Rene — Another Take on Ukraine — Diary of a Dissident Observer

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Antiwar.com, CA
Dec 3 2004
Ukraine: Diary of a Dissident Observer
by Christine Stone
Another year, another revolution – this time in Ukraine. First there
was Albania (1996), then Serbia (2000), 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
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
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
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
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.