Moscow Stuck in Dead Sea While Kiev Evolves
- By Yevgeny Kiselyov
- Oct. 17 2008 00:00
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Kiev is caught up in a turbulent political crisis. Against this backdrop, it is interesting to take a look at Russia, where the political scene is like the Dead Sea -- thick, swampy and lifeless. You can't swim in it. The most you can do is drift along or float on your back. Any attempt at more active movement in this sea could have fatal consequences.
By contrast, Kiev's political life is extremely vital. President Viktor Yushchenko, who issued a decree to dissolve parliament for its failure to form a coalition within the legally allotted time frame, has called for early elections. In response, deputies loyal to Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the president's main opponent, appealed to the administrative court, which in turn suspended Yushchenko's decree.
Meanwhile, the president demanded that the government allocate funds to hold early elections. The prime minister flatly refused because these expenses "were not budgeted." The president told her to take it from the country's special reserve fund. The prime minister answered that the fund was earmarked for emergencies such as natural disasters, not early elections. The whole country laughed over Tymoshenko's response since the parliament itself has been a prolonged natural disaster for three years now.
Some claim Yushchenko is to blame for the parliamentary crisis because he is the one trying to strip Tymoshenko of her top government post. This way, Yushchenko can prevent Tymoshenko from participating in next year's presidential election in her capacity as prime minister, where she would have strong parliamentary resources and a significant power base.
The opposing version holds that Tymoshenko is behind all the troubles because she wanted to form a new coalition with the opposition Party of the Regions, headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. If Tymoshenko is successful in doing this, she could gain an absolute majority in parliament, pass a constitutional amendment reducing the presidency to a figurehead post, as in Germany, and ultimately consolidate power in her own hands as prime minister.
A third viewpoint suggests that Tymoshenko's scenario would have played out had it not been for the intervention of Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest person not only in Ukraine, but in all of Europe. Akhmetov, who is the main sponsor of the Party of the Regions, does not trust Tymoshenko at all. He advocates cooperation with Yushchenko and would like to see a new prime minister.
But things are not that simple, skeptics say. They claim Tymoshenko's coalition with the Party of the Regions did not pan out because Tymoshenko's most nationalistic and ideological supporters were opposed to joining forces with Yanukovych's party because it is so overtly pro-Russia.
One of the most interesting aspects of all of this is that the Ukrainian political drama is actively discussed and debated on every television channel. The country's independent television, with its lively political talk shows and balanced news programs, is a sharp contrast to the stale, pro-government coverage we see on Russian television.
Savik Shuster, who hosted the "Svoboda Slova" political talk show program on Russia's NTV before it was cancelled in 2004, has been working as a talk show host for the last three years in Kiev. As the dramatic political events in Ukraine unfold, top-ranking officials of every stripe have been lining up to appear on his "Shuster Live" program on which he solos every evening. One recent guest was Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, who came to power when the country gained independence in 1991.
Shuster's program once showed a shouting match between the head of the State Security Service, Valery Geletei, and Oleg Lyashko, a deputy in the parliament. Next in this political cavalcade came Yanukovych, who fielded questions from the studio audience before Tymoshenko was patched in live from her office. The two engaged in a heated debate on the show, giving the impression that the upcoming presidential election campaign had already begun.
Could this kind of active political debate and discussion take place in Russia -- either in the State Duma or on television? This is obviously a rhetorical question.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it took three years before Soviet-style television, with its complete monopoly of the airwaves and on all forms of political commentary, was completely destroyed and replaced by new, independent television stations. Now, most of Russian television has returned to its Soviet roots. During Ukraine's first 13 years after the Soviet collapse, television coverage looked a lot like today's Russian television. Then the Orange Revolution shook up the country in 2004, ushering in a new era of independent media coverage.
By no means do I want to idealize Ukrainian politicians. I am certain that there are also plenty of scoundrels among Ukraine's politicians and bureaucrats. I am speaking of the corrupt officials who change their convictions and alliances and who can swear fealty to freedom of the press one day and take pleasure in extinguishing those freedoms the next.
But because Ukraine's largest political and financial-industrial groups more or less coincide with the country's major regions -- each unique in terms of its economy, history, culture, language and even religious orientation -- the country's diversity helps ensure democracy's survival. The differences between the groups are so great that it prevents the formation of long-term political alliances among one or more political and business clans. It also prevents one group from dominating the political landscape. Like in any functioning democracy that is based on competing political forces, Ukraine's various forces are thus compelled to make their political views public, struggle to win votes, appeal to liberal democratic principles and procedures, remain accessible to the press and establish positive working relationships with the media.
Nonetheless, amid Ukraine's positive developments as a young democracy, one disturbing fact remains. As far as I can see, most Ukrainians do not value their new political freedoms. They are tired of politics, sick of the endless blather from their televisions, and bored by the latest presidential, parliamentary or municipal elections. As one of my colleagues artfully put it, "Freedom is no longer a component in the country's 'basket of consumer goods.'" Interestingly enough, it was precisely at this point in Russia's development -- when Russians shared the same level of apathy toward politics -- that Vladimir Putin came to power as president. As a result of this mass inertia, it was relatively easy for the Kremlin to monopolize the country's power, including the mainstream media.
The political apathy that has infected both Russia and Ukraine demonstrates that both countries have a far way to go before they recover from the serious trauma caused by 70 years of communism.
Yevgeny Kiselyov hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio and is chief editor of TVi, a new television channel in Ukraine.