ACTON, MA -- You have to hand it to Ukraine at least it's way better off than Iraq. The latter, six months after elections and pressed by American occupiers, cobbled together a "coalition government" an artificial and ultimately ineffectual group. If they're lucky they will perhaps at best slow down Iraq's descent into a horrible orgy of butchering and kidnappings which have been unfolding there since the beginning of this year.
In Ukraine, just barely three months after election, there is (almost) a new governing coalition formed the same Yushchenko-Tymoshenko duo, take two. Almost, as I said as of the time I'm writing this article, the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament) just finished a session in a local movie theater at half-strength, because its regular auditorium was blocked by opposition deputies from the Party of Regions (the opposition party of Victor Yanukovich).
Yushchenko-Tymoshenko is not an friendly alliance, despite both parties' "democratic" credentials. The "Hurricane Yulia" Tymoshenko was the Prime Minister right after the "Orange Revolution" until bitterly falling out with Yushchenko's people in September 2005. She had a particularly nasty feud with the wily Peter Poroshenko, one of the Ukraine's richest oligarchs and Yushchenko's chief supporter and sponsor. Now Poroshenko is slated to be the Rada speaker. It'll be fun keeping track of how long these predators with big claws can hold it together. Right from the beginning of her first run as prime minister, Tymoshenko pushed radical populist policies which threw the economy into chaos and pushed many investors to run for the exits. She was replaced last year by a steady if uninspiring Russian-born pragmatist Yuri Yekhanurov, who has remained the acting PM in the last few months. Unlike Yulia he didn't do much, but at least he didn't cause much damage either.
Most of the Western media depicts the political landscape in the Ukraine as two radically distinct parts: the pro-Russian south-east, and the pro-western center and north-east. This picture is not only inaccurate, but totally useless in understanding the current situation. Actually Ukraine has at least three distinct parts. President Yushchenko has a solid base of support only in the extreme western edge of the country, the parts which in the old days belonged to Poland or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His party can be called pro-western but in fact it is nationalistic in the narrow, parochial sense, like true village hicks from those innumerable Eastern European regions, one always confuses with one another, dating back to various Ottoman and Habsburg conquests. They simply want their territory to be a rural, provincial backwater of the EU, nothing more. To suck from Brussels' financial teat, hide under Washington's security umbrella, and entertain rich Western tourists with their folk dances, their vyshiv-anki and sharovary clothes. If the rest of the country completely loses what little remains of its industry and science, or even if it sinks into the Black Sea, so be it.
Yulia Tymoshenko's party, BYT, is quite different. It occupies the center of the country Kiev itself and all those steppes and forests around it. They are also Ukrainian nationalists, but of a different kind, not easily categorized. They are of the "Greater Ukraine" type, although they don't actually use these words. It is a zany combination of pan-Slavic imperial dreams, of which Kiev would become a new unifying center, restoring the "Kievan Rus" of the 11th century glory, plus all kinds of social populism and dema-goguery. They don't have problems with Russia per se; they just don't want to play second fiddle to Moscow. The BYT is far more popular than the "Our Ukraine" party and if new elections were held again soon, it would expand further into Yushchenko's electoral territory.
Then there is the Party of Ukraine's Regions, the opposition from the russo-phonic industrial heartland. It actually came first in the March elections, with one third of total votes (Yushchenko's party got just 14%). It is considered pro-Russian, but first of all it is a party of industrial oligarchs and plutocrats, playing their own game. Ironically, on many economic issues they are closer to Yushchenko's rather than to Tymoshenko's party and could more easily find a common language on dividing Ukraine's spoils between them than they could with the unpredictable Yulia (one could recall that both Yushchenko and Yanukovich were at one time Prime-Ministers under President Kuchma, and their policies differed fairly little). But Regions and "Our Ukraine" would never agree on the main divisive issue NATO and the role of the Russian language.
For Yushchenko's NSNU ("Our Ukraine") party this seems to be the last stand. His personal popularity is at the all-time low, less than 5% by most estimates, resembling Yeltsin's circa 1994-5. Very little remains of his charisma of the winter of 2004-5, during the standoff on Maidan. If the coalition fails and new elections are called, he'd be lucky to get a seat in the Rada. It seems that Yuschenko now has pretty much given up on any serious economic or structural reforms and is desperately pursuing two main agendas: the ukrainization of all spoken and written language, and NATO membership.
Both of these goals put them at odds with solid majority of the Ukraine's citizens. Far more of them consider Russian to be their first language than Ukrainian, and this despite attempts at ukrainization since the USSR's breakup. As for the NATO membership, the idea has support of just 12-15% of the population and that's dropping, while some 60% is firmly against it. Even among Yushchenko's base it has only lukewarm support, while all the southeast is completely against it. If put to vote in an honest referendum, NATO membership does not stand a chance.
And yet this is exactly what is almost fanatically pushed by Yushchenko's party, encouraged by Washington's neocons. The opposition is also firming quickly. Last May, vigorous anti-NATO protests erupted in Crimea when a small delegation of US military came in preparation of the annual "Sea Breeze" maneuvers. Previously these exercises never attracted much attention. This time Americans were blocked in the Black Sea resort, while the crowd outside the gates chanted "Yankees go home!" and other slogans. On June 6, members of Crimean Legislative Assembly proclaimed the peninsula "NATO-free territory," prohibiting transportation of the alliance's military equipment. The planned maneuvers collapsed completely.
Most of the protesters were local, but some Russians also came loosely organized in the manner of the antiglob-alist movements. Ukrainian police and secret services tried to arrest and deport them. Then it turned really ugly. One activist, Yuri Khadartsev of the ZUBR (For Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Russia) movement, was killed by two shots in the head on June 8. A suspect was arrested, but very little is known further in this case. Needless to say, this news wasn't reported by the Western media at all. Had an "Orange" activist been killed in Moscow, we'd see headings like "Another political activist is murdered in Russia," and "Democratic politician from Ukraine is brutally killed in Moscow," with unsubtle allusions to the rise of neo-Stalinism, splattered all over the newspapers.
It wasn't the last of the killings that week. On the same day that Khadartsev got whacked, a member of the Nezhin city council from Yulia Timoshenko's (BYT) party, Grigory Potilchak, was killed by two shots to the head. And a member of Zaporozhye city council from the BYT faction, Viktor Savkin, was killed in the presence of his 13-year daughter on June 10 in Yalta. Such are the realities of the Ukrainian politics today.
In the meantime, Russia and Ukraine remain culturally as close as ever, despite all the shenanigans that're going on between them. Most Russian soccer fans closely follow and cheer the Ukraine's team at the World Cup now (because the Russian team itself was so bad, it didn't make the Cup at all). New Russian movies and TV shows are viewed all over Ukraine. The hugely popular 10-part TV series Master and Margarita, based on Bulgakov's famous book, were watched and discussed in Ukraine last winter as passionately as in Russia itself. Ukrainian pop and rock groups have very lucrative pickings on their Russian tours, including the overtly nationalistic Ruslana babe, the 2004 Eurovision winner.
But politics is hardening and getting further polarized, especially since the March elections. And now there is another big event looming on the horizon the second round of the "gas war" related to the price of natural gas exports from Russia to Ukraine and transit further to Europe.
The first round (see my earlier article http://www.exile.ru/2005-December-28/gas_attack_the_ukraine_gives_itself_indigestionby.html) was resolved unexpectedly quickly in the first days of January, after Gazprom cut its exports to Ukraine for a few days, and Ukraine itself cut gas transit to Europe. But it was only a temporary compromise, valid for half a year. Now in July a new series of negotiations are coming up, and Ukraine faces even more price hikes. Its economy is already feeling the pinch, and it's piling up billions of dollars of debt to Gazprom. It is very likely that after July the gas price for Ukraine will become higher still.
Three months passed since the parliamentary elections, and things are not getting any clearer, or any better. The show must go on. The show that is Ukraine, that is.