For several years, United States and European media have created an image to represent the Ukrainian revolution: Yulia Tymoshenko, chief candidate of the opposition party in Ukraine. Imprisoned by the aspiring dictator Viktor Yanukovych on trumped up charges after her time as a leader of the Orange Revolution and Ukrainian Prime Minister, Tymoshenko’s plight was noticed by journalists across the world. Her struggle was even taken up by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as cause for a potential boycott of the European Cup Championship held in Ukraine in 2012.
True, Western media coverage has recently expressed increasing hesitance over the exaltation of Tymoshenko. Nevertheless, the allure of a heroic figure, especially the allure of a powerful woman in an Eastern world, proved too much. Disapproval of her past is still expressed only in qualifying remarks.
Never mind that the object of the mythic narrative was once known as the “gas princess” – a reference to the source of her ill-gotten wealth. Never mind how she achieved her position as a leader of the opposition party on the basis of the same sort of bribery and corruption that forged Yanukovych’s power. Never mind that her accomplice, former PM Pavlo Lazarenko, landed in a California prison after he fled Ukraine with embezzled funds. Never mind that her image as a “pro-Western” reformist is a carefully crafted bit of political theater. The impression received from the media is that while Yulia Tymoshenko may be the product of a tough post-communist world, she is still a leader capable of forging a new, stable Ukraine.
Now, non-violent popular revolutions are emotional affairs composed of various groups with different views of precisely what they stand for. Apart from a cry for some justice, some reform, some freedom, some hope for the future, protesters are rarely as united as their initial moment in opposition allows them to be. The mass demonstrations in Kiev’s Maidan square in Ukraine are no different. They are united in a significant way by the ambiguity of their opposition to oligarchic oppression and state capture by corrupt hold-overs from a post-communist era.
After the fall of communism, long-serving Soviet era officials and their friends gorged themselves upon the privatization of state companies, the abuse of administrative offices and government contracting procedures. These officials and their friends, however, did not form a single party. There are different oligarchic factions grasping at total control. This is Ukraine’s political inheritance from the 1990’s. Today, Yanukovych’s autocratic intent and the Russia-leaning Party of Regions is mirrored by an opposition party, perhaps less corrupt and more Ukrainian nationalist, but equally untenable as a solution to the problem.
In such circumstances, when the time comes for the popular revolution to organize, the main difficulty they are faced with is that of defending true reform from opposition party leaders who are very ready to “help” in overthrowing the regime. That “help” comes at a price: the opposition captures the movement. Yulia Tymoshenko does not represent the Maidan demonstrators. She represents precisely the oligarchic play of political shadows, the mere appearance of political options in “opposition” to an aspiring dictator. She represents the failure of the transition from Soviet communism to a free, just and democratic society.
The transition from communism to free society took various paths in Central and Eastern Europe. Some were more successful than others. Typically, the further East you go, the less successful they were. The less a country made a clean break with their communist past, the less successful they were. As former Estonian PM Mart Laar put it in his The Power of Freedom: Central and Eastern Europe after 1945:
“The correlation between renunciation of the Communist past and success is not hard to explain: … People who had worked in the Soviet system and made a career for themselves within it found it hard to adapt to the new requirements set by society. If you have based your career not on honest work but on lies and deceit, then it is unrealistic to expect that you will now start to change. The state apparatus inherited from the old regime was unsuitable for the implementation of the appropriate policies. It could only transplant corruption from the old system to the new one.”
Unsuccessful transitions exchanged state control of nationalized business for narrowly private business control of the state in a way that expresses something of the dangers of capitalism itself.
In Ukraine, the transition from communism faltered precisely in such oligarchic state capture. One of the lessons of a country-to-country review of the transition is that when reform has a chance, just do it, do it cleanly and do it quickly. Otherwise, the slow pace of reform allows the old elite to re-position and tighten their grip on the state apparatus. There are new, young, competent leaders in Ukraine and they represent the future of their country. They deserve a chance. Western leaders should know who to look for in Ukraine. Western journalists should make Tymoshenko’s relationship to the corruption of the past really and truly clear — as clear as this Ukrainian article does.
Mark Hanssen is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics. He previously worked for several years in civil society development in Central and Eastern Europe at Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe.