Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 5

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

“The main thing is not how the votes are cast, but how they are counted.” (Stalin)

The recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine attracted an unprecedented amount of attention in the Western press, something not seen since the time of the Chernobyl disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Practically all the leading media in both hemispheres provided intricately detailed insights into all the vagaries of Ukrainian politics before, during and after the elections, and introduced the western public to unfamiliar new terms such as “black PR,” “releasing kompromat” [dishing the dirt] and “administrative resource.”


As a professional analyst of Ukrainian politics, I could not help but feel flattered: I was suddenly in demand by a number of prestigious organizations with an urgent need for a commentary on the riddles and paradoxes of the Ukrainian elections. I attribute this to the decidedly cyclical nature of the Western audience’s interest in Ukraine.

Ukraine, the key republic in the former Soviet Union, played a fateful role in its collapse. Subsequently, as the world’s third greatest nuclear power, Ukraine literally riveted the attention of the world’s leading politicians, who compelled her in 1995 to eliminate her nuclear weapons, just a few years before India and Pakistan acquired some for themselves. Ukraine has experienced (1) intense warmth from the West immediately after the collapse of the USSR (1992-1995–with membership of the CIS and the beginning of nuclear disarmament); (2) a cooling off period (1996-1998, linked with Ukraine’s ambiguous foreign policy position); (3) a period in which hopes that Ukraine could become a buffer to growing Russian neo-imperialism crumbled away (1999-2002).

This last period is especially remarkable. In late 1999, Leonid Kuchma, by playing out the officially approved version of the election campaign, with a communist opponent in the final round, secured re-election for a second five-year term as president. This brought a certain cautious expectation of reform. But instead, a huge political scandal erupted in Kyiv exactly a year after Kuchma’s ascent to the throne. This was the Gongadze affair, the publication of tape recordings made by one of his bodyguards, Major Mykola Melnychenko, of some of Kuchma’s conversations, in which he almost certainly gives orders for the execution of the opposition journalist, and for a cover-up of certain corrupt officials. In the last extract, published in April, he approves the bypassing of UN sanctions to sell Iraq the “Kolchuga” passive target detection radar, worth some $100 million, which probably went into the bank accounts of Kuchma’s family.

He immediately became a pariah in Europe. The world’s leading politicians all shunned him. People began to speak of Ukraine as a second Belarus; Putin, Lukashenka and several Central Asian leaders rushed to his aid. Recently even Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Polish president, spurned him, having apparently finally reached agreement on the construction of the Yamal-West Europe gas pipeline, designed to bypass Ukraine. Kuchma and Ukraine now find themselves in political isolation, alleviated to a limited extent by up-beat reports that Ukraine achieved Eastern Europe’s highest economic growth rates in 2000-2001–not that this had any impact on the real earnings of the population.

The West was disillusioned by Kuchma’s improbable political tenacity. Surely, for any even slightly responsible world political leader, the mere fact of coming under suspicion and being rumored to be involved in the death of Georgy Gongadze, the official investigation of which ground to a halt, would be a resigning matter.

But Kuchma did not resign, and although he admitted that the voice on the tapes was his, he said that someone else put the words and sentences together. No responsible western politician seriously believed this. The barrage of press comment on all the implications of the ‘tapes scandal’ and the Gongadze affair sent Kuchma a clear signal–Kyiv wanted to see someone new. “Whoever might that be?” mused the Ukrainian leader. The answer turned out to be the state’s number two, Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko, who is married to an American citizen and is popular for eliminating the pensions and wages deficit.

Kuchma sacked Yushchenko in May 2001, thereby creating for him a reputation amongst the people as an outcast and therefore also a charismatic leader. The Western mass media instantly styled him as a “young reformer” and “the hope of the nation,” the main threat to the ossified and corruption-ridden Kuchma regime. “The reformer versus the conservative” was the welcome formula adopted by the West in its reading of the pre-election period in Ukraine, rather than the traditional pattern of “communist versus market reformer,” which had helped Kuchma so much during the 1999 elections. All the pre-election opinion polls gave Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc a considerable lead–up to 10 percent–over the communists, and even more of a lead over Kuchma’s party of power, the For A United Ukraine bloc.

Conditions seemed to be right for a classic peaceful transformation of power in this, the greatest state in Eastern Europe, and the strategic guardian of stability in central Europe, with its population of 50 million, and territory the size of France. Yushchenko’s popularity ratings were two to three times greater than Kuchma’s, he enjoyed the unreserved support of the people and of the world’s leading politicians and he was associated with both the process of Ukraine’s market reforms and her integration into Europe.


The post-election situation proved to be much more complicated and too intricate for Western politicians to understand. According to the final results of Ukraine’s hybrid majority-proportional electoral system, first place, based on voting for the parliament’s 450 vacant seats, was taken by the pro-Kuchma For A United Ukraine bloc (with 180 seats), and Yushchenko’s bloc was pushed into second place with 110-120 seats. The remaining seats were distributed as follows: Around 65-70 for the communists, 26 for the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc, 24 for the Ukrainian Socialist Party led by Oleksandr Moroz, and Viktor Medvedchuk’s united Social Democrats were last with around 20 seats. Independent candidates won between 95 and 100 seats. The high number of seats won by the pro-Kuchma For A United Ukraine bloc fell into two categories: 36 were allocated to the bloc from the party lists, and the greater number were won in simple-majority constituencies, which had affiliated themselves to the bloc under pressure from the presidential administration.

“Where’s the democracy in that?” asked one completely baffled Western expert. “This is democracy with a Ukrainian face,” his Ukrainian colleague might have answered. “Situational democracy,” under which, depending on the demands of the internal situation, the country periodically holds elections, though these actually do nothing to change the dictatorial and authoritarian nature of the system, this bizarre amalgam of Soviet-style autocracy and administratively controlled freedoms, whose preservation is guaranteed not by the letter of the law, but at the whim of the head of the administration.

Situational democracy has its counterpart in the situational alliances formed in Ukraine’s still inactive new parliament. At the time of writing, prior to the first session of parliament, set for May 14, a bizarre–by Western standards–coalition has been formed between the right wing blocs of Yushchenko’s and Tymoshenko’s Our Ukraine, with their ostensibly liberal democratic philosophy, and the openly left-wing and orthodox communistic socialist and communist blocs. Ukraine’s political analysts greeted with childish delight the fact that, in the final tallies, this coalition, created at the end of April, outnumbers the pro-presidential forces. It would be logical, again from a western viewpoint, to look for some reforming initiatives from this coalition: Even if the pro-Kuchma forces put the brakes on the coalition’s advance towards a bright capitalist future, the anti-Kuchma forces will still lead towards some key reforms and so towards giving the people a better life.

Not so, Ukraine tells the West. The majority here is situational, which is to say that not even we know how we will vote on any of the issues that we promised the electorate we would deal with if we won the election. And in particular, on the issue of Kuchma’s impeachment. The position of the communists, the socialists and the Tymoshenko bloc–and probably Yushchenko’s for that matter–is negative. “And don’t expect us to come up with any firm decisions,” declared the leaders of the new parliamentary majority. But what is the point of creating a majority just for the sake of it, or a knowingly unworkable situational majority at that? The point is this: Ukraine is just giving another display of pseudo-democratic activity, running energetically on the spot.

In reality, this means one thing: Any hopes for the rapid democratization of Ukraine and lively progress along the path of market reform, once the disgraced Kuchma regime is replaced with the youthful and promising Viktor Yushchenko, are doomed to failure. Yushchenko’s bloc, like the ill-assorted political forces with which it has united, has no clear-cut plans for the immediate future; moreover, they have no new ideas on the strategic orientation of this, the biggest state in Eastern Europe with its population of 50 million. Can Ukraine survive yet more years of aimless drifting? What bearing does the political impotence of her leaders have on the lives of her cheerful and basically hard-working people? If this dilemma can be resolved quickly, it will help eliminate the political black hole in the center of Europe that goes by the name of Ukraine.


The answer to the paradox of modern Ukraine’s political history does not lie in opinion poll figures or the number of seats distributed amongst the various centers of gravity in parliament. It lies in the country’s fragmented national identity, its historical mentality and, finally, its very name. “U-kraina” means something that is “u kraya”–on the edge–that, by virtue of its borderland position, is doomed to a search for something more solid to lean on. The urge to find a greater power than herself has determined the whole history of Ukraine, forcing her into making endless historical choices, and this explains her disunity and split identity.

Kievan Rus was in its time the biggest formation in Europe, though it failed to form a national elite with anything like the hereditary continuity of the political dynasties of the European monarchies. When Kievan Rus adopted the Christianity of Byzantium in 988, it was the result of a pragmatic choice made by Prince Vladimir the Great. On to his profoundly pagan people, with their elemental (and essentially free) polytheistic mythology, he foisted the totalitarian monotheism of what was to them an alien religion, based on Christ’s rationalistic self-sacrifice for the sake of something other (the happiness of mankind).

This primordial schism in the indigenous individualism of the Ukrainians–their inability to understand why they too should renounce all that is familiar and dear for the sake of the happiness of strangers and the promised reward of bliss after death, when the pagans could get this bliss from their collective sexual rites–has in my view played a fateful role in all the subsequent history of this long-suffering people. This way of thinking has caused a permanent dichotomy between the unrealized potentiality of elemental freedom and the imposed maxims obliging them to serve something quite alien.

This dilemma permeates the brief period in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries–mystifying for Europe–when Cossack Ukraine was carved up between the principality of Poland-Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire and Russia. Whom to serve and at what cost, without losing her allotted role as “defender of the Christian faith”–this dilemma nullified any Ukrainian attempt at nation building at the time of the most active formation of nation states in Europe. At a time, while the majority of Europe’s hereditary monarchies, including Russia, were busy with the problem of national expansion and the development of their armies and state institutions, Ukraine, as is clear from the text of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslavl, was preoccupied with two things: Securing the protection of Orthodox Russia against the penetration of Catholicism into Hetman Ukraine, and paying the mercenaries, that is, hired troops and their elected chiefs.

For almost 200 years after Catherine the Great annihilated the Cossack Host in 1775, Ukraine was reduced to Little Russia, a colony on the margins of a vast empire, which did not even condescend to use the Ukrainian language for printing the denominations on its currency (unlike the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and where there was a rapid growth of the ideas that would be espoused later by the separatist movements of the Western Ukraine.

During the brief lifetime of the Ukrainian People’s Republic following the March and October revolutions of 1917, and right up to their overthrow and the occupation by Muraviev’s bands, sent in by Lenin, the Ukrainian social-democratic leadership, under Simon Petlura and Vladimir Vinnichenko, insisted that Ukraine should be a constituent part of a federated Russia; they renounced their army and–long before collectivization–declared communal ownership of the land. After this came the occupation of Ukraine by Germany, and Kyiv changed hands five times between rival forces until, eventually, Ukraine was incorporated firmly into the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet period of colonization of Ukraine included the destruction of the Ukrainian intelligentsia (the “rebirth through execution” of the early 1930s), the artificial Great Famine of 1932-1933 and finally the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Despite this unending chain of degradation and destruction, the Ukrainian elite, and especially the top-level communist party nomenklatura, to which Kravchuk and Kuchma belonged, still derives its sense of identity and well-being primarily from Moscow rather than Ukraine. Hence the continual wavering between the state’s declared (but actually unreal) West European perspective and the very real perspective which derives from Russian-Ukrainian links, and is based on Ukraine’s total dependence on Russian energy supplies.

Against this background, the West saw Viktor Yushchenko’s emergence as heralding the possibility of a democratic and, at the same time, anti-Russian alternative to Ukraine’s slide into ever-greater economic and political dependence on the Kremlin. But is this really the case?


Above all, these have demonstrated the wholesale failure of the proportional-majority electoral system. The dilemma of how the authorities represent the people has never been more critical in Ukraine. The combined potential of the oppositionist electorate (adding together all the votes cast for Our Ukraine, the communists, the socialists and Tymoshenko’s group) amounts to over seventy per cent. In spite of this, the majority in parliament has power that bears no relation to the support of the population. The explanation for this paradox lies in the use of the so-called administrative resource. This is the ability of the President, under Article 118 of the constitution, to appoint and replace local administration chiefs, who are solely accountable to him, rather than to the local population. Ukraine has replicated in miniature the Russian system of governors-general, sent out from the capital to the provinces by the emperor and endowed with his full authority. This single article negates all the ‘democratic’ articles on freedoms, the division of power and so on, and transforms Ukraine into an essentially authoritarian and totalitarian state. Unless it is revoked, it will be destined for use at the will (potential or actual) of whoever holds presidential power. Can Yushchenko and his situational majority initiate a review of electoral law to make it more democratic and to establish elections based on proportional representation?

Yushchenko, as the country’s new charismatic leader and potential president, faces an immeasurably more difficult task: To use the democratization of the electoral system as a basis for eliminating the ‘underground’ life of Ukraine. The question is whether he can destroy the influence of the special services on the country’s private life and limit the activity of the civil community and its burgeoning institutions, as well as the activities of the Security Service (SBU), the tax inspectorate and tax police, the prosecutor’s office and the courts. In Ukraine, the 1992 law on the SBU, modeled on the USSR’s May 1991 law on the KGB, provides for the inclusion of SBU operatives on the staff of almost every organization, state-owned or private: The SBU has in practice taken control of the activities of every Internet provider in the country. And tax inspection bodies have long since become yet another political weapon in the hands of the administration. And these are only the most visible manifestations, outrageous nonetheless, of the totalitarian administration that characterizes Ukraine’s situational democracy. This is not usually mentioned in the western media; nevertheless, it is on the elimination by law of the use of these organizations to enforce political control of the life of both society and individual citizens that the future of Ukraine and her charismatic leader, Viktor Yushchenko, really depends.

The analysts foresaw his role. But they failed to predict the emergence on the political stage (leaving aside the question of their values and morality) of such sociologically ‘unreliable’ personalities as Vladimir Litvin, leader of For A United Ukraine and chief of the presidential administration, or his colleague in the same bloc, Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh. They (and others like them) can be expected to use the media to build themselves up as serious contenders against Yushchenko in the presidential elections, especially bearing in mind Stalin’s immortal aphorism, so clearly embodied in the Ukrainian elections: “The main thing is not how the votes are cast, but how they are counted.”

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.