A letter from Ukraine

Image of Simon Kuper

I was sitting in a restaurant in Kharkiv, Ukraine, chatting to the owner. He was trying to decide which country to move to. His restaurant was doing well, he said. In fact, that was the problem. Increasingly, local officials were coming round demanding payoffs. Several Ukrainian business people told me that these shakedowns were becoming more common. If you didn’t pay, the officials suddenly began to inspect your tax payments, or your sanitation. No wonder someone here has set up an Italian-Japanese restaurant chain called Mafia.

Westerners may shrug and say, “Yup, that sounds like Ukraine.” There is a grotesque foreign stereotype that sees this as the land of mafiosi, prostitutes and peasants. And yet, even as Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych experiences its so-called “Great Leap Backwards”, I didn’t find a bleak country. Everywhere I went, I met educated people who have not forgotten the promise of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004/2005, even if their politicians have. To quote the national anthem sung in the football stadiums here: “Ukraine’s glory has not yet perished.”

True, it’s easy to get despondent. It’s not only the imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko who says she was beaten in jail. A travelling exhibition here – which police in Kharkiv spent the other afternoon harassing – says Ukrainian human-rights groups estimate there were 980,000 cases of unlawful violence by police last year. A passerby came up to the exhibition, displayed his broken fingers, and said, “I was in custody, too.” It feels appropriate that a huge Lenin still glares down over Kharkiv’s central square.

Yet whereas the government of neighbouring Belarus still claims to worship Lenin, Ukraine’s government doesn’t. Yanukovych is not a communist. He was uncertain about the erection of a monument to Stalin in Zaporizhya. (The monument went up, but activists exploded it. Later, someone put up a billboard of Stalin saying, “I killed millions of Ukrainians! And what did you do to deserve a monument?”)

Yanukovych’s people have no discernible ideology other than grabbing what they can. In effect, they seem to be testing whether you can implant that approach in Europe. When the president’s son (a former dentist) is worth an estimated $99m, it’s not a good sign. The son says it’s a “completely artificial opinion” that he owes his wealth to his father. However, a representative of a western multinational, who does business in all of the former USSR, reckons Ukraine now probably has the region’s worst business climate. Or as Ukraine’s vice-premier Borys Kolesnikov told me, “Obviously we are still far from the Singapore example of business liberty.”

The Ukrainian middle class that has painfully arisen these past 15 years is ceasing to believe that you can prosper through hard work. The country’s income per capita is still officially only about half that of Belarus, and the global economic crisis has bitten unusually deep here. “It is not a rich lifestyle at all,” admits Kolesnikov, though happily his own wealth has been estimated at $230m.

A good way to get despondent is to look at Ukrainian statistics. In most international surveys, Ukraine’s “life satisfaction” ranks among the world’s lowest. Life expectancy is now about 68, lower than when the USSR disappeared. (Most Ukrainians I spoke to smoked throughout the conversation.) Yanukovych ignores all this. Instead he plays on the anxieties of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, whose language he promises to “protect”.

Ukraine has no Nelson Mandela. The crowds who filled the streets for the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s prefiguring of the Arab spring, were betrayed by their leaders. Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko didn’t change Ukraine. Nowadays, says Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, executive director of the Yalta European Strategy network in Kyiv, “People are very suspicious. It would be much harder to set a spark now in their hearts, minds.” Another Kyivite told me he would never again feel the joy and solidarity of the Orange Revolution.

And yet, to my surprise, all Ukrainians I spoke to insisted on their hopefulness. The political scientist Olexiy Haran notes that multiple Ukrainian governments have lost elections these past 20 years. After the Orange Revolution, Freedom House rated Ukraine the only democracy in the former USSR outside the Baltics.

The country has what Haran calls “pluralism by default”: no government can control all the different regions, oligarchs and media. Ukraine has the world’s ninth-highest rate of enrolment in higher education. As the Orange Revolution showed, there is a civil society. It’s an excellent sign that Ukrainians continue to report police beatings.

People feel pride that the country didn’t split along ethnic lines after the USSR collapsed, that ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians generally get on fine, that Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear missiles. In this country with its terrible history, somehow a degree of political civility has emerged. The government is trampling all over it. But as Haran told me, “Still Ukraine is not lost.”


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