Poison and Power In Ukraine

Tell someone in the Ukrainian capital that you have an appointment with President Viktor Yushchenko, and you will quickly be showered with advice, suggestions and requests. “Please, tell him to ask the Americans to fund Radio Liberty,” one woman begged. Another gave me a book she had published, asking me to pass it on. A Ukrainian journalist said not to bother asking Yushchenko whether he had yet found out who had attempted to poison him with dioxin during the bitter 2004 presidential election campaign: Surely he knew the criminal’s identity perfectly well. Instead, he said, it would be more interesting to find out why, exactly, the president had withheld this important information from the public.

Particularly given the atmosphere of semi-hysteria that surrounds the president — the extra-high security, the canceled and rescheduled appointments, the multiple telephone calls from multiple aides — this sort of talk made me feel as if I were about to encounter a remote, all-powerful figure, the sort of politician who can make things happen with the snap of a finger. And at some level, this is indeed what Ukrainians expect their president to be: Consciously or otherwise, they assume that their democratically elected leader has the same omnipotence that their communist leaders once had, the same bureaucratic resources, even the same access to secret information. He can get the Americans to fund Radio Liberty, help a publishing house survive and manipulate information about infamous crimes, all at once.

But, of course, he does not have the same powers and resources, as Yushchenko himself makes clear. I met him in his office, a vast room whose pretentious, palatial design has been hidden beneath the president’s equally vast collection of Ukrainian folk art. One of the first things he told me was that the criminal investigation into his poisoning had stalled. When he first came to office, the Ukrainian chief prosecutor — still loyal to the previous, post-communist regime — had dawdled, prevaricated and let the top witness in the case depart for Russia. The president, whose face is still mottled by side effects of the poison, said that Ukrainian authorities had asked the Russians to hand the witness over for questioning.

And? He shrugged. “You see how it is,” he said.

In any country, poor relations with a larger neighbor could damage a president’s political career. But for Yushchenko they pose a particularly difficult problem. Far from omnipotent, he is surrounded by corrupt officials, many of whom are easily won over by a Kremlin awash in oil money, most of whom are still loyal to the previous, pro-Russian, post-communist regime. As president in a parliamentary system, his powers are limited in any case, but in Ukraine, where secret information his police officers intercept is more likely to be sent to Moscow than given to him, they are almost nonexistent.

This might be true even if the Russian government were deeply committed to keeping Yushchenko in power: But

Russian authorities have never tried very hard to hide their disapproval of Yushchenko, who was declared winner of the election only after mass demonstrations — the Orange Revolution — of a kind the Russians themselves fear.

Yushchenko speaks carefully about this problem, calling the Russian decision to switch off Ukraine’s gas in January a “development that didn’t help our relations” and describing his personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “very good.” He also tried to be positive about Russia and Ukraine’s attempts to resolve their long-standing disputes:

over borders, over Russian naval bases on Ukrainian territory, even over historical issues such as the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, which Ukrainians remember as an attempted genocide and Russians don’t officially recognize at all. Commissions had been set up, Yushchenko said, and committees had been established. But not much, he conceded, has been resolved.

Some of this explains, at least in part, the poor performance of Yushchenko’s political party in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary elections (which, incidentally, he calls “the most successful in Ukrainian history,” because they were the first to be conducted without “allegations of tricks by the authorities”). True, many around Yushchenko agree that his party ran a strangely inept campaign. The breakup of the “Orange Coalition,” the group of politicians who put him in power in 2004, didn’t help either. Yushchenko himself told me that many Ukrainians saw the coalition as a “political ideal” and have been disillusioned by the economic and political disagreements that have haunted the diverse group since they united to bring him to power.

Nevertheless, the unusually large gap between his supporters’ extremely high expectations and his own extremely limited authority are an important source of the growing disappointment with his presidency, too. When I emerged from my interview with him, my acquaintances in Kiev again peppered me with questions. What had he said? Why hadn’t he convicted anyone of electoral fraud? Why were his reforms taking so long?

They suspected a conspiracy, assumed there must be a secret explanation for the slow pace of political and economic change. But the truth seems much more straightforward to me. There is Yushchenko, alone in his big office. There is Ukraine, a country of 50 million people. And in between the two are thousands of people — civil servants, politicians, journalists, business people — who have deep financial and personal interests in maintaining the corrupt status quo. For Ukraine, the Orange Revolution was the easy part, compared with what lies ahead.

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