Triumph of the Cargo Cult

Mykola Riabchuk

Six years ago, I published an article under the (perhaps too optimistic) title “Farewell to the Cargo Cult” (Berliner Zeitung, 13 April 2007). It was about the ongoing protests in Kyiv organized by the Party of Regions against president Viktor Yushchenko’s decree dissolving the parliament and declaring early parliamentary elections. The decree was indeed controversial but probably it was the only way to stop the creeping coup d’etat: the buying up and blackmailing of deputies in the parliament to form a pro-Yanukovych constitutional majority.

The protests staged by Yanukovych’s supporters looked like a parody of the Orange Maidan — a dull, uninventive imitation of the revolutionary events that had occurred in Kyiv two years earlier. The pathetic turnout of the “protesters,” their passivity and lack of enthusiasm, inability to explain what they were fighting for and off-record confessions about banal remuneration received for the participation in that political show made a striking contrast to the powerful civic spirit revealed during the 2004 revolution.

For me, it was a clear sign that Yanukovych and his Party of Regions believed sincerely that the Orange upheaval was brought about by money, and if they invested in similar fashion they would get the same result.  The “Cargo Cult” metaphor referred to a quasi-religious cult that emerged allegedly in the Pacific islands among the aboriginal tribes after the Second World War. During the war, aborigines witnessed American soldiers who received delightful goods, called “cargo”, from the sky. After Americans left, they decided to appease the sky gods in the same in order to get the same bounties. They developed a sophisticated ritual that imitated the landing of airplanes with bonfires around the landing stretch cut out of the jungle and native priests with wooden headphones communicating with their gods in some incomprehensible sacral language.

I confess I was wrong in using the word “farewell.” The Cargo Cult is alive and well in today’s Ukraine where the governing Party of Regions has made it a kind of a state religion. They worship it everywhere: in both political statements and institutional practices. Here and there, they imitate democratic elections, legal procedures, and parliamentary deliberations, with the candid hope that the European gods would bestow some sort of democratic legitimacy upon them or at least would not sanction them for skullduggery.

The new indictments of Yulia Tymoshenko for bribery, theft, tax evasion, and even killing a rival businessman back in 1996, represent a perfect example of “cargo” mentality: if our wooden headphones do not help us to communicate with the EU, let’s produce more wooden headphones. If there are no reliable proofs of Tymoshenko’s wrongdoing, let’s produce more unreliable proofs, hoping that sheer quantity would substitute for the dismal quality. It would be funny, if was not so depressing. If very shaky evidence sufficed to sentence Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for the gas deal with Putin, even shakier evidence – but a greater amount – may well suffice to give her a life sentence in a country where no independent judiciary exists.

So far, the court process looks even more farcical than it looked two years ago when the routine political-cum-economic decision was notoriously criminalized. All the witnesses summoned by prosecutors are reasonably suspected of being in their pockets []. All of them had either a criminal past and long history of cooperation with the authorities, probably as paid agents [], or some would-be criminal problems today that are likely to be solved only through their “cooperation” []. Remarkably, none of them has had any personal contact with Yulia Tymoshenko, nor they have any direct proof of her involvement in the criminal case. All their testimony to the court is based on some ambiguous information they presumably heard from others who have typically disappeared and can neither confirm nor deny the allegations. Remarkably, all of them kept this hearsay evidence unrevealed for seventeen years, ostensibly because they were afraid of Tymoshenko’s revenge, even though she became the prime minister only in 2005. Before that, she was persecuted and even imprisoned briefly by Leonid Kuchma. He was not so inventive, however, to accuse her of murder. And, surprisingly, none of today’s witnesses gave him a hint.

The authorities not only failed to produce any serious evidence of Tymoshenko’s involvement in the 1996 contract killing of Yevhen Shcherban. They failed even to explain persuasively what might have been her interest in such a plot []. The only argument is that there were some tensions between Tymoshenko’s boss (and Ukraine’s prime minister at the time) Pavlo Lazarenko and the victim, hardly an unusual situation in Ukrainian business environment. Yet, as two business partners of the late Mr Shcherban — ­Serhiy Taruta [ ] and Vitaliy Hayduk [] — testify, all the disputes had been solved by that time and Lazarenko had no reason to embark on such crude methods as killing. Actually, as prime minister, he had much more subtle instruments to promote his own business and intimidate disobedient rivals. Viktor Yanukovych must be perfectly aware of this.

Furthermore, even if one imagines that Mr Lazarenko went crazy and decided to do something irrational, he certainly did not need any assistance and mediation from Mme Tymoshenko, a minor pawn in his business empire, much more suitable for performing clean rather than dirty jobs []. There have always been plenty of professionals in this field in Ukraine, and even today such a job does not cost $3 million as the prosecutor alleges. Back in 1996, the experts claim, it was about ten times cheaper.

It is not clear, indeed, whether the Ukrainian authorities expect to sentence Tymoshenko to life imprisonment on such dubious legal grounds. What is clear, however, is they may well do so, since the previous case that cost Tymoshenko seven years in prison was not much better substantiated. Hatred is blind, and fear makes people vengeful. In Yanukovych’s case, all these unpleasant characteristics are only multiplied by his poor culture and education, provincial outlook, and lack of wise and committed advisers.

Taras Chornovil, who closely cooperated with him in 2004-2007, believes that “Yanukovych has many complexes, including the ‘blockaded Leningrad’ complex: “he cannot feed himself, he still is hungry for money, property, luxury.” And Tymoshenko, Chornovil contends, threatened to imprison him and re-nationalize “Mezhyhirya,” a government residence on 100 hectares of land near Kyiv, illicitly privatized by Yanukovych when he was prime minister. “I guess, he read these words shortly before he made his decision on Tymoshenko. I know for sure that two weeks earlier there was a large meeting and big debate in his administration on how to continue the process and what to do with her. The prevailing opinion was that Yulia should be accused but left free. But the subsequent denunciation made her arrest unavoidable” [].

This evidence renders any hopes for the imminent release of Yulia Tymoshenko ephemeral, as also any chance of signing the Association Agreement with the EU in the foreseeable future. People who preach the “Cargo Cult” simply do not understand what real airplanes – let alone real democracy, rule of law, and European integration – actually mean. The only good thing is that here, in the post-Soviet realm, they do not practice ritualistic cannibalism. Luckily for us all, they follow a somewhat different political and gastronomic tradition. So far, they have indulged themselves only with the ritualistic imprisonment of their political rivals.


Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Bohdan

    Excellent analysis piece. Like his neighbouring dictators Putin and Lukashenka, it is perfectly clear that Yanukovych has no intention of transfering power and will use any means at his disposal to preserve it. The question is how far will he go (and if in 2004 he screamed at Kuchma to roll the tanks on Orange Revolution, I’d bet on him emulating President Bashar al-Assad’s reaction should an Arab Spring-like scenario come a calling), but more importantly: are there Ukrainians willing to put their lives on the line to try and stop him? Right now, all the oposition leaders seem to be playing it safe and biding their time hoping that his incompetent management of affairs will be enough to oust him and his lot from power (you don’t exactly see them out there organizing Solidarity factory strikes do you?). This is either a very dangerous strategy of procrastination, or a signal that they lack the conviction and fortitude to do whatever is necessary to remove Yanukovych from power.

  2. anon

    I don’t see what Yanuk is doing wrong when it comes to Europe. Europe’s running after him as they never did with his predecessor. Between gas (shale and Gazprom) and Tym, evidently the former plays the major role. Whether Ukraine will sign up in Vilnius is another matter. But it doesn’t just depend on Yanuk, even if he is the President (or Tym’s personal fate) , we’re talking about a country of 47 million people. It’s upto them as well.

  3. DK

    Great article, Ukraine is f*cked because there are no repurcussions for any criminal actions and none of the citizens care about the larger picture anymore. Take your piece and run until you die. It’s animal survival instinct there. Maybe the next generation will be different…

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