Community News

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Yanukovych challenge

Five years is a long time. Ukrainian PresidentViktor Yanukovych can surprise his harshest domestic political critics, along with concerned diaspora communities, by decisively leading Ukraine along the path of meaningful political, economic and social reforms. At the very least this path would place him as a good leader who understands his task is to serve the public rather than be served.

Conversely, Yanukovych can simply demonstrate governing incompetence with a continuation of rent-seeking in a corrupt social and political system and further demoralize a frustrated nation. Already, some of his actions have raised alarms such as the political maneuvers with the judiciary and dubious cabinet appointments of individuals whose main traits seem to be a phobia against anything Ukrainian.

Outside of recent remarks by the White House welcoming Ukraine’s relinquishing of enriched uranium, the world press has been generally non-judgmental or perhaps uninterested in his first months in office. One suspects the global community holds the Ukrainian president to a low performance standard – simply ensure the uninterrupted transit of Russian energy. This interlude is likely to be of short duration; Yanukovych by design or accident will test the fibers of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution legacy and its national maturity.

Hopefully, Ukraine has sufficiently evolved both politically and socially that backsliding to authoritarian government or worse yet quasi-sovereign existence is remote. For all its warts, modern Ukrainian society is surprisingly open without the xenophobic restrictions characterizing Russia. The acceptance of Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists and a dizzying array of other religious confessions together with a spectrum of political outlooks speaks to the strength of plurality in Ukrainian society.

The genie has come out and will not readily return to the lamp no matter what the formal posture of the head of state. Ukraine has nearly 20 years of independence, an unmatched experience in its modern history. Many officers in the military and government officials have no experience with Soviet rule. A typical military career lasts some 20 years. Hence, all current junior and many senior military personnel, including the overwhelming majority of enlisted cadre, have never served in the Soviet armed forces.

Their government counterparts look to Kyiv for advancement and not Moscow. An efficiently functioning Ukrainian state for the purposes of retirement benefits, continued opportunities or the ability to travel easily throughout the world is clearly in their interest regardless of political leaning. Whether they know this or not, their interests are very different from octogenarian and veterans of World War II who periodically emerge to wax nostalgic for the past. All government bureaucrats who have helped establish the Ukrainian state over the past two decades understand where their interests lie. They need only recall Germany’s reunification, where all Eastern Germany officers above the rank of captain were released and most communist officials were unceremoniously jettisoned. The protection of self-interest would suggest that there are very defined limits in the thaw with Russia as they might affect sovereignty.

The philosophic contest in Ukraine is over its character. Intelligent people understand the blue and yellow flag, the Truzub or Ukrainian language do not by themselves alleviate poverty, deliver the mail, make the trains run on time or promote ethical behavior, but at the same time they encompass the centuries old spiritual and cultural reservoirs of the country. These are assets that have sustained the nation despite being split over the centuries by different occupying powers, enduring wars and revolutions and suffering the calamity of The Holodomor. It is remarkable how quickly people who had reviled the Tryzub or the blue-yellow flag during the Soviet era had little problem wearing “nationalist” symbols in the new order.

Former Soviet border guards and customs personnel who zealously searched luggage for banned literature or symbols of any Ukrainian identity sported the same emblems worn by Ukrainian Insurgent Army (known by the UPA acronym) soldiers without a wince or murmur! Their opposition to things Ukrainian may have been vocal or symbolic for public consumption but apparently never had the deep roots of conviction. Every Ukrainian president to date, including the incumbent, realized or comes to realize that the country cannot be governed as some feudal arrangement of pseudo-Ukrainian Russian speaking provinces.

Yanukovych has made his first trips abroad and he must be comparing the receptions he received in European capitals or his recent meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama against the reception in Moscow. Do Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin treat this man, who physically towers over them, as a head of state or as some regional governor? If Yanukovych garners no respect, it will be only because he comes from a circle that has no viable or remotely plausible alternative historical or cultural tradition beyond mere existence – neither truly Russian nor quite Ukrainian. Since 1991, in stark contrast to the Russian experience, four different presidents have been elected in Ukraine, each time from a different political party or faction. This process has helped to meld the legacy of a Ukrainian identity that will not wither in the face of hostile and acerbic comments from some segments of Yanukovysh’s base, like the recently shameful comments and histrionics of Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnik.

Several years after Ukraine’s declaration of independence, a representative of a big global concern was investigating business prospects in the agricultural sector. He made a telling remark, suggesting that outsiders at times see the picture more clearly and get to the core of an issue. He asked rhetorically, “Why do Ukrainian politicians hate their own people”? President Yanukovych, your administration will go a long way to achieving the unexpected if you simply do not hate your people. Share with them their joys, mitigate their anguish, but remember that the Ukrainian independent state has no tradition of czars – you are a servant of the people.

Larissa Kyj is a Columbia University Ph.D. who is a full professor of accounting and finance at Rowan University. Myroslaw Kyj is a Temple University Ph.D. who is a full professor of marketing at Widner University.

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