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PUTIN'S BORSCHT

  • 2004-12-01
The Ukrainian political crisis is so rich with drama, farce, lies and danger that it is challenging to approach the event from any one angle. What's more, the strong level of bias in coverage - from both sides of the conflict itself and on the part of outside observers as well - complicates any attempt to come up with a disinterested point of view. Things are much more complex than they appear on the surface of the TV screen and the newsprint.

Perhaps the most striking feature throughout the tumult has been Russia's behavior. Watching it, one is shocked at the level of insolence that now reigns within the walls of the Kremlin. Moscow is hell-bent on the belief that Ukraine belongs in its sphere of influence - no questions asked, no arguments accepted. As a result, for weeks now it has made a series of hypocritical statements and decisions that have effectively put relations with the West on ice.

In both Portugal and The Hague, Vladimir Putin decried what he said was foreign interference in the internal affairs of another country. Yet no one is guilty of the same transgression more than he. More than anything, his two visits to Ukraine on the eve of the polls - to let the entire country know that he was on the side of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich - were the real interference in Ukraine's affairs. And now it has backfired.

Putin's prejudices even got the better of him after the second round of the elections when he called to congratulate Yanukovich based on what he had heard from the exit polls. Considering that 1) there were such polls showing that the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko also won, and 2) that the degree of reliability of exit polls in general is questionable (even more so in Ukraine), Putin's phone call is patently ludicrous. Indeed, he so wanted Yanukovich - President Leonid Kuchma's handpicked successor and a twice-convicted felon - to win that his emotions betrayed his judgment. Not good for a president.

What essentially happened in Ukraine is that Russia, which has not disguised its goal of forging a EU-like trading bloc with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, tried to export its suspect system of political technology in order to guarantee victory. To be sure, the Kremlin has vast experience in this realm. When Putin took power in 2000, one of his first takes was reining in several dozen renegade governors, and he and his advisers went about it one election at a time - replacing the disloyal with the loyal.

Realizing how popular Yushchenko is and how anti-Russian the atmosphere is in western regions of the country, Moscow knew from the very beginning it was in for a close fight. So it called on its best minds to come up with a plan that would ensure that Kuchma was succeeded by someone Russian friendly. The methods were the same: castigate the opponent, show the good guy standing next to a smiling Putin, and just to be sure, stuff the ballot boxes.

But the Russian advisers underestimated the opposition and the West, and now they are livid. Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Foundation for Effective Policy, a Putin-friendly consultancy that led the PR effort in Ukraine, impugned the opposition, claiming it was staging a "revolution that has the color of children's diarrhea" and comparing Yushchenko to Hitler. Pavlovsky described the West's stance toward the crisis as a "political invasion" and suggested that Russia review its relations with the West.

Vladimir Putin and Co. need a reality check. They need to learn that not everyone Slav is a Belarusian peasant who can be told what to do, how to vote, etc. That not every country in the "near abroad" is thrilled about the Kremlin's system of "managed democracy." That half of Ukraine's citizens want a better life a la Western Europe and not a la Moscow's Garden Ring.

Finally - and this is the most important point - Russia needs to realize that the current schism in Ukrainian society did not appear overnight. Rather, it is the result of years of corrupt leadership and shoddy reform, and many are right to blame Russia (in part) for this. Millions of Ukrainians no doubt went to the voting stations recalling murdered journalists, the Black Sea Fleet, Russia's grumblings over the status of the Crimea (which Russia gave to Ukraine in the 1950s and wants to have back), and other sore spots between the two countries. For years Russia's leadership paid little attention toward its cousin-country, toward the latter's insouciant politics, and now they are eating the borscht that it helped cook. Yet they wonder now why it tastes so bad.