Sitting in the office of a Western diplomat a few months ago here in the Ukrainian capital, I was told that “this coming year Russia will take effective control of Ukraine - and the sad fact is, those of us in the Western world are probably going to just let it happen.”
Five years ago, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution saw millions take to the streets in the country’s major cities and forced the nullification of a deeply flawed – and fraudulent – presidential election. The population revolted against a heavy-handed effort by then Russian President Vladimir Putin to install the candidate backed by Moscow, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, as Ukraine’s president. The nullification of the first election by the Ukrainian Supreme Court and the re-run of the balloting resulted in pro-West Viktor Yushchenko's election - and the first government in the nation’s post-Soviet history to declare as its central objective an independent destiny away from Russia’s orbit.
In those days, Yushchenko was highly popular and was seen as the only hope to break free from the suffocating influence that Russia still held over the country. His opponent Yanukovych was – and still is – widely referred to by the derisive nickname of “Bandukovych.” This is a reference to the charge that him and his cronies are bandits that want to use Ukraine as a place that Moscow can control.
“The Russians,” one senior Ukrainian government official explained to me at the time, “would like to turn this country into their own, private Central European version of Bolivia. Which is why they are working so hard to put ‘Bandukovych’ in charge here.”
Despite the Kremlin’s keen desire to put its man at the top - and the huge sums of money that could be made by being able to keep Ukraine under its thumb – the Yanukovych camp’s attempts at election fraud were nothing short of amateur hour. Even though he was supported by Moscow, this plan to tip the scale in his favor showed none of the intrigue and elaborate finesse that characterized the Russian intelligence services during the Cold War.
Episodes of ballot box stuffing and other chicanery in the 2004 election were exposed on Ukrainian television as clumsy and comical. Even the attempt to kill Yeshchenko with poison prior to the 2004 balloting – a still-unsolved crime that is widely believed to have been perpetrated by pro-Russian elements that supported Yanukovych – was as poorly executed as it was stupid. The Russians didn't see a need to be clever when dealing with the poor Ukranians.
Moscow has always treated its neighbor with nearly no respect. Putin typified how Russia has always thought about the country when he told then President George W. Bush at a Russia-NATO council meeting in April 2008, “You see, George, Ukraine is not even the state at all! What is Ukraine? Some part of its territory is the Eastern Europe, some of its part, the greater part, is our gift!”
When Putin – or more recently President Dmitry Medvedev – continues to treat Ukraine as a vassal state, or when he turns off the gas valve in the middle of winter because he wants to show Kiev who is boss, the response of the international community is less than underwhelming.
As of this last weekend, the game of whether Russia will now call the shots in Ukraine is practically over. The first round of presidential balloting gave the Kremlin’s man, Yanukovych, 35.33 percent of the vote. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko received 25.02 percent of the vote. (Yushchenko, who is now widely unpopular, garnered only around 5 percent of the total vote.) Neither of the two top candidates generate much enthusiasm among the Ukrainian electorate, nor are they seen as willing to stand up to the threats by Moscow. The general consensus is that whoever wins the runoff on February 7 will simply usher in another band of venal functionaries whose general outlook will be “it’s our turn now to find ways to steal money.” Thus, it is no accident that the turnout for Sunday’s vote was the lowest in ten years.
What a difference five years makes. Yushchenko was swept into power in 2005, with all of the hopes and gallantry of a Hollywood good-triumphs-over-evil script. His face scarred and in severe pain due to the effect of the pre-election assassination attempt by poison, he seemed to symbolize the very country itself. Having survived pillaging by Moscow for decades, ravaged by a man-made Soviet-mandated famine under Stalin, and overrun during the Second World War - and then having recovered from the economic collapse and chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period – the country seemed poised to finally take off.
But this was where the Tinseltown happy ending scenario ends -- and reality enters. The Orange Revolution partnership of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko disintegrated into fractious bickering by autumn of 2005, and before too long the two could not even tolerate being in the same room with each other. Management of the economy has been a disaster and corruption is enormous.
Crossing the border into Ukraine is like entering some forbidden zone or a despotic country. Kleptocratic customs regulations make it impossible to import most commodities without the price more than doubling. Almost every other country in the region has signs of a middle class and thriving small businesses -- yet almost none of this exists in Ukraine.
Opening and registering a small business in a city like Kiev is difficult. The mayor of the nation’s capitol, Leonid Chernovetsky, is an international embarrassment, and the legions of agencies and organizations under his command – from the fire inspectors to health officials – only seem set on collecting bribes. There are few safe bets for foreign investors and – since it is about the only reliable investment vehicle that there is – property values are off scale.
The result is a country in which most of the population has lost hope in anything close to a positive future. No one can afford a place to live -- so few settle down to have families. In the meantime, the public health system is in shambles and other infrastructure is equally dismal. The consequences of such criminal neglect by successive Ukrainian governments are forecast in a penetrating 2007 analysis by Walter Laqueur, Europe’s preeminent postwar historian. His book, The Last Days Of Europe, projects the disaster that Ukraine is becoming. By 2050, Ukraine will have lost 43 percent of its population, 8 points more than the 34 percent that will be lost by Bulgaria, and almost double the 22 percent drop to be experienced in Russia (which up to this point was thought to be the region’s number one demographic cataclysm in the making).
At this point, it makes little difference which candidate – Yanukovych or Tymoshenko – takes control after February 7. Either one will be beholden to Russia. Both have declared that they are not interested in the country becoming a member of NATO, which used to be one of the cornerstones that would cement Ukraine's independence from Russia.
What will take place between now and the second round of voting is nothing more than absurd theater. Politicians will continue to look out for their own interests – with little regard for the population writ large. No wonder the Russians think the country is ripe for them to just walk in and do whatever they want.