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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

Post-Kuchma Times

Parallels of historical ambiguity
13 September, 2005 - 00:00
Sketch by Anatoly KAZANSKY from The Day’s archives

How new is the new government? How is it different from the previous one? Is it succeeding in keeping the promises given to Ukrainians on the Maidan twice, in the winter of 2005 and eight months later, on Independence Day? With the approaching official parliamentary election date, this subject is becoming especially topical. Not surprisingly, when experts answer these questions, they draw parallels to events of latter-day Ukrainian history. Their overall conclusion is that one cannot build the future without analyzing the past.

In the 15th year of Ukrainian independence it is perfectly safe to assume that none of the three governments that kept replacing each other over the years has succeeded in clearly defining what kind of Ukraine is being built and for whom. Is it for the people or for the “chosen few” from among the nomenklatura, who are no longer communist-oriented? If one were to draw historical parallels to the period after Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s rule, when the Cossack officers appeared to seek Ukrainian independence, but whose mercantile interests often contradicted state interests, the conclusion would be that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

For long centuries Ukraine was unable to achieve independence precisely because the people representing the elites sacrificed the main thing, the Ukrainian people’s historical destiny, in order to gain profit and property. A vivid example of this sacrifice is the recent years of “developed Kuchmism.”

However, the new Orange government, while successfully looking for scapegoats, prefers to keep silent about the crimes perpetrated in the upper echelons of the previous regime. Incidentally, to many who have closely followed the domestic policies it is still a mystery how Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, who had gained a considerable margin over Leonid Kuchma in the first round in 1994, lost the second one. Ukrainian history would have taken an altogether different course had Kravchuk won that year.

At one time we kept ourselves aloof from public condemnations of communism and the result was the Kuchma decade. Without extensive public analysis of the difficult consequences of Kuchmism that pose a threat to the future of the Ukrainian state, it is useless even to discuss the possibility of the new democratic government getting the situation under control and avoiding postcommunist relapses.

The impression is that someone during the Orange Revolution issued a political pardon to the former president, thereby providing him with incontrovertible guarantees of personal immunity that the current government has demonstratively kept for the past seven months. Does this transfer of power not remind you of another situation, in a different country? The only substantial difference is that for the transfer of power from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin in neighboring Russia it was necessary quickly to enact the existing project of the second war in Chechnya, whereas in the case of Ukraine it was the Orange Revolution. All these suspicions arise inadvertently and there may be increasingly convincing evidence of this if the economic condition of most Ukrainian families remains at the same scandalously low level, and when, instead of concrete political and economic reforms, only empty declarations will be offered.

A brief digression into our recent history shows that after Viktor Yushchenko’s victory events took a course strongly reminiscent of the year 1999. At the time, President Leonid Kuchma took office again and assured the Ukrainian public it now had an altogether different head of state. “Today I know better and in greater detail what must be done and how, and what shouldn’t be done. This confidence in my strength and possibilities, as well as in the strength and possibilities of the Ukrainian people, allows me to say that you will have a new president,” stressed Leonid Kuchma. President Yushchenko also made a number of promises, but instead of a new administrative style and actual changes in the Ukrainian state, we are seeing an increasingly clear image of his predecessor, except for the different wording of the promises that were made to the people.

Remarkably, had Leonid Kuchma been pressed by circumstances to place the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko team at the head of his government, the executive outcome would have produced a brilliant economic effect by the standards of the day, including a sharp increase in GDP. In this country, even in the absence of a president’s political will for actual reforms, it is necessary to implement all those hidden opportunities that have not been revealed over the previous years. Namely, it is necessary to get 50- 60% of the economy out of the “shadows.” Of course, Prime Minister Yushchenko’s team could not have carried out every plan. However, operating within the allowed format, he did succeed in substantially improving the Ukrainian economic situation.

Now that both Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko have carte blanche, without any pressure from Leonid Kuchma, the situation appears to have remained the same. Does this mean that the Ukrainian economy is struggling up the same road, with the same potholes, as it did in previous years?

The hard fact is that rich people have once again taken over political power in Ukraine, people who have long not been in direct contact with “little Ukrainian”, as defined by President Yushchenko at one time. These people are not shoved around on subway cars, trolley buses, or buses. With meager sums in their pockets as wages or pensions, they do not buy food at Ukrainian bazaars, where prices have tangibly increased since 2004. Perhaps misunderstandings between the people and government start with all those “big-time” Ukrainians (a status assumed by them for reasons best known to themselves) who fail to understand the small tragedies being experienced by ordinary Ukrainians.

Meanwhile, in the social and economic domains, the “neo-Kuchmist” policy is actually being continued. It takes very little to make people work in return for token pay in today’s Ukraine; it is enough to deny them an alternative. A truly free and self-sufficient individual will never agree to do a job that can eventually be remunerated only by “future” promises. Over the past couple of years, being gypped by the state, including bank savings and back wages (at times lasting for several years) has become a part of our daily life, so much so that a considerable number of our citizens have come to regard this as a matter of course.

Given the conditions of a complete legal vacuum and utter social vulnerability, any honest way to earn one’s living wage becomes a big problem for the overwhelming majority of the population. In order to deny an individual economic self-sufficiency, it is necessary to deny him the right to work. In this situation one is, of course, faced with a single choice between being pushed up against the brick wall and accepting any low-paying job (without any payment guarantees in the long run), or trying to artificially sustain one’s social status by refusing such offers and then eventually having to accept the former option, in the absence of any real offers. And so the only outcome of this real lack of alternative is that an individual completely loses the right of actual choice and is forced to accept the rules of an unfair game imposed from outside.

Thus, we approach the issue of defining the process of “social taming,” which began with Leonid Kuchma’s ascent to power, and which, regrettably, is continuing under Viktor Yushchenko. At present, this “social taming” means pushing the individual in society into an artificially created framework of a social tunnel without any light at the end, in which conditions any creative potential is subject to ruthless limitations, without any room for maneuvering on the part of the “social unit.” The shock of chronic poverty is, for most Ukrainian citizens, precisely that distracting moment when a person is constantly forced to plan his daily subsistence, all by himself, rather than trying to figure out how on earth s/he has received no part of the former civic property.

Given such escalating conditions, we will quickly turn into a territory of unpaid semi-slave labor that will be servicing developed countries, supplying them with production and technological services in return for token money, which services cost dozens of times more there. In time, a people harnessed and ruthlessly prodded by nomenklatura wagon drivers, loses not only its social bearings but also its ability to resist those who have “saddled” it against its will, and who keep exploiting it and using it as though it were a mute commodity.

Year after year, the state, on whose behalf the ruling nomenklatura clans are acting, has been estranging most of the Ukrainian population from managing their property by means of so-called privatization of public property (when every Ukrainian citizen was issued a certificate worth 10 hryvnias, allowing him to own some of this property, which no ordinary Ukrainian has ever seen and most likely will never see). The population was denied economic initiative, an actual opportunity to start a private business, the result being the estrangement of Ukrainian citizens from property and its being passed into the hands of the former Soviet and currently “new Ukrainian” nomenklatura. Of course, it is possible to counter that the new government is allegedly trying to help those who want to start a business to do so quickly. If this is indeed true, then why is the current leadership saying nothing about the fact that this is only half of the existing problem? Who canceled the boundless powers of the powerful punitive organs whose main task was to prevent “outsiders” from entering business and pushing out those who were already there?

However, no less dangerous is the replacement of the population’s moral reference points. Our fellow citizens, exhausted by daily hardships and wanting somehow to adjust themselves to the current harsh realities and to survive in the conditions of a postcivilized social space, often have to reach a compromise with their own conscience, something that would be unthinkable in conditions of a normally functioning society.

No matter what extraordinary achievements, seemingly pegged to the 14th anniversary of independence, the current government may declare, today, unfortunately, the realities of life in Ukraine are entirely different. Does President Yushchenko understand that going through the motions in the economic and social spheres is antagonizing the Ukrainian people against him and his team? The continuation of acute social stratification of Ukrainian society will undoubtedly spur the direct participants of the Orange Revolution and their supporters to bitter reflections. If life in Ukraine has become “better and happier,” as we are often assured when we watch and hear Orange Revolution people on television and radio programs, then why have we actually found living in Ukraine even harder? If the Ukrainian people are being pushed into yet another round of seeking of the lost past, Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency may well end with the same “achievements” as those of his predecessor.

By Viktor KASPRUK, political scientist