Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sent an open letter to Ukrayinska pravda yesterday (July 26) following his public broadside against the publication at a press conference one day earlier. Yushchenko has accused Ukrayinska pravda of deliberately trying to discredit his son, Andriy, and his presidency.
Yushchenko was referring to a two-part article in Ukrayinska pravda (July 19 and 22) provocatively entitled “Andriy Yushchenko: Son of God?” The article investigated Andriy’s personal characteristics, portraying him as a spoiled brat. The author particularly wanted to know how a 19-year old could afford to drive around in an expensive BMW M6 (base price: 133,000 euro).
It is not unusual for Western leaders to occasionally be disturbed by media coverage that delves too deeply into their personal lives. But with Yushchenko it is unusual how much a pro-Western reformist leader has apparently embraced a political culture that regularly sees conspiracies. Former president Leonid Kuchma frequently resorted to such suspicions, a tactic that draws upon vestiges of Soviet political culture.
Since coming to power in January, the Yushchenko administration has frequently blamed conspiracies for its problems. Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn claims the government regularly hurls “insinuations, accusations, intrigue, and lies” (Ukrayinska pravda, July 13). The oil crisis, caused by the government price ceiling, was blamed on Russia. The meat crisis was blamed on “speculators,” while the sugar shortage and the failure to fully adopt legislation required by the WTO were blamed on parliament and Lytvyn personally.
Within the government, Minister of Justice Roman Zvarych has excelled at blaming conspiracies when unpleasant facts arise surrounding his alleged doctorate from Columbia University (see EDM, May 4). Zvarych recently claimed that the attack on his credentials was staged by an organized conspiracy of persons he refused to reveal who had illegally hacked into the Columbia University database (Ukrayinska pravda, July 18).
His penchant for conspiracy theories has ready-made supporters within the Yushchenko administration. National Security and Defense Council Petro Poroshenko blamed a conspiracy by former Kuchma loyalists when discrepancies first arose about Zvarych’s credentials. Poroshenko claimed that public discussion about Zvarych’s qualifications was planted by forces seeking to divide the Yushchenko camp (razom.org.ua, May 27).
Zvarych’s attitude typifies the radical right of Ukrainian diaspora politics, where Russian-backed conspiracies are the norm. But by dwelling on intrigue, Zvarych and others in the Yushchenko administration ignore the right of media to investigate legitimate issues.
The Ukrainian opposition and its Russian allies also trade in conspiracy theories. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian allies believe that the West, specifically the United States, orchestrated Yushchenko’s victory in the 2004 presidential election. Regarding thee Orange Revolution, Yanukovych’s website (ya2006.com.ua, May 18) asks, “Where did the large sums of cash come from to finance the transportation of tens or more likely hundreds of thousands of people from Western Ukraine to Kyiv and their accommodation in tents, the printing of leaflets, preparation of large numbers of symbols, ensuring support, and a lot more?” The Yanukovych camp believes that these funds came from abroad.
Yanukovych voters take a similar view: 43% of them believe that “outside forces” organized the Orange Revolution. Only 14% of Yushchenko’s voters agree (Public Opinion in Ukraine After the Orange Revolution, International Foundation Electoral Systems, April 2005).
As a result of these conspiracy theories, neither Russia nor Yanukovych accept Yushchenko as the legitimately elected president of Ukraine. Yanukovych refuses to acknowledge the massive evidence of election fraud on his behalf. Instead, Yanukovych claims, “We prepared for elections — they [prepared] to grab power” (Tovarysh, March 11-14). Yanukovych believes Yushchenko staged a coup d’etat with U.S. help. “This is not a revolution,” he claims, “but political technology with the involvement of special services” (AP, December 6, 2004).
The Yanukovych conspiracy theory goes further still, claiming that Kuchma, former presidential administration head Viktor Medvedchuk, and Yanukovych’s own campaign chief, Serhiy Tyhipko, conspired against Yanukovych. Political analyst Volodymyr Kornilov claimed, “From the very beginning [Yanukovych] was not supposed to win” (glavred.info, April 5).
Yanukovych’s election press secretary, Anna Herman, blamed Tyhipko for “executing somebody’s will” (for-ua.com, February 19). Yanukovych’s main problem, she claimed, was not Yushchenko, but a “third person who did not abandon hopes of being the rescuer of the nation.” Presumably she means Kuchma, as the Constitutional Court had ruled that Kuchma could stand in the 2004 election, as he had only served on full term since the 1996 constitution came into effect.
These views feed into the broader, Soviet-style revival of Western-backed conspiracies that is becoming popular in Russia. Western NGOs are accused of subverting Moscow, and the FSB is reviving KGB-style tactics and rhetoric to defeat this “conspiracy” (Christian Science Monitor, June 1). FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, for example, linked U.S.-backed conspiracies to the democratic revolutions in the CIS. He warned the State Duma, “Our opponents are steadily and persistently trying to weaken Russian influence in the CIS and the international arena as a whole. The latest events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan unambiguously confirm this” (Financial Times, May 31).
The majority of the Russian public and political elite is convinced that Washington put Yushchenko into power and that he is therefore a U.S. lackey. His American-born wife, Kataryna, and her past employment in the U.S. government, are touted as “proof” that she works for the CIA.
The Yushchenko administration unquestionably supports reform and Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. It is therefore strange that they, like their opponents, draw on neo-Soviet political culture by frequently using conspiracy theories to explain their difficulties.