Toward an Anecdotal History of Ukrainian Politics

By Mykola Riabchuk

The second anniversary of Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency passed on February 25, and his presidency can be briefly defined in three possible ways: as a period of authoritarian consolidation, of imitative “reforms,” or of permanent and pervasive scandals. The latter definition is perhaps the best since it sheds revealing light on the previous two. In February, there were at least four major scandals – dramatic for their participants, anecdotal for outsiders, and highly instructive, in many ways, for political scientists and cultural anthropologists.

First of all, Roman Zabzaliuk, a member of the Parliament from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, who switched sides at the end of the last year and joined the governing coalition, revealed the typical mechanism of recruiting opposition MPs by Yanukovych’s cronies. He confessed that he had acted as an “undercover agent” on behalf of his party leadership and, therefore, simulated acceptance of a tempting offer to join the pro-Yanukovych faction “Reforms for the [sake of the] Future,” at an impressive price of $450,000, plus an additional monthly allowance of $20,000 in cash for proper voting (

The news by itself was hardly revealing since many other MPs have reported similar offers made to them at various times by Yanukovych’s people. The practice was not invented yesterday and certainly not by the Party of Regions. Observers remember how the pro-Kuchma majority was forged in the parliament in 2002, when two pro-presidential parties won only 20 per cent of votes but mustered eventually a formidable majority of both “independents” and opposition defectors.

Enormous and largely unrecorded and uncontrolled wealth accumulated by post-Soviet oligarchs enabled them to buy a host of officials, MPs, judges, journalists, et al. at dizzying prices. This is why an amendment was made to Ukrainian constitution in 2004 that required the pro-government majority in the parliament to be formed by factions and not by single MPs, i.e. defectors from other factions. In March 2010, Yanukovych’s supporters blatantly violated this law, which resulted in a sort of parliamentary coup d’etat and paved the way to further violations of Ukrainian laws and creeping usurpation of power by the increasingly autocratic ruler.

The only new thing in Zabzaliuk’s revelations is that he recorded his conversations with Mr. Ihor Rybakov, head of the faction “Reforms for the Future,” who allegedly gave him a bribe and discussed with him some other delicate matters. Thus, we can learn from the horse’s mouth not only the price-list for various deeds that can be considered immoral at best and criminal at worst but also how “Mr. Rybakov” (the real Mr. Rybakov, of course, denies any authenticity of the records) encourages Mr. Zabzaliuk to attract more defectors from the opposition and, most interesting, to recruit more “slaves” (in his words) in Western Ukraine in particular to work for the ruling party in the local electoral commissions as fake representatives of the opposition. This is a clear hint, one of many, at how the regime is going to stage the parliamentary elections later this year. Actually, the incumbents have little choice given that the popularity of the president and his party has fallen to the low teens and their staunch desire to stay in power indefinitely.

Zabzaliuk’s accusations were predictably downplayed by the government and pro-government media. The audio-clips are worthless since Ukrainian law does not consider unauthorized records as evidence. The fingerprints on “Rybakov’s money” are also no proof since he and his friends have already admitted they collected $100,000 for Mr. Zabzaliuk at his request, allegedly for a treatment abroad. And Mr. Pshonka, the prosecutor general (and president’s soldier, in case anyone has forgotten his earlier self-designation), announced that he saw no reason for a criminal investigation in this case since it was merely an internecine quarrel among MPs.

Zabzaliuk passed the money on to the Kyiv Children’s Hospital, but the major TV channels, predictably, ignored his generous move. Although the Tyzhden weekly that did report the story in detail and illustrated it graphically with fragments of “Rybakov’s conversation,” it was immediately withdrawn from the newsstands by some enigmatic order “from above” (

This might be considered the second biggest scandal of the month but since the official reaction of the Tyzhden managers to the incident is not yet clear, we can illustrate the creeping censorship in Yanukovych’s Ukraine with a no less revealing event. On February 14, Judge Olha Salamon of the Desniansky district court in Kyiv suspended the popular website “Dorozhny kontrol” ( in response to a libel action by Hennady Hetmantsev, a traffic police officer, who had abused and humiliated a driver and then denounced the website for publicizing the video-record of his misbehavior. Remarkably, the judge shut down the site by a simple order, not by a court decision. Moreover, she closed all the content, not just the material in question. Still worse, she suspended the site for the whole period of court deliberations, which could last, in practice, for years. This is how multiple ways to destroy independent media in Ukraine are perfected.

Hetmantsev, one of the heroes of this ugly story, attained notoriety a year ago in Odesa after he tried to intimidate the Roadcontrol activists who had filmed his colleague Oleksandr Shvets insulting a Ukrainian-speaking driver by calling his speech a “cow language.” After the scandal, Shvets was reportedly dismissed from the traffic police, whereas Hetmantsev survived and retaliated as promised (

There are probably no business or personal ties between Mr. Hetmantsev and Judge Salamon. Her responsiveness to his groundless demand reflects not only widespread incompetence of Ukrainian judges in legal matters (it is an open secret that many of them simply buy their university diplomas and court positions), but also the arbitrariness of the entire system and its fundamental bias for the government against members of society. The judges, police, and prosecutors protect primarily the state and the authorities – with all their privileges and entitlements—but not the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens.

The third scandal in February was related, once again, to the new government nominations. This time, Viktor Yanukovych surprised everyone by appointing Ihor Kalinin head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and Dmitri Salamatin as Minister of Defense. Neither is a personal friend of the president nor a native of the Donbas region, as has been the norm for appointments over the past two years. Both of them seem to be acts of patronage by the president’s older son Oleksandr, a dentist who has emerged as a successful businessman. Last year, he reportedly placed his acolytes in the upper echelons of the National Bank, Ministry of Interior, and National Tax Administration (

None of them as yet gained prominence as major specialists in their fields. But this is probably not why they were hired (,_ksivonko_moya_bogatirskaya-97141.html). Ihor Kalinin was a Russian KGB officer and Afghan war veteran who in 1992 for unknown reasons moved from Moscow to Kyiv and made a career in the SBU – all the way to the top, which may give Ukrainians pause for thought about Vladimir Putin’s dictum that KGB agents are appointed for life. Salamatin lacks even such dubious professional credentials. His entire experience in defense, to the best of our knowledge, amounts to a couple of scuffles with opposition MPs in the parliament during which he skillfully broke a few noses and jaws of his political opponents, and was rewarded henceforth by the president with the position of the head of the State Arms Trade Agency.

Born in Kazakhstan, Salamatin moved to Ukraine in 1999 as a Russian citizen and how he acquired Ukrainian citizenship remains a mystery. Even less clear is whether he relinquished his Russian citizenship, as Ukrainian law requires. Thus his appointment has led some observers to speculate on the “Russian hand” in Ukrainian politics and Yanukovych’s readiness to cave in to Moscow ( More likely, however, is that Yanukovych does not trust his fellow-oligarchs and party bosses any longer, relying instead on a kind of Praetorian Guard. Or, as Alexander Motyl suggests, Yanukovych’s reliance on “complete outsiders can only mean that [he] is expecting serious trouble at home in the coming year and doesn’t think native cadres can do the job” (

The fourth scandal is probably the most interesting and unusual. Earlier this month, in Odesa, customs officers confiscated 38 kilos of cocaine worth $7.5 million, hidden in pineapples and transported from Costa-Rica inside a refrigerator. The unusual part of the story is that the incident should not have happened because the cargo was “supervised” by one of four “fashionable” (as they are euphemistically called in Odesa) broker companies that de facto control the green corridor at the seaport. They have, reportedly, such influential patrons in Kyiv that neither customs nor security service officers dare to interfere in their business. At the moderate price of $10,000-$15,000 in kickbacks, therefore, they provide clients with a virtually customs-free access to the Ukrainian market (

There are two explanations of why the fashionable company failed to protect its client’s cargo from customs on this occasion. One story is that the power supply was disconnected from the refrigerator for a few days and the customs officers were surprised that the cargo owners were unconcerned. A more realistic version is that the cargo was tracked by the American anti-drug service from the outset and the search in Odesa was made at their request.

And here the unusual part of the story ends and the interesting part begins. The scandal was reported in detail by the popular tabloid Segodnia, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the leading Ukrainian oligarch and Yanukovych’s main sponsor in the past. Whereas analysts muse on the real meaning of this publication – either Akhmetov is doing a favor for the Americans to persuade them to grant him finally a U.S. visa, or else he is fighting some business competitors, or merely tries to distance himself from the potentially damaging affair: no one (!) believes that the Ukrainian customs merely did their job, that it was a case of business as usual, and they caught the smugglers. And this is the point.

We live in the country in which no one believes the mass media simply report the news, customs take care of smugglers, and law-enforcement agencies protect the citizens rather than themselves and their real masters. Viktor Yanukovych is certainly not the main culprit and did not invent this system. But he is definitely someone who does his best to exploit its faults rather than to fix them. And, frankly, there are no reasons to believe that the next three years of his presidency are likely to be any different.


Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Pingback: Toward an Anecdotal History of Ukrainian Politics « Maidan

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