Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 20

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

“Kuchma was sent by God”–Boris Berezovsky

The second round of the recent presidential election in Ukraine saw victory for incumbent President Leonid Kuchma, as predicted by almost all opinion polls. With 58 percent of the vote, he defeated his communist rival Petro Symonenko, who garnered 38 percent. If one were to close one’s eyes and substitute the names of Yeltsin and Zyuganov for those of Kuchma and Symonenko, one might think that this was a repeat of the events of 1996 in Russia, when Yeltsin the “democrat” defeated, by almost the exact same margin, the “threat of a return to the Red terror,” as embodied by the featureless figure of Zyuganov.

The Ukrainian events were an exact replica of the last Russian elections. No secret was made of this. In mid-1996–that is, immediately after Yeltsin’s victory, and three-and-a-half years before his own term of office was due to expire–Leonid Kuchma announced his intention to seek re-election. At the time, many politicians and analysts reacted to the announcement with some skepticism: It seemed far too early to be embarking on such an initiative, especially in view of Kuchma’s complete lack of any success on the domestic political scene. Kuchma appeared to realize this, and about a year later, when the economic situation in Ukraine was showing no signs of recovering, he promised that if it did not improve he would not run for re-election. But life once again demonstrated that nothing a politician says before an election should be taken seriously. From late 1998 onwards, a prophetic note began to creep into Kuchma’s speeches, which could be encapsulated as “The age and I.” And, in the middle of 1999, candidate Kuchma openly linked his possible defeat at the elections with the end of Ukraine’s existence as an independent state. Thus the stage was set for a modern theatrical presentation entitled “The Presidential Elections in Ukraine.” Center stage was the Creator–the incumbent president, the only figure to know what Truth was and how to attain it. In a dark corner of the stage lurked the Demon, a mythologized image of the foe, a strong and worthy rival, but one who does not know Truth and wants to take the country back into the embrace of the past. Kuchma immediately put a name to this Demon: Communist leader Petro Symonenko. Last year he was named Politician of the Year by pro-Kuchma celebrities. Kuchma saw Symonenko as his only worthy rival. He simply ignored all the other opponents–there were fourteen all told–rejecting out of hand the idea of a direct televised debate with them. He called the members of the so-called “Kaniv Four”–Oleksandr Moroz, Oleksandr Tkachenko, Volodymyr Oliynyk and Yevhen Marchuk–“non-men” and “non-people.” He subsequently appointed one of these “semi-people,” Yevhen Marchuk, to the post of National Security Council secretary, thus raising his political and biological status. Here, too, the Moscow events–with Marchuk taking General Aleksandr Lebed’s role–were tediously replayed. Tedium is probably the key word in relation to the recent elections. When I was in Ukraine for the presidential campaign, I found myself thinking that there wasn’t really a campaign at all. Having cleared the stage for his election campaign, Kuchma and his semi-anonymous staff brought in “technicians” from Russia. It was they who devised the theme of “democratic president versus the threat of a communist revenge.” To implement this plan, they chose the technique of manipulating the Ukrainian people’s consciousness, given its highly mythologized nature inherited from Soviet times.

The Ukrainian people’s consciousness is riddled with complexes of provincialism, decline and “delayed development.” This was how history developed, and this subject deserves separate treatment. Ukrainian national consciousness is permeated with all sorts of fears and concerns. The worst of these is violation of the special status quo, of that particular state of semi-ecstatic serenity which Ukrainians try to achieve at all times and by any means. This is best captured in the national saying, literally: “My house is right on the edge,” meaning “It’s not my concern–I don’t know anything about it.” Ukrainians never interfere in anything. Where Russians smash each other in the face, Ukrainians kick each other under the table.

The “manipulation technicians” played very cleverly on this fear Ukrainians have that their individual peace may be disturbed. Symonenko and the communists were presented as bringing radical change to the “stability” which had been achieved in society; this immediately conjured up images from social mythology of wars, gulags and famine. In their attacks on the Kuchma camp, the communists and the right and left-wing opposition as a whole appealed to the rational, intellectual element in the minds of the electorate. They used figures–an unprecedented move in post-communist Ukraine. These figures demonstrated that there was no stability in Ukraine, and that in the five years of Kuchma’s presidency–which Marchuk called “five years of Ukrainian tragedy” in a book of the same name–GNP had halved, the national currency had fallen two-and-a-half times against the dollar from September 1996, and the Ukrainian population had dropped from 52 to 50 million. Paradoxically, the communists and the opposition, appealing to figures and rationalism–in other words adopting the style of Western election campaigns–lost, and Kuchma’s “technicians,” playing on social mythology, fears and suspicions (which Symonenko would immediately unite with Russia)–in other words playing the traditional game of social manipulation used since Stalin’s time–actually won.

Everything is truly changing in this world: The “democrats” use the traditional communist practice of manipulating the collective subconscious, and win. The communists and the opposition try using figures to demonstrate the ruinous nature of the regime, and the even more ruinous effect of Kuchma’s re-election–and lose. Figures are proven to be powerless against myth. Without grasping this fundamental paradox of the Ukrainian elections as a projection of the Ukrainian national mentality, it is impossible to answer the questions often posed by Western analysts or to offer a forecast for the future development of Ukraine under Kuchma’s leadership. So what were the main national myths developed to manipulate the collective subconscious of Ukrainians?

Myth One: “There is no alternative to Kuchma.” This idea was implanted in people’s minds by a total information blockade on those candidates putting forward programs to lead the country out of crisis–first Oleksandr Moroz and then Yevhen Marchuk, before he joined Kuchma. Allow me to stress this again: If a Martian had arrived in Ukraine, he would never have realized that an election campaign was underway. The state television screens were in pristine condition–the faces of the “non-people” did not appear on them beyond the obligatory ten minutes allocated to the candidates by law. One face dominated the screen–that of Leonid Kuchma. In this sense, the myth of no alternative was a complete success.

Myth Two: Kuchma began the reforms and should be given time to complete them. Kuchma said, not without a certain coquetry, that for the past five years he has been “learning,” and that if he were re-elected he would be a completely different person. The opposition said that during his rule Ukraine had dropped from among the top thirty nations in the world to 102nd in terms of standard of living, and that the foreign debt had increased almost tenfold (to US$30 billion).

Myth Three: Kuchma averted war. The opposition said that this was despite Kuchma rather than thanks to him: It was a tribute to the peace-loving and patient nature of the Ukrainians. However, said the opposition, Ukraine’s economy was actually in a postwar condition, and the decline in population was comparable to war losses.

Myth Four: However people voted, Kuchma would remain president. The authorities had warned the electorate that they were prepared to resort to falsifying the results. Kuchma’s headquarters paid volunteers US$10-15 a day to go rallies and meetings and repeat these words. During my stay in Kyiv in October I saw these people in the center of the city, on Independence Square, and heard them repeating these words like a mantra.

Western analysts could not understand how a president who–according to the figures–had brought the country to such a dire state could even dare to stand for re-election. The answer lies in this same correlation between figures and myth which was so well understood by the “technicians.” Ukrainians do no inhabit a rational world in the Western sense. A huge swathe of the population do not have, and have never had, a Western understanding of money, property, individuality or the law. Instead, the collective psyche has tentative, mythologized surrogates for these concepts. Thus it is undignified to have a lot of money, and the same goes for property, and the law is basically up to the individual in charge. Living surrounded predominantly by these shady surrogates for reality, Ukrainians were fearful of parting with them. So the running theme behind the vote for Kuchma was: There was no war under him, so without him there would be war. Or: He will not sell us to Russia, whereas the communists will.

Another related factor which predetermined Kuchma’s eventual victory was the huge twilight economy created under his regime, which encompassed up to 60 percent of GNP. Nobody can be sure of the size of this twilight economy, the money circulating there, or the percentage of the population working within it and, naturally, not paying taxes. Kuchma’s election is the consequence of people with a mythologized mentality living in a statistically illusory but nevertheless physically real, twilight economy of underground deals, all-pervasive corruption and nepotism. For these people, this relatively quiet life in the twilight, to which they were all accustomed, seemed much more appealing and more significant than life in the realm of figures and light to which the opposition was calling them. This is why Kuchma, the master of shady politics, won the approval of an electorate living in a shady economy.

In view of the above, the presentation of the Ukrainian elections as the “democrat versus the communist” is revealed to be purely nominal. Nominal, because the age of ideocracies–regimes based on ideology–has irretrievably sunk into oblivion. And just as Kuchma’s regime is far removed from democracy, so the regime which would have been established if Symonenko had won would be far removed from the communist textbooks such as Stalin’s “Short Course on the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks).” Things would be practically the same. The rhetoric would be a little different, as would be the faces in the comfortable (and not so comfortable) offices of the bureaucrats. The most important result of the elections in Ukraine is that no “figure”–or rational plan of action designed to achieve a calculable result–is capable of defeating (or changing) the “myth” in which Ukraine now lives.

This provides grounds to put together a qualified forecast for the future (on the understanding that forecasts in general are a dangerous thing).

Kuchma’s regime may try to “replay” in Ukraine the 1994 version of the radical reforms. However, the conditions for this are now considerably worse: Ukraine faces the threat of total default on its foreign debt payments next year, and the people do not want to hear of market reforms, associating them with daylight robbery. Against this background, Kuchma will try once again to accuse parliament of counteracting his efforts and may try to dissolve it, after engineering the reelection of the speaker Oleksandr Tkachenko, who is well and truly in the president’s bad books. Kuchma will try to initiate changes to the constitution in a move to create a two-tier parliament where the upper house would consist of appointed governors (rather than elected ones, as in Russia). However, changing the constitution, and initiating a referendum for this purpose, is a radical move, alien to Ukraine. Furthermore it would destroy the embryonic shoots of democracy and would strengthen authoritarianism.

It is more likely that Kuchma will follow a more cautious path, and try to form a parliamentary majority with people from his own factions and nonaligned deputies, with whom the administration’s people can work closely. However, even if he forms a majority, Kuchma cannot be sure that his initiatives will meet with the support of the members of that majority. It is more likely that they will seek to look after their own welfare by selling their votes to the administration.

Which path will Kuchma follow? Having come to believe in his own infallibility and in the accuracy of Boris Berezovsky’s theory that he was sent “by God,” he will not go down the road of strengthening the institutions of civil society, expanding the opposition’s base. This very idea, as demonstrated by the recent elections, is anathema to him. If Kuchma wants to distance himself from this image, his first task will be to relieve the pressure on the mass media–pressure which did not exist even in Soviet times.

However, the least desirable scenario for Ukraine would be if Kuchma immediately started work on securing himself another victory in five years’ time. He will have this opportunity if he changes the constitution. If this happens, Ukraine risks becoming a potential zone of instability in Europe, a turn of events which could not but worry the West.

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.