There's A Crisis Here Somewhere - Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Arriving in Kiev on a swelteringly hot day last week, I went walking in the city centre. I found myself exchanging pleasantries with three burly black-clad commandos, sporting guns and truncheons, sitting in a four-wheel drive—and eating ice-cream.

Kiev's Independence Square

Like everyone else on Independence Square they were enjoying the cool gusts from the fountains. „It is too nice a day to talk about politics”, said one of them, smiling broadly. „Let's talk about women.”

I had hit upon a national holiday, when the favorite leisure activity among a fair proportion of the residents of Kiev seems to consist of wandering purposelessly along the city's main shopping street, Khreshchatik.

Stalls on the pavement were doing brisk trade in the usual (for Ukraine) tourist stuff: yellow and blue national flags, old Soviet red banners, and T-shirts emblazoned with the portraits of two bitter political rivals Yulia Tymoshenko, a populist opposition maverick known for her fiery rhetoric and plaited hair, and Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister.

Here at least there was no difference between them: either shirt could be had for 30 Hryvna ($6). One thing missing from the streets was any sign of the protracted political crisis—a power-struggle between president and parliament—that brought me to Kiev.

A few hundred meters from Independence Square the Ukrainian parliament was into its second month of turmoil; President Viktor Yushchenko, having tried to dissolve it in April, was reduced to issuing decrees that were being ignored by his own government; even the ice-cream-eating commandos had seemed on the brink of a violent clash with presidential guards just a few days before, after the president sacked the prosecutor-general.

Towards the end of 2004 Independence Square was a theatre of the Orange revolution that brought Yushchenko to power, beating out Yanukovich.

If the public mood has been a lot less troubled this time round, as the two have clashed again, that argues for two related explanations: first, Ukrainians have got at least temporarily bored with the whole circus of politics; and, second, they can afford to get bored, because the economy is steaming ahead.

There is plenty of food in the shops, new restaurants are springing up on every corner—and if you don't fancy shopping or eating, there are large shady parks giving cover from heat and politics alike.

The conversations I have been having strongly suggest that few Ukrainians are even trying to understand what is going on in their country any more.

And if they don't understand, what hope have I? One obvious thing I can do, coming in from Moscow, is to look for parallels with Russia. I can think back, for example, to that sunny afternoon in October 1993 when, after a long stand-off between President Boris Yeltsin and his parliament, Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire empty shells at the parliament building.

But the differences between this stand-off in Ukraine, and that stand-off in Russia, have been far more striking than any similarities.

First, nobody in Ukraine has seemed in the mood for violence. When troops loyal to Yushchenko drew close to Kiev recently they were stopped by traffic police loyal to Yanukovich.

They got out of their buses and proceeded on foot, unarmed. Second, the conflict in Russian reflected an ideological divide. Die-hard nationalists and communists, ready to hang Boris Yeltsin's team from the first tree, confronted an elected pro-Western president hostile to the Soviet legacy.

The conflict in Ukraine is a lot less straightforward—not least because it lacks heroes. It is not a fight between communists and capitalists. It is not even a fight between the Russian-speaking east and the Polish-comprehending west of Ukraine.

To call Yanukovich 'pro-Russian' and Yushchenko 'pro-Western' is no longer accurate: both are seeking closer ties with Europe, and neither wants to be back in Russia.

The situation in Ukraine is something closer to a plain (if not simple) power struggle over who will run the country, and how. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Ukraine had next to no experience of managing its own affairs.

Building a state was never going to be easy, and Ukraine made heavy weather of it. It evolved a style of politics that was all inside baseball, with no durable rules.

You might almost say that this crisis is to be welcomed, so long as it plays itself out within the political class, and so long as it leads to agreement on a few rules sufficient to stop something similar happening all over again.

Source: The Economist


Douglas said…
I was in Kiev as a tourist in early February (2007). What a beautiful city. I miss it.