Ukraine: Diary of a Dissident Observer

Another year, another revolution – this time in Ukraine. First there was Albania (1996), then Serbia (00), followed in 2003 by Georgia’s "rose revolution." As though conceived by the same scriptwriter, they all fit the same fairy-tale pattern whereby a dictatorial regime tries to steal an election from the reforming, Western-orientated opposition. Western election observers cry foul, and the people’s indignation erupts on to the streets, followed by the quick collapse of the government. New elections are scheduled and won overwhelmingly by the opposition.

The schema is now so well developed that commentators had predicted for some time that Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election would be hijacked by a "chestnut revolution," so named to denote its autumn scheduling. One would have thought that the media might have begun to smell a rat – after all, who pays for all the paraphernalia that goes with a "spontaneous revolution": the round-the-clock rock concerts with their slick sound systems and free food, drink, and clothes? Five days into the protests in Kiev, the BBC’s Ben Brown was actually asked this question, but answer came there none.

So, what was going on in Ukraine? According to the received wisdom, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, an old Soviet throwback, won the presidential election in a run off held on Nov. 21, but only by massive voter fraud conveniently perpetrated by his supporters in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine. In the west of the country and in the capital Kiev, the challenger Viktor Yushchenko won overwhelmingly but was still 3 million votes short of absolute victory.

As Antiwar’s Justin Raimondo has pointed out, Viktor Yushchenko is not an exciting new face – he ran Ukraine’s national bank in the 1990s and was prime minister from 2000-01. Although beloved of the West, he is less popular at home, having presided over a massive decline in standard of living. His revolutionary sidekick, the lady oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko, also has a long pedigree. According to Matthew Brzezinski, “The U.S. government has evidence of wire transfers from her to Lazarenko personally while he was PM." Lazarenko has since been convicted of corruption. Their one-time patron is Leonid Kuchma, the country’s outgoing president once called "the Bismarck of Ukraine" by analyst James Sherr but who fell out of favor with the West by 2001. Yushchenko’s main opponent in the presidential poll, Viktor Yanukovich, was a regional boss from the east of the country. He promised to reintroduce Russian as a state language alongside Ukrainian and improve relations with Moscow, which inevitably led to accusations of resurgent Russian imperialism in the near abroad.

I observed both rounds of the election and have to say, not for the first time, that the fairy-tale version of events does not chime in with my own experiences. Perhaps a trawl through my observer’s diary will provide some surprising revelations about what went on in the latest explosion of "people power."

Thursday, Oct. 28: It’s my first visit to Ukraine for two years, and it’s immediately obvious that the capital Kiev has undergone a makeover. The shabby old place has been cleaned up; there’s no litter or graffiti in the streets. Old buildings are being restored. The shops sell clothes affordable to the locals, while food halls are bursting with (local) produce. How different from "reformed" capitals like Vilnius and Riga, where the outlets of European fashion houses charge astronomical prices and there are no customers. Statistics show that Ukraine’s economy has grown by 11% since Mr. Yanukovich’s government came to power and there has been a bumper harvest for 2004. It will be interesting to find out why, then, he should be so unpopular in the capital city.

A few stragglers in old Soviet uniforms loiter in the lobby of the Ukrainia hotel. Earlier in the day there had been a military parade, commemorating 60 years of Ukraine’s liberation from the Nazis, attended by Vladimir Putin. Yet another example of Moscow’s "interference" in the presidential election, according to critics.

Friday, Oct. 29: It’s time to visit the candidates’ campaign offices. There are 13 challengers for the presidency, but everyone knows that the race basically comes down to a battle between Yushchenko and Yanukovich. The latter’s headquarters are downtown in an old Soviet cinema where, two days before the poll, little seems to be going on. In fact, there’s no one about at all. Finally, a spokesman, Gennadi Korzh, appears to brief our group. Mr. Korzh begins by telling us that he would rather live next to the Alps than the Urals. He once worked with the OSCE in Nagorno Karabakh and, after reminiscing about "peace processes" past and present, he slams Russia’s policy in Chechnya! This comes as something of a surprise, as Mr. Yanukovich is supposed to be an ardent supporter of Moscow. Criticizing its policy in Chechnya is not the usual way to the Kremlin’s heart.

Korzh says that the government is fully aware that protests are likely to erupt if the election results in the "wrong" candidate winning – and, yes, the security services are prepared. He’s even up to speed on the activities of the student group Pora, pointing out that the authorities threw "advisors" from Serbia’s Otpor out of the country. However, he won’t accept that Georgia’s agitacni organization, Kmara, is in the same league – for Mr. Korzh, Georgia is different, less "European" than Serbia and Ukraine.

As we prepare to leave, Korzh offers more coffee and chat. But we are off to Mr. Yushchenko’s press office, an Internet café with a small conference room attached, in the trendier part of Kiev known as Podil, just down the road from Mikhail Bulgakov’s house. Oleg, a young activist, rehearses his woes. The media, apart from independent Channel 5 (which started conveniently in 2003), is totally subservient to the Yanukovich campaign and never shows their candidate. There will be massive fraud on polling day as the electoral registers are "full of mistakes." As he drones on, the other young activisti start to panic, bringing in posters and other electoral materials from the street. A pro-Yanukovich march is approaching the office and they’ve had bad experiences already with beatings, etc., from the prime minister’s supporters.

So, we go outside and await the confrontation. Several thousand badly dressed young people carrying blue flags pass by in an orderly fashion. There is no violence, barely a word uttered in anger. But do not be deceived, we are told, these people are shameless and they will stage "provocations" at the public meeting they are about to hold. So, we follow them to the meeting and, presto, nothing happens.

Saturday, Oct. 30: More meetings. This time with the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, a domestic observer group that is the local election watchdog. The organization exists exclusively on Western funding, so no surprises to see Kerry/Edwards stickers on the office walls as they are mainly backed by the American NDI. In a rare act of self-preservation, the Ukrainian government has refused to allow the group’s representatives to monitor inside polling stations aware, no doubt, of the mischief caused by the "independent" Fair Elections group in Georgia last year. Nevertheless, they intend to smuggle themselves in as "journalists."

Once again, we are told about the organizational shambles surrounding the election: people can’t find their polling stations, some are shut, and, of course, there are those unsatisfactory voter lists. My eyes drift up to a photograph of Madeleine Albright on a nearby book case. I wonder what she has to say about election fraud?

But now there is more excitement. We get news that journalists at "independent" Channel 5 are on hunger strike as the authorities have shut down the station. In fact, for a brief period of time, cable transmission to a few places in Ukraine stopped but has since resumed. In other words, it’s a storm in a tea cup. But that doesn’t stop the protesters. We join a gaggle of people at Channel 5’s offices waiting for permission to visit the beleaguered strikers. Among them is a lady diplomat from the Slovak embassy with two bearded journalists from Slovak TV. When she learns that we are international observers, their camera starts to whir as she demands to know about the "appalling" state of the electoral registers. It’s a good try, but election observers are not supposed to comment on the conduct of the poll until it’s over.

We are led through Channel 5’s sparkling new office suite to the strikers. They are all in their late teens and early twenties, wearing the orange regalia of the Yushchenko camp and clutching teddy bears and other furry animals donated by well-wishers. The Slovak diplomat rushes forward to offer support from one of the New Europe’s most craven members; we learn later that the Canadian ambassador has also been on the scene expressing "solidarity" with the strike. So much for the niceties of diplomatic behavior.

It gets even more bizarre. Aliona Matuzko, the PR director of Channel 5, isn’t on hunger strike, as the management realized that if they all refused food they wouldn’t be able to work! So they go on hunger strike in shifts – presumably in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She says that the channel’s broadcasting license was removed by court order on Oct. 13, but, despite living in Mr. Yanukovich’s Stalinist power house, they continue to broadcast, seemingly without any meaningful interference.

A journalist from Crimea joins in the conversation. Don’t we realize that Mr. Yushchenko has been poisoned by a government-administered bacteriological agent? We say we don’t know, although rumors that Mr. Yushchenko’s facial problems might be due to John Kerry-style botox injections that have gone wrong is an attractive hypothesis. Instead, we ask him if he thinks there have been economic improvements in Ukraine. It’s true, he says, but that’s all due to the opposition, not the government.

Sunday, Oct. 31: It’s election day at last and the sun is shining, which is good for turnout. I observe with a colleague in Kiev and then on to Zhitomir 80 miles west. Again, one is struck by the economic renaissance encountered on the way. Roads are good, and new houses are being built everywhere. Zhitomir itself, which a friend described as a terrible dump from previous visits, also appears to be thriving.

So far, we haven’t encountered any problems. Despite the warning from Madeleine Albright’s friends, all the polling stations seem to be open and functioning efficiently – there is none of the organizational mayhem of previous Ukrainian elections. Some election registers have been corrected between publication and polling day. However, most inaccuracies seem explicable, caused by faulty transliteration of names from Russian into Ukrainian. However, while visiting a polling station in the Music School in Zhitomir (where Sviatislav Richter studied), a thuggish fellow in a black leather jacket approaches to inform us that there are "hundreds" of people down at the local town hall, complaining about being left off the electoral rolls. He leaves the building with an associate in a large black BMW.

As he goes, the lady chairman of the polling station informs us that the OSCE has just passed through. OSCE observers inform the authorities of the exact time and place of their visit. In other words, troublemakers know in advance where to allege "fraud" and malpractice. Down at the town hall, about 40 people are milling around with a variety of complaints – one heavily pregnant woman doesn’t want to trail back to her village to vote. None seem particularly important and, anyway, an official is attending to each one of them and often giving permission to vote.

Back to Kiev, where we encounter two OSCE observers in the polling station where we will watch the count, which is tedious but problem-free. They haven’t seen anything wrong during the day and neither have our colleagues who ring in from Crimea, Yanukovich territory. I tell them that I will be surprised if the OSCE’s final report reflects their experiences.

Monday, Nov1: The next day, the OSCE comes down hard on the poll, as predicted, particularly on the voting in eastern Ukraine. We visit Mr. Korzh again and ask him whether the Yanukovich camp is going to counter with the serious allegations made by Russian observers of the conduct of the poll in the Yushchenko heartland, around Lviv and Ivano Frankivsk in the west. No, says Korzh, we don’t control that region! So much for the regime’s many-tentacled grip on power.

It has all been very strange. The government doesn’t seem to control anything much here. We have been watching the "biased" local television stations, which air interviews with politicians of all hues – on Saturday night, they even showed the strikers and their teddy bears at Channel 5. Mr. Yanukovich himself is almost invisible. So bewildered are we that we set out to interview journalists at a supposedly pro-government, Russian-language newspaper, Segodnya. Alexander Korchinsky starts out by recommending the views of the opposition-oriented, foreign-funded Committee of Ukrainian Voters! He and a colleague then proceed to tell us how they are obliged by law (unlike Channel 5) to be "objective" about the election; the paper has no bias toward any of the candidates.

It’s much the same story when we return for the runoff between the two Viktors on Nov. 21 – this time in and around the small town of Uzhgorod in western Ukraine. Mr. Yanukovich’s representatives here are tucked away in a dark street on the edge of town. Everything is fine, they say, and well conducted. They seem unaware of the storm that is brewing or of the harsh winds of change that are coming their way.

Meanwhile, the television is still spewing out its "biased" coverage, only this time (over a three-day period) we see no sign whatsoever of Mr. Yanukovich. They don’t even show him voting! We learn that the evil state television, UT1, regularly gives over its frequency after 10 p.m. to opposition TV ERA. On the night before the poll (during the supposed election silence), ERA broadcasts long interviews with "experts" detailing ways in which the election will be falsified. The talking heads are interposed with various local rock stars, celebs, and even the winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, Ruslana, urging people to go out and vote for "reform." They are all sporting ribbons, scarves, etc., in the opposition color, orange.

Again, the poll seems to be conducted properly. This is Yushchenko territory, and they are all voting for him here and for "Europe." They, too, accept that life has improved over the past two years, but that’s not good enough. They want it to be even better, and, by the way, what is the basic salary in England? A local election official hints that there has been pressure to vote for the opposition, something confirmed by a letter sent to me from Lvov, which states that people are "obliged to vote for Yushchenko or they are doomed, a traitor, venal and unemployed." Later, during the count in Uzhgorod, Mr. Yanukovich’s official observer tells me that his candidate will win the election but only by cheating! He himself is really a supporter of the opposition.

However, despite the high level of enthusiasm for Mr. Yushchenko in western Ukraine, the region is depopulated following 12 bitter years of economic reform. It’s even suggested that voting cards delivered for those living abroad have been used several times over to bump up the turnout. There are more people in the east with, in their eyes, more to lose by all Yushchenko’s talk of joining the EU and NATO, and they vote in large numbers for Mr. Yanukovich. The reaction, as predicted, is harsh. The OSCE slams the results and blames the Yanukovich camp for widespread fraud in the east of the country. Gradually the stage extras emerge with their orange outfits, rock concerts, and tremulous priests to express the "indignation of the people." For 10 days, a few thousand students and elderly people manage to bring the capital to a halt, buoyed by 24-hour drooling Western media coverage.

Where were the feared militia and secret police? Where, for that matter, were the neo-imperialist forces of Mr. Putin? We were told that elite Spetznatz formations were about to storm the demonstrations, but they never appeared. In fact, when negotiations finally brought the standoff to an end with the promise of fresh elections, it was the EU’s Javier Solana, not a representative from Moscow, who clinched the deal. Russia and Ukraine were united for over a thousand years; they are next-door neighbors, but it would be "imperialism" for Moscow to have a look in. It was Solana and his buddies, presidents Kwasniewski (Poland) and Adamkus (Lithuania) from the "New Europe" who provided the convenient fig leaf for Washington’s meddling, thus refuting the vain hope of some that, post-Iraq, the EU stands for some kind of independent foreign policy. In truth, they are all parasites and scroungers: the Euros looking to flood the place with hypermarkets selling European products while the U.S. gets a new NATO member with a naval base on the Black Sea and lots of cannon fodder for future wars.

So, why was it so easy to collapse a country that after 10 hard years had begun to improve the lives of its citizens? The truth is that, although the Yanukovich government was delivering the economic goods, it did not control the state organs of power, especially the security services and the police. And, as pointed out, the media was not really in the government’s hands. Undoubtedly, much money in the form of bribes, grants to "civil society," and scholarships abroad had been lavishly distributed, particularly in the capital Kiev. This only served to increase the average Kievan’s opinion of himself/herself as "cool" and a bit of an "intellectual," unlike the bumpkins to the east. Was there "massive cheating" in the east of the country? My colleagues who have been there doubt it. If there was, it was on no greater scale than the (ignored) malpractice in western Ukraine.

But there were also other, more unpleasant, elements associated with the opposition, like the paramilitary, anti-Semitic group UNSO, which originates in western Ukraine. In fact, anti-Semitism exhibited by some Ukrainians from the west of the country, and also in the diaspora that fled with the Nazis in 1944, is blatant. Web sites like the Ukrainian Archive deny the Holocaust and portray Jews like Eli Wiesel as rapists of "white" women. But despite its usual distaste for any manifestation of anti-Semitism, Washington isn’t worried. One Republican Party insider commentated that there wasn’t a problem; there is "no anti-Semitism in Ukraine."

As the bizarre events unfolded in Kiev and everything seemed to move in lock step – except for those evil imperialists in Moscow who were nowhere to be seen – one even began to wonder whether Mr. Yanukovich himself wasn’t part of the plot. In the odd, fleeting glimpse of the man who attracted "saturation" coverage from the local media, he always looked as though he was about to burst into tears. He wasn’t up to "cracking down" on anything, not even to shooing away the grungy students whose tents and garbage made getting around central Kiev so difficult. It was hardly the behavior of a responsible leader, let alone a tyrant. But then perhaps his role in the script was to be the mouse that didn’t roar, the specter at the feast.