Will the January presidential elections see Ukraine swing towards the east or the west?by Julian Evans / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
Yulia Tymoshenko in an election poster, which reads: “Ukrainian breakthrough”
Xenia Simonova’s art is suspended between tragedy and lachrymosity in a peculiarly Ukrainian way. Last summer, the 24-year-old won Ukraine’s Got Talent with a haunting animation of her country’s wartime past. Using a table-sized lightbox dusted with volcanic sand, she sketched Chagall-like images—star-rippled skies, swaddled children—which morphed from love and hope to destruction and loss. Ti Vsegda Ryadom (You Are Always With Us) ends with a woman and her child separated from the ghost of her husband, reviving a devastation rarely depicted. From 1941-45 Ukraine accounted for nearly 20 per cent of Europe’s dead, losing one in five of its citizens.
The epidemic of tears evoked by Simonova is consistent with the national psyche. Ukrainians have learned to hide their emotions until they can no longer be suppressed. Their quietism is political. Second-class subjects in the Soviet system, starved by Stalin in the 1930s, then ruled from independence in 1991 until 2005 by self-serving leaders, Ukrainians do not expect much from politicians. Of Leonid Kuchma, president from 1994-2005, it was said that nobody voted for him; they merely voted against the Communists.
The orange revolution of 2004 changed none of this. It was, in retrospect, a blip caused by a poisoned candidate, a stolen election and the beheading of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. Ukrainians were eventually allowed to vote in Viktor Yushchenko, technocrat, Europhile and hope of a new generation. He has been spectacularly unsuccessful: accusations of cronyism have added to those of paralysis. Quietism has returned. There are 18 candidates standing in the January presidential elections, but Ukrainians merely shrug.
The election will be, as often, about competing national self-definitions. The first round on 17th January will almost certainly result in a run-off between the Europhile prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the current favourite, Russophile Viktor Yanukovych, runner-up in 2004.
Tymoshenko, nicknamed the “gas princess” for her previous career in that industry, is Ukraine’s cleverest politician. Once Yushchenko’s ally, they have now fallen out. Western journalists are disgracefully soft on Tymoshenko but in Ukraine, the halo of her braids has slipped. Voters find her artful and self-seeking. Tymoshenko is now courting Putin and he her.
Whatever the result, the new president must hold the country together while stopping its economy imploding. From 1991 to 1999 Ukraine’s GDP declined by 60 per cent. Fragile years of growth were reversed by…