Ukraine: in Orange and in Blue

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November 26, 2004 by AK

Discoshaman has published two pieces on the oligarchic intrigue behind the Ukrainian election.

Compare the situation to Russia, where an authoritarian Putin faced off against corrupt oligarchs. In Ukraine, authoritarianism and oligarchy are fused. Yanukovych isn’t just another unscrupulous candidate, he’s the main man of Akhmetov — the duke of Donetsk and the richest man in Ukraine. The current president, Kuchma, is the head of a different clan, Dnepropetrovsk. The presidential administrator is Medvedchuk, who happens to run the Kiev-based Medvedchuk-Surkis clan. He also owns the two biggest Ukrainian TV stations, which is awfully convenient.

While there is jockeying for control among these clans, the overall effect is for them to sustain one another in power. They all depend on the same system for survival, and actively collaborate to keep it in place.

Nothing’s new under the sun — sounds like Latin America or even the US itself in some alternative history book where Teddy Roosevelt’s antitrust bills all die in the committees. But is Yuschenko — a former PM under president Kuchma — made of different clay? Isn’t his “helper and friend,” ex-vice-PM Yulia Timoshenko running for cover, mindful of the lot that befell ex-PM Pavlo Lazarenko, who is serving time in a US federal prison, convicted of money laundering? Peter Lavelle explains:

The lecturing from the West will have the world believe Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Leonid Kuchma are the real and most important players in Ukraine’s political drama. This is not the case. Other names and oligarchic empires are those really calling the shots. Yulia Timoshenko has spun herself as a democrat, but in fact is an oligarch. Rinat Ahmetov and Semyon Mogilevitch, almost never mentioned in the context of Ukraine’s current political travails, are also oligarchs. These three and few others are behind Ukraine’s politics – they are in competition to control the country’s economy.

Those regions in the South and East where Yanukovich won an unquestionable majority (except the Crimea) account for most of Ukraine’s GDP and most of its recent growth. They ooze the taxes that get redistributed to the agricultural West (where Timoshenko’s clan has its primary interests) — but the East and the West both want change. It’s just that the East doesn’t trust Yuschenko as the change’s agent.

I also suspect that, if the status quo prevails, the over-industrialized East is doomed both socially and economically (limits to growth) in the long term; the farms and small towns of the West would provide a firmer foundation for grassroot democracy. But so far, the East has felt quite self-sufficient; the pro-Yanukovich Donetsk city council has just proposed establishing a Southeastern Autonomy. Democracy in action, what else?

So stifle your Manichean instincts, observer: It’s not a gadzillionth round of Good vs. Evil; the worst outcome would be a devastating triumph of either side. Where there is struggle — intermittent but recurring — there is life; the evolution of democracy is not about abolishing struggle, not about extinguishing conflict of interests and values. Rather, it’s about better, less permissive, fairer rules of combat and the art of compromise — what good would it be otherwise? Eventually — unless one side completely destroys the other — freedom will have no choice but to be born.


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