Books on Ukraine
Update No: 323 - (26/11/07)
Ukraine more democratic than Russia
Democracy, ushered in by the Orange Revolution three years ago, has produced
impressive results: a stream of competitive elections, vibrant media, and a
robust opposition. It has certainly known its share of democracy's problems,
like hung parliaments, the need for coalitions and open leadership struggles.
Having lived under centuries of Russian Czarist rule, 70 years of Soviet
communism and a bleak decade of post-Soviet stagnation, today's Ukraine is in
many ways Russia's antithesis.
In Russia, critics complain of increasingly heavy-handed rule. Opposition
rallies are violently dispersed, election results are all but known in advance
and everything is taken very seriously.
In Ukraine, the more hotly contested an election is, the better. The tone was
set in 2004 with the Orange Revolution, when the presidential election was
rigged in favour of the Kremlin-backed candidate. Protesters jammed Kiev's
streets for weeks, overturned the fraudulent vote and brought the pro-Western
Viktor Yushchenko to power.
Since then there have been three or four national elections, depending on how
you count, with the latest only two months ago. But it is unlike in Russia,
where an uncertain outcome is perceived by many as a threat to stability and
Ukraine's young democracy is anything but boring. Ukrainians seem to thrive on
In the September 30th parliamentary election, none of the three main parties won
enough votes to form a government, and complex coalition talks are taking place.
Yet life goes on. Someone did try to set a polling station on fire in western
Ukraine, where Tymoshenko's party did extremely well. Her supporters were quick
to blame Yanukovych's party. His party denied it.
Then came the vote count, and election officials were determined that it would
be beyond reproach. They took 2 1/2 days to count 99.5 percent of the votes, and
another 2 1/2 days to count the remaining 0.5 percent.
The result has finally been validated by a court, but peace and quiet are
nowhere in sight. While Tymoshenko is poised to return as prime minister, her
opponents have threatened lawsuits, street protests or a boycott of parliament
to challenge her victory.
Media scrutiny is harsh; while protests are rife, unlike in Russia
The media, once toothless, are now free to grill Ukraine's leaders on anything
from their tax returns to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's criminal record. He
served time in jail as a young man for robbery and assault, but both convictions
were later overturned.
Nothing, it seems, is off-limits. Yulia Tymoshenko, the glamorous Orange
Revolution heroine, is asked at a news conference whether her 'signature' rich
blond hair, braided peasant-style, is real. It is, she insists.
President Yushchenko is asked on live television about failures to deliver on
Orange Revolution promises. Tymoshenko is grilled on allegations of corruption
in her party. Yanukovych is given to barnyard epithets that add a certain
earthiness to the campaign trail.
Multi-coloured protest tents pop up regularly in central Kiev, sometimes right
in front of the presidential administration building - something that would be
unthinkable in Moscow, where such protests tend to be broken up before anybody
notices them. Ukrainians rally against anything from foreign policy to city
construction plans and not necessarily spontaneously - after all somebody pays
for those tents and the field kitchens. And nobody seems to mind.
But it is not all serious. Natalia Vitrenko, known for going barefoot and
staging fiery protests, appeared on a TV talk show to claim that votes for her
aggressively pro-Russian, anti-American party were stolen, with a high-tech
mechanism funded by U.S. billionaire George Soros.
As her host struggles to keep a straight face, Vitrenko produces a ballot cast
for Tymoshenko's bloc and says it was actually checked for her party until the
mechanism moved the tick to the wrong box.
In Ukraine, lurid claims are a bipartisan thing. As the September 30 election
neared, a Tymoshenko supporter said her opponents could resort to dirty tricks
such as spraying voting slips with a mysterious liquid that would set them on
fire in the ballot box. Yanukovych's team hit back by accusing Tymoshenko of
hiring a psychic to brainwash voters.
The last few weeks have seen several tragic accidents in Ukraine. An oil tanker
going down in the already heavily- polluted Black Sea, along with several other
ships; followed by a mine blast in the Donetz, trapping and killing a still
unknown number of miners.
These types of distressing event are more common in FSU countries, notably
Ukraine, than in the West. The Soviet Union had no independent unions to monitor
working conditions. The workers were in charge theoretically, but not in
reality. Incompetent and ignorant bureaucrats and technicians prevailed.
Chernobyl after all occurred in Ukraine in 1985, just as Gorbachev came to
power. He at least ensured it being promptly disclosed and tackled. Disasters
now get major media attention in Ukraine.
Putin sends condolences to Yushchenko over coalmine tragedy
The USSR was renowned for the poor safety record of its mining industry, in
which accidents were common, notably in Ukraine, which has some of the deepest
coalmines in the world where methane accidents are more prevalent. The same is
still true. A terrible disaster occurred in the Donetsk region in mid-November.
A mixture of air and methane exploded at 3:11 a.m. on November 18 in the
Zasyadko mine there at a depth of 1,078 metres. There were 456 miners
underground, 186 in the disaster area.
Meanwhile, 357 survivors have been raised to the surface, and 28 of them have
been hospitalized - 27 with gas poisoning and one with burns and injuries.
How to avoid repetitions is an urgent task. Even the US has its share of such
accidents - and as for China….!. The world perhaps needs to close all its
mines for ecological reasons, their carbon imprint being massive. But even the
US keeps not a few open, although certain states are becoming more
The costs of the Black Sea disaster
The cost of environmental damage from the Black Sea oil disaster has reached
$US13 billion and may rise even higher. Solvents are now being used to try and
break up the massive oil spill, with 7000 tonnes removed since mid-November.
Russian and Ukrainian emergency ministries have counted first losses caused by a
strong storm in the Black Sea and in the Sea of Azov. Two of the ships, which
sank, were carrying cargos of granulated sulphur; they have still not been
Ecologists say it will take at least ten years to eliminate the effects of the