Saturday, December 04, 2004

Postcards from Ukraine 

"Fireworks exploded over Kiev and tens of thousands of protesters danced and cracked open champagne overnight to celebrate a 'small victory' - a court decision declaring a presidential election invalid.

"Waving hundreds of flags of the opposition's orange colours, protesters embraced and danced gleefully after the Supreme Court called for a new vote, handing a legal victory to opposition challenger Viktor Yushchenko."
The opposition got what it wanted, a re-run of the controversial second round. The option of invalidating the whole election and calling a fresh one next year, increasingly pushed by the outgoing president Kuchma and Russia's Putin, is out of the window, at least at the moment. Under the Ukrainian electoral law the same candidates would not be able to contest the new election, which would have been bad news for the opposition and good news for the current establishment which wanted the popular Yushchenko out of the equation and an opportunity to replace the clearly underwhelming Yanukovich with a more charismatic and acceptable candidate (and hopefully one without a criminal past). Now the eastern Ukrainian/Russian axis will have to do with what they've got.

No wonder Putin is so annoyed. How else to explain Putin's anti-American outburst during his recent visit to India?
"Putin... criticized the West for setting double-standards on terrorism, pursuing Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Iraq while giving refuge to 'terrorists' demanding Chechnya's independence from Russia...

" 'Even if dictatorship is packaged in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology, it will not be able to solve systemic problems,' Putin said. 'It may even make them worse.'

"Putin did not name the United States, but clearly had the administration of President Bush in mind when he said policies 'based on the barrack-room principles of a unipolar world appear to be extremely dangerous'."
Chechnia and Iraq might have been the ostensible subjects of Putin's comments but I have little doubt that it was Ukraine that was really playing on Putin's mind.

Only two days ago, Mikhail Leontiev, political commentator of Russia's largest TV channel ORT, was referring to Poles as "Lachy", a mildly derogatory term, an equivalent of Peter Jennings talking about "Pollacks". According to Leontiev - and the majority of the public opinion in Russia - Poles want to again count for something in Europe, and so, are keen to rebuild their sixteenth century empire which encompassed Ukraine.

Poles of course have no imperial ambitions, but after a 1,000 year history of almost constant conflict with Russia, they want to see a democratic, open and pro-Western buffer created on their eastern border to insulate them from the increasingly authoritarian Russia. Conversely, Russians who have always felt threatened by Western influences (although ironically the only long-term foreign domination they have suffered in their history was a Mongol one) have a similar preference for building a pro-Russian cordon sanitaire, which in the past consisted largely of Poland, but now has to do just with Belarus and Ukraine.

So Russians are not happy, with the exception of a few liberals like Boris Nemcov (whose surname, by the way means "German" - those foreign influences everywhere) who congratulated the Ukrainian people on the beginning of their road to democracy. It might be too much to hope for Eastern Europe's democratic dominoes toppling all the way to Moscow, but as Polish journalist in Kiev writes: "The Ukrainian revolution provides a great hope for a democratic Russia... On the Independence Square in Kiev there were Russian flags, too. They were brought here by young people from Moscow and St Petersburg. When I asked them why they came, they answered: 'To get some tips'."

A cautionary word, or two: John Rosenthal of the excellent Trans-Atlantic Intelligencer has a different perspective on the events - he raises concerns that some of Yushchenko's major backers seem to be unreconstructed anti-Semites. Indeed, Russia has been keen to portray the opposition as the revival of a quasi-fascist nationalistic movement of the first half of the last century. It's a game that both sides can play, however, as Putin seems to have developed a penchant for sending Russian oligarchs of Jewish origin into jail or exile.

Meanwhile, in Donietsk, the coal-mining region in the eastern Ukraine which is Yanukovich's bastion, the local TV station wasn't giving the Supreme Court decision much coverage, focusing instead on South American soap operas (for some unknown reason - an exotic quality? - they seem to be all the rage in the post-communist world).


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