Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 5

By Volodymyr Zviglianich

Ukraine has once again caught the world by surprise. She first made the headlines when the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power station blew up, seriously threatening Europe with radioactive contamination, threatening Ukraine–which had built itself a nuclear monster on the banks of its main artery, the Dnepr river–with the destruction of its gene pool, and threatening the Soviet Union with collapse. In the flurry of articles which the accident elicited in the Western press, the following sentiment could be detected amidst the universal pity: How could they deliberately ruin the ecological environment and the lives of tens of millions of people in Central Europe for centuries to come? Chernobyl was a moment of truth for the Soviet people, and for Ukrainians it represented a powerful impulse towards acquiring their own national identity–an impulse that rocked the Soviet Union.

The current situation in Ukraine is in many ways similar to that which developed after the tragic events of the morning of April 26, 1986. There is a symbolic similarity: Viktor Yushchenko’s government fell on the same date, eliciting a flurry of articles in the world’s press second in scale only to that inspired by Chernobyl. And there is a conceptual similarity: Like the nuclear Chernobyl, the “political Chernobyl” in Kyiv, which culminated in Yushchenko’s resignation, is fraught with unpredictable consequences for the 49 million people of Ukraine.

Just as it did ten years ago, Ukraine now stands at a geopolitical crossroads, and the prospects for regional and global security will depend to a great extent on which way she turns (or whether she stands still in a stagnant stupor). Again, amidst the universal pity at Yushchenko’s resignation, this sentiment could be detected: The Ukrainians have managed to bury the most successful government they have had since independence. But was the political fiasco surrounding Yushchenko circumstantial or was it par for the course?


It is my view that Yushchenko’s resignation was a conventional phenomenon. Not one of the nine governments Ukraine has seen since independence has lasted for more than eighteen months. Thus, statistically speaking, Yushchenko’s departure should have come at the end of last year. He was saved simply by the fact that, according to the constitution, a government cannot be dismissed less than a year after its program has been endorsed by parliament.

The reason most often cited by Ukrainian analysts for Yushchenko’s failure is that he is “a strong economist but a weak politician.” One cannot but agree. In his entire period in office, accompanied by wild expectations of success for the “reformist” government both in the West and among right-wing national liberals, Yushchenko failed to establish a sound political base for himself.

His resignation was the logical result of the weakness programmed into the political system in Ukraine (and indeed in Russia), with a deliberately politically neutral government (which cannot be seen in any developed country in the world), and an excessive concentration of power in the hands of presidential “legal tyrants,” on whom there is complete dependence. Following his appointment as prime minister, Yushchenko was expected to deliver something that was clearly impossible: To find a political base for his government in the guise of an ad-hoc “propresidential majority” in parliament made up of an unnatural alliance between right-wing, pro-Western national liberals, and oligarchic parties loyal to Kuchma, with their undisguised Eurasian orientation.

In every other country in the world, prime ministers rely on an existing political majority, and then form their own governments from that majority. Yushchenko was not given the chance to do either. A government which is headed by a nominal “reformer,” but which is de facto formed by the president, who naturally appoints the key ministers, could only be described as “reformist” by hopelessly naive observers and journalists. But this is what happened, and the myth of Yushchenko’s reforming government (akin to the old myth of the “reforming” President Kuchma) was firmly established in foreign publications. The collapse of a myth is particularly dramatic, which is why the fall of Yushchenko’s government evoked such a strong feeling of empathy in the press and among Western politicians.

At the same time, Yushchenko’s resignation represents an essential moment of truth for politics in Ukraine: It provides unambiguous evidence of the fact that nonparty government is a glaring anachronism and a throwback to the Soviet past, when the country was ruled by one single party, which knew what the people needed better than they did themselves. With Yushchenko’s resignation, there comes a glimmer of hope that Ukraine will eventually reconcile itself to the idea that there is nothing unnatural in the principle of power alternating between various parties and the governments they form, and that the faster the country makes the transition to this model, the easier it will be to assess its level of “reformism.”

Yushchenko’s resignation highlights another paradox–the myth of his popularity. In every opinion poll, without exception, he ran neck-and-neck with President Kuchma, and after the scandal provoked by the publication of major Melnychenko’s tapes featuring what were probably recordings of Kuchma’s conversations, Yushchenko became the sole leader on the Ukrainian political stage. It may be said that his popularity grew in inverse proportion to his chances of survival in the Ukrainian political arena.

This raises the legitimate question: If Yushchenko was so popular and dear to the people, why did his inevitable departure not provoke mass protests and acts of civil disobedience (as in Yugoslavia), or other peaceful means of putting pressure on parliament and the president? Was it because Yushchenko himself did not want this, but wanted his “reforming” government to fail? Here is what Yushchenko said to the UNIAN press agency on April 21, 2001 about his prospects of being dismissed by parliament: “My mind tells me that they won’t succeed, but my heart tells me that it would be better if they did–it would be easier for me and for Ukraine as a whole” (UNIAN, April 12, 2001). That a prime minister should wish with all his heart for his government to fail for the sake of Ukraine and for his own well being–surely this is without precedent in the political history of the world?! All of this suggests that the key to understanding the reasons for Yushchenko’s resignation lies in the idiosyncrasies of the current national identity of Ukraine and her people.


Yushchenko’s resignation–and here lies another moment of truth–revealed the limits of the ambivalence and spineless indifference of Ukrainian conservatism. Yushchenko introduced his government’s program by promising a rise in overall wealth. In content the program was revolutionary, but its implementation would entail more suffering for the public, a growth in unemployment and other negative emotions, whereas the ideal for national contentment is a maximum of positive emotions coupled with a minimum of effort required to achieve them. Such a paradigm simply allows no room for “reformism”, because this entails destruction of the natural conservative equilibrium of the individual and the environment to which the average Ukrainian aspires, intuitively and subconsciously. In other words, the dilemma was this: Is a reformist program possible against a background of hedonism as opposed to Protestantism (or at least comprehension of the fact that in order to achieve contentment personal effort is required in addition to a reforming prime minister)?

This only served to reinforce the paradoxical nature of his program: Reformist and revolutionary in form, it was inevitably doomed to remain conservative in content, as a consequence of the conservatism of the national psychology and national models of contentment. Essentially, the “reforms” themselves were also conservative–a small increase in pensions and an improvement in wage payments, accompanied by a significant growth in prices and a rise in inflation. People simply did not feel any noticeable improvement in their standard of living, because inflation and price increases ate it all up. The “reformist” government did not create the necessary conditions for an increase in personal savings as the source of future economic progress. Nothing changed in the organization of industry either–it remained energy-intensive and centered on mineral extraction. The Ukrainian stock exchange remained in a rudimentary state; its index froze at almost zero from the moment Yushchenko arrived, and the volume of daily transactions rarely exceeded US$20-40 million.

Yushchenko’s political position was characterized by the same ambivalence and contradiction: While saying a great deal of positive things about the western liberal economic model and its principles, Yushchenko managed to leave unanswered the question of when these principles–particularly free competition and a transparent fiscal policy–would be implemented in Ukraine. Yushchenko’s style was marked by the absence of a clear and unambiguous position on a whole range of issues which were of concern to people: Why were prices and inflation rising; why was social inequality on the increase; why were social programs being cut back; and why was the number of monuments increasing?

The feeling clearly was that Yushchenko, whatever his own personal wishes, had failed to negotiate the barriers between the government and the people, and had failed to overcome the traditional indifference shown towards the public at a time when they expected concerned involvement in their fate. This is precisely why Yushchenko’s resignation was met with traditional Ukrainian indifference, which was particularly reinforced when Yushchenko effectively teamed up with Kuchma to accuse the opposition of fascism and political irresponsibility in the famous “Appeal to the Ukrainian people from the president, the prime minister and the parliamentary speaker” of February 13, 2001. “Yushchenko was willing, but he couldn’t do it”–this phrase incorporates both the key to his popularity and the indifference of the Ukrainian people to his fate and that of his government.

However, Yushchenko’s resignation has forced Ukraine to face the need to acknowledge the limits of the conservative ideal of national contentment, and to recognize the need to review it. It is impossible to change something while remaining indifferent to the world outside and to oneself–this may be what Yushchenko meant by wanting his team to fail. In the prime minister’s view, this failure was supposed to kickstart the process of breaking down national conservatism and indifference. This is an incontrovertibly positive feature of his government.


Is Yushchenko himself capable of providing what his resignation called for–a boost to the formation of an involved national identity? To do this he must first get rid of his own internal ambivalence and contradiction. As the journalist Sergei Rakhmanin of Zerkalo Nedeli accurately notes, Yushchenko is a politician with “the face of a Hollywood actor and the hands of a Ukrainian peasant”. Yushchenko’s “Westernism,” which has deep family roots, edges him towards liberal market models for Ukrainian contentment and the concepts of activism and responsibility; while his peasant heart, as a native of Sumy Oblast–the poorest Ukrainian oblast on the Russian border–pushes him towards the conservative paradigm.

Yushchenko’s first actions since resigning do not yet suggest that he may become the country’s political leader, as the opposition hopes. There is one simple reason for this: In calling for the creation of a broad bloc of democratic forces for reform, he says that this bloc should not be “nationalistic” or anti-Kuchma. Such a political platform is diametrically opposed to that of the forces supporting Yushchenko in parliament, which see Ukraine as a strong, national state with a national government and, of course, “without Kuchma.” Until Yushchenko finds the inner strength to overcome his own ambivalence it is not possible to speak of him as a leader of the pro-Western national democratic forces.

Could Yushchenko’s closest associate, Yulia Tymoshenko, carry the nation with her? Her political behavior aligns Tymoshenko with the “zealots,” fiery revolutionaries who possess undoubted charisma among their few followers. She loves Ukraine, as she said in an interview with the Moscow newspaper Kommersant on April 11. At the same time she admires Putin: “I respect Russia now, and your new president and the new leadership, because in running the country they have no other god but the interests of the nation” (Kommersant, April 11). Alongside Putin, Tymoshenko is also full of admiration for Rem Vyakhirev, the CEO of Gazprom. She describes him as “the nation’s elite, the nation’s pride” (Kommersant, April 11). In contrast to Yushchenko’s fuzziness, Tymoshenko’s program is quite clear: Authoritarian nationalism under one leader.

The declared ideal is complemented by the method–a referendum, rather than elections, should change the political system in Ukraine from a presidential republic to a parliamentary-presidential republic. Essentially this is what the communists and socialists have been calling for ever since the institution of the presidency was introduced in Ukraine. The internal contradictions among right-wingers trying to follow a “left” agenda will split them. Political success in Ukraine today will be achieved by the person who can present a political platform free of ambivalence.

The national democrats, particularly Bogdan Boiko, leader of the People’s Movement (Rukh) of Ukraine for Unification (not to be confused with Gennady Udovenko’s People’s Movement of Ukraine or Yury Kostenko’s Ukrainian People’s Movement) make a lot of noise about Tymoshenko’s Bolshevik platform and how its aims coincide with the communists’ ideal of Ukrainian parliamentarianism. The program of the national liberals (the three above-mentioned “Rukh” movements, the pro-Yushchenko alliance Sobor, and Pinzennik’s Reform and Order party) are noted for their pro-Western orientation, but their popularity is negligible in eastern Ukraine. Only by broadening their political base might the national liberals and pro-Westerners have some chance of success. As for now, their prospects are gloomy, and the idea of a referendum to prick Kuchma’s conscience and force him to resign voluntarily is doomed to failure: Kuchma, as he demonstrated in the “heady spring” of 2001, does not give in to pressure easily.

The communists, with their leaders Petr Symonenko and Stanislav Gurenko, have no interest today in removing Kuchma from power, because they are happy with their status as the official opposition in parliament with a controlling bloc of votes (109) for endorsing the prime minister. The communists are in a good position to lobby for all their ministerial and economic interests in the run-up to parliamentary elections. The political analyst Nikolai Tomenko does not believe that they are ready for early presidential elections, because they do not have a strong candidate and understand that if elections were held tomorrow then Yushchenko would probably win, which would not suit them at all (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 25). The oligarchs, who have teamed up with the communists to block the only presidential candidate dangerous for them–Yushchenko–do not have a strong candidate for president, and cooperation with Kuchma suits them too.

Geopolitically, Tomenko believes, it may be said that today’s communists and oligarchs are people who find the Eurasian option more natural than the European one. For the communists this is related to their ideology; for the oligarchs with their business. Europe has not accepted them, and has even initiated criminal proceedings against some of them. But with Russia and other former Soviet republics, particularly Asiatic ones, business–involving offshore companies, money laundering and re-export of energy–is ticking over quite nicely.


1. Yushchenko’s resignation is an expression of the deep crisis in Ukrainian national identity, and of the fact that it is impossible for Ukraine to move closer to Europe or the West while leaving her roots in the Eurasian geopolitical space and without changing the conservative hedonistic paradigm of national contentment.

2. Ukraine must either pull up its Eurasian roots, or stop speaking of “entering Europe” as a strategic aim for the nation.

3. Of the current political forces in Ukraine, the only ones free of political ambivalence are the pro-western national liberals, who are unpopular in eastern Ukraine, and the Eurasians, led by the communists and oligarchs, who control the financial and administrative resources.

4. Ukraine’s political future will be decided according to whichever tendency and political position declares itself unambiguously. Until then, political life in the country will be in a state of chaos, involving short-term political alliances and a battle for the votes of the electorate in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections.

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.