To Ukraine, with Love [or] Russia’s Comedy Show

Mykola Riabchuk

Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin set another record, answering citizens’ questions in a televised Q & A session for five hours. The show was staged well, so that no uncomfortable or unexpected questions could offend the tsar’s ears.

Many participants actually strove not so much to ask their president anything but rather to express their gratitude for his wise and benevolent politics. A Paralympics swimmer thanked him on behalf of all Paralympics athletes for taking care of their needs, a local teacher praised the president for his tireless care of the nation’s morale, and a vice president of the association of Arctic researchers expressed his gratitude for support and, in part, for drafting a decree by which the President made May 21 the Day of Arctic Researchers.

Putin’s answers ranged from traditional castigation of petty bureaucrats (one of them was labeled a “pig” for his unresponsiveness) to no less traditional crude jokes (a poor Arctic researcher who asked him to speed up the formalities hindering the official introduction of their professional holiday, was advised to “start celebrating it right now and we’ll sign the decree when we are ready).” In his usual way, Mr. Putin dismissed “Russia’s negative image abroad” as a “stereotype imposed on the world public” by unspecified enemies, and lambasted the arrogant West for its desire to impose very dubious values and standards upon Russia. Rather than discussing issues like human rights, civic freedoms, and rule of law in the session, the emphasis was primarily and exclusively on the issue of sexual minorities, presented by the president in his favorite caricatured way: “You know, they have their own standards… If a Dutch court allowed the activity of an organization popularizing pedophilia, why should we adopt such standards? If they want to reproduce themselves through immigration, let them do so. We are not meddling with their affairs” (

Ukraine was mentioned only twice in the session, and in both cases Putin’s responses seemed very friendly. First, the Paralympics swimmer complained about the lack of training facilities: “These swimming pools exist in Europe and even the Ukrainians have them and are we in any way worse than them?”

“In some ways, Ukraine is better than us,” Mr Putin admitted generously. “I love Ukrainian culture, the Ukrainian people, they’re a part of our collective soul. What’s so surprising that they’ve overtaken us in some areas?”

One may guess in which other areas the smart Ukrainians have overtaken the “older Brothers,” and how the privilege of being a part of Russia’s collective soul corresponds with the idea of “Russkiy Mir” and with Putin’s earlier statement that Ukraine “is not even a nation.”

Answering the second question, about Ukraine’s prospective membership in the Customs Union, the Russian president assured the audience that Ukraine itself and its people should reach a position on the issue, and that Russia would respect any decision. He reminded the audience only that the Ukrainian and Russian economies are linked through extensive cooperation, and its rejection would lead to irreparable losses for both countries. “Whereas Russia might be able to recover these losses somehow, for Ukraine it would be extremely difficult. I fear that this could lead to de-industrialization of some industries… According to our estimates, [Ukraine would lose] 9-10 billion dollars a year” [].

Remarkably, neither the source nor details of these encouraging estimates have ever been disclosed. In the meantime, two other countries that have already joined the Russia-led Customs Union, do not appear very enthusiastic about their newly-acquired experience in the organization. The estimates of Ukraine’s gains and losses should it sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCTFA) with the EU are much more modest. The first years, specialists argue, would bring rather mixed results even though eventually the net balance of benefits versus losses would grow noticeably and sustainably. But still, it largely depends on Ukraine’s ability to use all the venues and instruments that DCFTA provides to reform its economy, legal system, and society in general. In a way, DCFTA is much more about the fishing rod than the fish, and this makes it profoundly different from the Customs Union incentives generously offered by Mr Putin (

Not all Ukrainians understand the economic subtleties of both unions, and not everyone is ready to take a fishing rod instead of the real (or virtual but real-looking) fish. Two years ago 44 per cent of Ukrainian respondents preferred Ukraine’s accession in the EU, 30 per cent preferred the Customs Union, and the rest opted for non-secession or had no clear opinion ( Today the first group that prefers the EU has shrunk to 41%, while the  group, supporting the Customs Union has grown to 36% (

The Russian “fish”, however, has a price – as one can easily figure out by taking a look, for example, at the “float for gas” deal (the so called Kharkiv Accords) gullibly signed in 2010, shortly after his election, by Viktor Yanukovych. Even if the mythical figure of $10 billion per year is going to materialize, it would most likely end up in the pockets of the “Family” members and friendly oligarchs rather than in any viable program of national modernization. And this is the point. Any Russia-led union means preservation of today’s inefficient, corrupt, and incurably backward economy for years to come. And, to be sure, it entails also a continuing disrespect for human rights, civic liberties, and rule of law (

So far, the enormous natural resources have not helped Russian kleptocrats to modernize the country (, and there is no reason to believe that the union of Ukrainian kleptocrats with their Russian, Belarusian, and Kazakh brethren would benefit anyone other than themselves. The myth of Russia as a rising economic power on a par with China, India, and Brazil (so called BRIC) was shattered by the global crisis that proved the inefficiency of corrupt institutions and a resource-based economy. As the experts of the European Council of Foreign Relations aptly noticed in the policy paper “Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia,” “few still have any illusions about Russia’s resurgence and many now fear stagnation and “Brezhnevization.” In other words, regardless of Putin’s assertive rhetoric, Russia is now a “post-BRIC state” (

This decline, they argue, forces Moscow to “pursue a more cautious foreign policy. In particular, diminished economic expectations and the increased presence of other actors in the region have seen Moscow craft a new strategy for the post- Soviet space. Though it has not given up its hegemonic ambitions, expressed in Putin’s proposal for a Eurasian Union, Russia now aims for a lower-cost sphere of influence. It is deploying limited resources selectively to create a kind of “lily-pad empire” – a network of military bases, pipelines and strategic chunks of national economies that clearly clashes with the EU’s own neighborhood policy.”

This might well explain Putin’s worry about leaving Ukraine outside the Customs Union and facing deindustrialization and annual losses of $10 billion. As to his peculiar “love” for Ukraine, one may recollect an old Soviet joke: “Gogi, do you like tomatoes?” – “To eat them – yes, but otherwise – no.”

A perfect example of this kind of “love” was demonstrated recently by popular Russian TV presenter Ivan Urgant on the show Smak (The Taste), which runs on the state-owned Channel One and in which he interviews celebrities while cooking with them. Recently, he provoked uproar in Ukraine by a humorous comment made during the preparation of a soup: “I chopped these greens like a red commissar did the residents of a Ukrainian village.” His interlocutor, the celebrated screenwriter Aleksandr Adabashyan, wiped the knife clean and responded with similar wit: “I am just shaking off the villagers’ remains”

Thank God, they did not refer to gas chambers.

Forced to apologize, Urgant confessed, probably quite sincerely, that he “could not imagine that the unfortunate joke in a humorous program… could spark such an acute reaction in Ukraine, a country I love very much.”

It’s a pity he did not feature Mr. Putin in his anecdote.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

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