Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 3

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

The dramatic events in Russia at the turn of the new century, with the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and the transfer of full power to Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly eclipse everything else going on in the former Soviet republics, Ukraine included.

At the same time, events in Ukraine, with Leonid Kuchma’s election victory, his promise to be “a totally different president” during his second term, and the appointment of Viktor Yushchenko as prime minister–no less dramatic and significant than Putin’s appointment as acting president of Russia–provide a good basis for a comparative analysis of the two events: Putin becoming president and Yushchenko becoming prime minister.

First, they happened at almost exactly the same time: Putin assumed power on 31 December, while Ukraine’s parliament endorsed Yushchenko on 22 December–the very day when, as Putin recalls, he and Yeltsin discussed in the Kremlin the president’s resignation and the transfer of power to Putin.

Second, both Putin and Yushchenko belong to the new generation of politicians, which differs from Yeltsin’s generation and even Kuchma’s. They are both young–Yushchenko is 45, Putin 47. They share a pragmatic outlook and are committed to market reforms. They were both brought into positions of power by their presidents, though only time will tell whether Yushchenko will follow in Putin’s footsteps.

Third, the two politicians are united by the fact that no one really knows anything about them. Putin was a KGB resident in East Germany, responsible for contacts with the Stasi, the East German equivalent of the KGB; he was a law student of Anatoly Sobchak, and then an official in Sobchak’s administration when he was mayor of Leningrad. Anatoly Chubais brought Putin to Moscow and secured him a position in President Yeltsin’s administration, from where he went on to become head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). He is a black belt in judo, likes animals and strong language, which he uses in reference to Chechen bandits.

Yushchenko, in the neat phrase of Kyiv journalist Sergei Rakhmanin, is the prime minister with the Hollywood face and big peasant’s hands, and is officially thought of as the “father of the Ukrainian currency” who saved the hryvna from free-fall after the collapse of the Russian ruble in August 1998. However, since it was introduced in September 1996 the hryvna has fallen approximately threefold against the dollar–from 1.8 hryvna to the dollar to 5.44 in early 2000. However, in popular and official legend Yushchenko has remained the godfather of the national currency and the guru of Ukrainian monetarists.

This fairy tale is now coming to an end. Yushchenko has taken over as prime minister, inheriting all the problems which were a stumbling-block for so many Ukrainian prime ministers before him. These include the ruins of industrial production, all-pervasive corruption, the default threatening Ukraine in March and much more. It could be said that Prime Minister/President Putin faces the same problems. Nevertheless, the public perception of them is radically different from that of their predecessors–Valery Pustovoytenko in Ukraine and Sergei Stepashin in Russia.

Putin’s rating has reached almost indecent heights for Russia, exceeding 50 percent. A little bit more and it would be possible to speak of total adoration for the beloved leader, and to declare the approaching elections of March 26 a mere formality. For the three months he was prime minister, Sergei Stepashin is perhaps only remembered for his vows of loyalty to Yeltsin regardless of what happened to Stepashin himself.

Yushchenko’s popularity also far exceeds the few plus-points Pustovoytenko managed to scrape together as perhaps Ukraine’s most nondescript prime minister, who after a record two-and-a-half years in power is best remembered, like Stepashin, for his vows of loyalty to the head of state and also for mustering tax dodgers for civil defense training.

Meanwhile, neither Yushchenko nor Putin have actually done anything to improve the lives of their people. So what is the origin of this overwhelmingly positive reaction to their appointments from people in both countries?

The answer probably lies in the particular way mass perceptions are formed in this hi-tech age. Yushchenko and Putin are both virtual politicians: The decisive role in creating their positive image was played by the media and the rapidly expanding Internet. Responding to the challenge of the times, on New Year’s Eve Putin launched his website, where he placed his manifesto, “Russia at the dawn of a new century”. Yushchenko does not have a website, but he had far more time than Putin did for establishing his positive image in the Ukrainian media. Since about 1996, Yushchenko has been mentioned with increasing frequency as the most serious candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, but one who will not venture to talk about this in public, a factor which only adds to his qualities in the eyes of potential voters and ordinary people who are sympathetic to him.

Because they belong to the ranks of virtual politicians, Putin and Yushchenko both differ radically from their cohort of predecessors, charismatic politicians such as Yeltsin, Kravchuk, Primakov, Chernomyrdin and, to some extent, even Kuchma. Charismatic politicians have to possess characteristics which exist among the broad masses. Yeltsin, for example, was a charismatic leader not least because of his drinking and bear-like clumsiness, coupled with his impish cunning and his intuitive sense of what the people wanted from him.

The same goes for the first post-Soviet Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, who combined archetypal Ukrainian cunning and the newly discovered nationalism of a turncoat party boss, creating a sense of Ukrainian separateness and aloofness. It was by playing on these nationalist features after the failed August putsch in Russia in 1991, and particularly before the presidential elections in December 1991, that Kravchuk came to power. A charismatic politician selects certain features of the national character and psychology and emphasizes them, telling voters: “You will see yourself in me, but a slightly better version of yourself.”

This is not the case with virtual politicians, who include Putin, Yushchenko and, in some ways, Kuchma. Virtual politicians do not choose a feature of the national character to rely on later. Conversely, they create one and implant the idea that it has always been inherent in people–or, in other words, voters. With the help of bombs in apartment blocks in Moscow and other towns, which, according to the Independent newspaper, were organized by the FSB (Helen Womak: Russian agents “blew up” Moscow flats. Independent, January ), Putin used cyberspace to convince people that their lives were literally in danger from their enemies, who were identified as Chechen terrorists. Although nobody has produced any evidence to support this idea, and no suspects have been arrested, the virtual images of a universal enemy and a national savior or messiah have become an objective reality which is recorded in opinion polls and which secured victory at the Duma elections for the party known as Unity-Medved, thrown together in an emergency under the leadership of emergencies minister Sergei Shoigu, a personal friend of Putin.

This virtual image of the enemy, and the sense that Russia’s fate, according to Putin, was being decided in Chechnya, led to the unleashing of a second Chechen war, comparable to the Afghan war in the scale of the “limited contingent” of troops there–100,000. The prospects for a rapid and victorious conclusion are rather unclear, though the virtual war has achieved its aim of creating (or recreating) in the mass consciousness the sense of an outside threat, an awareness of the need to close ranks in the face of this threat, and recognition of the only person who can overcome this threat and bring happiness to the people. In other words: There is no alternative to Putin.

There was something similar going on in Ukraine during the recent presidential elections, with the image of the universal enemy transferred from the Chechens to the “communists,” and Kuchma, the former communist party man, obeying the laws of miraculous turncoat transformations and turning into a militant democrat, the man to crush the communist virus. In the virtual space of mass media myths and images there was also no alternative to Kuchma either.

It is now being suggested that Yushchenko should try the same thing. He should play the role of the strong prime minister who can locate the still trembling muscle in the exhausted body of the population and give it a reforming boost. At the same time, neither Putin nor Yushchenko have more than a vague idea of what they are going to do with the power that they possess.

In his article “Russia at the dawn”, Putin promises to strengthen the role of the state in economic reforms. He has even rejected the idea of the “social orientation” of market reforms which holds sway both among his predecessors and in the Ukrainian beau-monde. Putin’s first major decree strengthening state regulation of the economy, presented by the chairman of Russia’s Central Bank Viktor Gerashchenko, stipulated that exporters should sell 100% of their hard currency proceeds to the state. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences of such a decree, which brought sharp criticism from the IMF: Hard currency proceeds will be hidden in offshore accounts, and there will be further capital flight from Russia.

However, in the virtual space of virtual politics, such a measure only reinforces Putin’s reputation in the eyes of the electorate as a “strong man” and the “defender” of Russia’s “national interests”.

Yushchenko loses out in comparison with Putin because he has not issued any statements or manifestos, except for the “rapid measures” for his first one hundred days in office. The new Ukrainian premier will try to use this round number of days (with a nod to the traditional Soviet fascination with zeros after whole numbers) to stabilize the shaky financial system and revive foreign investors’ confidence in Ukraine.

Both tasks are in fact known to be unachievable, because financial systems are created over several years if not decades, and the confidence of foreign investors in Ukraine seems to have been lost forever after three parliamentary and governmental reviews of the 1992 Law on foreign investments, each subsequent version effectively canceling the guarantees given to dare-devil foreign businessmen in the previous version.

In the words of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, “when we ask American businessmen… why they do not invest more here (in Ukraine), we get the same answers: high and unpredictable taxes, complicated and arbitrary regulations and standards, corruption, the inability to enforce contracts and judicial rulings.” (Ambassador Pifer speaks on Ukraine’s next step. The Ukrainian Weekly, January 2, 2000). The ambassador stressed the issue Ukraine needs the most, namely, the development of an open, competitive market economy as an essentail component of Ukraine’s democratic aspirations. However, Steven Pifer thinks that “as Ukraine proceeds to build such an economy, the people who most threaten that vision of Ukraine’s future are not those who wave Communist banners or yell slogans against the West. I am more worried about the oligarchs who have become comfortable under the current system. These are not people who want to return to the past. They may even call for economic reform as a general policy. But, as a practical matter, they do not want deregulation, or competitive privatizations or transparency in sectors of the economy where they have authority and control. They do not want competition in sectors where they have personal interests. These people pose a major challenge to genuine change” (Ibid.)

The words Pifer used to describe the challenges facing Ukraine’s new prime minister, Yushchenko, may be applied in equal measure to Putin too: The fate of democracy in Russia, and regional and international stability depend on how successfully he deals with the Sisyphean task of turning clan-based mafia capitalism into open “popular” capitalism. In other words, Putin has to find an alternative to Boris Berezovsky, while Yushchenko has to find an alternative to the oligarchs Alexander Volkov, Viktor Pinchuk an Vladimir Rabinovich.

Can they cope with this task? Will they find the resolution to do battle not with their own people, but with those who are actually robbing the people?

Putin has staked his future on Chechnya. Military success in this, the most bloody campaign since Afghanistan, would be equivalent to political success in the campaign for control of the choicest piece of property in Russia–the Kremlin. Putin therefore cannot lose, and the West will be “sold” the virtual image of Putin the family man, the judo champion, the trustworthy debtor and born democrat. It is unlikely that Putin will be able to deal with the behind-the-scenes influence of the people who brought him to power.

Paradoxically, Yushchenko is in a more advantageous position. He does not have to win a military campaign in order to demonstrate his own political abilities. All that is required of him is to find the inner strength to cope with the ever growing pressure from the oligarchs–and the parties which represent them–to avoid transparency in business and opening it up to the people and the world.

Is Yushchenko equal to this task? A native of Sumskaia Oblast, which borders on Russia and is the most hard-done-by in terms of natural and human resources, Yushchenko (the Hollywood actor with the peasant’s hands) inevitably shares all the characteristics inherent in people from this region. These are, particularly, excessive indecisiveness, undue caution, lack of personal initiative and nothing less than pathological paternalism.

At every election in Ukraine, Sumskaia oblast votes stolidly for representatives of the Left, and, after the eastern oblasts, this is where opinion is most strongly in favor of unification with Russia and Belarus.

Yushchenko has, of course, spent a large portion of his life in Kyiv, and has felt the influence of the European, cosmopolitan feel to that city. Now he must take the next step, and realize the positive potential of the virtual politician–that is, his openness to the winds of the global economy.

In this sense he has a huge advantage over Putin, who has begun reviving the atavistic instincts of the Russian collective unconscious–superpower mentality, Orthodoxy, nationalism–which have fused together in the carnage in Chechnya. Yushchenko’s trump cards should be–and can be–very different: Deregulation, popular capitalism, transparent business. The motto of virtual Ukraine should therefore be: There is no alternative to the globalization of the Ukrainian economy under Yushchenko.

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