A Glimmer Of Hope In The Rubble

KIEV, Ukraine -- On Saturday morning, a gas explosion rocked a block of flats in eastern Dnipropetrovsk Region, claiming at least 13 lives as of Sunday evening. Many more were injured or left homeless, while rescuers continue to search the rubble for survivors.

Rescue workers looking at the remnants of an apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk, where thirteen people were killed in the natural gas explosion.

Ukrainian political leaders responded immediately with the usual public promises to punish the guilty and help the victims. And although the election season has already ended, the president, prime minister and top opposition candidate are jostling with each other to show everyone that they really are doing something.

Ukraine is no stranger to man-made catastrophes, holding world records to date in at least two categories - nuclear energy and air shows. Some scholars have argued that independent Ukraine was born of tragedy - the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. By revealing the Soviet authorities' technical incompetence and disregard for individual lives, the world's worst atomic accident set into motion the centrifugal forces of national determination.

It was only after the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution, that the country took on another reputation as a colorful arena for east-west political mud wrestling. In between, Chornobyl and the Orange Revolution, there were other tragedies, such as the grisly murder of journalists who dared to report on official corruption, and a string of military accidents that caused well over a hundred civilian deaths. But when tens of thousands of peaceful protesters filled the streets of Kyiv in the Orange Revolution to oppose abusive authority, the world saw a happy ending to all Ukraine's former tragedies. The country's Orange politicians, President Viktor Yushchenko and his first prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, represented a chance that something would be done to break the cynical cycle of corruption and disaster.

The democratic euphoria, however, soon wore off, as the Orange team fell prey to infighting. As the anti-Orange faction led by Viktor Yanukovych returned to power, together with its leftist allies, some saw this as the country’s latest tragedy. The fact that the resulting power struggle between Ukraine’s politicians sometimes looked more comical than tragic was not a complete break with the country's dark recent past. One could almost laugh recalling the time back in 2000, under former President Leonid Kuchma, when the Ukrainian military let a training missile level a block of flats outside Kyiv - if it hadn't been for the three people killed.

Saturday’s gas blast in Dnipropetrovsk was more mundane. It was a tragedy, nonetheless, albeit with a possible glimmer of hope.

In a clear break with Soviet tradition, the authorities have not played down the damage or withheld the details. Emergency Minister Nestor Shufrych rushed to the scene of the blast to provide meaningful information to the public on what had actually happened. Only months earlier, when a cargo train carrying yellow phosphorus derailed in Lviv Region, emitting a cloud of noxious gas over the surrounding countryside, Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk appeared on television to first invoke the Chornobyl disaster and then, a day later, tell locals that they could feel free to graze their livestock in the affected area. The result was confusion and fear.

Under Leonid Kuchma, the typical response of the authorities to disaster was immediately to announce threatening criminal cases and promise generous compensation to victims. Unfortunately, no one, at least at the top of the food chain, was ever charged, much less punished. If someone was fired, he was reappointed; while the average Ukrainian has enough trouble trying to get his state salary or pension, much less disaster compensation.

This time, Shufrych promised to determine the cause of the blast within a specific time frame and offered victims realistic temporary relief - Hr 500 ($100) in cash for food, shelter, etc. The sum is pathetic by Western standards, considering that many victims lost everything they had in the explosion, but its small size increases the likelihood that it will be paid and soon.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has additionally promised Hr 9 million in disaster relief. Considering that Yanukovych is not expected to be a part of the next coalition government, his arrival on the scene of the accident was also encouraging.

Ukrainian politicians appear to be getting the message that their electorate is increasingly demanding accountability. The last elections were a good example of a protest vote, which cost Yanukovych's coalition its majority, while suggesting that Yushchenko may not be re-elected in 2009.

President Yushchenko picked up on the political value of disasters in the summer, when he used a forest fire in southern Kherson Region as a pretext to play the hands-on hero. Diverting his aircraft to the scene of the blaze, Yushchenko took shovel in hand to show the people that he wasn't as indecisive and passive as they might think. Afterwards, the president blamed Shufrych for mishandling the firefighting and tried to pressure him into resigning in the run up to the snap elections.

The political benefits of this stunt for the president, however, were mixed, with the media suggesting that he should have shown more management skills than his ability to shovel dirt. So this time around, Yushchenko limited himself to ordering Yanukovych to determine the cause of the Dnipropetrovsk blast and come up with a relief plan.

As with the recent elections, in which she came out on top, opposition leader Tymoshenko seems to have measured the pulse of the nation the most accurately. Always the populist, she also came to meet with the victims of Ukraine’s latest tragedy in her home region of Dnipropetrovsk. Outdoing a pretty good performance by the outgoing Yanukovych government, Tymoshenko offered victims an even clearer solution: The homeless would be put up in new blocs of flats, either immediately or after temporary residence somewhere else. Around 400 people live in the house that was most directly affected by the blast. Tymoshenko’s ByuT faction has already set up an aid center in Dnipropetrovsk.

Election season or not, Ukrainian politicians appear keener than ever to win the hearts of their voters. With four general elections having been held in the country in the last three years, and at least one major one – the presidential elections – less than two years away, the country’s leaders cannot afford to ignore their increasingly demanding electorates. The Orange Revolution raised public hopes, and every election since then has been decided on just a few percentage points.

The people have grown tired of the usual campaign promises – all the more since the frequency of elections has increased. Besides real policy issues, on which most of the country’s politicians already agree – European integration, higher social benefits and end to lawmakers’ privileges – disasters are an excellent way for politicians to strut their stuff, as well as criticize their opponents.

Ukrainians already enjoy more freedoms and wealth than at any other time of their nation’s independence. But the country is a long way from the European ideal put to voters during the Orange Revolution. As political leaders continue to jostle for power in the legal nihilism that has emerged since 2004, public support becomes more important than ever, giving the average Ukrainian more leverage over the authorities.

Compelling reforms of the country’s tax system, judiciary and constitution may still be a long way off, but apparently so are the days of official indifference to public suffering. Justice and real compensation still have to be achieved, for example, in the 2002 Sknyliv air show disaster, the world’s worst ever; and Ukrainian coal miners continue to live a precarious existence. But at least now, Ukrainian politicians jump to their feet to show concern, when tragedy strikes. Even if the concern is temporary and for show, it represents a glimmer of hope amidst another tragedy.

Source: John Marone for Eurasia Home