There is a joke in Ukraine these days that says “totalitarian states now assume a national character that is consistent with the past profession of their dictators. In Belarus, a former collective farm director (Aleksandr Lukashenko) has turned the country into what appears to be one big kolkhoz (the Soviet name for a large agricultural collective). In Russia, a former KGB officer (Vladimir Putin) has converted the nation into a massive police state. And now in Ukraine, a former convict (Viktor Yanukovych) is trying to make the country into one, giant prison.”
The desire by the Ukrainian people to break free of one of the most corrupt and incompetent governments in Eastern Europe is what has precipitated—as well as sustained—a revolution that since November has seen tens of thousands of people take to the streets in cities throughout the country. These are more than just people wanting to be free and to have their voices heard. It is a population largely clamoring to rid themselves of a criminal state apparatus that wants to imprison them all inside of a broken economy that keeps them all poor while a handful of billionaires in power are living the good life.
The superficial, CNN version that is consistently played out in most western media outlets is that this revolt is the Ukrainian-speaking west against a Russian-speaking eastern region of the country. This conveys the image of another Serb vs. Croat-style ethnic conflict, which is not at all the nature of the Ukrainian uprising.
The struggle on the streets of Ukraine’s cities has its roots in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution. This was a popular uprising, but at the heart of the conflict was a large number of millionaires who supported then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko over the current president, Yanukovych, and the latter’s handful of billionaire cronies. Even a decade ago many Ukrainians referred to him by his pejorative nickname “Bandukovych” to signify that he and his political allies were looked upon as a pack of bandits.
“What the pro-Yushchenko Orange Revolutionaries were trying to prevent was having their businesses destroyed by this handful of criminal syndicate oligarchs aligned with Yanukovych. These oligarchs wanted total control of the economy,” explained a western diplomat one day as we met in one of Kiev’s western-style eateries last year. “But all the Orange Revolution did was postpone this scenario. Five years later—in 2010—Yanukovych finally captured the presidency and now here we are.”
The damage—more like the demolition—done to Ukraine’s economy since Yanukovych took office is hard to overestimate. Writing in the English-language Moscow Times, Russian political analyst Gregory Bovt put the matter into perspective when he pointed out that Ukraine’s GDP “is 84 percent of its size in 1992.” There is only one other country in the world with an economy that much smaller than what it had 20 years ago: Somalia.
Walking down the street here in the capital, you see all the signs of a broken economy barely functioning except to service a select few. Every open space it seems is plastered with advertising—much of it pointless. Says a Russian colleague. “It is not really supposed to generate more sales of a given product or service. Plus there are kickbacks on top of kickbacks with taxes on top of taxes in the advertising business so everyone gets paid off in the end.”
Then there are the businesses that inhabit the prime real estate in the center of the city. On any given street you will see a bank, and then a pharmacy, then another bank, then a shop that sells expensive Swiss watches, then another bank, then a Ferrari auto dealership, then another bank and so on. “More banks than there are stray dogs,” said a Ukrainian friend last year as we drove through the area that the protest camp now occupies. All in all, an inordinate amount of storefront space exists to either launder money or provide luxury goods to the 5 percent of the population that is doing most of the laundering—just before they jet off to their getaway homes in Switzerland, Austria, and the United Kingdom.
During a meeting a few months ago in Kiev, a Ukrainian colleague who does a great deal of business with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) told me, “the Chinese like doing deals with Ukraine. It has a corrupt, criminal government compounded with fantastic levels of corruption and the ability at will to brutally and mercilessly bring the full power of the secret services and riot police down on the population. This is just like PRC—and very similar to the African nations that the Chinese are used to dealing with.”
Another similarity between the Communists-turned-gangsters that rule Ukraine and the regime of the world’s largest still officially Communist-ruled nation is that they also both have solid walls of officials well-trained in lying to the world about their despicable acts of criminality and brutality. Just like the government in Beijing that continues to declare that no one at all was killed in the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the apparatchiki around Yanukovych tell the world that no violence has been used by the Berkut riot police against the protesters camped out in Kiev’s Independence Square.
So far nine persons have been killed, some by sniper fire, and around 1,300 injured. But, before he was forced to resign on 27 January the Ukrainian prime minister, Mykola Azarov, told news outlets at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the police could not possibly have been responsible for these deaths because the ammunition found in the bodies was not of the same caliber used in the service weapons issued to police units.
More ominous than the numbers of dead and wounded are the numbers of those missing from the protest camp—the estimated numbers run as high as 57. Based on the accounts of a couple of survivors, the modus operandi is that people are picked off leaving the protest camp, they are thrown into a vehicle and driven to a wooded area far outside the city. Their documents are taken from them and then they are beaten and left for dead in the snow. Odds are very good that some of the dozens missing will turn up when the spring thaw reveals the location of their bodies.
One of those who did survive was Dmytro Bulatov, an organizer of the AutoMaidan protest, the huge convoys of automobiles that descended on the countryside palatial estates of Yanukovych and other government officials to show them that the population knows where they live. Bulatov went missing for eight days until he managed to crawl his way to bang on the door of a private home in the suburban city of Borispol to ask for help. He was then shown on television, with his face caked in blood from where it had been slashed and part of his ear was missing. His captors had driven nails through his hands crucifixion-style and had beaten him for a week.
The fact that his beaten and tortured body had been shown on television around the world did not stop Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, from telling Al-Jazeera at the Munich Security Conference that Bulatov was in fine physical shape and only had a small scratch on his cheek. Someone obviously forgot to explain to the foreign minister that a cut requiring 12 stitches qualifies as a bit more than just a “scratch” and that a person who is barely conscious from days of beatings and torture feels something less than “fine.”
Kozhara’s dishonest statements were so embarrassing even to this Ukrainian government that his own foreign ministry contradicted him and later issued a statement that his comments “do not reflect the real attitude of Minister Kozhara on this tragic situation.” The English-language Kyiv Post later ran a story stating that comments of Kozhara and other officials in Yanukovych’s regime demonstrate “the gap between the massive problems and the government’s perception of them. In many cases, problems are exaggerated by the incompetence and malice of the government.”
At the end of the day, it is the unpardonable conduct of this Ukrainian government, which is regarded by most as little better than a gang of criminals, that is at the root of this revolt. It is not a linguistic or ethnic conflict, and no amount of Russia’s Vladimir Putin trying to convince the world that the eastern half of Ukraine is Moscow’s Sudetenland is going to change the reality on the ground. Like the revolutions that toppled Soviet-client state regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, people in Ukraine are fed up with governments abusing them and seeing their financial prospects driven into the ground. They will not leave these streets or give up this fight until that changes.