On the third anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych remains convinced that his country should take an active role in combating terrorism (UNIAN, September 11). However, Yanukovych’s call to combat “terrorism” has a different domestic meaning, as Ukrainian leaders equate “extremism” with “terrorism” to disparage the opposition.
The Ukrainian authorities began to routinely refer to opposition activities, especially mass civic action, as “terrorist” in March 2001. As in the Soviet era, “extremists” and “terrorists” are understood as western Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, both of whom strongly support Viktor Yushchenko, Yanukovych’s main presidential rival.
Stereotypes against “bourgeois nationalists” were widely inculcated in the Soviet era and continue to play a role in both Russia and Ukraine. For example, on September 10 the online newspaper Nezavisimoye voennoye obozreniye listed nine lessons from the Chechen terrorist attack on Beslan. Lesson six was for the Russian security forces to “recall the experience of fighting bandits in western Ukraine and the Baltic republics after the Second World War, which was undertaken with major sacrifices, and get down to creating a network of subversive anti-terrorist agents.”
The nationalist stereotype was further developed during Yanukovych’s September 24 visit to the west Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where he was pelted with an egg. The incident was immediately used to condemn Yushchenko and his western Ukrainian supporters as “extremists” practicing “political terrorism.” A government statement (kmu.gov.ua) charged that Yushchenko encouraged the incident. “I now understand that nationalism is an evil,” the statement continued, clearly referring to Yushchenko and the Our Ukraine bloc that he leads. However, the 17-year old student who threw the egg is not a member of any political party (Ukrinform, September 25).
A statement by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was even more critical. The egg-tosser, it claimed, was allegedly from “a group of extremist-inclined young nationalists who were shouting “Yes Yushchenko!” Yanukovych’s press secretary blamed the egging on “radically oriented representatives of Our Ukraine who were acting so aggressively that the premier’s security detail were forced to defend him” (temnik.com.ua, September 24). Regions of Ukraine parliamentary deputy Mykola Kruhlov went further, describing the incident as Ukraine’s first “terrorist attack” (temnik.com.ua, September 25).
Viktor Medvedchuk’s Social Democratic United Party (SDPUo) was even blunter in its dire warnings to Yushchenko: “Provocative, extremist, and destabilizing actions on the part of the supporters of “nashism” [a play on Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine) that resembles “Nazis”] will, if the need arises, be rebuffed forcibly and severely” (sdpuo.org.ua).
The egg incident has prompted more snickers than fears. Yanukovych is a rather formidable-looking individual and his collapse to the ground after the egg made contact looked highly stage-managed (ukrpravda.com/archive/2004/september/24/video.shtml). Although pro-presidential media claimed Yanukovych had been hospitalized because of the attack, he was in fact back at work later that same day. Both the Ukrainian and European press found the incident amusing. The French-language version of Euro News said on September 25 that the Ukrainian election campaign, “has assumed the character of a real comedy del’arte, with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych playing the main role.” Euro News’s English-language version pondered whether Ukraine’s chicken’s eggs were “especially heavy” or else what is taking place are “dirty machinations.”
The egg toss was exaggerated to deflect attention from the recent attempted assassination of Yushchenko by poisoning, (see, EDM September 20). The melodramatic event in Ivano-Frankivsk provided an opportunity to portray both Yanukovych and Yushchenko as victims of attacks. Yet, it is difficult to see how an assassination attempt, possibly using ricin, can be equated with a single tossed egg.
Finally, the egg incident adds to the ongoing efforts to portray Yushchenko as an “extremist” and “nationalist.” Ukrainian voters are being in effect warned not to vote for Yushchenko as this could lead to civil war and inter-ethnic conflict. During an address to an Interior Ministry (MVS) spetsnaz unit in the Crimea, President Leonid Kuchma threatened the opposition with unspecified measures for plotting to come to power in a “revolution” during the ongoing election campaign. Kuchma complained that the opposition was involved in an “artificial, deliberately created atmosphere within society” using “Trotskyist phraseology” such as “revolution, uprisings, coups, and so forth.” He warned the opposition that it would not be allowed to undertake “any kind of uprising or revolution in Ukraine” and reminded his audience of their duty to prevent chaos and “not allow an uncontrolled evolution of events” (Ukrayinska pravda, September 7). Three days later the government issued its own statement denouncing “radical political organizations” bent on destabilizing Ukraine (kmu.gov.ua).
By portraying Yushchenko and the opposition in such terms, Kuchma, Yanukovych, and the government deny them legitimacy within Ukraine’s political system. Ukraine’s ruling elites are essentially saying that only centrists (i.e. themselves) should be allowed to rule Ukraine because otherwise there will be chaos.