Posted on Monday, September 17th, 2007 at 9:23 pm
Author: Natalia Antonova
I must be stuck in some dark-humoured comedy sketch. Everywhere I go in Kyiv, the same exact conversation follows me (well, perhaps I’m fudging a little, one conversation I overheard involved two university professors, gossiping about another university professor who may or may not be sleeping with a student) – and the gist of it is this: the much-vaunted election does not matter. If some element of life in Ukraine gets better following September 30, another element will probably get much worse.
To re-cap: the September 30th elections to the Ukrainian parliament were called as the result of a major power struggle between various factions, most notably the President’s party, and the party of the Prime Minister. Other parties are busy trying to get a piece of the pie (this isn’t some Republican vs. Democrat thing, like in the United States). The biggest losers are, as usual, the voters. The Orange Revolution, which supposedly made Ukraine turn toward the West, has largely been a disappointment. Prices are high, spirits are low. Election ads mean about as much to the average Ukrainian as do billboards advertising over-priced Porsches (due to some weird import tax or other, foreign cars are astronomically expensive in Ukraine). The idealism of 2004 has been replaced by resigned apathy at best, and bitter hatred at worst.
Ukraine’s enormous Russian-speaking minority feels disenfranchised. In advertising, in schools, and universities, on all official documents – the Russian language has all but become history, and this inevitably causes discomfort for Ukrainian citizens whose native language, like it or not, is Russian. The Western press rarely reports on this – perhaps because Russian-speaking Ukrainians cause some sort of cognitive dissonance. Many pro-Russia voters are intensely suspicious of the possibility of joining the EU; as far as they’re concerned, the EU “only wants us for cheap labour.” Revolutionizing the Ukrainian market would lead to “Ukrainian farms and other businesses getting snuffed out in the competition.” Considering the economic meltdown in the post-Soviet era, these concerns are not invalid.
Meanwhile, what Western newspapers routinely mistake for pro-Western sentiment among other Ukrainian voters is usually simple (and understandable) distrust of anything the Kremlin says or does. It’s not as if millions of Ukrainians don’t want to join the EU – they do – but most realize that internal issues take precedent, and Russia might as well be an internal issue. Russia is the elephant in the room that no one high up wants to talk about, not even Victor Yanukovich, the Prime Minister and Putin ally, or so it would seem as of late.
It’s no wonder that some Russian newspapers are gleefully predicting the possibility of a Ukrainian civil war, while visible minorities are wondering about the possibility of racist attacks in the jittery atmosphere.
Ukrainian politics are not bound by the simple dichotomy of pro-Russia and pro-West, but there isn’t much nuance in today’s political debates. Perhaps the politicians themselves know that hardly anyone is watching. Sure, people park themselves in front of their television sets with glassy-eyed stupefaction after a long day’s work chasing after a pathetic salary and getting pushed and shoved on the metro or, for that matter, bumped along on a poorly-paved country road. None of this means that anyone has any patience for what some well-dressed, well-fed Rada (i.e. parliament) member has to say about the scruples, or lack thereof, of another well-dressed, well-fed Rada member.
Rada members drive flashy cars such as the afore-mentioned Porsches. Their daughters aren’t sold into sex slavery abroad. Their sons aren’t dying of AIDS following encounters with dirty heroin needles. Their grandmothers aren’t trying to scrape enough of their laughable pensions together for life-saving operations. Rada members CANNOT RELATE to half the stuff going on in the country today, and, therefore, expecting real solutions from them is a bit like expecting the triumphant return of Elvis. Even President Yuschenko, ever the populist, has some son who speeds around the capital in some ridiculous vehicle, and can’t keep himself out of the tabloids for five minutes. Most Ukrainians are wise to this foolishness, hence the apathy.
At the same time – Ukrainians are passionate about their own unique realities. In the East, the miners struggle to keep their heads above water. In the West, conscientious citizens are clamouring for restoration work in the historic city of L’viv. Strangers talk on buses – asking questions in Ukrainian, and getting answered in Russian, and vice versa. Daily life in Ukraine is anything but apolitical, but the Rada does not, and cannot, notice. The Rada operates on a different plane of existence altogether.
Where is the solution? I’m not a practical or useful person, so I can’t tell you. Although as strange as it may seem, I personally would like Ukrainians to go back to the idealism of 2004. Not in the sense of putting their faith back into Yuschenko, but in the sense of remembering that they can make a difference, as people. People are not slogans; they cannot be easily crossed out and replaced. People have actual, day-to-day relationships with their neighbours, be they Russians or Hungarians or Poles. People are affected by the most basic of problems – the rising cost of meat, the wallowing standard of healthcare – the slow, steady solutions to which would be the underpinnings of positive change. People are the ones who have to navigate corrupt bureaucracies, and even more interestingly, participate in them. At the very least, we can all avoid a war, or some secession, or something equally tedious and distracting
Ukraine, like France, also needs to get real. I’m no economics guru, and cannot offer specifics, but it seems to me that even though a revolutionized economy would mean more struggle in the short-term, it can also open up the possibility of one’s grandchildren no longer being dirt-poor (if there will be grandchildren to speak of, considering Ukraine’s shrinking population). Already, a generation that was not born in the USSR is walking on this good earth we call our home. For better or for worse, more change is inevitable.
Is there hope for Ukraine? Most people will tell you that even if there is, they will not live to see it blossom into anything substantial. I am one such person. I see no practical solutions anywhere, just absurdities. At the very least, comedy and comedians are thriving. There is nothing left to do but laugh, no matter what your background is.
My (relatively well-to-do) family, for example, recently attempted a political debate. We thought we’d have the stamina, being, at this time, better off than most. Each member of the family represented, or tried to represent, a rival faction. Votes on certain issues were cast. We dialogued, or, at least, attempted to out-scream one another. At the end of the evening, we elected the cat Prime Minister, and fumbled off to bed.
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