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Gogol Haunts the New Ukraine

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Efrem Lukatsky/AP Images; Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters
At left, Viktor Yanukovych greeting supporters at a campaign rally in Kiev on February 5, 2010, two days before he won the presidential election; at right, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko challenging the election results in court, February 19, 2010

Viktor Yanukovych, seen five years ago as the vote-stealing villain of the Orange Revolution, was elected president of Ukraine on February 7. The incumbent president, Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the mass protests demanding fair elections in 2004, had already been eliminated in the first round three weeks earlier. This left Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to represent those who had won the right to a working democracy. Despite a strenuous campaign for the presidency, she received only 45.5 percent to Yanukovych’s 49 percent, with 4.5 percent voting against both candidates.1 How to account for this dramatic reversal of heroes and villains, and for the democratic return of a man who himself rejected democracy? Ukrainian politics is full of the courageous and the grotesque, and it is no easy task to tell the difference.

The best guide to the careers of Yanukovych, Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko is Nikolai Gogol, who brought the absurd to Russian literature. In his short story “The Nose,” a barber finds the nose of one of his clients in his breakfast roll. The severed nose then takes on a life and an identity of its own. In Ukrainian politics, the disfigured face is that of outgoing President Yushchenko. During the previous presidential election campaign, he survived what could have been a fatal dose of dioxin, and fought the rest of the campaign and then served as president with his face covered with horrible lesions from the poisoning. During his term, European specialists observed the slow purge of the dioxin from his body.2

With time, however, this face of courage became the face of failure. Even as Yushchenko slowly regained his physical strength, his political strength faded. What energy remained he devoted to feuding with his former ally, Tymoshenko. Repeating the mistake of every president before him, he created an institution that duplicated the functions of the government, and then fought with Tymoshenko over questions of who would be responsible for which functions.

Tymoshenko, the “queen of the revolution” five years ago, is best known for the traditional Ukrainian braid in which she wears her long blond hair. She presents herself as the only real man in Ukrainian politics, but also as trustworthy because she is feminine. When Yanukovych refused to debate her, she said (reasonably enough) that she could smell his fear. During the electoral campaign, the braid was to be seen resting on a white tiger in posters; on election day, it was just visible above the hood of the long white fur coat that Tymoshenko wore to vote in her home city of Dnipropetrovsk. She ran for president from a seemingly hopeless position, as the sitting prime minister of a country whose economy had shrunk by 15 percent in the previous year. Even though she lost to Yanukovych, she confirmed her position as Ukraine’s most energetic politician.3

Despite running as an incumbent during an economic collapse, she almost won the election. In an American-style electoral-vote system with a bonus for winning regions, she would have won, since she received more votes than Yanukovych in most parts of the country. In a typical display of tactical bombast, she initially refused to recognize the results and filed a protest in court. Though she has since then withdrawn that judicial challenge, she maintains that Yanukovych rigged the vote. In the end, her protest served to illustrate just how close the election actually was. Since the difference between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko in the second round was 3.5 percent, with 4.5 percent of voters voting against both candidates, more people voted against Yanukovych than for him.

The Gogolian parts of Viktor Yanukovych’s body are his hands, which used to steal fur coats and beat people up. As a teenage member of a local gang—he grew up near Yenakiieve, a city in the Donetsk region of southeastern Ukraine—he was imprisoned for theft in 1967 and for assault and battery in 1970. These are hands that are not comfortable with pen and paper. In 2004, while registering for his first run for president, Yanukovych misspelled his place of birth, his home region, the institute of higher learning where he earned his degree, and, unforgettably, his most recent academic distinction: the title of “proffessor.”4

Between then and now, the hands were the part of Yanukovych that most visibly changed. Under the tutelage of the American political consultant Paul J. Manafort, Yanukovych has become artful in speaking with his hands. He has never shown himself able to answer questions about matters of policy in the conventional oral fashion, and still cannot. But the hands now inscribe lovely arcs, form pyramids, and reveal open palms. The gestures hardly ever bear any relationship to what Yanukovych is saying, but they are pleasant to watch. If you put your own hands over your ears, or turn off the sound of the television, you can get the message: this is a modern man, a sophisticated man, someone who knows how to communicate, someone who can be trusted.

In Ukrainian discussions of electoral fraud, “dead souls” is a term of art. In Gogol’s novel of that title, the hero travels about the Russian Empire, acquiring ownership rights to deceased serfs.5 In the Russian Empire, serfs were counted as “souls,” and the protagonist’s plan was to acquire the documented rights to so many “dead souls” that he would appear to be wealthy. In Ukrainian elections, deceased people on the electoral rolls who somehow manage to enter a vote are called dead souls. In 2004, Yanukovych’s team raised electoral fraud to an entirely new level. Rather than counting on the votes of the dead, they invented more than a million people who never existed. As the returns came in to the Central Electoral Commission by e-mail, Yanukovych’s team improved them by adding votes.

Yanukovych has never admitted to any wrongdoing, and maintains to this day that those elections were fair, and that the subsequent round in which he lost to Yushchenko was illegal.6 Although Tymoshenko claims that Yanukovych once again stole the presidential election in 2010, this seems unlikely to be true. Since Yushchenko was president and Tymoshenko was prime minister during the elections, Yanukovych was running without access to any nationwide executive authority. This time, unlike in 2004, the exit polls matched the vote counts closely. And unlike back then, Yanukovych knew from preelection polling that he could win without cheating. The International Election Observers Mission has praised “an impressive display of democratic elections.”7

Tymoshenko said after the first round that “Ukraine is a democratic European country, which means that Yanukovych, who supports criminal circles, has no chance.”8 But that is not how democracy works. Despite his record, Yanukovych can indeed be elected president in free elections. Many of his voters actually saw him as the lesser evil, preferring his soporific rhetoric to the authoritarian tendencies of Tymoshenko, who identifies herself with the Ukrainian nation as such and treats political opponents as enemies to be purged from political life. Of the two of them, it is Tymoshenko rather than Yanukovych who today draws more comparisons to Vladimir Putin.

After declaring victory, Yanukovych called upon Tymoshenko to resign from the office of prime minister. But under the Ukrainian political system he cannot simply dismiss her. A lasting gain of the Orange Revolution, in addition to its confirming the democratic process, was the weakening of the office of the president, who no longer enjoys total executive power.9 Today a president can only name a government if parliament accepts it, which means that Yanukovych must assemble a parliamentary majority behind his slate. So while the head of Yanukovych’s election staff calls Tymoshenko “totalitarian,” the deputy leader of his Party of Regions is aware of the difficulty: “How can you name a new government when you don’t have a coalition?”10 In order to get rid of Tymoshenko, Yanukovych may have to resort to new parliamentary elections, which his party could lose. These are the first presidential elections under the new constitutional arrangement, and it will take time for the dust to settle. Yanukovych’s chances of making a dashing entrance to power are zero.

Yanukovych’s ability to repair the Ukrainian economy is similarly limited. He ran on promises to increase government expenditure on pensions and other welfare measures. Ukraine, highly dependent upon International Monetary Fund loans, recently lost access to a major bailout package because of its failure to meet budgetary targets. Tymoshenko, who as prime minister is responsible for this state of affairs, perhaps had little choice at a time of crushing economic depression than to borrow from abroad and redistribute at home. Yanukovych seems to have few other ideas himself.

Now Yanukovych faces a basic choice. Will he do the easy thing and simply allow economic policy to drift in the directions that his backers prefer? Just as he was five years ago, Yanukovych is closely associated with a few extremely rich men from southeastern Ukraine, all of whom have interests that they would like now to see advanced. The billionaire steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, Yanukovych’s longtime ally and a parliamentary deputy from his Party of Regions, would like to take part in the privatization of Ukraine’s electricity sector. Another billionaire, Dmytro Firtash, would like to regain his dominant position in the transportation of natural gas from Russia, which he lost under Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.11

Yuri Lutsenko, the minister of internal affairs, warns of an “illegal privatization of the country” under Yanukovych. On the other hand, the oligarchs are less wealthy and confident than they were before the financial crisis, and may have learned from the Orange Revolution not to flaunt money to show their power. Adrian Karatnycky, a well-informed observer, goes so far as to claim that “the oligarchs around Mr. Yanukovych became economically transparent”—i.e., accepted Western models of accountancy and management—and see their future in “Ukraine’s eventual integration into the rich EU market.”12

That is possible. The fundamental question here, for any Ukrainian concerned about relations with the EU, is the establishment of the rule of law. Gogol identified the problem in his comic play The Government Inspector : the state is too weak to be predictable, but strong enough to be arbitrary. Yushchenko came to power five years ago with the promise to end corruption in Ukraine, but can claim success only in a few individual cases. According to Transparency International, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, tied for 146th place (out of 180) with countries such as Zimbabwe and Ecuador.

Because the office of the president is not very strong, and because Yanukovych is a client of industrialists, Ukraine is an unlikely candidate for the solution to corruption chosen by Vladimir Putin in Russia: to break the oligarchs—or some of them—by force and then declare a victory for law. Without reducing corruption, this has made Russia an authoritarian state. Russia, as it happens, is also tied for 146th in the Transparency International index. There is only one way to govern Ukraine today: close tax loopholes, tax oligarchs, give a tax break to the middle classes so that small businesses can emerge from underground, and above all ensure that the enforcement of tax laws is fair. It is just thinkable that Yanukovych could appeal to the reason and the long-term interests of the leaders of Ukrainian industry and enlist their support in a campaign for the rule of law. Ukraine is like Europe in its democracy and like Russia in its corruption; more than anything else, it is corruption and the absence of legal predictability that keep it out of the European Union.

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Mike King

Yanukovych’s origins, his career in the southeastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk, and his populist endorsement of Russian as a second state language for Ukraine sometimes lead commentators to question his commitment to Ukrainian independence. But the very closeness of his connections to the Ukrainian business oligarchy makes any move toward economic or political union with Russia unlikely. In fact, whatever course Yanukovych and his oligarchic supporters choose, they will seek to maintain the independence of the Ukrainian state. A Ukrainian oligarch such as Akhmetov has no reason to expose his steel-based economic empire to competition from Russian businessmen or scrutiny from the Russian police.

Yanukovych did not become president of Ukraine in order to cede his authority to the Kremlin over questions such as transit fees for Russian natural gas and basing rights for the Russian Black Sea Fleet at the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol. He is a tough man, and perhaps psychically better equipped than Yushchenko for five years of bruising encounters with the Kremlin. During the campaign Tymoshenko spoke Ukrainian and Yanukovych chiefly Russian, which served to emphasize Tymoshenko’s more European orientation. But while Yanukovych stressed the need for improved relations with Russia and for preservation of the Russian language in Ukraine, this says little about his identity or the kind of foreign policy he envisages.

Ukraine is an essentially bilingual country, with monolingual fringes of Ukrainian speakers in the west and Russian speakers in the south and southeast (particularly in the Crimean peninsula, which was added by decree to Soviet Ukraine in 1954). As Yanukovych’s supporters will soon learn, his proposal to add Russian to Ukrainian as a second state language would require an unattainable majority in the Ukrainian parliament. Yanukovych himself is likely to speak more and better Ukrainian in the future. As other Russian-speaking politicians (including Tymoshenko, also from the southeast) have found before him, the Ukrainian language is a way to distinguish high office in Ukraine from high office elsewhere, and distinction is something that heads of state like to have. Once he is installed in Kiev, Yanukovych will be surrounded by an educated population that, while it speaks Russian, regards Ukrainian as the language of politics and high culture.

Ukrainian and Russian culture are permanently entangled. Fyodr Dostoevsky said of Russian literature, “We have all come out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’”; but Gogol himself came from Ukraine. (The Poltava region where Gogol was from—he was born in the village of Velyki Sorochyntsi in 1809—went for Tymoshenko in the recent election, and five years ago for Yushchenko.) The high culture of the Russian Empire owed much to Ukraine (known then also as South Russia or Little Russia), which for centuries had better educational institutions and a larger educated elite than Russia proper. Gogol was one of thousands of people from Ukraine who supplied the Russian Empire with professionals, bureaucrats, and writers. It was late in the nineteenth century that the direction of influence reversed, and Russian imperial officials began to regard the Ukrainian language as something to be suppressed. Then a Ukrainian national movement sought to distinguish itself from the Russian high culture that previous generations had helped to create.

During the Soviet period, Ukrainian culture was always regarded as distinct, even as Russian became the standard language among educated people in most of the country. The exception was the Ukrainian-speaking far west, which was annexed to the Soviet Union from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania as a result of World War II.

During the Orange Revolution, Vladimir Putin conflated speakers of Russian with Russians; this is a mistake that Moscow will no longer make, even if Western journalists sometimes still do. Putin’s support for Yanukovych in 2004 was outspoken and arrogant; this time it was all but indiscernible, so much so that relations between the two men are said to be troubled.13 Putin is glad to see Yushchenko go: his victory last time was too clearly Putin’s defeat, and his emphasis on the need to remember the evils of Stalin struck too close to home. Putin and Dmitri Medvedev expressed their willingness to work with either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko.

Yanukovych will almost certainly try to steer a course between Russia and the Western powers, using the one against the other. He rejects NATO membership for Ukraine, which Yushchenko supported. This means little: a very large majority of the Ukrainian population has opposed joining the alliance ever since the United States invaded Iraq.

Yanukovych has also promised to recognize South Ossetia, the Russian puppet state created after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. It seems unlikely that he will do this, since Ukraine, like Georgia, is Russia’s neighbor, and it makes little sense to endorse territorial changes created by force. Even Belarus has not done so. Barring such a strong signal, it would be best to understand Yanukovych’s emphasis on the Russian language as designed for domestic rather than geopolitical use, and to make sure that he has an option to collaborate with the West should he wish to pursue such a path.

Gogol’s grotesque humor was meant to lead the reader, unawares, to the question of social injustice. In “The Overcoat,” Dead Souls, The Government Inspector, and “The Nose,” he ridiculed ostentation to reveal the everyday pain created by inequality. It is here, in the poverty visible in southeastern Ukraine, that one can see the source of Yanukovych’s popularity. His childhood as an orphan, his working-class origins, and his spotty education make him “one of us” to millions of people in industrial southeastern Ukraine. That he could not fill out a form in proper Ukrainian makes him sympathetic to many people in his home region of Donetsk, who are frustrated by similar experiences on a regular basis. When he mispronounces Ukrainian vowels and misuses Ukrainian phrases, he is doing so in a way that is characteristic of millions of Ukrainians, his people.

Post-Soviet Ukraine, like the Soviet Union, allows for astonishingly rapid social advance. It was quite normal in the USSR for people who could not write to rise to positions of immense power. Nikita Khrushchev, who was also a worker in the Donetsk region, also had great problems with the written language. Now Yanukovych has reached the heights of power, and he has overcome whatever shame he might have felt at the fact and manner of his earlier defeat. Something similar could be said of his longtime ally, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

In Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” a humble and honest man scrimps and saves to buy a warm fur coat, which is then promptly stolen, leaving him to fall ill and die. Yanukovych once stole coats, and once stole votes. Though now he buys ostrich-leather shoes and wins elections, he knows what poverty and corruption mean. There is a chance, even if a small one, that Yanukovych will use his contacts with business, and the particular advantages of his upbringing, to address the basic problem that keeps Ukrainians in frustration and poverty not only in the southeast but throughout the country: the absence of the rule of law. This is where European and American attention should be focused. What, after all, can the US teach Ukraine about democracy? Sixty-nine percent of the Ukrainian electorate went to the polls in freezing temperatures to choose between very flawed candidates; in 2008, 63 percent of eligible Americans chose to vote.

The United States can seek to support some of the thousands of remarkable individuals—lawyers, educators, journalists, and scientists among them—and small nongovernmental organizations that still struggle to give Ukrainian democracy the content of a civil society under the law. The EU can make clear that membership is a future possibility for Ukraine, and try to specify improvements in the rule of law that would lead to measurable rewards from the EU along the way—for example, greater access to EU markets and easier travel to EU member states. Should Yanukovych wish to address the deeper problems of the people who elected him, the West should be prepared to support him.

—February 25, 2010

  1. 1

    Timothy Garton Ash and I described the Orange Revolution in The New York Review, April 28, 2005. Further footnotes appear in the Web version of this article at www.nybooks.com.

  2. 2

    O. Sorg et al. “2, 3, 7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) Poisoning in Victor Yushchenko: Identification and Measurement of TCDD Metabolites,” The Lancet, Vol. 374, No. 9696 (October 3, 2009).

  3. 3

    The political scientist Lucan Way was quick with a similar analysis in “The Ukrainian Election: Tymoshenko’s Strong Showing,” his February 9, 2010, post on the University of Toronto’s Ukraine 2010 Election Watch blog.

  4. 4

    The offending document was reproduced in Ukraïns’ka Pravda, September 21, 2004.

  5. 5

    The translation of Dead Souls by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is excellent (Pantheon, 1996; Everyman’s Library, 2004).

  6. 6

    For a good account of the period, see Serhy Yekelchyk, Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 193–227.

  7. 7

    Yanukovych Apparent Winner in Ukrainian Vote,” The New York Times, February 8, 2010.

  8. 8

    Kanal 5, January 17, 2010.

  9. 9

    For analysis of the weaknesses of the previous system, see Paul D’Anieri, Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics, and Institutional Design (M.E. Sharpe, 2007).

  10. 10

    Quotations from Mykola Azarov and Hanna Herman in Den’ (Kiev), February 12, 2010.

  11. 11

    Serhiy Leshchenko, “Viktor Yanukovych zibrav oliharkhichnyi banket,” Ukraïns’ka Pravda, February 12, 2010.

  12. 12

    See Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, February 5–12, 2010; and Adrian Karatnycky, “Re-Introducing Viktor Yanukovych,” The Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2010.

  13. 13

    Yanukovych cannot be especially pleased to be called a “demagogue” and an “eternal loser” by Modest Kolerov, once the head of an office designed to improve relations between Russia and its neighbors. See Russkii Zhurnal, February 8, 2010.

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