FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The View from Donetsk

Humans have a tendency to believe what they want to believe. So it was little wonder that when the “Orange Revolution” broke out in the ex-Soviet republic of Ukraine in late November, many Americans thought a popular movement was on the rise, bringing long-suffering citizens of the former Soviet Union closer to democracy. Reality on the ground, however, shows a somewhat different picture.

While many Western news media portrayed Ukraine’s presidential election as a contest between a popular pro-Western democrat and a pro-Russian prime minister with weak democratic credentials, support for Viktor Yushchenko–the leader of the Orange Revolution–was never strong outside the capital, Kiev, and the thinly-inhabited area of northwestern Ukraine. In the south and east, where the majority of Ukraine’s 48 million people live, support for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was widespread and enthusiastic..

As I traveled around eastern Ukraine a couple of weeks ago, I had no trouble believing that the popularity I found for Yanukovych was sincere. I had last visited the region two-and-a-half years earlier, around the time Yanukovych became head of Ukraine’s government. Donetsk, where he had served as governor since the 1990s, was the best put-together city I had seen in all of Ukraine. But Kharkov, another large eastern Ukrainian city, was one of the most unclean, unhappy places I had seen anywhere in the ex-USSR.

In 2004, the positive transformation was staggering, not just in Kharkov, but across the rest of the country as well. For the first time since I first came to Ukraine in 1992, cities were clean, shops and markets full of quality goods were everywhere, and people weren’t complaining about not getting their wages and pensions paid on time and in full. It was no coincidence that all this change for the better had happened during Yanukovych’s tenure as prime minister. He had transferred his skills as a regional governor to the entire country, with success.

The legacy of Yushchenko as prime minister–from the end of 1999 to early 2001–is a different story. He and his supporters like to point to his record of paying wage and pension arrears during the time he chaired the cabinet. Although wages and pensions did increase under the Yushchenko government, prices increased at a greater rate. The cost of living went up, and purchasing power fell, along with the standard of living.

Before he became prime minister, Yushchenko was Ukraine’s central banker, the sort of person with whom many Western policy-makers probably feel they share a common “language.” While Yushchenko was directing financial policy far above the heads of the “little people,” Yanukovych was beginning his tenure as governor of Donetsk, the largest city in Ukraine’s industrial heartland. There, he worked an economic near-miracle in a region where violent mob wars, crime and corruption had been endemic.

Some Western commentary portrays eastern Ukraine as a backward region held captive by Soviet-style propaganda, where local people are frightened by oligarchic mob bosses. What I found was a peaceful, orderly place where friendly, intelligent people had few doubts about which politician deserved the most credit for the improvements in their day-to-day lives.

In Donetsk, young people on the street from whom I asked directions volunteered that they had voted for their former governor once they found out I was an election observer. My taxi drivers, anxious to engage me about politics when they learned I was an American, told me without a trace of shyness that they supported Yanukovych. One was concerned that his son would be forced to fight in a civil war if Yushchenko became head of state. Another wanted Russian to have the status of an official language alongside Ukrainian. Yanukovych, they said, was the best man to satisfy their worries–hardly a case of local oligarchs scaring people into voting for their man.

Urban elites, even in America, often look down on people from the provinces. In the case of Ukraine, many Kiev residents may view Yanukovych and his fellow eastern Ukrainians as “rednecks,” unfit to assume national posts. But this high-brow attitude has nothing to do with democracy. George W. Bush might be “rougher around the edges” than John Kerry, but few Americans would begrudge him a presidency he had won in a fair fight. Likewise, Yanukovych has proven himself a capable governor and prime minister and his frequent stands on behalf of the interests of ordinary people seem genuine.

Western media have made Yushchenko out to be more than he is and Yanukovych less than he is. The former is favored to win the runoff next Sunday, but the latter is determined and undaunted by having his November 21 election thrown out. He might just surprise everyone.

CHAD NAGLE, an American lawyer, was accredited as an independent observer in the first and second rounds of the Ukrainian presidential election. He writes from Kiev.

 

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 23, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Notes on Inauthenticity in a Creeping Fascist Nuthouse
Andrew Levine
Recession Now, Please
Rob Urie
Mr. Trump Goes to Kensington
Jeffrey St. Clair
Deep Time and the Green River, Floating
Robert Hunziker
Earth 4C Hotter
Kenneth Good
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa
Pete Dolack
The Realism and Unrealism of the Green New Deals
David Rosen
The White-Nationalist Great Fear
Kenn Orphan
The War on Indigenous People is a War on the Biosphere Itself
L. Michael Hager
What Netanyahu’s Travel Ban Has Revealed
Ramzy Baroud
Jewish Settlers Rule the Roost in Israel, But at What Price?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Is Environmental Protection Possible?
Josue De Luna Navarro
What It’s Like to Grow Up Hunted
Ralph Nader
They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!
Gary Olson
Whither the Resistance to our Capitalist Overlords?
Dean Baker
On Those Downward Jobs Revisions
Rev. William Alberts
Beware of the Gun-Lover-in-Chief
Helder F. do Vale
Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Lapdog
Laura Finley
Educators Actually Do “Work” in the Summer
Jim Goodman
Farmers Need a Bill of Rights
Tom Clifford
What China’s Leadership is Really Worried About: Rising Debt
Daphne Wysham
Saving the Planet Means Fighting Bipartisan Corruption
Tierra Curry
Amazon Fires Put the Planet at Risk
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Decentralize Power and Revive Regional Political Institutions
John W. Whitehead
American Apocalypse
George Wuerthner
How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America
Daniel Murphy
Capital in the 21st Century
Jessicah Pierre
400 Years After Slavery’s Start, No More Band-Aids
Kim C. Domenico
Finding the Comrades: Maintaining Precarious Sanity In Insane Times
Gary Leupp
“Based on the Fact She Won’t Sell Me Greenland, I’m Staying Home”
John Kendall Hawkins
The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited
Rivera Sun
Tapping into People Power
Ted Rall
As Long as Enemies of the State Keep Dying Before Trial, No One Should Trust the State
Jesse Jackson
The Significance of the “1619 Project”
Thomas Knapp
“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No Thanks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and Endangered Species, Wildlife and Human
Mel Gurtov
China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response
Ron Forthofer
Sick of Being a Guinea Pig
Nicky Reid
Why I Stopped Being White (and You Should Too)
Jill Richardson
As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA
Seth Sandronsky
Rethinking the GDR
Adolf Alzuphar
Tears / Ayizan Velekete
Stephen Cooper
General Jah Mikey: “I Just Love That Microphone, Man”
Louis Proyect
Slaves to the Clock
David Yearsley
Moral Cantatas
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail