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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.

 

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