Issues, Outcome and Prospects: The Ukranian Events

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

John-Paul Himka

ALTHOUGH THE UKRAINIAN presidential elections were front-page news for the last two months of 2004, and no event in the history of Ukraine has ever attracted so much media coverage and analysis, what happened, why, and its significance are questions impossible to answer with certainty.

In these events, as in most socio-political issues, one has to make a distinction between what happened, on the one hand, and what was observable, observed and reported on the other.  Only with the passage of time will more of the facts emerge and the developing meanings reveal themselves.  So caveat lector.

The elections of 2004 were the fourth presidential elections since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.  The two leading contenders were Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych.

Yushchenko had once served as prime minister in the government of President Leonid Kuchma, but evolved into the president’s opponent.  He headed up a parliamentary opposition coalition called “Our Ukraine” and projected the image of a measured politician who was pro-Ukrainian, pro-Western, and pro-democracy.

Before his poisoning, Yushchenko was also a handsome figure.  He enjoyed support from a limited segment of the rich and powerful interests whom we have come to identify as oligarchs and, in the second round, also from the Socialist Party led by Oleksandr Moroz.

Yanukovych was prime minister at the time of the elections, and outgoing President Kuchma’s hand-picked successor.  The forces around Kuchma had had a hard time agreeing on a candidate, and Yanukovych was not a particularly brilliant prospect.  He lacked charisma and had twice done time in prison back in the 1970s for robbery and assault.

But Yanukovych had a loyal following among industrialists in the east of the county, in the Donbas, and tough guys appeal to some segments of post-Soviet populations.  Once anointed, he had the complete backing of the majority of oligarchs until they recognized that he was a sinking ship.

Fraud and Mobilization

The election was conducted in three rounds.  Under Ukrainian law, to win the first round a candidate must receive an absolute majority; so this first round, in which many candidates contended and neither of the two leading candidates received 50% of the votes, was followed by a run- off between Yushchenko and Yanukovych.

The first round was held 31 October, the run-off on 21 November.  The second round of elections was flagrantly falsified to produce a victory for Yanukovych, and in protest a huge crowd of Yushchenko’s supporters occupied the center of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv [Kiev—ed.].

Reporters from around the world converged on Kyiv to report on “the Orange Revolution” (from Yushchenko’s campaign color).  At the same time the Ukrainian media, and crucially television, began to free themselves from government control, and then important figures in government, the security service, the military and business began to cross the line to the Yushchenko camp.

Hemorrhaging support and desperate, Yanukovych took the unusual step of fomenting separatism in the eastern oblasts of the country of which he was prime minister, oblasts in which his support was exceptionally solid.

Eventually a resolution was negotiated: to hold a third round of elections on 26 December, a repeat of the runoff, this time with open coverage by domestic and international media and over ten thousand electoral observers from abroad.

The result of this final vote was 52% for Yushchenko and 44% for Yanukovych (the remaining ballots were spoiled or against both candidates).

Identities and Memory

Regionalism is a common feature of electoral politics, and it is not surprising to find it in the Ukrainian elections as well.  Some of it was favorite- son politics: Yanukovych had been governor in Donetsk oblast, where he performed what he liked to call “an economic miracle.”

Regionalism as such, however, was perhaps less at issue than perceptions of national identity.  There have been, to simplify, two different visions of Ukrainian identity that divide the country.

One identity is what I refer to as “Central European,” and its heartland is in the western oblasts that were part of Austria-Hungary before World War I and of Poland between the world wars.  The other is “post- Soviet” and is most deeply rooted in the eastern and southern oblasts that had been part of the Russian empire before World War I and Soviet thereafter until 1991.

The “Central European” identity, formed in the context of Habsburg-era identity politics, Polish nationalism and European fascism, is exclusivist, in the sense that it makes a binary distinction between Ukrainians and others, with Russians being the politically relevant other at the present moment.  The “Central Europeans” favor the exclusive use of the Ukrainian language in government, culture, media and everyday life.

The “post-Soviet” identity was forged in the Soviet era as a specific amalgam of Ukrainian nationalism, Soviet Communism and the Orthodox/imperial-Russian heritage from tsarist times.  It admits of a Ukrainian specificity, but it is open also to Russian identity, in the sense that it conceives of Russians also as “our people” (but not Jews or Turkic peoples or even Western Ukrainians).

The “post-Soviet” Ukrainians usually know Ukrainian, but speak Russian in their everyday life and often favor the recognition of Russian as a second state language.

A characteristic issue that divides the two identities is the memory of World War II. The “Central Europeans” of the western oblasts identify with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Waffen-SS Division Galizien; these military formations were recruited locally, enjoyed wide support in the region, and were closely identified with Ukrainian nationalism.

Many in the rest of Ukraine, however, consider these forces to have been criminal and treasonous and identify instead with the Red Army.

In Kyiv, Ukraine’s booming capital, a third vision of identity has emerged, which might be termed “Euro-Ukrainian.”  It combines civic nationalism with a cosmopolitanism equally at home in Moscow and Vienna.

Electoral Issues

In the presidential elections, most of the “Central Europeans” and “Euro-Ukrainians” lined up with Yushchenko, and many of the “post-Soviets” with Yanukovych.  To discredit the Yushchenko camp, Yanukovych’s campaign portrayed its adherents as anti-Russian extremists for internal consumption and as anti-Semites for foreign consumption.

But this was campaign rhetoric: True, the national extremists were attracted more to Yushchenko than to Yanukovych, but they remained on the fringes.  Yushchenko did not run a nationalist campaign.  (In fact, some radical nationalists also landed in the Yanukovych camp.)

Another electoral issue with regional repercussions was geopolitical orientation.  Those Ukrainians who favor a pro-Western orientation tended to vote for Yushchenko, while the pro-Russian orientation backed Yanukovych.

Yanukovych plastered Ukraine with posters identifying Yushchenko with unpopular America.  These depicted Yushchenko as a cowboy riding on a map of Ukraine or wearing an Uncle Sam outfit or referred to him as Bushchenko.  Russian president Vladimir Putin demonstratively supported Yanukovych.

The pro-Western, particularly pro-European, orientation appealed more in the west of the country, which now borders on the European Union; this is the home of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians currently working as nannies, maids and laborers in Britain, Italy and Portugal.

The pro-Russian orientation plays better in the eastern rust belt, where the destination of seasonal labor is Russia and where few have relatives in Europe or North America.

Important too, and probably most important, was the issue of style or system of government.  Yushchenko enjoyed the support of all those for whom democracy and the rule of law were priority issues.  Those who preferred a strongman looked to Yanukovych.

During Kuchma’s presidency, there were many suspicious accidents and unsolved murders of investigative journalists and opposition politicians, the most notorious being the case of journalist Heorhii Gongadze who disappeared in September 2000 and whose headless corpse was found in the woods some months later.

During the current presidential campaign, the opposition candidate Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxins.  During the first and particularly during the second round of the current elections there were outrageous abuses of electoral procedures.  Those Ukrainians who find this level of violence and illegality unacceptable voted for Yushchenko.

Under the Surface

All the issues discussed so far were observable on the surface of political life.  In Ukrainian politics, however, a great deal happens at subterranean levels.

Right now the country’s economy is controlled by what might be called native oligarchs, whether citizens of Russia or Ukraine, whether of Jewish or Russian or Ukrainian nationality.  Western corporations do not have much influence in Ukraine.

Perhaps the desire on the part of the native oligarchy to keep Western competition at a minimum explains its opposition to Yushchenko.  It is not just that he espouses a pro-Western orientation, but also that he stands for the rule of law.

The native oligarchs have functioned for years in an environment reminiscent of the Wild West.  The absence of the rule of law helps keep Western business out. Westerners prefer to invest in an environment in which regulations and procedures are clear, contracts enforceable, and taxes predictable, and in which they can lobby to have the regulations and taxes modified to their benefit.

Some of the native oligarchs may therefore perceive Yushchenko as a threat to their vital interests, which would explain some of the extreme and polarized rhetoric of the campaign and even the attempt on Yushchenko’s life.  But I necessarily speculate here.  Yushchenko himself had the backing of some oligarchs before the first round of elections and of more and more of them as the electoral crisis deepened.

And where was the working class in all of this?  Ukrainian industry was devastated after the fall of Communism, and with it the traditional working class.

Both candidates promised economic recovery.  One campaign leaflet held out high these high prospects: “President Yushchenko will create five million new jobs in five years, he will make pensions and paychecks high and prices and taxes low….”

Trade unions are very weak.  Miners in the Donbas, where unemployment is a problem and working conditions unsafe, are dependent on their employers and not surprisingly appeared in the demonstrations supporting Yanukovych.

Notably absent, however, both during and after the political crisis were the coal miners’ strikes that carried such political weight in the last years of the Soviet Union; evidently, the miners’ support for Yanukovych was relatively soft.

Probably a large proportion of the workers throughout Ukraine did the same thing as the Donbas miners and followed the politics of their employers; others probably voted as they did because of the other election issues.  This was not an election in which working- class issues or movements came to the fore.

Factors in the Outcome

Probably the most important factor in the whole Orange Revolution was the popular support that Yushchenko enjoyed, as revealed in the results of the first and second rounds of the elections.

Although Yanukovych had so many advantages, including control of most media and of all the administrative mechanisms that traditionally deliver votes in Ukraine, when the final tally was announced on 10 November, Yushchenko had more votes than Yanukovych.  The margin was minuscule, less than a percentage point, but it was a challenge to what seemed to be the verities of Ukrainian politics.

Western analyses of exit polls suggest that these results were falsified by about four or five percentage points in favor of Yanukovych, and that even the eastern cities showed support for Yushchenko among younger and more educated voters.

In the second round the popularity of Yushchenko was perversely confirmed by Yanukovych’s claimed victory, since it was based on the evident fiction that 97% of the eligible voters in Donetsk oblast turned up at the polls and 90% in neighboring Luhansk oblast.  (In the third, closely observed round, there was only an 84% turnout in both oblasts.)

For the media, of course, the mobilized crowd in Kyiv was the focus of attention—photogenic young people and all the familiar tropes from the Velvet and Rose Revolutions.  This crowd, hundreds of thousands strong, was the equivalent for Ukraine of the French revolutionary crowds, since Kyiv has very much become Ukraine’s Paris.

Like the old Parisian crowds, the crowd in Kyiv was not particularly representative of the country as a whole.  Most of the crowd population consisted of: inhabitants of Kyiv itself, a city of 2.6 million that voted 78% for Yushchenko; Ukrainians from the western oblasts that voted about 95% for Yushchenko; and students from around the country.

Even before the elections, oppositionists promised that they would take to the streets if the government attempted to steal the election, so the appearance of a tent city in Kyiv was no surprise.  What was surprising, however, was the strength of the crowd.

Low estimates put the crowd population at 200,000, but I have heard Yushchenko supporters claim that it reached two million.  No matter, it was an impressive showing for a country with a population of 49 million.

Anyone I have spoken to who visited the crowd in Kyiv was deeply impressed by the spirit of empowerment and determination that they encountered there.  It was undoubtedly an important instrument for the Yushchenko camp.  While Yushchenko was negotiating with Kuchma about resolving the crisis in his favor, Yuliia Tymoshenko, a politician with plenty of presence and intelligence, kept the crowd galvanized with her radical speeches.

Outside Operators

International interventions played a role too. Yanukovych benefitted, at least among those with a pro-Russian national or geopolitical orientation, from his strong endorsement by Russian president Putin.  Kuchma and Yanukovych traveled to Moscow before the election to receive Putin’s endorsement, and Putin twice traveled to Kyiv to bolster Yanukovych’s support.

Most of the Russian media, widely viewed and read in Ukraine, also endorsed Yanukovych and the brains behind the Yanukovych campaign is said to have been Russian spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.  Pro- Yushchenko sources claim that Putin donated $300 million to Yanukovych’s campaign.

Although during the crisis after the second round of elections, Kuchma traveled to Moscow to confer with Putin, Russian influence was most effective in the early stage of the election, before the first round.  Its failure to secure a Yanukovych victory at that time was crucial to the way events unfolded.

The West was almost silent during the first round of elections.  America was absorbed with its own presidential elections at that time, and the Bush administration had no experts or time to spare for Ukraine.  After the hijacked second round, however, the role of the West picked up.

Both the European Union and the United States issued strong messages protesting electoral fraud, and the USA warned Putin not to interfere.  The Western state most active in Ukraine was Poland.  Both current president Aleksander Kwasniewski and past president (and Gdansk strike veteran) Lech Walesa traveled to Ukraine after the second round to negotiate a solution.

The Western media almost as a whole sided with the opposition and kept a steady focus on the Ukrainian crisis until the tsunami turned their attention elsewhere.

Allegations that the crowd was manufactured in the USA are off the mark.  Certainly there was some advice and (probably indirect) funding, but this could not have produced such a powerful crowd, and student activism had been a feature of Ukrainian political life since 1989.

It is not clear how much Western money the Yushchenko camp received for its campaign.  The United States gave NGOs in Ukraine about $65 million for democracy projects over the previous two years, just as it funded such projects in other post-Soviet societies; and there was also money from European governments and from George Soros (Soros visited Ukraine in 2004 at the invitation of Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk).

Shifted Loyalties

Although the Bush administration and American neoconservatives will undoubtedly claim credit for the outcome in Ukraine, as the Reagan administration did for the fall of the Berlin Wall, this should not deflect attention from the internal determinants of the Orange Revolution.

The revolution was made domestically.  Financial support for the demonstrators came from the coffers of the “Our Ukraine” coalition, from pro-Yushchenko businessmen, and (about $4 million) from individuals in Ukraine and abroad, especially from the Ukrainian diaspora.

Not well documented at this point is the movement of powerful individuals from the Yanukovych to the Yushchenko camp.  About four days into the crisis that followed the second round of elections, the government’s control over Ukrainian television began to loosen, and cameras showed the sea of demonstrators in Kyiv; reporters also stopped delivering the government line.

Whether this change came from below, from reporters and announcers in the networks who had lost their fear, as the oppositionists tell it, or whether this change came from above and reflected shifting loyalties in the power elites, is uncertain.  But during the crisis almost the entire diplomatic personnel of Ukraine swung over to Yushchenko, who also began to appear before his supporters with officers from the armed forces and Security Service of Ukraine.*

Kuchma’s billionaire son-in-law, Viktor Pinchuk, personally toured the crowd in downtown Kyiv and let it be known that he was favorably impressed with the demonstrators.  I think the rich and powerful in Ukraine were following their keenly developed instinct of self-preservation.

Prospects: A New Ukraine?

Revolutionary crises are moments of simplification: the entire society neatly divides into two camps.  The day after, all the complexities return.

The mainly young people who occupied Kyiv have high expectations from the Yushchenko victory.  They experienced hardship during their long stay in Kyiv’s cold streets and expect substantive change.

Egged on by Tymoshenko’s rousing speeches, many of them resented Yushchenko’s negotiations to end the crisis—they thought they should just seize power.  They now want to see the bad guys, including President Kuchma, prosecuted.  They are looking for a new Ukraine to arise.

But Yushchenko understands that his victory was by no means total.  Over 40% of the country voted against him, and some are bitter over his victory.  He knows that he has to reconcile the East.  He cannot pursue a radical ukrainianization program as some of the Orange Revolutionists want.

The new president’s supporters would like him to move closer to Europe, but since the revolution the European spokesmen have been either ambivalent or, more likely, divided about Ukraine’s prospects for European Union membership in the foreseeable future.  Ukraine remains in the “European Neighborhood,” which some in the Ukrainian diplomatic corps say is a euphemism for “Barbarians at the Gates.”

All along Yushchenko has said that he is not anti-Russian and seeks good relations with Ukraine’s gigantic neighbor.  It will not be easy for him, however, to gain the good will of a Russian president with so much egg on his face.

Yushchenko’s first trip abroad after his inauguration was to Russia.  But, honoring a pre-election deal with Tymoshenko, he has nominated her as his acting prime minister, even though she is persona non grata to Putin.  (In fact, she’s a wanted criminal in Russia, a murky matter involving politics and money).

It is also an open question at this point to what degree Yushchenko will be beholden to oligarchs.  Among the other candidates Yushchenko considered for the premiership are confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko, who owns the one Ukrainian television channel that favored him, and Anatolii Kinakh, the leader of the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

And will he actually be able to introduce the rule of law?  There has been a political revolution of sorts, but not a social one. There are still the great subterranean movements of the potentates to reckon with; some of them are among the fifty richest men in the entire world and some of them are absolutely ruthless.

There have already been two suspicious deaths of Ukrainian political figures since the 26 December round of elections.  Consolidating democratic procedures and legality will be a difficult challenge, and a precondition for solving the many problems that plague Ukraine.  In this country of great inequalities and fundamental ideological divisions, the Orange Revolution at best only sets up the conditions for hard political and social work.

John-Paul Himka teaches history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  His books include Religion and Nationality in Western Ukraine: The Greek Catholic Church and the Ruthenian National Movement in Galicia, 1867-1900 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999) and Galician Villagers and the Ukrainian National Movement in the Nineteenth Century (St. Martin’s Press, 1988).  He edited, translated and introduced Roman Rosdolsky’s Engels and the “Nonhistoric” Peoples: The National Question in the Revolution of 1848 (Critique Books, 1986).

ATC 115, March-April 2005