One of the more hilarious editorials on this year’s presidential election in Ukraine, came courtesy of Taras Kuzio, who, among his many achievements, formerly worked for NATO in Kyiv (always a sore subject for some people), and who urged Ukrainians to “stay true to the Orange Revolution” when they went to the polls. I’ve been working in the online medium for far too long, because my initial response could only be summed up with a colloquial term, LOLWAT [definition courtesy of Urban Dictionary]. Not even Yulia Tymoshenko has the requisite gall to remind people of the idealism many of them expressed in 2004, and how they were subsequently punished for it.
It’s not that I am particularly happy to note how easily the promises of the Orange Revolution were squandered, and how bitter and disenfranchised the majority of the Ukrainian electorate is. It brings me no joy to point out that in this country, people must worry about everything from the skyrocketing price of cheese to the stoking of mass hysteria surrounding swine flu, before they worry about which one of their candidates is pro-Western enough.
Still, it does bring me joy to mock Professor Kuzio’s sage advice from on high. I’m sure he can take it in stride. He’s not the one who just had to help bandage his kid brother’s arm because the ice on the streets of the capital is not getting cleaned up, and people are falling left and right, falling on the way to the polls to cast ballots for candidates who rarely deal with the reality of what it means to be an average Ukrainian. The way I see it, people who urge Ukrainian voters to lay aside petty practical concerns and see the big picture are getting off easy.
Here is where Victor Yanukovych comes in. Yanukovich, you might recall, was the reason why 2004’s Orange Revolution happened in the first place. His initial win in that election was declared to be the result of electoral fraud. Undaunted by his reputation as a Kremlin shill, Yanukovych hunkered down in the opposition and set about re-branding himself. And after the pathos and euphoria of the Orange Revolution had passed, after political deadlock seized the country, after President Victor Yuschenko utterly failed to unite Ukraine on most issues, Yanukovych began to seem more and more appealing.
Most outsiders do not quite understand the charm of Victor Yanukovych. He is not particularly eloquent. He has two criminal convictions under his belt. He is, in many ways, just as divisive of a leader as Victor Yuschenko turned out to be. But for a narrow majority of voters, Yanukovych represents a chance at stability. He is solid and calm, the very opposite of flashy. He has pledged to introduce Russian as a second state language, an issue which is seen as crucial by millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who get as fired up about it as the American conservative base does about abortion. For a man of his background, he is often surprisingly mild-mannered. His campaign slogan, “A Ukraine for human beings,” belies a certain uncomfortable truth about standards of living in this country.
“There is no one in charge in this country,” a taxi driver told me bitterly as he attempted to navigate a snow-choked street in the early morning the other day. His sentiment is one that, I believe, was echoed by millions of Ukrainians as they cast their vote. Combine this with low voter turn-out in Western Ukraine, for all intents and purposes the birthplace of the Orange Revolution, and Yanukovych’s projected win makes total sense.
For a symbol of a failed revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was beaten very narrowly just now, has shown remarkable tenacity. “She belongs in the opposition,” a member of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions recently said on television. “She has that contrarian spirit.” The remark, meant to be dismissive, does highlight an important element of Tymoshenko’s politics: she appears to really hit her stride while in active conflict. Opposition politics are as crucial in Ukraine as they were five years ago, and they will continue to be crucial. When life in the country is not improving, however, in-fighting becomes exhausting. One can hope, though, that as far as her political activity is concerned, Tymoshenko will not simply take her toys and go home.
In the meantime, Ukraine remains as divided as ever. Expectations are low, which is dangerous, because low expectations automatically mean complacency on part of leaders.
Perhaps Serhiy Tihipko, who came in third during the first round of elections and is considered by many to be a breath of fresh air, will start building a decent coalition for a new opposition while everyone is still going on about Tymoshenko’s tiger and Yanukovych’s oligarch allies.