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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Once Upon a Time in the Land of the Free
How the Don of Donbas Told Gringos What They Wanted to Hear and Dodged the Diaspora

I'd lie for you and that's the truth
Move mountains if you want me to
I'd walk across the fire for you
I'd walk on the wild for you
If you'd just believe in me...

Meat Loaf “I’d Lie For You And That’s The Truth”

He whose name conjures up reports of election fraud in Ukraine came to the land of the free neither sorry-assed nor empty-handed. He came cool, calm, and collected, with a smorgasbord of promises and reassurances — if only you could look into his eyes and see his soul and maybe reevaluate your preexisting beliefs.

He knows you like 'em Orange. But the tables have turned: The Orange plantation has all but perished due to a fungus culture of incompetence and special interests that thrived untrammeled there. So there he is, the old kid on the block, ready to do business with you.

Only by negating the ironclad association that ties him to foul play would he see that happen. It appears unlikely that the Don of Donbass took to the task unaided. Most probably, the task force of American spin doctors that helped him drug 32 percent of Ukrainian voters with BLT in the spring parliamentary campaign reported for duty again. Thus, a reputation laundering bid kicked into gear. Their positioning strategy against Yushchenko, in a nutshell:

  • Personality Type — position client as a born-again, true Blue type of leader, easily contrasted with a maladaptive shrinking Orange
  • Status in the Hierarchy — position client as the guy in charge, not in a coma; on centerstage, not on the edge
  • Knowledgeability — position client as the guy who knows the whens, whys and hows, not the guy who can’t figure out how many ministers he has under direct command
  • Management Style — position client as a doer — the doer — not a dreamer; a guy who makes things happen, not a guy who watches things happen or wonders what the hell happened

Once in Washington, that meant wearing a certain mask and weathering geopolitical spelling bees. Target behaviors and verbalizations included the following:

  • aggressively picking up the rusty baton of democracy and political stability
  • wholeheartedly lighting up the torch of ambitious energy projects
  • generously reopening the floodgates of grain exports
  • tirelessly patronizing American investment and free trade

Yanukovych did just that. And, with the notable exception of the ongoing wrangle over Tarasyuk, he picked no fights with Yushchenko. The Don of Donbas knew he had a lot to prove. In promoting his own agenda, he went by the book, skillfully feigning respect for Yushchenko’s authority and injecting a positive emphasis into every soundbite that fell from his lips. As much as he wanted to gloat over the removal of his rival from sacred cow status in Washington, Yanukovych fully realized the wind would still be blowing in his face. No one would swallow the bait unless he did his fishing in calm waters.

If he ever outperforms Yushchenko, most likely he will do so in the theater of voter deception. Hordes of comparison shoppers are already giving the Yanukovych campaign a stronger deception rating. Winter of 06/07 may well become a litmus test for the two political systems, pre-Politreforma and post-Politreforma. Once the family budgets of Ukrainians with the lowest income bracket get frostbitten by the snowballing costs of living, the PRU’s “Better living today will stir a higher degree of emotion than NSNU’s Dont fail Maidan!”

Despite the risk of a Katrina-like crisis hovering over the dilapidated utilities sector of urban Ukraine, the Don of Donbas had no qualms about dumping megatons of promotional materials on Washington and New York. Naturally, in the land of the free, some friends of Russia might feel intrigued by those rosy reports, as many did during the Great Depression while reading Walter Duranty’s. But they would certainly explode with disgust once they learned how perfectly “Better living today” matches “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Of the two giant hoaxes, the Ukrainian one involves far greater social stakes, since most Ukrainians neither boast as long a lifespan nor as much of an income. That’s why the American one reads like a funny bumper sticker and ours like a funny toe tag.

So far, breakthroughs in the international arena have eluded Yanukovych. As of today, many observers consider Georgia and Russia on a faster track to NATO and the WTO, respectively. While shrugging off the former has become a sport for Yanukovych, missing the train on the latter could get him in hot water. Whoever gets to the WTO first will hold all the cards, and Regs, who hold the lion’s share of Ukrainian industry, would rather take a crash course in Ukrainian than let themselves be outrun by Russia.

A crowd pleaser only in his native region, the Don of Donbas entertained no illusions about charming the million-strong Ukrainian American community. Hardly a soul needed a primer on his persona. Before Premier Victor Yanukovych set foot on American soil, Askold Lozynsky, President of the World Congress of Ukrainians, called on Ukrainian Americans to boycott the visit. He defined Yanukovych as the Kremlin’s fifth column. Even so, some diaspora organizations pursued the Ukrainian Premier, seeking straight answers regarding his unflinching espousal of Russian as a second official language and his business-as-usual ignorance of the Holodomor and UPA. Faced with a potentially embarrassing situation, the head of the Ukrainian delegation chose not to make himself available.

Minimizing the bad publicity from the anathema turned out to be a task of extreme proportions for the Yanukovych posse. The Don of Donbas pounced on the Holocaust Memorial, as if trying to blow smoke in America’s eyes and thus obscure his Holodomor denial. One must admit that playing the Holocaust off against the Holodomor opens up a whole new chapter in public relations. Should we expect its canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church?

The U.S. media had more luck getting in touch with Ya. In interviews, he related to the Orange Revolution as Ukraine’s major achievement. Far from pronouncing it dead, he went on to point out that, insofar as the Orange leaders have left a lot undone, the Revolution continues to this day. Taken at face value, that virtuoso statement of his might give the impression that current penetration of Ukrainian society by freedom has been an orgasmic experience for Yanukovych, philosophically speaking.

In a classic make-your-enemy-your-ally maneuver, he spoke of the OR gracefully, noting that the country had been ripe for change. He blamed the system, forgetful of his own sins. He took pains to detach himself from the bad boy image. He objectivized the Orange Revolution with a devotion that could profile him as a double agent. One more soundbite — and presto the antagonist we always loathed transmogrifies himself into the protagonist we never knew.

Hopefully, denizens of the land of the free had the eyes to see. Using Yushchenko’s blunders and the blessings of the Politreforma as the propellant for graduating from caterpillar to butterfly, the Don of Donbas made an art out of messing with your minds.


Sergiy Chukhno said...

Hi Taras,
Thank you for interesting comments on the political life of Ukraine.
And what was the deal on the SCM's radar? Is it about putting SCM shares on the NYX?

Taras said...

Hi Sergiy!

The deal I mentioned was purely hypothetical, for illustrative purposes only. It has no relationship to the current IPO drive evident in Ukrainian industrial giants like SCM and ISD.

What I wanted to say is that NATO could easily win back the PRU’s Kuchma-era support of Ukraine’s membership in that organization. Win back how? By offering to buy, let’s say, $5 billion worth of steel from SCM:)

sergiy said...

Hi Taras!

I would be happy if they did. But, unfortunately, they were rather "greedy" in the past, not inventing a "Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe" and consequently "loosing" these countries, and they would not do it now.
And even though 60 percent of Ukrainian exports of ferrous metalls went, at the beginning of the years 2000, to the U.S. market, judging on how difficult was the process of Ukraine's accession to the WTO, those guys from SCM clearly think that they are better off with state subsidies (cheap energy and rent from the export ban on metal scrap) than with a good access to the U.S. market.

Taras said...

Hi Sergiy!

Thanks for coming back:) I believe a post-Cold War Marshall Plan would have benefited both Ukrainians and Americans.

Americans would have spread democracy and market economy beyond the Visegrad group and the Baltics, thus engaging the tsars of Russia in an ambitious education program. That would have saved us Ukrainians the misery of Kuchmocracy and Kuchmanomics.

But as we know, the early pages of U.S.-Ukraine relations zeroed in on having Ukraine join the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty). Until that happened, the Bush and Clinton administrations cold-shouldered Ukraine and behaved Moscow-centrically.

Of course, taking advantage of government subsidies remains a priority for SCM. But following Puttie’s gasmanship and realizing that Yanuke won’t rule forever, SCM has been rethinking its strategy. For one thing, Akhmetov has stocked up on a cadre of MBAs and has set in motion IPO plans.

There’s no escaping the WTO. To make its commodity dinosaurs energy efficient and to set them on a 21st-century global footing, SCM will continue borrowing from Western financial institutions. Otherwise, competition from China and India would drive SCM’s Jurassic Park to extinction.

So what does the Ukrainian public have to do in all this? Put SCM out of politics and let it focus on business — in socially responsible ways.

sergiy said...

Hi Taras!

Thank you for this interesting discussion!:)
I agree with you that a "post-Cold War Plan of Marshall" would be mutually beneficial. And it was actually offered to the countries of the Visegrad group and to the Baltic states in the form of perspective to join the UE. However, too many, especially here, in UE, think that making the same offer to Ukraine is not legitimate and justified. For them, opening the door to the EECs was bringing them back from the Eastern block, in which they were forcefully "integrated" by the Soviet Empire, to the European family of nations. But, from their point of view, it would be the reverse in case of Ukraine. Providing it with a clear perspective of EU membership would mean pulling it out of the aire of Russia's influence, a "natural" place of Ukraine as they tend to think. That's why they prefer to keep "constructive ambiguity" in our relations and not to irritate Puttie the Gaseman, secretly bestowing him with different titles and awards (what a scandal it was here, in France, when we learned ex post that Chirac had awarded Putin with the Croix de la Légion d'Honneur. Actually, when all the Russian media were featuring happy Puttie receiving the recompense from Jacko, nobody talked about it here. Only later, when the scandal related to the Politkovskay's murder errupted, people here learnt about the fact and started questionning: how could it happen? why the French media were so silent at the moment when Jacko handed the award to the Russian President?).

But what could we do? Of course, perspective of EU membership served as external anchor which was a key factor for successful reforms in the East European countries. However, no one except us would make Ukrainian government responsible and would make it undertake necessary institutional and structural reforms. We did a crucial part of the job in 2004. And I hope that the job will be finished in the next years, probably in the coming 2007:))

Taras said...

Salut, Sergiy!

Absolutely agree with you, pal:) Our better days are still ahead.

Having two kings in our castle helps maintain a system of checks and balances. Had we chosen to stay on the sidelines in 2004, Mr. Yanukovych would have seen to it that democracy became an anachronism in this country. Sadly, the spiritual guillotine of the Orange Revolution had failed to excise Kuchma atavisms in our leaders.

The ruling establishments in France and Germany — the Old Europe, as Rummy christened them — could also be referred to as the axis of Russia. With his gas pheromones, Puttie keeps the Old Europe aroused and on a short leash.

But the ugliest anti-Ukrainian thing always came from within our own establishment, and through his weaknesses Yushchenko has assisted in its resurrection.

The funny thing is, Yanukovych seems to be going about his business in après moi le deluge mode, thus sowing the seeds of his own destruction.

Anyway, until the EU absorbs the recent wave of enlargement and until Ukraine grows up in terms of civil society and living standards, serious talks will not begin.

Let’s roll!

P.S. Je parle francais un peu. I studied French in school:)