‘What’s stopping the Ukrainians taking over the Maidan again?’ is a question that I’ve been asked over and over again in the last few years.
It’s a reasonable question. It is hard to think of an indicator or scale on which Ukraine has performed well recently. Freedom of speech, the right to protest, human rights, equality, justice, freedom to do business and crippling corruption — all of these have suffered at the hands of Ukraine’s new leaders. In just two years, we’ve seen the creation of an uncompromising ‘power vertical’, parliament has been subordinated to the president, government criticism has disappeared from all but the least influential media, and opposition leaders have been subjected to political show-trials and imprisonment. All the while, the elite has bathed itself in ever increasing luxury, and the rest of the country has suffered with ever more miserable economic conditions and cuts to social welfare.
‘Freedom of speech, the right to protest, human rights, equality, justice, freedom to do business and crippling corruption — all of these have suffered at the hands of Ukraine’s new leaders.’
I’ve a friend called Silver Meiker, an Estonian MP who chairs the parliamentary group responsible for relations with Ukraine. In 2004, Silver made news for being the only foreign parliamentarian to camp (for several weeks!) on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square following the disputed presidential election. After the success of the Orange revolution, Silver made huge efforts to assist his Ukrainian colleagues in building civil society. He organised roundtable discussions, hosted fact-finding delegations in Estonia, and supported civil initiatives of all kinds during sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
A regular commentator on Ukrainian affairs for local media, Silver occasionally calls me for advice on any big event in Ukraine. Whatever the pretext for the call, his final question is predictable: ‘But what about the people? Why aren’t they coming out onto the streets to protest?’
Over the years, I’ve become a pro at justifying the behaviour of my fellow countrymen: why a nation, once celebrated the world over for its activism, has become so passive and accepting of an ugly political reality.
Absurdity rules, OK?
The first thing I try to get across is the fact that Ukraine has become a kind of Absurdistan of the 21st century. If the Absurdistan of the last century was hypocritical, but understandable — and the thinking man could work out what was good and what was evil — then today’s confused times are not only hypocritical, but have no logic running through them at all.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took part in the 2004 Orange Revolution. Though the protest had an outward appearance of spontanaeity, it would not have been possible without years of work by the democractic opposition.
These days, the tyrants are not really so threatening, and the victims are no longer so angelic. Selective justice has just become more selective, driven not always by the political motive, but also by the expedience of the bribe. Central media praise the authorities, but are not directly owned by it. And you can do pretty much what you like if you’re online.
Any concrete demand for fairness in Ukraine turns into a moral headache. Why demand the release of just one, two or even three wrongly convicted prisoners, and ignore the thousands elsewhere? Why condemn the president for his personal enrichment when everyone around him — both comrades and opponents — are doing the same?
Make no mistake, Ukrainians are bitter that the new Ukrainian elite has turned out to be even more corrupt than the one they kicked out two years ago. But what they aren’t is scandalised. Ukrainians have become so used to their politicians using parliament as a place to do ‘deriban’ — the splitting up of public assets — that anything proper is considered abnormal. As Sergii Leshchenko, one of the country’s top investigative journalists, has said, ‘there is no longer any revelation capable of turning Ukrainian politics upside down’(link in Ukrainian).
Yanukovych: too ridiculous to ridicule?
Yanukovych, to be sure, has many traits of the classic authoritarian leader, not least when it comes to acquiring overpriced toys with public money. One of the most totemic examples of his extravagance is his residence at Mezhyhirya, just outside Kyiv. A protected national park, Mezhyhirya was acquired and developed in highly controversial circumstances, and is now under the de-facto ownership of the president and companies close to his son. Little has been officially disclosed about the development.
‘Yanukovych, to be sure, has many traits of the classic authoritarian leader, not least when it comes to acquiring overpriced toys with public money.’
What we do know is mostly thanks to an unauthorised helicopter photo-shoot, which uncovered a 5-storey clubhouse, tennis court, an underground shooting range, a bowling alley, a health centre, a yacht hangar and a heliport. A golf course, it seems, is also under construction.
Such flagrant abuse of official position would have made Ben Ali jealous. Yet Yanukovych hasn’t quite managed to pull off the role of all-encompassing evil. And the reason for this is simple: Yanukovych has never been a figure of authority, so neither outrage nor ridicule properly stick.
From his first day in charge, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s answer to Leonid Brezhnev at his peak, i.e. as the subject of numerous anecdotes. As early as 2004, Yanukovych acquired the nickname ‘ProFFessor’, after misspelling his academic title in a handwritten autobiography. He then referred to the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova as Anna Akhmetova (confusing her, no doubt, with his oligarch godfather, Rinat Akhmetov). He also claimed Chekhov was a Ukrainian poet, a slip that inspired the following joke:
‘Mr President, we know what you think about the Ukrainian poet Chekhov, but how do you find Gogol?’
‘Gogol? It’s my favourite search engine’
The president struggles with public speaking, littering his interviews with factual and grammatical errors. Thus, according to Yanukovych, Mount Athos is a mountain in Palestine rather than Greece, Kosovo is the same as Montenegro, and the capital of Finland is Stockholm. On 25 May, during the last meeting of the National Security Council, Yanukovych startled officials by announcing: ‘On the eve of Euro 2012, we can be confident our country has been made dangerous for Ukrainians, and – most especially - for our foreign guests’.
To stand in protest against such a comic leader is in itself faintly ridiculous.
Mixed feelings towards Tymoshenko
The arrest, trial and imprisonment of Tymoshenko represented a watershed in the bullishness and viciousness of the authorities. Many Ukrainians were both astonished and outraged by the harshness of the seven-year prison sentence. Yet this did not translate into a nation ready to take to the streets to demonstrate.
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite was allowed to visit Tymoshenko in prison during her recent visit in Ukraine. While this photo was the subject of many sympathetic comments on Ukrainian social media, a concurrent decision by the Central Election Committee to ban the former PM from future elections caused little stir. Photo, www.president.lt/en
I remember how, as European parliamentarians were making representations to secure a visit to the former PM in prison, I struggled to explain this paradox to my Estonian friend. ‘People are tired of protesting for politicians’, I reasoned, reminding Silver too that Tymoshenko had presided over a catastrophic economic course as prime minister during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which ultimately impoverished millions.
'If people are ever concerned for our ex-PM, it is usually only expressed as a concern for Tymoshenko-the-woman rather than Tymoshenko-the-political-prisoner.’
This answer isn’t a satisfactory one for citizens of rule-of-law democracies. Even if Ukrainians don’t want to take to the streets “for Yulia”, their logic goes, then surely they should protest against politically motivated show-trials?
Unfortunately, a different logic applies in our Absurdistan. Yes, Ukrainians understand that their court system is the most corrupted of all government institutions. But they also remember that Tymoshenko is far from the only victim of it. When a TV crew reported on the awful conditions of Lukyanovskaya prison — the same prison where Tymoshenko was held for her first four months — online debate focused not on Yulia, but on the far worse conditions the other prisoners were experiencing (link in Ukrainian). If people are ever concerned for our ex-PM, it is usually only expressed as a concern for Tymoshenko-the-woman rather than Tymoshenko-the-political-prisoner.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that Ukrainians will never again take the streets in mass protest against corrupt government. The Orange Revolution has left too great a mark for the toothpaste of casual acceptance to be squeezed back into the tube of history. Online, Ukraine continues to be a hotbed of democratic discussion. And even after all the repressions of NGOs, there are a number of very vibrant grassroots movements in Ukraine to be hopeful about. Some, such as “Save Old Kyiv”, have the potential to grow into something much larger.
What I am arguing is that we should be asking less: Why won’t the Ukrainians protest? and more: What will make the Ukrainians protest?
Here, it is useful to remember what actually happened in 2004. Although many at home and abroad still imagine the revolution as something that happened spontaneously, there were in fact many years of painstaking preparation work that went before it (much of which was financed by political parties). The revolution would have been impossible without, for example, the pioneering journalism of Ukrainska Pravda, an on-line investigative newspaper founded by Georgy Gongadze. It would likewise have been impossible without the later 2001 ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ movement, which was inspired by Gongadze’s shocking murder (for which it is widely believed President Kuchma was personally responsible).
'Like their Russian neighbours, Ukrainians are likely to respond to a concrete event like electoral fraud in a very direct way.’
Looking forward, it would be foolish to discount the potential of this October’s parliamentary elections. There is no shortage of civil groups preparing the ground here, working on initiatives to make the vote as honest and transparent as possible. Like their Russian neighbours, Ukrainians are likely to respond to a concrete event like electoral fraud in a very direct way.
We should expect protests, arrests of democratic activists, protests in response to their detention, trials, and the seizure of offices and property. Any one of these events could act as a trigger for wider political involvement and provide a real offline test for Ukraine’s new leaders.
In our Absurdistan the logic of politics is far from predictable. Even miracles can happen from time to time.