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Ukrainian strategy: take nothing seriously

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Ukraine’s post-Soviet governments traditionally follow the logic of safety razors: “tighten as far as you can, and then release a few notches”. Yulia Tymoshenko’s unexpectedly long sentence was shocking, but in all probability she will be soon be at liberty again. The real question is what she does then, writes Dmitry Vydrin

Dmitry Vydrin
13 October 2011

Hearing about Yulia Tymoshenko’s unexpectedly harsh sentence was a double shock for me.

It the first place, it shocked me as a man who believes that women should be spared the harshness of such a setting. For me, a prison sentence is twice or three times as long for a woman as the same stretch is for a man.

I was also shocked, as a political commentator, by the fact that when the sentence was pronounced our compassionate society, as represented by journalists, experts and ordinary citizens, expressed no shock whatsoever. There were no heated protests, broken hearts, gnashing of teeth or suicide bombings. There were, I admit, heated arguments amongst the experts, but they all centred on only one question: why was the sentence so harsh? Opinions were many and varied. 

"I was shocked, as a political commentator, by the fact that when the sentence was pronounced our compassionate society, as represented by journalists, experts and ordinary citizens, expressed no shock whatsoever."

Some believe it was because the regime is still afraid of Tymoshenko. Others, because it is no longer afraid of Tymoshenko. A third group argues that it is because the regime is no longer afraid of the West. A fourth, that it is because the regime is still afraid of the West. And so on.

But for me, as both an expert and a journalist, the shockingly interesting question is, as I said, why was no one shocked? Since I am so far the only person to ask this question, I shall attempt to answer it myself.

In the first place, it seems to me that people here do not believe that the fate awaiting Tymoshenko will be as harsh as the sentence formally delivered.

The Gillette law

One reason for this, I think, is that practically our entire ruling class, including the judiciary, shave using Gillette safety razors. The razors usually come in packaging with instructions in small but very clear lettering: “First tighten as far as it will go, then loosen for two turns”. As far as I can see, for the last 20 years the Ukrainian government has been basing the majority of its actions on the Gillette principle. Everyone else understands this intuitively, and is now waiting impatiently for the “loosening” to begin.

My second, and principal, reason is that our entire ruling class, including the judiciary, studied that classic of Slavonic literature, Saltykov-Shchedrin, when they were at school. This wise writer, bureaucrat and rogue expressed it very clearly: “The severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to implement them”. Everyone is well aware of this and so is waiting impatiently to see how the law will fail to be implemented in this case.

While waiting impatiently myself, I found myself thinking back to my own past experience. Ten or more years ago, I also worked in the administrative machine, not as Prime Minister, admittedly, but as one of his advisors. You might be surprised to hear that I also found myself before a court, in fact twice.

Tymoshenko_sentence

Sentenced to 7 years of prison, Yulia Tymoshenko accused Ukraine’s president Vyctor Yanukovych of conducting a show-trial in Stalinist style.

Once it was for overspending on the annual allocation of fuel for official transport, to the tune of 500 grivens (about $100 at the time). This was considered a large scale  theft, and the prosecutor was looking for a five year sentence. But the judge acquitted me!

The second time I was charged under the same article as Tymoshenko: acting beyond my powers – I was overspent on travel expenses by $60. And this time the prosecutor was after a seven year sentence – if I had been convicted, I would be writing these notes in some remote prison camp.

So, based on my own experience, I can state that the trouble with, and in equal measure, the charm of life in Ukraine lies in the fact that nothing is taken seriously; everything is, as it were, just for fun. Everything happens on the level of nudge-nudge, wink-wink and backstage deals between the clans, elites and influence groups.

In the cult Russian film “Brother-2”, the main character asks a friend who lives in the USA, “Do people here take anything seriously?” “Only money”, she replies. But as far as I can see, the Ukrainian elite, with its infinite infantilism, is so engrossed in its little games that it is no longer even serious about either money or, for that matter,  power.

One shouldn’t reproach victims, but since I am sure that thanks to various technical hitches Yulia will soon be at liberty again, I will say that she is one of the people responsible for the creation of this brutally childish, emptily make-believe economic, political and judicial system.

Over the years this beautiful, feather-brained woman has never managed to find her real vocation, her single heartfelt cause. She has scattered her sympathies and attachments thoughtlessly, lavishing kisses in all directions as she went.

Traces of her lipstick are visible on most major Ukrainian businesses. She had a quick nibble at one sector after another – gas, energy, development, right down to canaries – and tired of each just as quickly.

She tried out every ideology in the same way, and you can find them all, sucked to the bone, in the dusty recesses of her own party: ‘left solidarism’, ‘right populism’, ‘socialist justice’ and ‘the nationalist cause’.

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Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s prime minister addressing the Ukrainian parliament in 2009. "The gas princess" was once the darling of the Ukrainian Orange revolution, with her speeches playing a key role in maintaining the momentum of street protests. She lost the 2010 presidential election to Victor Yanukovych.

Perhaps her frivolity may be excused as that of a playful woman, but unfortunately none of this has enabled her to become a real, serious, politician. A real politician is someone who has real enemies and real friends. If you want to get involved in business, do it in a genuinely specialised, efficient, professional and systematic way. Then your fellow businessmen and –women will back you to the hilt.

If you want to get involved in politics, find yourself an ideological niche and try not to be disloyal to it. Only geniuses like Churchill can permit themselves to change ideology a couple of times in the course of a long life, but without ever being disloyal to their tribe. Then the voters in your tribal ideological coterie will back you to the hilt. Without even asking for money to demonstrate on your behalf.

Brilliant fighter

Yes, unfortunately life is not a game. Even political life. And even for a beautiful woman. Nevertheless I am sure that it will not be long before Yulia Tymoshenko will be released. And I will apply my own modest efforts and resources to making this happen. But she will then once again face the question – what to do next?

Tymoshenko is a brilliant fighter. There is a clever film where a police officer who is constantly outwitted by his opponents – militant Islamists – asks his colleague, “Why do they always beat us?”  “Because we are working, and they are fighting”, comes the reply.

In our country Tymoshenko can fight better than anyone. So if a war breaks out after her release, she will beat everyone. But if there is no war – what then? Because she won’t want to work, won’t work, and in fact won’t know how to. And anyway in Ukraine that’s not what people go into politics for – to work, like some kind of losers.

On the other hand, she has an additional USP: she can not only fight, but seduce. And that is her big chance!

"Tymoshenko is a brilliant fighter. There is a clever film where a police officer who is constantly outwitted by his opponents – militant Islamists – asks his colleague, “Why do they always beat us?”  “Because we are working, and they are fighting”, comes the reply."

I once conducted a microscopic home-grown experiment. I offered to ten sturdy one-year-old infants the choice of a spanner or a Chupa Chups lollipop. And they all chose the Chupa Chups, even those who were having mechanical problems with their baby buggies. And perhaps that is our national choice: whenever we have to choose whether to work hard or enjoy something sweet – we pick the latter. So we shall certainly be hearing a lot more of Yulia Vladimirovna.

We shall also soon be having parliamentary elections, and her political grouping already has a magic election slogan ‘ready to go’. The last time they campaigned under the banner “Bandits should be behind bars!” I now make them a present of another magic slogan: “Women should not be behind bars!”

So the game goes on, or rather our endless Chupa-Chups play life goes on. 

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