is nothing short of incredible. Less than a 1% chance, I’m sure. So, I’m heartened that despite the errors in research and the weak plot the book has been so successful. My own meagre effort, Among the Ukrainians, also contains errors, and though it’s supported by a much more modest marketing budget, I now hold out the hope I can sell a reasonable fraction of Tom Rob Smith’s number of books sold.

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

A Sevastopol Bride for a Russian Suitor

May 25, 2010  |  Comments Off

Now that the tear gas has dispersed, the rotting eggs and urine have been cleaned from the Ukrainian Duma (yes, Russian TV showed footage purportedly from the Ukrainian Duma of a man urinating) I want to review the agreement to allow the Russians to continue to use the Sevastopol base. The 11-year engagement ended with marriage but not all the guests agreed the bride had chosen wisely.

Much has been written about the deal in the Ukrainian and Russian press, in particular. Was it a “sell-out” or an expediency that with hindsight will mark President Yanukovych as a shrewd politician?

Protagonists of the “sell-out” view, argue that the agreement is a violation of the Constitution and, no matter what its merits—if there any—it is plain wrong. It defers any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO until 2042. And even if this outcome was always Yanukovych’s intention, why did he do it so quickly after his election? Surely a President known for his pro-Russian viewpoint would have sought to normalise the relationship with Russia and, over time, punitive levies on goods such as gas would have been dropped as a matter of course. Probably without having to give up the family silver; after all, there are precious few pieces left.

Furthermore, critics argue, the Russians can pick on the most minor Ukrainian infringement—a missed payment would not surprise most observers—to renege on the deal, whereas ousting the Russian incumbents in Crimea will be nigh on impossible.

Or, perhaps, they speculate, Yanukovych sees himself as a good son of his upbringing righting Nikita Khrushchev’s “wrong.” In 1955, Khrushchev ceded Crimea from Russia to Ukraine as a “gift” for which he was later denied a state funeral, and suffered the indignity of not being buried in the Kremlin wall.

Those who err towards the view that it might prove to be a shrewd move invariably want to see an improving relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The Russians would never have left the Sevastopol base freely in 2017, they argue, so conflict has been avoided. They point out that a reason behind the Russia-Georgian war in late 2008 may have been to gain access to Sukhumi, the Black Sea capital of the disputed territory of Abkhazia in Georgia. Though Sukhumi is a far less ideal port than Sevastopol, it is clear that a resurgent Russia will have limited credibility without a Black Sea port to call its own. And they were determined to control at least one port. So, conflict on Ukrainian soil has been averted and lives have been spared.

Furthermore, the “shrewdies” argue, there’s the immediate economic benefit of the deal. Currently the Ukrainian Government subsidizes the cost of gas to her people and that adds to the budget deficit. The bold agreement—whereby the contractual gas price is reduced by 30% and Gazprom stops paying export duties to the Russian government, thereby putting the burden on the Russian budget—helps fill a substantial hole in Ukraine’s budget. It also looks good to people, like the IMF, who need to be humoured if they are to be encouraged to plough even more money into Ukraine.

So, there are supporters of both points of view. And whilst many people will see the issue as a difference of opinion between the pro-Russian Ukrainians of eastern and southern Ukraine versus the rest, I would caution against such a simplistic view. I’m left thinking, has anyone bothered to ask the Crimean Tartars what they think? And taking the idea further, whose was the bride of Sevastopol to give away?

Politicians and Partisans

Politicians and Partisans

March 17, 2010  |  Comments Off

Making the Chapter:

Don’t let anyone tell you that political history is boring, at least not if they’re referring to Ukraine. The leading figures of Ukraine in the twentieth century were Tsarists or Communists, but among them were also Democrats, Republicans, Revolutionaries, Anarchists, Partisans, and Conservatives. They include the Jew, Leon Trotsky, who whimsically assumed the surname of his jailer; Lazar “Iron Man” Kaganovich, the most ruthless executioner of Stalin’s policy who admired the literary works of Ukrainian nationalists; The “Butcher of Ukraine” Nikita Khrushchev, who often visited Taras Shevchenko’s grave; and Leonid Brezhnev, who used tax receipts from the sale of vodka to fund his invasion of Afghanistan and inadvertently created a condition between socialism and communism called alcoholism.

Even those who recorded history provide colour. Mykhailo Hrushevsky died in suspicious circumstances in 1934. His daughter and his nephew died in the gulags and his brother died whilst in exile in Kazakhstan. All of them were historians.


Kaganovich, who earned the nickname “Iron Lazar” for his personal loyalty to Stalin, died at the age of ninety-six years, and he was one of the few people present at both the creation and the fall of the Soviet Union.

His survival is remarkable given that, by 1953, he had become Deputy Premier (and the last remaining Jew in the hierarchy), and had executed Stalin’s wishes unreservedly, including orchestrating the artificial famine in the 1930s. Despite his lack of a formal education — he worked at a shoe factory in his youth — at the age of just thirty-two years he was leader of the Ukrainian Republic and rigorously implemented a strict policy of Russification (though he spoke fluent Ukrainian) and purged many officials as “Ukrainian Nationalists.”

It was Kaganovich who was responsible for employing jug-eared Nikita Khrushchev. Like his mentor, Khrushchev had very little formal education, but his loquaciousness, bluntness, and folksy humour endeared him to Kaganovich and others, including Stalin. Khrushchev drank prodigious quantities of yorsh (a potent mixture of beer and vodka), and played the Ukrainian flute. Stalin would occasionally demean Khrushchev by ordering him to perform the hopak, the traditional solitary dance of the Ukrainian peasant.