Narrowed gap in Ukraine

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Yulia Tymoshenko, Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych were once called the “eternal triangle” of Ukrainian politics, but eternity is not what it used to be. One side of the triangle has disappeared.

Five years ago, when the Orange Revolution turned Yushchenko and Tymoshenko into democratic heroes, the villain of the piece was Yanukovych, the former communist apparatchik who tried to steal the 2004 election.

Yushchenko was a very weak president except in one area: his obsessive feud with his former ally, Prime Minister Tymoshenko, which all but paralyzed the government of Ukraine for five wasted years. It’s likely that she bears as much of the responsibility as he does for this disastrous clash of personalities, but she is a much more vivid personality and an adroit politician, so the public blamed Yushchenko. Now he has lost the presidency in the most humiliating manner imaginable.

In complete denial about his loss of public support, Yushchenko insisted on running again in last Sunday’s presidential election — and got only 5 percent of the vote. It is “Yulia” (as she is known to everyone in Ukraine) who will slug it out with her old enemy Yanukovych in the second round of voting Feb. 7.

Last time round, this was a confrontation that seemed to matter. It was a great story: the young democratic heroine Tymoshenko in her trademark braid, committed to modernizing Ukraine and bringing it into the European Union and the NATO military alliance, versus the corrupt and colorless Yanukovych, who wanted to drag Ukraine back into collectivist poverty and political subjugation to Russia. But things look different this time.

The greatest difference is that there no longer seems to be such a difference between their policies. It’s now clear that Ukraine will never join NATO: The alliance does not seek a confrontation with Russia, and only 20 percent of Ukrainians would support membership in NATO anyway.

It’s also obvious that the European Union does not want to expand this far east. It is already suffering severe indigestion from its last round of expansion in Eastern Europe. Taking in an even poorer country with a population of 46 million people would not rank very high on the EU’s list of priorities even if Brussels were not also reluctant to annoy Russia. So Tymoshenko and Yanukovych no longer have much to disagree about in foreign policy.

Nor is there much to argue about on economic policy anymore, since the country has few options left. Five years of political paralysis made Ukraine very vulnerable when the recession struck. Its apparent prosperity depended on a huge inflow of foreign investment, and the prosperity drained away as fast as the foreign capital itself.

Ukraine’s economy shrank by 15 percent last year, and the national currency, the hryvnia, has halved in value. Whether Yanukovych or Tymoshenko wins hardly matters economically; only massive loans from the International Monetary Fund are keeping the economy afloat at the moment. For some time to come it will be the IMF, not the new government, that makes the key economic decisions.

So what’s left? Well, they could fight over national identity. The west of the country is Ukrainian-speaking, and deeply nationalistic; the east is mostly Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized, and would welcome closer ties with Russia. So this is the ground on which the two leading presidential candidates have chosen to fight, with Tymoshenko promising to keep Ukrainian as the sole official language and Yanukovych promising equal status for the Russian language.

Given the demography of Ukraine, this probably means that Tymoshenko will win the presidency in the second round of voting. (The nationalist vote was split too many ways in the first round, with a total of 18 candidates running.) But who cares, apart from Ukrainians?

The glory days of the Orange Revolution were misleading. The key fact about the country is that Ukrainian per capita income is only about a third of Russia’s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine kept its steel and chemical industries, and even an aviation industry, but the oil and gas stayed in Russia. Ukraine has to pay through the nose for it, and it simply must stay on good terms with Russia.

With so little room for maneuver abroad, and such rampant corruption at home (it is said that 400 of the 450 members of Parliament are millionaires), Ukrainians have grown very cynical about democracy.

Indeed, a recent poll disclosed that only 30 percent of Ukrainians think that the change to democracy has been good for their country, whereas 50 percent of Russians think so. And only 26 percent of Ukrainians say they are satisfied with their lives. Democracy does not heal all wounds.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.