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Ukraine, Unexpected

Ukraine, Unexpected

Mini Teaser: Ukraine's political demagogues are squandering its benign strategic circumstances. They are doing neither well nor good for their unexpected country.

by Author(s): Steven Erlanger

Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 366 pp., $29.95.

OF ALL the weak, corrupt, semi-independent semi-states that emerged, willingly or not, from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine is both the most important and the most disappointing. It is also the most troubling, with the reckless waste and selfishness of the last decade bringing Ukrainians to compare their venal leaders to those of the Congo, and to charge them with undermining the very independence they were elected to preserve and enhance.

Belarus, with little tradition or history of independence from Moscow, is the most ludicrous of the successor states, unless one happens to be a Belarusian; the Baltic nations, moving with all the speed they could muster, have been the most successful. But from Georgia through the Caucasus and the five "stans", there is little to admire from those politicians who promised a free democratic future, with open markets and transparent justice, allied to the values of the West. Crippled and failing states litter the post-Soviet landscape. The preservation of independence itself, in the face of Russia's intermittent reach for renewed empire, has been their single great triumph. But they have had historically unusual help, for Russia itself has been hopelessly confused about what kind of state it wants to be, and within what borders. Luckily, Moscow's flickering ambitions have been restrained by poverty and weakness. But for how long?

Russia has been preoccupied with its two disgraceful wars in Chechnya, with the West tolerating from Moscow behavior for which it bombed Belgrade. But the mess in Chechnya has been oddly salutary, too; it has sharply deflated Russian military arrogance and may have saved Ukraine from an altogether different kind of Russian pressure.

For most American policymakers, Ukraine, now nuclear-free, matters only because of its proximity to Russia, and because of what its independence means for Russia's future and for European stability. In 1994 Zbigniew Brzezinski famously (and Eurocentrically) posited: "It cannot be stressed strongly enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire."1

To keep Ukraine alive (and Russia counterbalanced), Washington has provided more than $2 billion in aid since 1990, far more than has been given to any other former Soviet republic. Brzezinski's admonition did not, however, seem to bring Ukraine the kind of thoughtful Western media attention it deserved. Still, seven years later, some of the most dire predictions about Ukraine's collapse (and Russian appetites) have come to nothing, even as new fears arise over Vladimir Putin's efforts to reassert Russian authority in the so-called near abroad.

Andrew Wilson's fine book, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, helps explain why. A lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, he has worked hard to explore and dispel many of the contradictory myths about Ukraine held most fervently by both Ukrainian and Russian nationalists.

This is not an easy read, but it is a scrupulous one, critical of received wisdom and fair to the facts as they may be known. In particular, Wilson tries to describe historical alternatives to Ukraine's development, making clear that its sovereignty now was hardly foreordained, and that its position between the Orthodox and Catholic worlds could have led to a Ukraine more aligned with Poland than Moscow.

Wilson properly stresses the divided cultural, religious and linguistic nature of Ukraine, between the nationalist, Catholic west and the more Moscow-oriented east, where Russian is more widely spoken and Soviet ideas of a unitary state dating back to the founding of Rus have taken strong hold. Such divisions help to explain Ukraine's unavoidable sensitivity to Moscow's needs, whims and demands, and its reluctance to trust too thoroughly in the blandishments of Washington, NATO and the European Union. Ukraine's divisions are also a major reason for Kiev's political paralysis and the continuing reign of a corrupt, if shifting, corporate and bureaucratic center committed only to its own aggrandizement. As Wilson writes: "This permanent government of the corporate center is paradoxically the result both of the weakness of the right and the strength of the left", with the Left here being the Moscow-oriented Communists and the Right being the nationalists and Rukh, the now-divided dissident movement that pressed for an independent Ukraine. "The right cannot govern alone", Wilson says. "The left, however, might"--but cannot be trusted to do so. The problem with "the center", of course, is that it believes in nothing except itself.

The result has been "stagnation, corruption, and the growing abuse of the power of the state", matched by popular disgust and alienation. But even such severe divisions can be managed, Wilson argues convincingly, without dooming the independence or unity of Ukraine. Unfortunately, he suggests, the best guarantee of Ukraine's independence may be that "elite interests are already consolidated around the new state." What might be left of the state after they have sated themselves is another question.

PUTIN'S mysterious ascension to the Russian throne has at least brought some clarity to questions of Russian ambitions and identity. Putin is struggling to reassert Russian power in key buffer states of the "near abroad", like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, using new piles of untransparent Russian capital to gain control over key industries and sectors, from energy supplies and infrastructure to media outlets and steel. Ukraine and Russia are natural economic partners, it is true, but Moscow is being bolder now in trying to exploit Ukraine's energy dependence and economic weakness to get control over key assets, like the energy pipeline system, in exchange for writing off old debts.

Putin's efforts have been much aided by the weakness of the current leader of Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma. A former director of a big, Moscow-run, military-industrial complex called Yuzhmash, Kuchma is allegedly corrupt and worse. He has been accused, by his own words on secretly made tape recordings, of orchestrating a grenade attack on one political opponent and the incarceration of others, and encouraging, like some Ukrainian Henry II, the disappearance of a troublesome journalist. The West could shut its eyes to many of Kuchma's shenanigans, but the murder of Heorhiy (Georgi) Gongadze, whose headless corpse was discovered last November at a crossroads, one hand emerging from the earth like a fetish, has been harder to dismiss.

Gongadze is not the first or the last crusading Ukrainian journalist to be murdered. But one of Kuchma's bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko, was so disgusted by his master that he put a tape recorder under Kuchma's office sofa and then released some of the tapes before fleeing Ukraine and finally being granted political asylum in the United States (along with Gongadze's widow). Kuchma, who now admits that the voice on the tapes is his own, denies any wrongdoing, insisting that the tapes have been manipulated electonically to damage him. While some of his aides consider the whole thing a Moscow plot to weaken Ukraine, Kuchma is said to consider Melnychenko's choice of asylum a pointer toward the CIA, which he believes wanted to replace him with the more Western-oriented former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko.

PUTIN'S mysterious ascension to Russian throne has at least brought some clarity to questions of Russian ambitions and identity. Putin is struggling to reassert Russian power in key buffer states of the "near abroad", like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, using new piles of untransparent Russian capital to gain control over key industries and sectors, from energy supplies and infrastructure to media outlets and steel. Ukraine and Russia are natural economic partners, it is true, but Moscow is being bolder now in trying to exploit Ukraine's energy dependence and economic weakness to get control over key assets, like the energy pipeline system, in exchange for writing off old debts.

Putin's efforts have been much aided by the weakness of the current leader of Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma. A former director of a big, Moscow-run, military-industrial complex called Yuzhmash, Kuchma is allegedly corrupt and worse. He has been accused, by his own words on secretly made tape recordings, of orchestrating a grenade attack on one political opponent and the incarceration of others, and encouraging, like some Ukrainian Henry II, the disappearance of a troublesome journalist. The West could shut its eyes to many of Kuchma's shenanigans, but the murder of Heorhiy (Georgi) Gongadze, whose headless corpse was discovered last November at a crossroads, one hand emerging from the earth like a fetish, has been harder to dismiss.

Gongadze is not the first or the last crusading Ukrainian journalist to be murdered. But one of Kuchma's bodyguards, Mykola Melnychenko, was so disgusted by his master that he put a tape recorder under Kuchma's office sofa and then released some of the tapes before fleeing Ukraine and finally being granted political asylum in the United States (along with Gongadze's widow). Kuchma, who now admits that the voice on the tapes is his own, denies any wrongdoing, insisting that the tapes have been manipulated electonically to damage him. While some of his aides consider the whole thing a Moscow plot to weaken Ukraine, Kuchma is said to consider Melnychenko's choice of asylum a pointer toward the CIA, which he believes wanted to replace him with the more Western-oriented former prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko.

In response, Kuchma found help where it was offered: from Putin, who sent a political heavyweight, former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, to Kiev as ambassador--some say as imperial governor. Chernomyrdin's real source of power, of course, is his position as the former head of Gazprom, itself the privatized version of the Soviet ministry for natural gas, to which Ukraine owes billions.

One day after Kuchma met Putin in February; as if sanctioned by Moscow, the police arrested a former deputy prime minister and vocal Kuchma critic, Yuliya Tymoshenko, on corruption charges. She was released after a degrading six-week stint in jail and began to organize an anti-Kuchma campaign. In early August, Putin again appeared to try to help Kuchma, as both civilian and military prosecutors in Russia announced they had opened criminal cases against her on bribery and customs charges.

Not long after Tymoshenko's arrest, in April, Kuchma withdrew support for Prime Minister Yushchenko, a former central banker who is seen as most responsible for Ukraine's fine economic growth rate of some nine percent this year. Though Yushchenko had served as an effective prime minister, Kuchma, ever suspicious of rivals, mourned his fall with crocodile tears as he appointed the current prime minister, Anatolii Kinakh. Kinakh, the former head of the Union of Entrepreneurs (also known as the "red managers club"), is expected to do nothing to endanger the president or the oligarchs, who helped support Kuchma with their control over key media outlets.

Wilson's book was completed before the Gongadze affair, the intimidation campaign against Tymoshenko, and the dismissal of Yushchenko, but it provides important context for these recent events. It describes in detail the development of Ukraine's venal oligarchy, its cynical relationship with both Leonid Kravchuk (its first president and a regional party hack-ideologist) and Kuchma, and their collective manipulation of both the voters and the West.

His opposition hopelessly split, as ever, Kuchma now seems to have ridden out protests over Gongadze--the largest was the first, back in December, with no more than 10,000 people in a country of 50 million--and is maneuvering with more ease before parliamentary elections next spring. Kuchma is so much at ease, senior diplomats in Kiev now say--or so concerned about leaning too far toward Moscow--that he is now tacking back to the West, passing some reform legislation, including a copyright law, and reducing the power of the state prosecutor. At the same time, he has instituted another layer of presidential control over the bureaucracy, introducing presidentially-appointed state secretaries to oversee ministries.

Kuchma's maneuverings are another indication of the protection provided by Ukraine's weakness and its geographical position between Moscow and NATO. Ukraine's self-evident importance-the "keystone in the arch" of European security, as Sherman W. Garnett has called it--has also given its post-independence leaders considerable protection from their manifold sins.2 As in so many other parts of the world, the United States, as a status-quo power, has valued stability over any serious commitment to the values it so volubly promotes.

GIVEN THE WASTE of the last dozen years, it is hard to remember the excitement and pride that the Soviet collapse brought to Ukraine, even as Kravchuk tried to balance a surging nationalism with his long fealty to Moscow. For all Ukraine's pride and resentment of Russian arrogance toward its "little brothers" in Ukraine and Belarus, however, independence was thrust upon both Kiev and Minsk, and no one was ready. Ukraine found itself with an airline, consisting of the Aeroflot planes that happened to be on its territory, and with an economy it neither comprehended nor controlled. In Kiev in those days, economists suggested that as much as 80 percent of the enterprises on Ukrainian soil were controlled directly from Moscow, part of the clumsy system of centralized planning that made widgets in one place and scroggets in another thousands of miles away, and then put them together in a third city where the workers had no idea how the object in question was designed or made, let alone marketed and sold.

Ukraine also found itself, like Moldova and Tajikistan, to be a strange Communist confection. It had to cope with a formerly Polish west and a formerly Russian Crimea, tacked on to Ukraine in a fit of celebratory foolishness by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, was marking the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereiaslav, which, Moscow had decreed, was the beginning of an eternal Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood; Ukrainian nationalists, especially in the diaspora, had always regarded it as less a treaty than a contract directed against an external enemy, quickly broken, as usual, by the czar.

Its current territorial configuration makes the persistence of Ukrainian sovereignty itself, no matter how weakened it may become, something of a triumph. Interestingly enough, it has been helped in that regard to a large degree by the political nature of Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin may have ended his presidency a bloated, drunken buffoon, but he colluded happily with Kravchuk to dismantle the Soviet Union and revive Ukraine as an independent country. Yeltsin bloviated about the rights of Russians abroad for political advantage, but he was not an imperialist, and Ukrainians (as well as the Baits) have much to thank him for--which is why, despite its general excellence and efforts to be fair to Russian arguments, Wilson's book has some bizarre mistakes and omissions. Certainly, the Stalin-induced famine in Ukraine should have received fuller treatment, as should the earlier careers of both Kravchuk and Kuchma as servants of the old regime.

There is no stranger mistake, however, than in Wilson's description of the key meeting in the Belarusian forest that spelled the end of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin met there in December 1991 with Kravchuk and Belarus's first leader, Stanislav Shushkevich. After a long, drunken evening, they got down to business the next day. Wilson quotes Kravchuk as saying about Yeltsin: "Boris Mikhailovich, as it seemed to me, understood by independence something different." Yeltsin's patronymic is Nikolayevich, not Mikhailovich, as even Wilson's editors should have known. It is one thing to misspell the name of Vaclav Klaus, which Wilson does, but Yeltsin? The Russian White House was shelled in 1993, not "bombed." And Wilson, for all his honorable efforts to provide cultural context, manages to call Isaac Babel's famous character, Benya Krik, the King of Odessa, "Beria Krik", an odd Stalinist slip of the keyboard.

But Wilson nevertheless does Ukraine a great service with his book, which is both engaged and critical. He describes with admirable subtlety Ukraine's key dilemmas, caught between a blustering, poor, semi-Asiatic Russia and a central Europe moving rapidly toward the West, leaving its eastern neighbors behind. Indeed, a Hungarian lawyer, Zsuzsanna Langi, likes to say that its easier being the easternmost province of a western empire than the westernmost province of an eastern empire." Lucky Hungary. Unlucky the unexpected Ukraine.

1 Brzezinski, "The Premature Partnership", Foreign Affairs (March/April, 1994), p.80.

2 Garnett, Keystone in the Arch: Ukraine in the Emerging Security Environment of central and Eastern Europe (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1997).

Steven Erlanger, now Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times, has been the paper's bureau chief in Moscow and in Prague and its chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington.

Essay Types: Book Review