Friday, December 17, 2004

The Ukraine Reality Show

Moscow Times, Thursday, December 16, 2004. Page 11.

By Boris Kagarlitsky

The state-run television channels were in hysterics reminiscent of the Cold War. Bewildered viewers discovered that next door in Ukraine, a coup was under way, allegedly planned by foreign secret service agents. The goal of these enemies, state television reported, was to bring a pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, to power instead of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. At the same time, liberals in Russia dreamed of repeating Kiev's Orange Revolution at home.

Average Russians are taking a far more cynical view of events. They don't really buy the propaganda but are watching their neighbors to the south closely. The Ukrainian elections have become a kind of reality show for many Muscovites, complete with a cast of millions and unprecedented prizes.

The theories that a pro-American opposition is battling with a pro-Moscow political elite do not hold water. Yushchenko is without a doubt pro-American. But the same can be said for all the current leaders in Ukraine. After all, it was current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his prime minister, Yanukovych, who sent troops to Iraq. They created an absurd crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations over a dam near the tiny island of Tuzla in straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In contrast, right at the height of the confrontation in Kiev, the Verkhovnaya Rada resolved to withdraw Ukraine's troops from Iraq. Communists and
socialists were joined in their support of the measure by a significant number of Yushchenko supporters.

The attempts to divide Ukrainian society along language lines have also failed. Kiev, where Russian reigns supreme, is the backbone of the opposition's strength. Protests were held in Kharkiv, the center of Russian culture in Ukraine. The events in favor of the current authorities held in Donetsk and other industrial cities resembled the Soviet rallies where attendance was mandatory. Most of the speakers were labor union functionaries and civil servants, while the workers did their best to get home as quickly as possible. The ruling oligarchy still has the ability to
control the industrial regions of eastern Ukraine using Soviet methods, but it cannot mobilize mass public support.

It is difficult to call Russia's leadership anti-American or anti-Western. None other than President Vladimir Putin himself publicly announced his support of George W. Bush during the recent U.S. presidential elections. And while the Moscow television channels were condemning American involvement in Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists about possible plans to arm local forces in Iraq under U.S. control, as well as to send military specialists to Iraq.

The Cold War was a confrontation of two economic and political systems. But now Russia and the West share the same system, capitalism. The real axis of confrontation in world politics is no longer the standoff between NATO and the long-defunct Eastern Bloc, but the standoff between the dollar and the euro blocs. The Kremlin can't seem to make up its mind which side to take in this rivalry, dodging back and forth between Brussels and Washington and dooming itself to a whole string of unilateral concessions to both competing sides.

If the whole point was to undermine Russia's position in Ukraine, it is hard to imagine a more successful move than the Kremlin collaboration with Yanukovych. The Kremlin not only shocked everyone with its crude tactics and open meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state; most importantly, it also managed to do so effectively and to its own detriment.

The stakes in the political battle in Ukraine are indeed high for the Kremlin. But they do not have anything in common with national interests or the long-gone conflict between the communist East and the bourgeois West. Privatization in Ukraine is being rolled back. Oligarch clans, both Russian and Ukrainian, are locked into a battle for assets. Everyone understands that political influence is the main collateral needed to conclude privatization deals and the best guarantee they will not be overturned later.

Whoever does win in the end, Putin will remain one of the main victims of the Ukraine crisis. Even if Yanukovych wins, his main concern will be improving relations with the West. Putin will lose the last remnants of his political authority. He will have demonstrated his weakness once again to Russia, to his people and to the siloviki. And in Russia, this is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute for Globalization Studies.


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