Until recently, Ukraine wasn't much of a news item in most of the Western press. In fact, a country with one-third the population of Russia, and about one-fifth of its economy, it received barely one-thirtieth of the coverage of Russia in the US media.
Then came the "Orange Revolution" -- and, boy, did it change everything. We're learning now that, unlike in the dark autocratic Russia, the flower of Ukrainian democracy was blossoming all throughout the 1990s, if only in the shadows.
"Ukraine did not fight a war for ten years such as Russia is fighting in the North Caucasus. There was no shelling of government houses by tanks in Ukraine. Ukraine did not have the kind of privatization that Russia had. Luckily for Ukraine, it had no oil or gas which made it possible to corrupt the entire political elite in Russia. The situation there was quite different. It was easier there to create non-governmental organizations on a large scale," -- waxes Grigory Yavlinsky, the pro-Western leader of Yabloko, with similar sentiments splattered all over the coverage of Ukraine these days.
It's not every day one encounters historical revisionism as stupid as it is recent.
In Soviet times Ukraine was slightly better off than Russia itself. Kiev was a bright, clean, less messy city than Moscow. Stores in most Ukrainian towns were better stocked -- at least as far as food is concerned -- than in Russia, with the exception of Moscow and Leningrad.
Independence in 1991 wasn't a change for the better. The economic plunge was much, much worse in Ukraine than in Russia. Cheap gastarbaiters and hookers from Ukraine poured immediately into both Russia and Europe -- second only to Moldova in per capita count.
The last time I was in Ukraine was more than ten years ago, when my wife and I visited the city of Poltava in 1993. Although in the Eastern part of Ukraine, it wasn't the most Russified city (those tend to be on the Black Sea coast) and was more or less representative of the average provincial Ukraine -- with a mixture of Russian, Ukrainian and everything in between, endless rows of grey khrushchevki, plenty of galushki and sunflower seeds, many pretty babes becoming plumpish matrons after thirty.
In 1993 it was a sorry sight -- one of the most depressing I ever recall. We'd been there before, in 1989 -- and it was a quite different experience. It was still the Soviet Union, with all its limitations, but at least Poltava was a bustling town, with an excellent outdoor market, functioning industry and public transportation. In 1993 it was a far cry from even that. It's enough to note that a guy in our train coupe had a 20-liter gasoline canister as his carry-on luggage. Aside from violating all sensible safety rules, this was just plain crazy. He had to go home to some village fifty miles from the city, and the only way there was for his friends to meet him with a car -- provided he'd bring his own gasoline from Moscow.
Right from the train station visitors were accosted by teenage moneychangers, equally willing to accept dollars, German marks and rubles -- anything to dump their karbovantzy, or coupons. Recalling that in Russia itself the inflation rate at that time was about 10 percent per month -- not per year -- one can only imagine what a miserable state Ukrainian money was in, where the ruble was regarded as a hard currency.
The Ukrainian economic picture was a hellish combination of Soviet-era shortages and post-Soviet inflated prices at the same time. Coming from Moscow, we felt like rich tourists on a jungle trip through a third-world shithole.
The train was empty, with cold winter winds howling in the corridors. There were three of us -- me, my wife and her best friend -- both very lovely and intelligent girls. We had a coupe for us only, with hardly any neighbors in sight. On the way back we spent much of the time making out together -- the nicest threesome I've ever had. Sometimes you can get fringe benefits in all the unexpected places.
Throughout much of the 90s Ukrainian political development to a large extent followed what happened in Russia -- with a time lag of a few years. The change in elite in the wake of the USSR breakup was less dramatic than in Russia with the advent of the Yeltsin era. The Communist Party secretary Leonid Kravchuk learned how to imitate the Ukrainian accent, a few nationalistic slogans, and became the first president of the "newly independent, democratic Ukraine." It should be mentioned though that Ukraine had one genuinely democratic transfer of power, suitable for any "normal" country -- in 1994, when the incumbent Kravchuk was defeated by Kuchma. It was a relatively clean, competitive election, where the two leading candidates had reasonably well-defined platforms, with clear differences between them. The opposition candidate won by a credible margin, and the transfer of power occurred promptly and orderly.
It went downhill from there. The next election, in 1999, repeated Yeltsin's 1996 reelection almost down to minute details. Yeltsin's camp in 1996 came up with a trick that can only be described as both brilliant and cynical. Faced with a strong leftist opposition, between the first and the second election round Yeltsin co-opted populist candidate Alexander Lebed, who came in third. Lebed was rewarded by Yeltsin by being given the post of National Security head, but after a few months he was forced to resign, and soon went into opposition. Kuchma -- never having much imagination of his own -- did precisely the same thing against the leftist opposition in 1999, where the spoiler role was played by a similar populist, Yevhen Marchuk, who, like Lebed, was offered a top post in the security apparatus.
But that was in the past. Surely the "new, democratic Ukraine," after the "Orange revolution" made a clean break from the past, with nothing resembling the reactionary, authoritarian ways of Russia, and instead is rapidly moving into the warm embraces of Western democracies, right? Well, now it is getting really interesting.
The first serious thing the new government is attempting seems to be the most sweeping revision of Kuchma-era privatizations. Compared to this revolutionary zeal, Putin's anti-oligarchic drive looks incredibly timid. After all, in his five years in power he crushed exactly three oligarchic empires, and made his first move (against Gusinsky) only after half a year in power. The last of these campaigns -- the Yukos affair -- is going for almost two years, with hardly an end in sight. Ukrainian revolutionary justice is much speedier: the court already ruled invalid the privatization of Krivorozhstal, belonging largely to Rinat Akhmetov of Donetsk -- the main proponent of the Yanukovich clan, as well as Kuchma's son-in-law Pinchuk. Putin's Chekist prosecutors should be put to shame -- such tardiness and sloth!
The next big target already drawn is the Black Sea Maritime holding in Odessa, which is charged with "failure to implement the investment program" which was a part of the privatization deal. The wording is almost identical to the accusations against Khodorkovsky's Group Menatep in the Apatit privatization case -- as if it was written by the same prosecutors.
Of course, as it happens in such circumstances, some "privatization abuses" are more amenable than others. For example, among the companies on the "re-privatization list" circulating in the Ukrainian corridors of power, there is a curious absence of those belonging to the Poroshenko clan -- one of the oligarchs very close to the Yushchenko camp.
Had this happened in Russia, you would not find any Western media outlets not screaming about "return to the Soviet past," and "total destruction of property rights" by the "brutal dictatorial regime of KGB operatives." But this is "democratic, Western-oriented Ukraine," where there are no such things, only remediation of terrible abuses of power by former "corrupt Soviet-era apparatchiks and criminals."
There is a Ukrainian news program I watch in the US on the Russian-language cable channel. The style of news reporting is almost identical to the Russian state news. It is already quite loyal to the new powers, and, aside from the occasional intrusion of spoken Ukrainian, it is pretty hard to distinguish it from Russian newscasts. It is a bit livelier -- for example, there are no boring segments of Putin meeting cabinet ministers. Still, judging by how things are progressing, this won't be long in coming.
Remember how Putin was crushing democracy recently by eliminating elections of provincial governors? It turns out Ukraine (as well as Poland, and scores of other states in the "new" and "old" Europe) had this system all along. The leaders of these countries already have the right to nominate and fire governors, because there are no elections for governors in Ukraine. Is Yushchenko going to move in the opposite, "democratic" direction? Does not seem likely. In fact, he is very busy filling the governor posts with his loyalists, as he has already moved to fire scores of governors in regions that were not loyal to him during the elections.
Isn't it ironic: after the "steady erosion of democracy" in Russia and the "new, democratic chapter of Ukraine's history" the political structure and economic policies of Russia and Ukraine look more similar than ever!
What was that catchy phrase about oranges -- "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away -- a man is not a piece of fruit" -- from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman? Such a pity -- he just died a few days ago. We'll probably need some more orange metaphors soon -- and it seems there will be quite some squeezing and peeling a-coming -- to watch for fun and profit.