Ukraine at a Crossroads

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | Contemporary Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Ukraine at a Crossroads


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, Contemporary Review


UKRAINIANS have never seemed to rest since the Orange Revolution ended with the election of President Viktor Yushchenko in November 2004. The parliamentary election in March 2006 caused another upset as Yushchenko's opponent, Viktor Yanukovich (Yanukovych) became Prime Minister.

The Ukrainians are a peculiar case, with elements of Western political culture mixed with a heavy influence of Ukraine's huge Eastern neighbour, Russia. Ukrainians are much more politically active and freer in expressing their grievances than Russians. They also seem to have a viable socialist Left of the European type which is practically nonexistent in Russia. Still, one can see a number of very similar features: deep political cynicism and the assumption of many Ukrainians, perhaps the majority, that changes would lead nowhere. This contradictory aspect of Ukrainian political culture became quite clear to me during my visit to Kiev, where I was born and which I visited for the first time after thirty years of absence.

Watching Ukrainian television shows how much freer Ukrainians are than Russians. The case of a slain journalist in which ex-president Kuchma was involved was discussed, as were the finances of President Yushchenko. Indeed, Ukrainian TV was quite critical of power, including that of Yushchenko. The press raised the question why Yushchenko's son had an extremely expensive car, and Yushchenko was compelled to respond and explain. This approach to Yushchenko by the media was in sharp contrast to the approach to Putin by Russia's mass media. On Russian TV Putin emerges only as a wise, implacable leader, and any discussion of his or his relatives or friends' financial deals is absolutely out of the question. The difference between Russian and Ukrainian political culture can be seen if you venture outside to Kiev's streets. One of the essential aspects of life in Kiev is the endless political activity--demonstrations, protests, etc.--that has become part of the political landscape. This makes the streets of Kiev quite different from those of Putin's Moscow, where political activity, either directly or indirectly disapproved of by the authorities, has practically ceased to exist. The social programmes of those who engage in protest are also different from what would be seen in Russia. One of the things that surprised me in Ukraine is that European Left-type ideology is still alive, whereas in Russia it is practically non-existent as a viable political force, with no sign of a vibrant Left.

The ideologies of the Ukrainian and Russian Left are also clearly different. The difference between the Ukrainian Left and Russian Communism, which is nothing but corporate nationalism, became apparent when I began to watch Ukrainian TV. On TV, I saw demonstrations of the Soiuz (Union) Party. Party representatives promulgated that the present regime starved the people, that the meagre salaries and pensions made survival impossible. Nothing was said about the mighty state that had been an essential aspect of Communist ideology in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. The members of Soiuz ignore this idea and promise to improve the life of the citizens. This ideology, free from nationalistic or imperial aspects, clearly makes Ukrainians different from Russians. In Russia I saw only the demonstrators of 'Red to Brown', for whom the imperial splendour of the USSR is often much more important than concern for the poor or socialism in general. The Ukraine Left exists not on the TV screen as virtual reality--in Russia life on TV has nothing to do with reality--but in real life.

One can easily find signs of the vibrant political life of the Left while walking around Kiev. At the headquarters of the Socialist party, a demonstration of ecologists was occurring. Nearby, I saw a Green Party demonstration for the removal of the minister who was responsible for the high price of sugar. Every time prices go up, they proclaim that the minister responsible should be removed, and they assert that the Orange Revolution was not the end of the revolutionary process but that the revolutions are just starting. …

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