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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Interview with John Herbst and the Ukrainian context

On the danger of talking about politics in black and white
16 January, 2014 - 10:16

An interview with former US ambassador (2003-06) to Ukraine John Herbst, published by Ukrainska Pravda, is rather remarkable. It has a lot of interesting observations, as well as some arguable points.

The ambassador, who held office during the Orange Revolution, notes quite accurately: “Now, there is the same reason for protests as there was before the Orange Revolution: a corrupted government, which causes discontent among people. Now, as well as back then, there is a strong opposition in Ukraine. Both now and then, the protests were provoked by a specific event. In 2004, it was a rigged election. Now it is Yanukovych’s decision to stop negotiations with the European Union.” On the other hand, Herbst points out: “the current events have obvious differences from the Orange Revolution. In 2004, the opposition prepared its actions, because it knew about the government’s plan to steal the election. Now the protests in the streets are an unplanned surprise. These protests are spontaneous, they remind more of the Arab Spring, rather than the Orange Revolution. In 2004, the opposition knew what they wanted to achieve in the result of the protests: a fair election and the rerun of the second round. But Maidan does not have such a clear goal.”

Also, it is impossible to disagree with the ambassador’s conclusion that “Yanukovych is weaker now than he was two months ago. Even despite the gift from Putin. A strong leader does not have thousands of people gathering every day to protest against his policy. Yanukovych has to offer something to Maidan to come back to the normal routine of running the country. And the opposition has to give Yanukovych space for a compromise, as it was in 2004. Meanwhile, the opposition is asking for the impossible, and Yanukovych decided that protest rallies would abate by themselves. This is a predictable tactics of his, because it is hard to keep people out in the streets. The Orange Revolution lasted for 17 days, from the beginning of the process until the moment when a compromise was reached. And now, almost two months have passed. The question is whether the opposition is ready to keep people out in the streets. If the opposition is capable of it and sets more realistic requirements, Yanukovych will be forced to make concessions. If not, he will wait until people disperse.”

The observations of the American ambassador about the incumbent president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and his main opponent in the 2010 election Yulia Tymoshenko are noteworthy as well. “When I was ambassador, I had meetings with him [Yanukovych, the leader of the opposition at the time. – Ed.] even more often than with Yushchenko. I met with Tymoshenko as often. Yes, Yanukovych is not an intellectual type. The same can be said about Tymoshenko, too. We did not meet up to discuss Immanuel Kant. But everyone agrees that Tymoshenko is smart. However, not everyone thinks the same of Yanukovych. He is smart in a sense that he had a vision of politics. We could talk about NATO, about the energy sector, about taxes. He did not clutch to a piece of paper with theses written on it. We used to talk like you and me now, about complicated things. Whilst people were laughing at him because they did not like him, and they were wrong,” Herbst says.

He also thinks that despite his unpopularity today, Yanukovych can win fair elections. “A year is a long time in politics. I was in Ukraine in January 2005, when people from Yanukovych’s entourage called him a person without future. But I told them, look, maybe you are right, but even after a defeat, Yanukovych carries out a campaign in the south and east, working with his voters. His career is not over yet. And he won the democratic elections in 2010.”

It is hard to disagree with all the assessments given above, but Herbst’s view of Leonid Kuchma’s actions as a president gives rise to serious doubts. He says that Kuchma “acted in a very clever and moral way in his last two or three months as president. He was under the pressure from Yanukovych’s environment, who wanted to break the resistance at Maidan. But he did not apply force and earned historic respect.”

All this shows that the Americans perceive what is going on in Ukraine in black and white and do not feel the context. It is very strange at the very least to talk about the morality of a person whose policy actually led the country into Maidan, since a lot of people in 2004 took to the streets not for Yushchenko, but against Kuchma. And on the other hand, the Americans know his value very well. At the NATO summit in Prague in 2002 the seating order was changed from English to French with the sole purpose to keep Kuchma away from the American president. And then at the Istanbul Summit in 2004, when Kyiv asked to provide MAP, it was the US who objected, because Ukraine was represented by Kuchma. And if we add the “tape scandal” and the Gongadze case to this... What historic respect can we talk about, really?

On the other hand, Ukraine also needs to grow up and stop calling for one or the other side’s help while trying to solve internal conflicts. Neither Brussels nor the US nor Russia will solve our problems for us. We can and we must settle them ourselves. But for that, of course, we must be consistent and look for new leaders who will set realistic goals and achieve them in legal ways.

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day