The last hopes some Ukrainians harbored for president’s veto over the highly divisive language bill, faded away on August 8, after Viktor Yanukovych signed it into law http://www.president.gov.ua/news/24960.html.
The result was largely predictable since the promotion of Russian language – at the cost of Ukrainian, as many critics opine – was a cornerstone of Yanukovych’s 2004 and 2010 presidential campaigns as well as of his Sovietophile Party of Regions. The propagandistic materials leaked from the party headquarters before the bill was even approved reveal a key role assigned to the language law by the party spin-doctors in the pending parliamentary elections campaign. And the brutal, extremely unscrupulous, and illegitimate way the bill was pushed through the parliament proves that the stakes are too high for the Party of Regions and, apparently, for the president.
Therefore, it was rather naïve to expect that the president would destroy what his team had been building so ruthlessly, breaching various laws and dismissing procedural subtleties. The calculation looks simple: whatever the president and his party do, they will not garner support from the democratic, Ukrainophile, and pro-European part of society. So, the main task is to mobilize the traditional, Sovietophile part of the electorate, which would probably never vote for the “democrats” perceived as “nationalists” and “Western hacks,” but may also reject the “Regionals” because of dissatisfaction with their disastrous social and economic policies. Some protest votes would probably benefit the Regionals’ satellites: the Communists on the virtual left and Natalia Korolevska’s “Avanti Ukraine!” in the quasi-liberal “center.” Still, the problem of mobilizing the Regionals’ core electorate remains topical since many of those people may simply ignore the elections, facilitating thereby the chances of the opposition.
The estimated size of the Sovietophile electorate in Ukraine is about 40%. This does not comprise a majority but the Party of Regions has good reason to believe that the half of the parliament elected from the territorial districts (not from the party lists) will bring them the much-needed majority thanks to the so-called independents. Most of them ultimately appear very dependent on the incentives or intimidation or both from the authorities and usually end-up in the pro-government camp.
The plot of the “Language Bill” was essentially clear but some dramatic devices were invoked to create an effective atmosphere of suspense and intrigue. First, there was last year’s precedent when the law on official use of the Soviet red flags was passed and even signed by the president but cancelled eventually by the hyper-loyalist constitutional court. (This actually may happen again but probably only after the parliamentary elections. The abandoned law would not bring Yanukovych much love and gratitude from Ukrainophiles anyway but would certainly give him an additional trump-card for some manipulative games in the future – something that his predecessor Leonid Kuchma understood perfectly).
Secondly, the head of the parliament Volodymyr Lytvyn refused to sign the bill citing multiple violations of the procedure http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2012/07/4/6967984. But his resignation was not accepted by the parliament and he was ultimately forced to comply, possibly blackmailed by the “Regionals” because of his alleged involvement in the Gongadze affair http://news.liga.net/ua/news/politics/707846-litvin_p_dpisav_skandalniy_zakon_pro_movi.htm.
Thirdly, the professional “doves” in Yanukovych’s team strained every sinew to convey to the public the president’s deep concern with the le controversies and his sincere desire to find a reasonable compromise that would not harm the Ukrainian language. Maryna Stavniychuk, his adviser, went so far as to recognize unequivocally that “the law was passed with flagrant violations of the articles 47, 116-122 and 130 of procedural statute (регламент) of the parliament, and many of its provisions contradicted the respective paragraphs of the Ukrainian Constitution and international documents ratified by Ukraine, including the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages”http://obozrevatel.com/politics/16482-umovna-movna-krapka.htm. Moreover, Viktor Yanukovych himself recognized the controversial character of the law, referring to it as a crude document “splitting society” and therefore requiring “some improvements.”
And finally, on the very eve of the signing of the bill, President Yanukovych summoned a number of what still is called in Soviet newspeak “representatives of intelligentsia” to his summer residence in the Crimea to get their first-hand opinion on the hot issue. Next day the bill was signed into law to the great shock of the “representatives,” who justifiably considered themselves “tricked like kittens.” (The phrase became a popular description of the Party of Regions’ behavior after its informal parliamentary “director” Mykhaylo Chchetov used it boastfully to explain how they had cheated the opposition when pushing through the bill against all procedural requirements: “Мы их развели, как котят.” Remarkably, the Russian word “razvesti” – to sucker somebody – comes from the criminal jargon openly favored by the dominant Donetsk clan) http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2012/07/3/6967926.
To sweeten the pill, the president ordered the government to create an ad hoc working group that would elaborate proper changes to the law, with a stated goal to “ensure the full-fledged functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of social life over the entire territory of the country.” This belongs next to the initial intention of the document to “guarantee the free development and use of other mother tongues of Ukrainian citizens” http://www.president.gov.ua/documents/14941.html. Raisa Bohatyriova, the deputy prime minister in charge of humanitarian issues, was assigned to head the group, while the president’s guests, a.k.a. “representatives of intelligentsia,” were invited to participate in the deliberations. Ironically, the same offer was made also to the bill’s sponsors, Messrs. Kivalov and Kolesnichenko – a decision that some Ukrainian journalists declared was rather like asking Himmler and Goebbels to work on a law of de-Nazification.
The excessive demonization of two petty swindlers and opportunists is hardly appropriate but the metaphor is actually not about ideological similarity. It refers primarily to the intolerant, aggressive, and arrogant approach of these two persons and their use of political force to resolve any issue that requires a dialogue and consensus building. Serhiy Kivalov was the cynical head of the Central Election Commission that falsified notoriously the 2004 presidential elections and provoked the popular uprising known as the “Orange Revolution.” Today, he reportedly owns the TV channel “Academia,” a source of pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian propaganda, with a flagship program “Background” full of unrestrained innuendos and overt propaganda of hatred http://rutube.ru/tracks/5357980.html.
Vadym Kolesnichenko, the other self-professed promoter of European charters and values in Ukraine, has a similar reputation as a professional crusader against “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.” Since Soviet times, the term has been used exactly like “Zionism,”i.e. to denigrate all things Ukrainian and to criminalize any vestiges of national identity beyond ethnography. Kolesnichenko’s fame in the parliament is based primarily on his pugilism, parading with Russian state symbols, and making disparaging remarks about Ukrainian language and culture. A dense cloud of scandals accompanies his activity. Within the few past months, he managed to steal Timothy Snyder’s article from the New York Review of Books for his own “antinationalistic” collection http://news.liga.net/news/politics/669428-professor_yelskogo_universiteta_vozmushchen_postupkom_kolesnichenko.htm, to organize “mass approval” for his draft bill by forging “letters of support” from various academic and minority institutions http://www.pravda.com.ua/articles/2012/05/23/6965117, and to falsify quotations and references in the explanatory notes to the document he submitted with Mr. Kivalov http://www.pravda.com.ua/columns/2012/07/30/6969744.
Perhaps the best characterization of this provocateur-at-large comes from his 2009 speech in the parliament where he lobbied for another “antinationalistic” bill: “On banning the rehabilitation and heroizing of fascist collaborators of 1933-1945.” To make his propagandistic speech more appealing to the fellow-MPs and especially for the general public, he embellished dry bureaucratic formulas with some personal details. At one point he referred not only to the UN documents and Nuremberg court decisions but also, as stated in the official stenogram, to the “bright memory of millions of Ukrainians who perished in their fight against fascism and bright memory of my father who burnt in a tank in Belarus defending the Soviet Motherland from the German-fascist occupants”” http://www.pravda.com.ua/columns/2012/07/30/6969744.
The only problem with the credibility of this speech (and Mr. Kolesnichenko in general) is that the speaker was born in 1958, roughly 15 years after his father reportedly perished in Belarus. (One may recollect here a reputed similar statement by Aleksander Lukashenko who was also impassioned so much by his own rhetoric that forgot he was born seven years after the war and, moreover, had actually never heard anything about his father).
Now one may guess how the “kittens”, a.k.a. “representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia,” would cooperate with the two very peculiar personages on the expected improvements to the law that has been absolutely lawless – illegal and illegitimate – in its spirit and letter, causes and effects, inception and delivery. My bet is that the crusaders might tone down their Ukrainophobic zeal on the boss’s orders; the “representatives” would receive from the president soothing promises of further support for Ukrainian language and culture; the law would be amended to meet (more or less) provisions of the constitution; so that little will change in today’s ambiguous situation, which is determined primarily not by laws but by the authorities’ goodwill and political expedience. All this will happen, however, after the elections, when logic suggests Yanukovych will backtrack a little bit in order to have more space for the eventual political bargaining and maneuvering.
Today expediency means appeasing supporters and undermining opponents. Kivalov, Kolesnichenko, and Chechetov accomplished the first part of the project, while the “representatives of intelligentsia” helped to complete the other part. First, they ran, at the president’s whim, to his dacha and, second, they got virtually nothing. To enhance the humiliation, the information was leaked that all of these affluent citizens flew at the cost of Bohdan Havrylyshyn, a Swiss-Ukrainian businessman, fully in line with the Regionals’ propaganda that the Ukrainian language issue is merely a Diaspora hobbyhorse http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2012/08/7/6970338.
Even though most of the “representatives” are not directly connected to the political opposition (actually most of them have successfully cooperated with both Soviet and post-Soviet authorities), all of them represent, in the popular mind, the “Ukrainian party,” i.e., the opposition as it is broadly understood. To discredit the opposition on the eve of elections is definitely a favored policy, but probably even more important for the regime is to involve as many public figures as possible in its illegal activity. This helps to normalize things abnormal and legitimize the illegitimate. The cheaters become the partners; the swindlers assume the role of respectable statesmen. The story may resemble the classical parable about Faust and Mephistopheles. The only problem is that the Ukrainian Mephistos are merely petty crooks, and the Ukrainian Fausts are merely dull and insipid collaborators.
[Editor's note: the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine]