Kyiv Post, July 1, 2004
“Jesus suffered and He bequeathed us to do likewise”, - this is how Ukrainians understood the Christian religion. Thus, lack of suffering is a sin. Unbeknownst to themselves, people here actively proselytize by acting in a manner that could be summed up as “I have suffered and so should you”. This reality calls for political strategies that are entirely different from Western ones.
Usually, joy is when something good happens. In Ukraine, joy is often furtive, guilty, and short-lived as it is mostly a sense or relief that something bad, likely as it was, did NOT happen. A patient coming out of the hospital alive is a cause for great relief and jubilation. A young soldier demobilized after 1.5 years with a peacetime Ukrainian Army and coming back (relatively) healthy is greeted with joy, but also with astonishment.
Lack of suffering is appreciated as a temporary relief; but should you smile you better have a good explanation for your heartlessness and lack of consideration as others are assumed to be suffering at the very moment you shirk your responsibility to do likewise.
Now you know why Ukrainian waiters do not smile: smiling is impolite. Speaking about waiters, here are the dilemmas they face: should the food be good (so that the customers could sin by enjoying it) or bad (to elevate their souls through suffering), should the atmosphere be relaxing (as if there is no suffering all around) or solemn (to pay respect to the pain)? You can be fed very well in Ukraine, and with the greatest joy and warmth, but only by those who assume that now you are their lifelong friend, and “friend” stands for “someone who is ready to sacrifice his life for you”. A true Ukrainian would not give you good service just for a tip.
This basic feature of Ukrainian national character has great implications for electoral politics.
President Kuchma has conclusively proven that he is not the very worst possible President, and people appreciate that. Prime Minister Yanukovich likewise has proven that he is better than what people had feared. Please note that this is as far as a politician can go, as it is very unwise to appear to be “good”.
By contrast, Viktor Yushchenko was shortsighted enough to appear to be genuinely good, pro-people, an anti-corruption politician, so now he is doomed.
In Ukraine, good future is a dream that far too often ends up breaking your heart. When young Ukrainians marry they look just like young Americans: beautiful, hopeful, and strong. But then a young man gets drafted into the Ukrainian army, cannot find a job, or compares the price of a one room apartment ($20,000) to his monthly earnings ($80) - and soon he is accepting his friends’ insistent offers to get drunk, or, increasingly, to get high.
It is the same with a woman. Giving birth in a Ukrainian hospital makes a woman strong, but it is unlikely to make her happy.
There are many people in Ukraine who have been through traumatic experiences that made them deeply suspicious of the possibility of a bright future. Ukrainians meet promises to improve their lives with distrust, unless, that is, a politician does not promise to perform an outright miracle. Yulia Timoshenko did position herself as a miracle maker, but then wisely proved her magic powers by disappearing from sight.
Secondly, everyone here knows that the Ukrainian political system is bad and unfair. So, what is a good and fair politician to do if he wins? He would need to drastically change the system. But this is precisely what nobody wants! When generals are fighting it is the soldiers who get killed. People want stability, predictability and order - and these are not the things that an outsider or a reformer can deliver.
Finally, nobody can win alone and then alone change the system. Terrific as Yushchenko may personally be (and to me he looks reluctant to be whatever he is), he will inevitably bring with himself a sizable pack of hungry hyenas who would want to take advantage of the vagueness and uncertainly that surround Ukrainian property rights.
Bad as his situation is, it would be suicidal for Yushchenko to run on issues, to promise reasonable, gradual improvements in people’s lives.
Here is why. Some societies are like a family of elephants. They fear nothing, they do not fight among themselves, but they do choose a leader likely to lead them to greener pastures. This is the leader that has to explain how he plans to make improvements.
But there also are societies that more resemble an ecosystem consisting of eagles and rabbits. Here, a promise “I will make improvements” is hard to interpret, indeed. Would it be still easier for an eagle to catch a rabbit? It is easy enough as it is. Will eagles stop catching rabbits and start munching on carrots? That does not sound believable.
Today, Ukrainian voters are like rabbits, and all that they want is to be left alone, to go look for grains another day, having resigned themselves to a modest casualty rate.
Thus, those currently in power have a foolproof electoral message, and here it is, “We are no longer hungry, so you will be left alone. You ought to be grateful since we could have made it so much worse for you.”
The opposition simply has nothing to counter this message. Some may be saddened that it is so, feeling that Ukraine deserves a more equitable and more participatory society, but today it is the way it is. What is good is that we can have a clean campaign with no dirt being dished out. Every accusation against the party of power that “your talons are sharp and your beak is bloody” would sound pathetic as that is how eagles are.
As far as hitting the opposition, all that the party of power needs to say is that Yushchenko is a good and honest man partial to classical music and good French cuisine, which is to say he simply does not belong here. That would help Yushchenko to get a nice US lecture tour after he is trounced.
It is possible to hate corruption because it is dishonest and it is possible to hate it because you are not the one who is being bribed. Ukrainians do not resent the regime because they know they would have behaved exactly this way if they could. This may be unfortunate, but this is a democracy and we’ll have to live with its results, even if we do not like them. There is no value gap between those in power and the Ukrainian people.
And yet, most western observers continue to believe that Yushchenko will win, “because he is better”. But this is madness: just because something is better, do we choose it? I need to exercise more, to keep a diet, to earn more money. Do I do any of that? No, I do not! Does it mean I want to gain even more weight or be earning even less? Of course not! I simply am too weak and accustomed to my vices. Do I want the 82nd Airborne to invade me for my own good to make me exercise? No, I’d fight that tooth and nail.
Thus, if you still believe that Yushchenko is going to be elected, drop your vices today. But if you are not in the gym tomorrow, you’d know that there will be no real political change in Ukraine.