Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 11

By Vladimir Zviglyanich

You might be forgiven for assuming that this article is going to be about Ukraine’s contribution to U.S.-led efforts to destroy the terrorist organization, al-Qaida, its fearless leaders and the Taliban regime. But there will be none of this, and not just because Ukraine is simply unable to participate in these actions, first, owing to its disinclination to cooperate in the way that Britain has, second, as a result of its physical inability to participate and, third, because of its general reluctance to act independently without some reference to Moscow.

This article will examine the image of the enemy America has run up against, and the similarity–however paradoxical it may sound–between the main elements of the ideology and practices of the Taliban, and the politics and world view of Ukraine. Yes, Ukraine, like Russia, has officially declared its support for the United States in the war against international terrorism. But you need only watch and listen to the coverage of this war on the Russian news program “Vremya” and on UT-1 (Ukraine’s main state-run TV channel), to detect the main (and real) message: You Americans deserved it; it’s your own fault; you got yourselves into this! The real terrorists, therefore, are not bin Laden and al-Qaida, but the Americans, with their Middle East policy, the domination of the Jewish lobby in the United States in general and their support for Israel in particular.

Because this theme dominates the state-run TV channels of both countries, I need not cite specific examples. It is worth noting, however, one venomous comment Vremya anchorwoman Katerina Andreyeva made on October 10, to the effect that nowhere in Afghanistan is there a single thing that is worth as much money as the American cruise missile used to destroy it, and that, having run out of targets in Afghanistan, American planes are returning to their aircraft carriers with unexpended weapons. As the saying goes, where nothing is, nothing can be had, America! This is essentially the same message that bin Laden and his aides are trying to convey to America and all the Arabs of the Middle East in their broadcasts on al-Jazeera TV.

So the problem is as follows. Do the Ukrainian government and people realize that the world now stands on cusp between existence and nonexistence, between reason and unreason, and that it is now imperative to determine on which side of the divide Ukraine sees itself? Or will Ukraine’s leaders continue to pursue their wholly irrational policy of “multidirectional” maneuvering between the main centers of international politics, making money in the shape of multimillion dollar loans, which they are highly unlikely to repay, in order to satisfy the authorities’ every whim?

If you want to know what happens to these loans, you need only look at the massive program for the construction of monuments and commercial properties in Russia and Ukraine, especially in the centers of Moscow and Kiev, and remember that the outflow of money from these projects into offshore accounts, according to official Ukrainian statistics, amounts to between 50 and 70 percent of the original estimated budget… But that is by the by.

Now, as never before, the moment has come for Ukraine to make a choice, more metaphysical than political–one of outlook rather than action. Does Ukraine really understand what is going on between America and al-Qaida, or is it just making all the right noises, while in reality covertly finding common cause with the main principle of the Islamic fundamentalists: that of opposition to American interests worldwide in defense of their own immutable national interests, even if these border either on paranoid fanaticism, as in the case of Islamic fundamentalism, or on a complex about their national pride being hurt by the policies of the “wealthy’ nations, as in the case of Russia and Ukraine.

This is how Ukraine will demonstrate whether it has learned the key lessons of this “American tragedy’….


The first step taken by the American administration in its war against international terrorism and particularly Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, which operates under Taliban protection–the freezing of their finances and the organization of an international war on moneylaundering–was greeted by Ukraine with blunt incomprehension. It had been generally expected that there would be a reciprocal attack on the Taliban using missiles, laser bombs and other military hardware. But the White House’s declaration of a financial war against the Taliban and al-Qaida was treated by the Russian and Ukrainian media with bitter irony, and drew expressions both of sympathy for America’s belated awakening to the problem and of doubt that such a war would achieve anything: After all, the serious deals are surely all done in hard cash.

This reaction was no surprise. According to official Ukrainian statistics, 50 to 60 percent of its economy operates “in the shadows.” This means that over half the financial flows and transactions in a country situated in the heart of Europe take place outside the financial institutions established to control them.

The economic life of the state has therefore given rise to two parallel structures: one in which the real business is done with hard cash, with the attendant colossal profits and risks for all the players involved, who are known collectively in the West as “new Russians,” and a second especially set up to deceive the West and to demonstrate, during the routine regulatory inspections by the IMF and the World Bank, that we are just the same as every one else, with computers, debit and credit accounts, and so on.

The first of these structures operates as it has done for hundreds of years. Money changes hands and is taken away in suitcases, under the protection of armed guards while still in our country, and without them once in the West. Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and his wife bought themselves Eddy Murphy’s former mansion in California for US$5.5 million in cash. The activities of this shadow structure remain almost untouched by modern practices: No computers are used and debit and credit accounts are kept only in the heads of the individuals responsible for the management of these global or national funds. Anyone with the nerve and ability to give an account of the subtleties of the financial transactions and the relationships between the players in this sphere would surely deserve the Nobel Prize for economics.

But of course there is no one bold enough to do so, now or in the foreseeable future. If there were, the world might be told where to find the notorious gold of the old Soviet Communist Party, in which the Ukrainian Communist Party accounted for several million members.

We might also be told who planned the dismantling of the “cooperative movement” in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, and how. These cooperatives, proclaimed in the West as a means of introducing capitalist economics into socialism, were in fact a channel through which state resources could be appropriated and funneled into offshore accounts abroad. It is common knowledge where these funds were concentrated: The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, the Antilles and other such exotic locations.

The world might have found out, finally, how it was and who it was that managed to liquidate the banked savings of tens of millions of citizens of the Soviet Union and, as a consequence, of the new independent states, when prices rose overnight in 1992 by a factor of tens of thousands, without any compensation for depositors. To get some idea of what happened in the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse, Americans should try and imagine all their savings, without exception, simply ceasing to exist, so that, having gone to bed pretty well off, they would wake up to find themselves in poverty. Such was the scale of the “Taliban” strike on Ukraine, carried out by people upon whom independence fell like a bolt from the blue, giving them a unique opportunity to enrich themselves while deceiving the West about what was happening.

All these facts are well known; it was simply not the done thing to talk of them and basically I also obeyed this unwritten rule. However, the “American tragedy” of September 11 should be a reminder that, if the United States and the West seriously want to eradicate the shadow economy, of which the operations of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other exotic organizations are a part, then the scope of their efforts must include what is probably the largest offender of all–the network of shady financial operations, both at home and abroad, using money from the former Soviet Union and the resources of the new independent states.

Otherwise, their efforts will merely prove to be so much rhetoric, just like the use of Western taxpayers’ money to support the reforms… A hypothetical starting point for efforts by the relevant organizations of the West might be the presumed links between the shadow financial structures of the countries of the former Soviet Union and al-Qaida or the Taliban, which are doubtless connected with a taste for and interest in the drugs trade.

If Ukraine, in turn, is seriously concerned about the “Western” aspect of its international policies, then there will be no better opportunity to prove it than now. Ukraine need only do what the West has been asking it to do for the last ten years, and what Ukrainian officials have in fact already earnestly committed themselves to, which is to ensure transparency in financial transactions, and to stop pretending that the shadow structures of al-Qaida and the Taliban are governed by bad, “terrorist” laws, while the equivalent structures in Ukraine are subject to their own, good, “home-grown” laws, to which the West has already resigned itself. As already indicated, this will be the moment when Ukraine shows it really understands the current world situation, and can check the effectiveness of the modernizing efforts of the state.


But is it really a state? An increasing number of political analysts and experts on state-building are asking themselves what the classification and typology of the new independent states should be. There is no definitive answer to the question. Neither is it obvious that one is possible. In the meantime, though, the experts have come to the conclusion (q.v. Aleksandr Privalov: “Pro zayvi sutnosti’, Ukrains’ka Pravda, October 15, 2001) that while the new independent states have gone some way towards putting in place the formal attributes of statehood, they are in fact not yet states, since they do not collect taxes, their budgets do not satisfy the basic requirements for development, law and order systems are ineffective, and their armies are in a state of collapse (we will return to this last point).

The issue is how these quasi-states function in the international arena, given their ill-defined structure and responsibilities, and the fact that their institutions fail to fulfill their declared and legally enshrined functions, either internally or beyond their borders. In this sense, the “dysfunctionality” of Ukraine (leaving aside, of course, the most objectionable features of the Taliban regime) dates back much further than the Taliban, which came to power only in 1996. In one sense, the Taliban even have something to learn from Ukraine, especially when it comes to planning how to deceive Western public opinion.

People like to write about Afghanistan’s poverty and how the Taliban have made their people amongst the poorest in the world. But if we conduct a detailed comparative study of Ukraine, then I fear that in terms of numbers and proportions the situation may prove to be even worse. Ten years after independence, the standard of living in Ukraine for over ninety percent of the population–which has reacted by dwindling in number by two and half million–is now on a par with the poorest countries of the African continent and not far removed from that of Afghanistan (for a detailed analysis of the statistics see Evgen Marchuk: Pyat’ rokiv ukrains’koi tragedii, Kiev, 1999).

Relatively speaking, the decline of Ukraine has been swifter and more dramatic than that of Afghanistan, whose population has been continuously at war for more than twenty years. This factor, or more accurately, its absence, aggravates the situation for Ukraine: The country has in fact achieved a record decline in living standards for peace-time, while, incredibly, the Ukrainian authorities seem to take pride in having maintained a peaceful society. In reality, this means that Ukraine’s leaders have failed to take advantage of the unique opportunities for peaceful development that other new independent states have seen, or to achieve the stable rates of economic growth which might have been possible given the incredible forbearance of the Ukrainian people. This means that essentially the Ukrainian state has been unable to fulfill its most basic functions and that, even without banning music, sport, or education for women as the Taliban did, it must effectively be seen as an “ersatz” quasi-state in the international arena.

Thus the current world situation that has emerged since September 11 and that has drawn attention to the Taliban and their activities in Afghanistan, offers Ukraine (perhaps for the last time) a unique chance to bring the formal attributes of statehood (which should clearly include the way in which elections are held in the country) into line with the declared democratic nature of the state.


It is characteristic of quasi-state formations such as the Taliban and Ukraine to focus on the formal military attributes of statehood. Ukraine could think of no better way to mark the tenth anniversary of its independence than with a pompous military parade, in the grotesque old socialist style. The Taliban boasts that for America the real war is still to come, when they send their ground forces into Afghan territory. At the same time, the Taliban propose to spirit Osama bin Laden away somewhere and so to bring a halt to the bombing, a proposal rejected by the United States. The policies of the Taliban exhibit some of the qualities of the guerrilla warfare which is traditional in this country: Carrying out strikes by stealth, approaching the enemy from behind, and then scattering to the four winds at the first attack.

There is nothing courageous in the use of tactics and policies such as these; and there is no recognition that history cannot turn back the clock and return the world to the traditions of the Middle Ages, forgetting about all the intellectual and philosophical movements of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The real measure of a state’s courage and confidence in its people are an ability to recognize the actual state of affairs and a quest for the truth, however cruel it might be.

Conversely, the pursuit of illusions and evasion of the truth attest to a state’s cowardice, immaturity and distrust of its people. In the catastrophic episode of the Russian aircraft shot down by a Ukrainian missile over the Black Sea on October 4, Ukraine gave the clearest demonstration that it is, regrettably, still far from possessing such courage or being able to handle difficult truths, and that for all the pomposity of its military parades, its armed forces are in a scandalous state of disarray and a direct threat to its neighbors. It was the height of irresponsibility to organize pointless military maneuvers involving the heavy S-200 air defense missiles in one of Europe’s busiest air traffic regions. It was doubly irresponsible not to notify the world’s airlines of the maneuvers.

The Ukrainian authorities’ reaction to the catastrophe, the real reason for which was reported almost immediately by US intelligence agencies, will remain forever on their consciences. Leonid Kuchma’s words, that there was no need to make a tragedy out of it, that worse mistakes are made, and that Ukraine’s image would not be damaged, left several Russian observers wondering about the Ukrainian president’s mental health. And the cowardly and tearful condolences conveyed belatedly in his name by his press secretary, when it became impossible to conceal the truth any longer, only served to reinforce the analogy with the tactics of the Taliban.

Can Ukraine rid itself of the congenital defects of “Sovietism” in its dealings with the truth, its own population and world opinion? Will it recognize that courage in politics enhances, rather than demeans, a country? The lessons of the American tragedy of September 11 have given Ukraine a unique opportunity to do so.

Vladimir 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.