Some stream-of-consciousness impressions of Kyiv, Ukraine...
We arrive in Kyiv (formerly "Kiev"), Ukraine on board an Aerosvit Boeing 737--a comfortable ride after my recent Aeroflot experience. From the air, it's immediately apparent that there are immense wide open spaces in Ukraine with dark, fertile soil that is reportedly the most fertile in Europe, but because of political and bureaucratic obstacles it is often not farmed or used for other agricultural purposes.
Judging from the languages spoken around me in the passport control line at the airport, it's clear that the vast majority of visitors to Kyiv are Russian. One young lady beside me pokes fun at the Ukrainian's "funny way of speaking." This is a rather common outward sign of Russia's condescension toward Ukraine, and perhaps their resentment toward the Orange Revolution and its aftermath.
But did a real "revolution" occur here? This is the question I ask myself as I walk around the city.
Indeed, this is a fascinating time in Ukraine, but a turbulent one. A few weeks ago, Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko dissolved the country's parliament (the "Rada"), and called for new elections, causing an uproar across the country that has been publicized worldwide. Indeed, Ukraine remains hostage to its legacy as a former Soviet republic. Divided by east and west. Stuck in a Soviet legacy where change is avoided...even feared. More specifically, as one senior U.S defense official tells me, "there are those have travelled to the west and have had their eyes opened and those who haven't. Those who fall into the former category favor integration into the West and to Europe; those in the latter category--The Party of Regions, led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych--do not. There is a more worrisome development that is largely invisible--because salaries are so low and with the recognition of opportunities for better work and careers in Western Europe, Ukraines best and brightest are leaving in droves.
Driving through Kyiv's city center, there is a scattering of demonstrations that seem remarkably well-organized...too organized, in fact: there are encampments with colorful tents and large nylon embroidered party flags in various city parks and squares, strategically positioned so that they face each other. And yet, each side remains remarkably civil to the other.
Ukraine is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. After 20 members of parliament who were formerly loyal to Yuschenko defected to Yanukovych's Party of Regions (it's widely believed that they were bribed to do so), President Yuschenko dissolved the Ukrainian parliament. Yanukovych challenged Yuschenko's decree, and the matter now rests with the country's constitutional court to decide. No one quite knows how the court would ultimately decide this case--the court is evenly split, with only two or three swing judges. Even the Constitutional Court's objectivity has been thrown into suspicion after allegations that some judges may have been bought off. In any event, the pressures currently placed on the court are enormous--five judges have said that as a result of the pressure they are under, that they wish to recuse themselves from the case.
It is precisely this political pressure (in addition to the fact that the constitutional grounds for the dissolution of the Rada are shaky at best) that may well cause Yuschenko to decide to suspend his decree and come to a compromise with Yanukovych in order to avoid a certain political train wreck. In the meantime, it's a near certainty that the court will do everything it can to avoid making a decision.
What does all this say about Ukraine? A Danish diplomat I spend some time with remarks, "If Turkey was described as the 'Sick Man of Europe,' Ukraine is absolutely the 'Naive Man of Europe." He's one of the pessimists. Short-term optimists, it turns out, are nearly impossible to find here. Another diplomat I speak to is a long-term optimist: "While Yuschenko may have squandered the opportunity for rapid political change," he tells me, "the social winds of change are in full gale."
Nonetheless, Ukraine's current trajectory is plainly worrisome as it is drawn closer and closer to the Russian center of gravity. The Russians want to restore their empire, and as another diplomat tells me, "For them, Ukraine represents the jewel in the crown."
Russia opposes Ukraine's accession into NATO with every fiber of their being, because it would establish a precedent for other former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc) to follow suit. Restoring Russia's empire, they know, is not possible without Ukraine. This, therefore, is Yanukovych's distinct advantage--in addition to his political acumen: he has Vladimir Putin's full support and influence, as well as the financial backing of the Kremlin and Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov--worth a reported $12 billion (I subsequently discover that he also owns the Pearl Hotel, where we're staying).
Yanukovych has been able to use his substantial financial leverage to his own political advantage by hiring a K Street Lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. headed by power lawyers Paul Manaford, Phil Griffin and Bruce Jackson to lobby the Bush Administration and Congress on behalf of Yanukovich and his Party of Regions for an initial sum of $9 million. They continue to work on Yanukovich's behalf, but reportedly have not applied through the State Department as foreign agents. Astounding....
Yanukovych single-handedly rolled back Yuschenko's NATO accessions plans in an uncoordinated surprise visit to Brussels last year. And yet, even Yanukovych recognizes the dangers in ceding too much control to Russia. He saw the dramatic result of handing over control of Byelorussia's pipeline rights to Gazprom in return for short-term gains of relative price stability for energy. The result was a measurable loss of sovereignty and an effective re-assimilation into Russia's sphere of influence. U.S. officials seem to agree that loss of Ukrainian sovereignty is not something Yanukovych would accept were he to have complete control either.
From a U.S. perspective, Ukraine will always have a close relationship with Russia. "We can change a lot," one official says in a resigned tone, "but geography isn't one of them." We regard Ukrainian membership in NATO as a Ukrainian choice. The door to NATO is wide open and would surely be fast-tracked whenever they do elect to join NATO--but the choice is theirs alone to make (not Russia's).
Kyiv is a beautiful and clean city, filled with ancient European architecture dating back to 900 AD. We tour the St. Sophia's Cathedral and have the opportunity to see one of the oldest standing churches in all of Europe. It has been magnificently restored to show the original frescoes and mosaics, as well as the original architectural components of its construction. It's a remarkable site. In these former Soviet Republics, history has often been revised extensively to fit the visions of tsars, kings, queens, generals, patriarchs and dictators. Ukraine is no exception. Conflicting accounts of this region's history abound, with muddled versions inspired by the invasion of the Mongol hoardes, Tatars, the conquests of the Vikings, Polish-Lithuanian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not to mention the Bolsheviks and Soviets. With the ghosts of empires past, I've learned, it's best to look for the ground-truth in what has been left of the architecture (as well as what is known to have been destroyed).
With all of Ukraine's issues, the people are clearly its great strength. Change is a difficult thing for the older generation who lived during Soviet times to accept, let alone embrace. But the younger generations of Ukrainians who crave economic opportunity, integration and equality with the rest of Europe will most certainly be the future super-agents of change for this country, as well as the long-term cause for optimism.
The question here in Kiev is whether you are a optimist or pessimist about Ukraine's future.
After my own visit here, I'm a cautionary long-term optimist for Ukraine....