What's the matter with Kiev?

Notes from different corners of the world.
March 27 2006 4:09 PM

What's the Matter With Kiev?

Sunday's vote wasn't a rejection of the orange revolution, it was proof of its success.

Yulia Tymoshenko
Click image to expand.
Yulia Tymoshenko

It's past midnight, and my hosts in Kiev have served up salmon and beluga caviar chased with copious amounts of vodka. A crowd dominated by young Eastern Europeans, including two ebullient Lithuanians and a gaggle of Ukrainian women, has gathered in the flat. After some jazz standards, the Lithuanians join the singing with a drunken rendition of "Svetit Neznakomaya Zvezda" ("A Foreign Star Is Shining"), an old Soviet folk song about being in a foreign city far away from your beloved. Everybody but me joins in—they all know the words, even though none were adults when the Soviet Union collapsed—and for a moment I'm back in the U.S.S.R.

This is the new Kiev, polyglot and approaching something almost like cosmopolitanism. To be sure, the Ukrainian capital still has a dated and provincial feel to it—it's how I've always imagined East Germany must have been in the Katarina Witt era—but foreign investors are pouring in, hoping that post-orange-revolution Ukraine, neglected and mismanaged throughout the 1990s, will soon follow the growth path of new European Union members like the Czech Republic and Poland. I spent two weeks here in February, observing the mood in the run-up to Sunday's parliamentary vote—billed as the country's first free and fair European-style election.

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For all the hype, I found too many people believing the orange revolution changed nothing. Ukraine's leaders are singing the same Bolshevik tunes, they say—and not with the apparent irony of my reveling companions. The head of a securities company that set up shop in Ukraine last year told me Ukraine is liberalizing in a big way. More and more companies are playing by Western rules so they can issue shares in London and New York. It's not geopolitical reorientation, he said, it's because the high price of Russian gas has forced major Ukrainian industries to restructure and look for cash on international capital markets. When I asked the businessman what he thinks of all the political changes going on, he replied, "What political changes?" The deadpan was so dry, it took a few seconds before I realized he'd just answered my question. Ukraine's economy might be going in a Western direction, but its politics are still stuck in the corrupt post-Soviet era.

The hero of the orange revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko, has fallen from grace, placing third in Sunday's vote, with the party of his old nemesis Viktor Yanokovich—a former petty criminal whom outgoing President Leonid Kuchma tried to appoint as his successor in 2004—getting the most votes.

Then there's Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister fired last year by Yushchenko. She fared surprisingly well in Sunday's election and might well return as prime minister. Much of the outside world is smitten with Tymoshenko, if only because she's a babe. (Admit it: She's totally hot.) The problem is: Nearly everybody within the political elite—and much of the general population, too—seems to agree that she's a self-centered, self-promoting control freak who is generally unpleasant to have around. "I have yet to talk to a single politician who likes her," one lobbyist told me.

Oddly enough, you'll find almost nobody actually admitting to disappointment with President Yushchenko. Most Ukrainians will tell you that most other Ukrainians have been let down by the orange revolution—but not me, they'll say. (You'll hear: Yes, I was out there on subzero Independence Square in December 2004, but I didn't actuallythink anything would change.) After two weeks, this reluctance to concede disappointment was starting to make me suspicious.

On one of my last days in Ukraine, I had drinks with political observer Peter Dickinson, who edits a local English-language magazine. As an outsider, Dickinson has little patience with those who dismiss the revolution—and having spent most of the last 10 years in Prague, and thus knowing a thing or two about the dour Eastern European disposition, I was inclined to agree. Sure, Yushchenko could have done a better job of investigating the murder of journalist Gyorgi Gongadze, a crime linked to Kuchma himself, and he could have done more to root out corruption. And Tymoshenko, well, she could be nicer.

But politicians weren't the real heroes of the revolution. Everyday Ukrainians were. Political speech has been set free under the new regime, and perhaps more important, Ukrainians are finally beginning to craft their national identity. "They were passive and shit on for years," Dickinson told me. "Finally they stood up, and they won. That's ingrained in the history of the nation."

Chalk the negativity up to the national temperament, but there's no denying things have changed. Sunday's vote received a clean bill of health from international observers and went off without a hitch. Yes, corrupt politicians and sleaze-ridden oligarchs will likely remain as easy to find in Ukraine as four-inch stiletto heels, but there's no going back to the stifling days of Kuchma and his cronies. Give them enough vodka, and you can probably get Ukrainians to sing about that.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.

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