Letter from Odessa

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Will the January presidential elections see Ukraine swing towards the east or the west?

Prospect, January 2010

Xenia Simonova’s art is suspended between tragedy and lachrymosity in a peculiarly Ukrainian way. Last summer, the 24-yearold 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 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, he and she 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 the current slump and Ukraine needs $16.4bn from the IMF. President Yushchenko has put the latest instalment at risk with an electioneering 20 per cent increase in public wages and pensions.

The candidates’ billboards employ the same language: social order, hard work, pride, honesty. But those who are not laughing hollowly are not listening. There will be an “against all” option on the ballot, expected to be widely used; one candidate has changed his name to Protyvsikh (“against all” in Ukrainian) to benefit.

How has the polity failed so badly? From the 1970s on, few Ukrainian officials believed in Marxism. In 1991 these ideology-less men took power but had little but cynicism and corruption to offer citizens. Former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko is in a Californian jail for embezzling over $100m from UESU , the energy company that he set up with Tymoshenko. President Kuchma negotiated an amnesty for himself over alleged illicit weapons sales.

With corruption has come surreal lawlessness. Ukraine is a world leader in political “accidents.” Former interior minister Yuriy Kravchenko apparently killed himself with two shots to the head; Heorhiy Kirpa, transport minister, supposedly shot himself in a sauna. Opposition politicians Vyacheslav Chornovil, Anatoly Yermak and Oleksandr Yemets all swerved off the road or drove thoughtlessly into trucks. Then there is the violence to journalists, ranging from Gongadze’s murder to the recent near-slapstick punch-up in a car park between newspaper editor Alexei Vasilevich and MP Oleg Cherpitsky.

Ukraine’s troubles have always been large: war, subjection, ransom. The last is wearily expected this winter, though Putin has agreed not to turn the gas taps off again. The country’s geography has kept it vulnerable for centuries. Ukraine’s position between Europe and Russia produces a unending contested space, both geopolitically and psychically. There is a sort of fatality to it. That is why Ukrainians keep their emotions buried until something—sand and light and fast-moving fingers—comes out of nowhere and undoes them.

Europe needs to see Ukraine as the start of a common ground between east and west. But with both Russia and the EU tugging so impatiently at the country, there has never been a moment when it is more likely to split down the banks of the great Dnieper river; for one half to go west, the other east, and a new cold conflict to begin.

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