Spot the reformers in Ukraine
by Taras Kuzio
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report
In the last decade, a sizeable body of academics and a larger number of journalists have written negatively about Rukh and the national democrats in Ukraine. National democrats are usually described as "nationalists" hostile to both Russia and Russians within Ukraine.
Such views have been supported within academia because of the dominance of former-Sovietologists-turned-Russian-specialists. Another factor is that Western media are still largely based only in Moscow, as it was in the former USSR, from where they cover the entire Commonwealth of Independent States. Kyiv had a large number of journalists from most major Western English-language newspapers in the early 1990s, but this has dwindled to only the Financial Times. Western correspondents in Kyiv were never salaried (which was reserved for Moscow) but merely stringers. [Editor's note: The Ukrainian Weekly, it should be noted, has maintained a full-time press bureau in Kyiv since January 1991, which is headed by a salaried editor from the U.S.]
The newly published 300-page volume by Mikhail Molchanov titled "Political Culture and National Identity in Russian-Ukrainian Relations" (College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 2002) follows in this tradition. The volume paints a picture of a radical, anti-Russian nation-building project in Ukraine that is "ghettoizing" Russians (p. 200). Ukraine's nation-building project is allegedly copying the assimilationist French model. The "nationalist diaspora," which returned to Ukraine in the early 1990s, "now spearheads the so-called national-democratic right in Parliament" (p. 182). Rukh is, of course, deemed to be a rabid "nationalist" organization" (p. 93).
Mr. Molchanov and this earlier tradition of scholars and journalists have been unable to grapple with what is the centrality of those they disparage as "nationalists" (i.e., national democrats) to blocking Ukraine's advance towards corporatist authoritarianism. They are also the main hope for Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration. In addition, the picture they paint is untrue. Between the 1989 Soviet and 2001 Ukrainian censuses the proportion of Ukrainians giving Ukrainian as their "native language" declined by two percent. Meanwhile, the only deaths from ethnic violence in Ukraine have been a Ukrainian singer in Lviv and Tatars in Crimea, in both cases at the hands of Russian speakers.
Ukraine's political spectrum conveniently falls into three camps. The center-right national democrats, oligarchic-controlled centrists and the left (moderate Socialists and neo-Stalinist Communists, the Communist Party of Ukraine [CPU]). The entire opposition are in different ways opposed to the creeping authoritarianism supported by the executive.
The CPU, though, refused to support the protests that arose out of the "Kuchmagate" crisis in November 2000 and backed the oligarchs in voting no confidence in the Viktor Yushchenko government in April 2001. Former Procurator General and CPU deputy Mykhailo Potebenko provided the key one additional vote that gave the pro-presidential majority the minimum 226 votes to elect presidential administration head Volodymyr Lytvyn as chairman of the Verkhovna Rada.
There is no doubt about the Socialist Party (SPU), led by Oleksander Moroz, which has shown a wholehearted commitment to democratization and staunch opposition (unlike the CPU) to executive-driven authoritarianism and corruption. If ever there was a genuine leftist party in Ukraine deserving of an invitation to join the Socialist International, it is the SPU. The SPU, unlike the oligarchic Social Democratic Party-United (SDPU), was invited to the May congress of the German Social Democrats. Nevertheless, the SPU is not committed to market economic reform (including land reform) and Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration.
What then of the centrists as an alternative to "nationalists" (i.e., national democrats). In Ukraine there is not a single major centrist party that is not controlled by oligarchs. The last genuine centrist reformist party, Volodymyr Hryniov's Inter-Regional Bloc for Reforms (which was part of Leonid Kuchma's 1994 election bloc and the failed SLON bloc in the 1998 elections), was absorbed by the oligarchic National Democratic Party (NDP) in 2001, led by discredited former Prime Minister Valerii Pustovoitenko.
Oligarchs have either captured established, dormant centrist parties (e.g., the Green Party, or launched internal coup d'etats and gained control of parties by pushing out genuine reformers (e.g., the SDPU and NDP). Reformers who were pushed out of the SDPU and the NDP moved to the national democrats. Other centrist parties were created from scratch, such as the Agrarians, Labor Ukraine, and Regions of Ukraine.
These centrist parties have three factors in common. First, many of them are Russian-speaking, making them more similar to the CPU than the Ukrainophone SPU and national democrats. The two exceptions are the Agrarians and the NDP. Nearly all of the newspapers created by centrist parties are in Russian (e.g., Kievskii Telegraf and Fakty by Labor Ukraine, Segodnia by Regions of Ukraine, and Kievskie Veidomosti by the SDPU).
Second, all of them are pro-presidential. This means they prefer the authoritarian political system increasingly evident in Ukraine during President Kuchma's second term in office since 1999. This reflects the strong domination of Soviet political culture found among them, which prefers a "hybrid" system combining elements of the Soviet and Western political-economic systems. In the foreign domain this has translated into a vague and constantly shifting "multi-vector" foreign policy.
Third, centrists are ideologically amorphous. Ideology plays second fiddle to short-term economic and political gain and power. Centrist parties are top-down fake parties with forcibly conscripted memberships. What of former oligarchs who have turned against the executive? Both former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko and Vice Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko joined the radical opposition. In both cases their parties, Hromada and Fatherland, respectively, had no choice but to align themselves with the SPU and national democrats in populist opposition to centrist oligarchs.
Consequently, the only genuine political and economic reformist movement in Ukraine is the national-democratic Our Ukraine bloc led by Mr. Yushchenko. The popularity of the pro-Western reformist Our Ukraine, as seen in its victory in the 2002 elections, and Mr. Yushchenko's personal popularity make Ukraine different from all other CIS states. Without the national democrats Ukraine would be closer to an archetypal CIS state, such as Russia. More importantly, progress in Ukraine's reform process and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures is dependent on the "nationalist" national democrats. The SPU and the Tymoshenko bloc are their allies in blocking centrist authoritarianism.
Centrists are the main driving force supporting an authoritarian regime in Ukraine. Sadly, there are no genuine centrist parties left that would stand in opposition to them.
Dr. Taras Kuzio is a resident fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto, and visiting fellow at the Institute for Security Studies-European Union, Paris.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 22, 2003, No. 25, Vol. LXXI
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