Europe / Ukraine

A Tale of Two Countries

The grim scenery of Stakhanov, Ukraine somehow fits the city in an appropriate way. The former industrial boomtown now plays home to a rapidly aging set of workers, where pensioners outnumber tax-paying workers three to one. The city relies on Russia to buy up to 90 percent of its industrial goods, with many factories barely staving off bankruptcy. Any thought of foreign investment is nothing more than a pipe dream. Yet citizens scoff when outsiders cast even a hint of doubt on Stankhanov’s allegiances; the struggling city folk see an unbreakable bond between their city and nearby Russia.

Stakhanov’s residents can find kindred spirits in some of the larger cities in the region too. Pro-Russian activists recently made waves in nearby Luhansk, where a pro-Kiev politician named Oleh Lyashko assaulted a demonstrator—allegedly for his separatist views—and several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators seized several government buildings in Donetsk, one of east Ukraine’s largest cities, on April 6th. The demonstrators immediately called for a Russian peacekeeping force to be installed in the area and planned a referendum on secession from Ukraine for May 11th.

The actions in Donetsk seem to be little more than a manifestation of what Stakhanov’s citizens and many more eastern Ukrainians want. The Ukrainians’ desires make sense, given the area’s historically close relationship with Russia. Yet the past 15 years seem to have brought the bond between Russia and Ukraine to an almost unbreakable level.

The intensifying of the relationship began following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The newfound freedom and democracy in Ukraine fell neatly in line with the Western picture of an ideal government, but rampant political corruption quickly crippled any hope of a better life for Ukraine’s citizens. The previously optimistic economic forecasts soon turned dark, as Ukraine lost 60 percent of its GDP between 1991 and 1999 and the government continuously handed out sweetheart deals to loyal oligarchs. By the late ‘90’s, Ukraine had entered a deep recession and the government had lost all credibility. In the meantime, Ukraine’s relationship with Russia also suffered and Russian investment in Ukrainian exports dropped to an all-time low.

The Ukrainian recession ended in 2000 and Ukraine’s relationship with Russia quickly improved. Russia began to invest heavily in Ukrainian gas exports and Ukraine began to rely on Russia’s investment. 14 years later, it seems almost indispensable. Together with a shared cultural history and extensive propaganda, Ukraine’s reliance on Russian investment leaves little choice for many eastern Ukrainians: they feel they must be economically-tied to Russia, whether as a part of Ukraine or not.

Eastern Ukraine’s attitude encapsulates Ukraine’s two biggest problems today: political corruption and unity. As the country approaches its first democratic election following the massive protests that deposed Viktor Yanukovich, both of these problems must be dealt with quickly and decisively (assuming Russia doesn’t invade with military force).

The stakes could not be higher for Ukraine. The country has been considered the bellwether of change in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union and often heavily influences the political and economic landscapes of its neighbors. With the future of the country seemingly hanging in the balance, a collapse must be avoided. A stable Ukraine benefits the entire region and the United States should recognize the value of stability when approaching the country’s complex political landscape.

The election, planned for May 25th, mainly features two candidates: Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko. Both candidates come from massively successful business careers—each earned over $1 billion in the gas and chocolate industries respectively—and offer a profound anti-Kremlin outlook. Yet the candidates could hardly be more different and even the quickest look into Tymoshenko’s past shows the unforgivable flaws in her candidacy.

Tymoshenko is a familiar face for both Ukrainians and the international media, which may explain some of the good will afforded her. She first rose to prominence in the late ’90s, as a protégé of then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Typical of many Ukrainian politicians from that era, Tymoshenko emerged amidst allegations of corruption, supposedly bribing Lazarenko for official government preference towards her gas empire in return. Yet what might kill a political career in many nations gave Tymoshenko a platform to run on: by the early 2000s, she had established herself as the anti-corruption candidate in Ukraine. She retooled her image, adopting her now standard peasant braid and outfit, and refused to speak her native Russian at all costs.

Just a few years later, she became an important player in the Ukrainian political sphere. Riding on the coattails of the Orange Revolution—a remarkably similar set of protests designed to reduce corruption in Ukraine—Tymoshenko was selected to be Ukraine’s Prime Minister in a supposedly new dawn. Her supposed partner in the new age, Viktor Yushchenko, became President of Ukraine and promised similar reforms.

Ten years later, things look awfully similar. Tymoshenko, fresh off a four-year jail sentence (manufactured by Viktor Yanukovich with questionable basis in fact), appears once again ready to play a major role in deciding Ukraine’s future. Ukraine, following ten years of painfully corrupt mismanagement and decay, once again feels ready to break out. And while not likely to be elected President, Tymoshenko appears primed for a position in Ukrainian government and a full return to her prior influence.

Put more clearly: Tymoshenko, who helped bring Ukraine’s first chance at honest and competent government to its knees only ten years ago, could very well do the same today. Former colleague and friend Dmitry Vydrin once referred to her as “nuclear power” in both her potency and volatility and her past is littered with illegal and immoral deeds, but much of the international media seems happy to give her yet another chance.

The only obstacle between Tymoshenko and the Presidency is Petro Poroshenko, or the ‘Chocolate King.’ Endorsed by Vitali Klitschko, the country’s notable prizefighter turned politician, Poroshenko seems to have a grip on western Ukraine and its pro-Western tendencies. He’s the odds-on favorite to win the race, but few seem to know what he really stands for. Poroshenko first entered Ukrainian politics in the early 2000’s and never held on to a single political party for too long. Still, he can only be considered the best candidate to bring the reform Ukraine seeks.

While Tymoshenko’s record shows the incredible hypocrisy in her quest for power, Poroshenko’s record, instead, seems to leave room for trust. CHESNO, one of Ukraine’s non-profit organizations dedicated solely to examining politicians’ wealth, recently reported that they could not find any instances of corruption in Poroshenko’s past. Given the standard set by Yanukovich, a twice-imprisoned, violent criminal, and Tymoshenko, CHESNO’s revelation may warrant the Presidency alone. But Poroshenko also brings a wealth of business experience to the table and claims he has “experience in [building] up a new investment climate,” one that Ukraine so desperately needs.

Given that his skill set corresponds so closely to Ukraine’s most dire needs—corruption reform and economic stimulus—Poroshenko should inspire hope in Western pundits and Ukrainians alike. Yet any success Poroshenko meets will come from his ability to control Tymoshenko and convince Ukraine’s populous of his—and its—economic potential.

First and foremost, Poroshenko must keep Tymoshenko quiet, both for himself and the future of Ukraine. Commentators widely agree that Ukraine’s biggest problems come from its culture of corruption and the incredible extent of its influence, a culture that Tymoshenko seems to live, breathe and cultivate. Her naked desire for power and ruthlessly manipulative personality can both appeal to citizens and destroy the careers of those she faces in ways seemingly lifted from Frank Underwood’s playbook in the American political drama television series House of Cards, and Poroshenko must acknowledge her danger. While it will likely be a very long time before Tymoshenko truly fades into obscurity, Poroshenko must reveal the hypocrisy in Tymoshenko’s candidacy to the citizens of Ukraine.

But Poroshenko’s true legacy—and the best indicator of his Presidential ability—will depend on his rhetoric towards Eastern Ukraine. The citizens of Stakhanov should not be satisfied with a few empty promises of stimulating investment in their slowly dying district—they of course deserve more than that—but Poroshenko has an attractive argument in his experience with business. He came about his money honestly, a truly inspiring feat in ’90s Ukraine, and brought extensive international trade to the country unlike many other Russia-focused Ukrainian oligarchs.

Poroshenko made sure not to ignore Russia, but his empire’s ability to stay afloat despite Russia’s 2013 ban on importing his chocolates is a testament to the diversity of his exports. Still, looking forward, his economic background should hardly rationalize the seismic shift westward that the European Union seems to advocate. Ukraine’s citizens pine for increased cooperation with Russia and Poroshenko should honor that; a clear break with Russia makes almost no sense for a country as closely related to its neighbor. But by bringing in outside investment to take advantage of Ukraine’s industrious eastern half and ensuring that corruption stays out of any deals made, Poroshenko has an opportunity to help the east unlike any way Russia can offer.

If Poroshenko can successfully bring international investment and business to Eastern Ukraine, he may have a chance at doing something truly great. With the specter of Yulia Tymoshenko constantly following him, this will be easier said than done. But if successful, Poroshenko should be able to accomplish what few Ukrainians dreamt of when the revolution began last fall: a unified and economically sound Ukrainian state.