The Magazine

Maidan Voyage

Uprisings in the East, corruption in the West— Ukraine emerges from elections divided and weakened

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Yanukovych was friendly to Russia. He carried on the post-Cold War tradition of accepting rock-bottom rates on Russian gas and oil as payment in kind for Russia’s continued use of its naval base at Sebastopol on the Crimean peninsula, first built for the czars in the 18th century. Yet Yanukovych was not categorically opposed to Westernization, nor can he be dismissed as a post-Soviet stooge. He called for Ukraine to enter NATO. He favored closer
ties to the European Union, despite a manifest unwillingness on the part of the EU to offer him full membership. And last fall he came this close to signing an “association agreement” that would have harmonized Ukrainian trade rules with the EU’s (and thus disharmonized them with Russia’s). Only when Vladimir Putin offered a similar deal that included $15 billion in incentives did Yanukovych reject the EU deal. That is what brought everybody into the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or “Independence Square.”

Protesters spent all of last winter there, and by the time they were done, the Maidan had given its name to a new revolution. The Maidan has brought opportunities and risks for everyone: Ukrainians, obviously, but also the Russians who wound up gaining territory from it and the Americans who hope to use it as a springboard to a new European security architecture. The Maidan was not a movement of civil disobedience. It was at least in part an armed uprising. On February 18, on the eve of Yanukovych’s hurried departure by helicopter from his tacky palace, 26 people were killed in the Maidan, 10 of them police. Even in late May, armed irregulars were walking among the tourists, the kvass carts, and the still-standing barricades of tires and sandbags. 

What triumphed was a new regime better disposed to the European Union and the United States than that of the ambivalent Yanukovych. Westerners can applaud it on these grounds. But they should not applaud it on grounds of principle. The Wall Street Journal editorialized in the wake of Poroshenko’s win that “Ukrainians gave Europe a democracy lesson.” That is, to put it politely, inattentive. The Maidan Revolution overthrew a democracy. Yanukovych was corrupt—though not more so than most Ukrainian leaders since the Cold War ended. He was unpopular—though not more so than France’s François Hollande, or even Barack Obama in certain parts of the United States. And if, according to the New York Times, he left the treasury “bare,” it is hard to point to any Western treasuries that are flush. 

It is good that, under international pressure, the Ukrainian caretaker government chose to hold elections. Ukraine has held mostly democratic elections since 1991—but it has not done much else democratic. Until Ukraine can remove governments democratically as well as install them, we should reset to zero the dial on its status as a democratic nation. The late-May elections only put a fresh oligarchic face on the presidency and the Kiev mayor’s office. They did not replace the legislature, and legislative elections have not been scheduled, even though that was one of the uprising’s demands. The government that has run Ukraine for the past three months is dominated by forces associated with the Batkivshchyna party, led by the flaxen-haired firebrand Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated at the polls in 2010 and then jailed. The prime minister who led these Tymoshenkoite forces was Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of three leaders to come out of the Maidan. 

The most popular of the three was Vitali Klitschko, the boxer, who renounced his WBC heavyweight championship in December and won the Kiev mayor’s race. The old system had not been kind to Klitschko: His father, who died of cancer in 2011, was a Soviet Air Force colonel assigned to help clean up the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. The most voluble of the three was the nationalist hothead Oleh Tyahnybok, whose Svoboda (formerly Social-National) party holds 37 seats in parliament. Tyahnybok was booted from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc during the 2004 election for his allusions to a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and other such oratory. The present government has also relied on a brand-new nationalist movement called the Right Sector, bulletproof-vest-wearing representatives of which were hanging around a polling station in the city of Irbin on election day. They said they were providing security.

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