PutinÕs Ukrainian Catastrophe

On Russia’s state television channels, there was hysteria. Astonished viewers, plunged into a cold war atmosphere, learned that neighbouring Ukraine was experiencing a coup d’état planned by foreign spy services. The enemies were so cunning that they had organized violations of the electoral regulations, provoking demonstrations by the opposition. The aim of all this was to bring the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power instead of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich. If we were to “lose” Ukraine, Russia would never again be a great power, the commentators all concluded.

During the elections, the Russian observers could not fail to notice a huge number of violations, but they gave the impression that they were seeing them only in the west of Ukraine, where the elections were supposedly being rigged in favour of Yushchenko. In reality, Ukraine unlike Russia is not a federation but a unitary state, in which local administrations are subject to the president. Before the second round of voting, President Kuchma had replaced the heads of administrations in the provinces where the opposition was winning. To a significant degree, the violations thus favoured the authorities not only in the east, but in the west as well.

Of course, it does not follow from this that the opposition was entirely blameless. Quite the reverse; in the second round the opposition bloc clearly sought to match the government’s fraud with its own “counterfraud”, using the same detached coupons and multiple voting. Compared to the officials of the presidential administration, however, the opposition had incomparably fewer opportunities for administrative trickery. Moreover, the tactic of “counterfraud” spurred the authorities to make still more efforts to ensure the result they wanted, to the point where the whole procedure became farcical.

The Ukrainian elections were no longer like those in Russia, but like somewhere in Nigeria, featuring violence, the exclusion of observers, and control by clan chieftains over the actions of voters on “their” territory. Yanukovich finally gained the number of votes he needed, but his victory was Pyrrhic. Not only did the opposition take to the streets, but it had obvious moral and political grounds for refusing to accept the election results.

Ordinary Russians have followed these events far more cynically, not paying much attention to the propaganda, but gradually being drawn into observing their neighbours. From Moscow, the elections in Ukraine seem like an entertaining reality show, with millions of participants and an unprecedented fund of prizes. Despite the propaganda hysteria (and perhaps because of it), the opposition has aroused growing sympathy.

The theses about the struggle of a pro-American opposition against a pro-Moscow political elite do not stand up to scrutiny, and neither do the constantly repeated assertions about a clash between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east. Yushchenko is unquestionably a pro-American politician. But the same can equally be said of the present rulers of the Ukrainian republic. It was current President Leonid Kuchma who, together with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, sent Ukrainian forces to Iraq. The same two leaders stage-managed the absurd crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations over a dam alongside tiny Tuzla Island. Meanwhile, a number of opposition politicians criticised the sending of troops, as did the communists, who have refused to support either side in the present conflict.

Same day as Ukrainian Supreme Court voted to cancel the results of the second ballot in presidential election, Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovnaya Rada) voted to pull troops out of Iraq. This was a major defeat of US policy in Ukraine, which became possible only because of a political crisis in this country. All earlier attempts to achieve parliamentary majority against intervention failed. This time majority was achieved because Communists and Socialists were joined by many deputies from “Nasha Ukraina” (Yushenko party) but also by some defectors from the pro-government camp. At the same time many deputies from “Nasha Ukraina” as well as Yanukovich supporters voted against the proposal or abstained.

American financial support for Yushenko is quite visible. However one can easily discover that most sponsors who contributed to his campaign also contributed generously to Kerry’s campaign (Soros, National Democratic Institute etc.). Republican funding for Yushenko was almost symbolic. There was also a lot of Western European and especially German money. But ironically, some of the biggest contributions came from Russia – notably from those business groups who were not satisfied by privatization deals offered by Yanukovich and expected to rerun the process. These expectations were not unjustified.

Soon after electoral rerun was announced Yushenko promised to cancel some privatization deals fixed by the previous regime. Don’t expect anything to be returned to the public. Yushenko plans a big process, Yukos style, in which some politically incorrect oligarchs will go to jail and their property will be reprivatized.

Just as false are the attempts to divide Ukrainian society on linguistic lines. Kiev, the capital, is a stronghold of the opposition, even though the language one mostly hears on the streets there is Russian. Mass demonstrations took place in Kharkov, regarded as the center of Russian culture in Ukraine. The actions in support of the authorities that were organised in Donetsk and other industrial cities were reminiscent of Soviet-era demonstrations, to which people were driven with sticks. Those who spoke were mainly trade union officials and administrative functionaries, while the workers took the first chance to make off to their homes. Despite the claims that thousands of miners would be brought to Kiev to do battle with the opposition, the authorities managed to put on show only a few dozen Donetsk gangsters in ill-fitting miners’ helmets, along with a group of fancy-dress Cossacks.

With the help of Soviet-style methods, the ruling oligarchy is still able to control the industrial zones of the east, but it is incapable of mobilising mass popular support. Moreover, it is afraid of real demonstrations by the miners. If large numbers of miners were to take to the streets, this would amount to the very strike for which the opposition has been calling. Also, there are no guarantees that the bosses and bureaucrats around Yanukovich would be able to keep workers under their control.

Least of all can the Russian leadership be called anti-American or anti-Western. None other than Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly declared his support for George Bush in the November US elections. At the same time as Moscow television was condemning American interference in Ukraine, Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov was discussing with journalists the possibility of sending weapons to Iraq for the US-controlled Iraqi forces, and also of sending military experts. Germany, France and other European countries have refused American requests of this type.

The logic of the Cold War might have been justified when a clash of two systems was involved. But for a good while now Russia and the West have shared the same capitalist system, and the axis of opposition in world politics has not been rivalry between NATO and the Eastern bloc (which ceased to exist fifteen years ago), but rivalry between the blocs of the Euro and the Dollar. In this contest, the Kremlin leadership is quite unable to decide where it stands. It tries clumsily to manoeuvre between Brussels and Washington, but in such a way as to bang its head first on one side, then on the other, dooming itself to a series of one-sided concessions to each of the contending groups. The Kremlin goes unrewarded for these concessions, since any shifts it makes in the direction of Berlin or Paris are immediately cancelled out by its demonstrative expressions of loyalty to Washington.

It is also unclear how Russia in 2004 might “lose” Ukraine. After all, our own state long ago recognised Ukrainian independence. If we are talking not of control but of Russian political, moral and cultural influence on the neighbouring republic, it would be hard to think of any worse means for achieving this than what the Kremlin has done in recent months. If someone had set out deliberately to undermine Russia’s position in Ukrainian society, he or she could scarcely have achieved more than the Kremlin administration has managed through its work with Kuchma and Yanukovich. The Kremlin has not only shocked everyone with its crude and unconcealed meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state, but more importantly, has done this so ineptly that it has finished up harming its own cause.

Most comic of all has been the way Putin, addressing journalists in Portugal, called on them not to use “scarecrows” from Cold War times, even though his own propagandists have been doing this. Putin’s speeches on the topic of Ukraine betray his confusion. On one occasion he will adopt an extremely aggressive tone, hinting at the evil intent of the West; then he will try to justify himself to these same Westerners, explaining that he congratulated Yanukovich not as the new president, but (and this is something absolutely new in world diplomacy) “on the basis of the results of the exit polls”.

The stakes in the political struggle in Ukraine are enormous, including for the Kremlin. But these stakes have nothing to do with national interests, or with the now long-gone contest between communist East and bourgeois West. The semi-criminal clans which in the course of privatisation seized control not only over the industry in eastern Ukraine, but to a significant degree over the population as well, have close ties with the bureaucratic-oligarchic groups that hold sway in Moscow.

These groups are united not only by business links, but also by a common fear: that sooner or later they will have to answer for the plunder of their countries’ collective wealth, for the rigging of elections, and for the suppression of political freedoms. For precisely this reason, the rise to power of the opposition in Ukraine will set an ominous example for Russia’s new elites, even if this Kiev opposition is extremely moderate, promising neither nationalisation nor a redistribution of incomes.

Russian capital is starting a massive expansion in Ukraine. Talks have begun on the purchase of telecommunications companies, metallurgical plants, and even breweries. The Donetsk clans that have united around Yanukovich need to hold onto power, to ensure that the planned deals will go through smoothly.

The Western political elites as well are thinking far more strategically. While Moscow commentators continually cite the ousting of the Shevardnadze regime in Georgia as an example of a secret American plan providing backing for a democratic revolution, the past also contains other instances in which democratic revolutions have received support from Washington – in the Philippines against the dictator Marcos, and in Indonesia against the decades-long rule of the armed forces. In all these cases, as in Georgia, the US supported the overthrow of a pro-American regime.

There is no paradox here. The crisis of a ruling elite has an objective character, quite separate from Washington’s intrigues. All US diplomacy does is to realistically weigh up the existing situation, and then, instead of taking a stand on what is obviously the losing side, to select new and more promising partners from among the opposition. What is important for the US in such cases is to ensure that when the new leadership comes to power, the foreign policy course of the country in question remains as before. In other words, Washington supports democratic revolutions with a single aim: to geld them of their radical potential.

In this situation, the impotence of the Ukrainian left is especially tragic. In condemning both candidates, the Communist Party of Ukraine has taken an irreproachable position from an ideological point of view. This position, however, has not been followed by independent action; instead, the Communist Party has simply vanished from the political scene.

Many of the party’s supporters acknowledge that this situation is lamentable. Hence we read on a leading communist website: “The working class and its party have been unable to act as an independent political force, as an organised, conscious subject of the historical process. It has not been communists who have led the working class, but the bourgeoisie with its candidates and organisations. This is simply a fact. Meanwhile, the communists have been driven onto the sidelines of the struggle, forced into the position of onlookers, incapable of influencing the outcome in any way.” (http:///www.communist.ru/lenta/index.php?10168).

On the moral level, the authorities have already lost the struggle in Ukraine. The only way they could restore their political control would be to resort to violence on a scale tantamount to catastrophe. The agreement on new elections reached between the authorities and the opposition will, if fulfilled, merely ensure a smoother and more legitimate handover of power.

Whoever wins, one of the main victims of the Ukrainian crisis will be Vladimir Putin. By openly supporting the Ukrainian regime, investing large quantities of money in it, and by sending it a whole army of advisers and political tutors, the Kremlin risked getting only problems in return. Even if Yanukovich wins, his main concern will be with rebuilding relations with the West. At his meeting with the European Union in the Hague, Putin will have to try to justify himself, losing the last shreds of his authority. Most importantly, before his own people, armed forces and police in Russia he has once again shown himself to be a weak and incompetent politician. And in Russia, the weak do not prevail.

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