Yushchenko's Place in History: A Leader who Failed his People?


For 200 years the bulk of Ukrainian lands were Russian colonies for all intents and purposes. Ukrainians produced a humanist-cultural elite within the empire, but not a national political or economic elite. Between 1917 and 1947 this colonial legacy was compounded by millions of unnatural deaths and massive in-migration of Russians.

Immigration is a normal phenomenon. But between 1930 and 1991 media educational and publishing policies created a Russian urban public communications sphere in Ukraine. This ensured that immigrant Russians did not have to learn the language of the country they had immigrated into, but rather, that Ukrainians in their own country had to learn a foreign language to get an education and be socially mobile. Under these conditions Ukraine experienced not immigration but colonization. This had psychological consequences. Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine identified Ukrainian with Sunday folklore and Russian with modern urban daily life and power. The provincial political elite did not envisage their territory as an entity apart and distinct from its imperial whole and behaved accordingly.

The peaceful collapse of the USSR left the old Russophile provincial political elite in power. While the cultural elite concerned itself with cultural issues, this old political elite stole Ukraine's public assets and became an economic elite as well - urged on by neo-liberal capitalist advocates like Anders Aslund. They subsequently did not reinvest their wealth into infrastructure, services, manufacturing and national culture. They send their capital offshore, invest abroad, buy football teams, import luxury goods and finance Russian-language media products and projects. While most of these "oligarchs" were born and raised in Ukraine, few are Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians with sympathy for national issues or culture. This is significant because it means that as a group they cannot be considered a "national capitalist bourgeoisie."

After 18 years under their neo-liberal capitalist rule post-imperial Ukrainian society has become "feudalized." A small group of very wealthy surrounded by guards, fences, and darkened car windows, lords over a mass of indebted poor living in dirty run-down cities with undrinkable tap water. In the capital people must daily dodge empty beer bottles, hordes of street peddlers and cars that litter the sidewalks. Ukraine is a country where the average person still depends on local bazaars and private relations to survive -- and not on the newly established "capitalist free market." As in feudal societies, many still retain pre-modern imperial or local identities and do not consider themselves "Ukrainian" in either a national or civic sense. Private shopping malls crawling with "guards" are clean and "secure" like medieval castles, while outside them people must live with filthy run-down streets and adolescent males who turn to crime because there are few full-time well-paying jobs. The  public space is polluted with billboards. Even St. Sophia square is ringed with obnoxious advertisements. Russian still dominates the  public communication sphere. While no-one died as a result of political violence in 1991, since then the country has lost more millions in emigration and unnatural deaths due to miserable public health services than had died during the 1933 Famine.

Russians and Ukrainians disgusted by the still dictatorial post-independence regime rallied in 2004. They hoped that Yushchenko and Tymoshenko would "place the criminals in prison" and implement a just re-distribution of the formerly stolen public assets. Yushchenko failed to act decisively and thus make a place for himself as a great man not only in Ukrainian but in European history. What he did was merely supervise a seizure of power from one part of the clique of oligarchs, to another part who had decided to ally with him - more because he won than for any ideological or national reasons. To his credit, Yushchenko ensured the last government controls over the media were removed and established a division of power between the president and prime minister. This ensured Ukraine would be a political democracy rather than an autocracy. He gave full government support to the cultural elite to implement national initiatives. These include things like spreading education in Ukrainian and mass dissemination of previously suppressed information about Ukraine's past. Yushchenko also wanted Ukraine to belong to the EU, which for all its faults, offers greater prospects for Ukrainian development than does Putin's renewed Russian empire.

Despite these initiatives Yushchenko lost virtually all credibility not only among Ukrainians but among Ukraine's loyal Russian citizens. Instead of arresting the rich and powerful guilty of rampant corruption, he gave them medals. Although this may have been motivated by a plan to co-opt former enemies and transform them into a "new national elite" nothing in the behavior of men like Kivalov ("seriozha pidrahui"), or Kyiv's mayor Chernovetsky suggests they have been thus transformed. Neither  still can't even speak Ukrainian and historians will one day undoubtedly debate whether he, Batu Khan or Bogoliubsky did more to destroy Kyiv. Kyiv is turning into a vast filthy Calcutta-like slum.The initiative did, however, make a mockery of the awards system and the man who gave them.

Yushchenko's neo-capitalist "free market" economic policies also lost him popular support. Oligarchs continued to steal public assets and send profits abroad and Yushchenko did nothing to regulate or limit Russian corporate take-overs in Ukraine. Most corporations work and produce in Russian because there is no Ukrainian national capitalist class. This keeps the public sphere Russian and reinforces the notion that Ukrainian is suitable only for Sunday folk concerts - not corporate offices. A few have become very rich but many more have become poorer. The latter development is particularly troubling because the resulting mass socio-economic dissatisfaction can be exploited politically by revisionist imperial neo-fascist groups who want to restore the old Russian Empire.

When Tymoshenko attempted to prosecute "non-Orange" oligarchs and re-privatize in favor of her oligarch supporters, Yushchenko opposed her. American corporations in Ukraine were not enthusiastic about such an initiative either as they were also involved in the pillage of Ukraine's public assets. The "Orange coalition" split and their pro-Russian rivals have recovered the influence they lost in 2004. Their leader, a former criminal who legally cannot hold any public office and as governor of Donetsk closed the last Ukrainian school there, is now running for president! Never having any principled differences with Yanukovych and his oligarchs, the "Orange" oligarchs would not have difficulties supporting them as their wealth and status would not be affected.
Since clan divisions among the oligarchs are stronger than national or political divisions they can easily support no matter who wins the 2010 elections and thus perpetuate their domination of the country. Thanks to the proportional electoral system, they can easily buy parliamentary seats and then  determine the selection of  bureaucrats who would act in their interests. 

It should be noted, however, that although most oligarchs have a neo-soviet Russophile mentality, not all would welcome a reintegration of Ukraine into Putin’s new empire. In exchange for cheap gas and a “strong state” that could control democracy, unions and wages, under Putin the oligarchs would lose the political power they have in  independent Ukraine. Alternatively, not all of them are keen on EU membership either because there, at least until the Lisbon Treaty is fully implemented, they would have to obey laws and  regulations that still limit corporate rapacity or suffer the consequences.

Thus, collectively, the oligarchs are quite happy to keep Ukraine in a geopolitical no-man’s land because that allows them to make profits and decisively influence if not control national politics – while at the same time permitting them open access to places like Monaco and Davos. But does such a state of affairs reflect the interests of the population at large?

There are two major differences between Tymoshenko and Ianukovych. The former is pro-EU and she opposes legal-status for Russian. Should Tymoshenko win she would continue government support for national development and  ensure the country would not revert to the status of a “little Russia” where “culture” was limited to happy natives singing folk-songs. Ukrainian language-use in the public sphere would spread. In the event of a Ianukovych victory, Ukraine's cultural elite, without government support and with no national capitalist class to back them, would be reduced to running private cultural clubs - much as they did under the tsars and then the commissars. The country would remain under the cultural dictatorship of the Russian minority. Additionally, while Ianukovych would do nothing to restrict the oligarchs, Tymoshenko, at least in principle, knows that Ukraine will continue to decline unless she not only puts her opponents’ oligarchs in their place, but that she forces the oligarchs in her party to realize that they must be subject to the government and law and not above them. Government  assets are not booty to be stolen for private interest but wealth that must be nurtured for the public good. What she will do, obviously, remains to be seen.

It might also be added that some European leaders on the left and right don’t  understand that it is not in the interest of the EU to have a powerful Russian empire on its eastern border. Such people would obviously welcome a Ianukovych victory. Those who realize that  without Ukraine Russia will never again be an empire, however, would welcome a Tymoshenko victory.

Ukraine after 2004 remained a Russian colony in the cultural and economic sense ruled by a kleptocratic neo-soviet clan-oligarchy primarily thanks to Yushchenko's failure to exploit his mass support in 2004 to break their  power. If they stole the nation’s wealth, Iushchenko did worse—he stole its hope for a better future. There was only one 1917 revolution in the last century. It is unlikely there will be another 2004 revolution this century.


Stephen Velychenko is a reseach fellow, University of Toronto and Visiting Lecturer Kyiv Mohyla Academy.