The Story of Maidan: Part 3 — Repeating History and a dictator on the rise

President Victor Yanukovich in a satirical drawing shown on Maidan in February 2014

In this chapter we look at how Ukraine repeated it’s mistakes twice with the Orange Revolution and Maidan and see, how Yanukovich rose from small scale criminal to large scale criminal.

If you have missed chapter 2 — Paths to Revolution, click here.

2004/2013: If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it

Maidan, Yanukovitch, separatism in Donetsk: there is actually nothing surprising in all of this. There is a lengthy article in American-Ukrainian magazine “eXile” from Dezember 2004, the time of the Orange Revolution that sets the field and puts the players on it that would act out its endgame ten years later. Lets look back at 2004: During the elctions which pro-Russian Yanukovytch won after heavy rigging against pro-Western Yushchenko, in Yaniks stronghold of Donetsk “Cable TV operators have actually stopped broadcasting opposition Channel 5. Media suppression of opposing views is so intense that it’s been driven literally underground.”[1] Channel 5 is the TV station owned by todays president Petro Poroshenko. In the most violent times in early 2014, that channel was taken off the air as well, leaving especially Ukraines east with only state friendly and later with only Russian TV.

On a violently dispersed election rally in 2004 the article states: “This is part of a broader thug culture of Donetsk, part of a movement with Brown Shirts overtones. After a large rally last Monday, a group of 100 drunken thugs stood for hours shouting themselves hoarse and by 11pm, with no Yuschenko supporters to beat, several of them turned to fighting each other.” Nine years later we could see the same phenomenon with the aforementioned Titushki, just in an incredible larger scale: civilian thugs, in the hundreds and thousands, paid daily by illegal sources of the government; intimidating, beating and even murdering Maidan activists both in Kyiv and in the countryside. In the capital they camped for weeks in a public park adjacent to the parliament. They were said to be mainly transported by bus and rail from cities of the East.

Jake Rudnitsky, eXiles author writes prophetically in 2004: “What’s happening in Donetsk is the real key to figuring out what’s going to happen in Ukraine. Basically, Ukraine has always been divided into east and west, with the east Russian-speaking, heavily industrialized, and Russia-friendly; and the west Ukrainian-speaking, agrarian, and nationalist. Yanukovych is the east’s candidate.”

And further: “Yanukovych is a truly loathsome character. Most Ukrainians agree that if a more palatable candidate had been given the nearly unlimited access to ‘administrative resources’ that Yanukovych had, he would have won handily. But Yanukovych twice served jail time in the Soviet Union, he has no charisma, and is obviously a tool of powerful Russian and Ukrainian interests. Yushchenko, on the other hand, is considered by most western Ukrainians to be something between Gandhi and Christ, while many people in the east worry he has it in for everyone who speaks Russian. Many people who voted for Yanukovych did so out of suspicion of Yushchenko, not because they like Yanukovych (except perhaps in his home turf, Donetsk).”

Today Maidan pr-activists claim the unity of the country, but this view on history paints a different picture. It appears that since the founding of Ukraine, citizens in the east were anxious to loose their status against the majority in the west and in the center. The only way this minority can maintain political power is by rigging elections and by terrorizing and imprisoning opposition. One example: in the landmark election in 2004, the official voter turnout in Donetsk was 97 percent and 97 percent voted for their candidate. No more explanation needed.

When rigging became too apparent, people gathered in Kyiv and other cities to stage what was to be named the Orange Revolution. Rudnitsky: “Maybe the only two cities in Ukraine where there are not Yushchenko rallies that outnumber the Yanukovych rallies are Lugansk and Donetsk. (…) One reason why Lugansk and Donetsk are an exception is because every time Yushchenko’s people try to organize a rally there, they get beaten. Another is because the vast majority of those two regions really do support Yanukovych.”

A stamp commemorating the Orange Revolution of 2004

This pattern should reapeat itself in 2014 during the Maidan months and again in the conflict with separatists some months later.

Is it really surprising that in 2004, Vladimir Putin officially congratulated Yanukovych even before the official result was in?

To poke fingers into the past is worthwile to understand how Maidan came into existence. The short version: The Orange Revolution had won, eventually Yushchenko became president with Yulia Tymoshenko prime minister. Both betrayed the hopes of it’s people to such an extent that in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych again won presidential elections, this time against the gas princess Tymoshenko and this time with probably far less rigging.

Victor Yushchenko, President and Yulia Tymoshenko, prime minister after 2004. By European People’s Party (EPP Summit Lisbon 18 October 2007) via Wikimedia Commons

Where is civil society in this country? How could it happen to let the heroes of the Orange Revolution act in a similar corrupt fashion? Where are the civil institutions? How can it be to re-elect somebody who once proved to be an election fraudster?

At this point in my reflection I don’t dare to provide answers, but I have observations. Corruption is done by state officials, administrators, business tycoons and gangsters. There is a striking image: when the state distributes the budget it opens a stream of money. At various points you will see hands in the stream diverting some of the money. When it reaches its destination, the stream has been reduced to a trickle.

This results in pensions that can’t even pay the utilities. This results in wages of teachers, nurses, doctors, public office administrators and police that are not enough to make a dignified living. So you have the following situation: if a citizen needs a paper from his magistrate it takes four weeks for free or two days for a gift. There is no price list, the officer wont ask for a sum, you will decide. A box of chocolates? 50 Hrivna (5 USD)? When you take an exam in university it is expected of you to provide a gift. And it is needed, the professor has very likely paid between 2000 and 10.000 US-Dollar to the committee to receive tenure. In theory, medical treatment is for free. In reality patients pay. And it is not distributed equally. The head of the hospital department gets the cream (up to 5000 Dollar a month, no taxes), the single doctors between nothing a 1.000 USD and the nurses even less.

And then everybody else. It is quite common for employes in good jobs in Kyiv to receive an official wage of 100 US and 900 US under the table. No taxes. White income vs. black as Ukrainians would call it. So of course the states coffers are empty even to begin with. Nearly everybody in the whole country takes part in corruption, worse: has to take and give bribes and worst: if he doesn’t, he wished he could. The state sponsored system makes it’s citizens accomplices in crime. Since nobody likes to see himself as a criminal, one finds good reasons for ones own behavior. “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” Or “It was always like this, this is how mankind is.”

Of course, the revolution was not about joining the EU. Ukrainians are not blinded by the potential but unrealistic prospects they were promised. Slovenian star-philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently summarized Ukrainians attitude towards the EU in an article for the Guardian:

“I’ve often mentioned a well-known joke from the last decade of the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t be more apposite: Rabinovitch, a Jew, wants to emigrate. The bureaucrat at the emigration office asks him why, and Rabinovitch answers: ‘Two reasons. The first is that I’m afraid the Communists will lose power in the Soviet Union, and the new power will put all the blame for the Communists’ crimes on us, the Jews.’ ‘But this is pure nonsense,’ the bureaucrat interrupts, ‘nothing can change in the Soviet Union, the power of the Communists will last for ever!’ ‘Well,’ Rabinovitch replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’

Imagine the equivalent exchange between a Ukrainian and an EU administrator. The Ukrainian complains: ‘There are two reasons we are panicking here in Ukraine. First, we’re afraid that under Russian pressure the EU will abandon us and let our economy collapse.’ The EU administrator interrupts: ‘But you can trust us, we won’t abandon you. In fact, we’ll make sure we take charge of your country and tell you what to do!’ ‘Well,’ the Ukrainian replies, ‘that’s my second reason.’”[2]

Viktor Yanukovych or how a political survivor makes enemies

One could call him teflon man. His skin is so slick that nothing sticks. His technique is to deny all allegations long enough until the corpses of his prosecutors wash up on a riverbank. He was born in 1950 into a poor family in the industrial backwater of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Soviet Union. His mother died early, his father remarried and pushed him off to Belarussian family. He was arrested in 1967 and convicted for theft and assault. Yanukovych denied punching his victim and robbing him. He nevertheless was sentenced to three years prison which was commuted to 18 months.

Viktor Yanukovich the teflon man. By International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) via Wikimedia Commons

He received another two year sentence for his participation in a drunken brawl. Again he denied the allegations but still had to serve the term. Later in 1978, the court in Donetsk overturned his convictions, giving him a clean slate, ex post.

Yanukovych rose through the ranks of local Soviet politics in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In the 1990ies he served as governor and vice governor of Donetsk, then from 2002 to 2004 as prime minister under president Leonid Kuchma. Public service is a rough trade in this country and is best enjoyed from the top. While still being the Don in Donetsk a talk between president Kuchma and governor Yanukovych was taped and leaked. The president had said: “All assholes, your judges. They want me to come to them to testify as a witness. Hang those fucking judges by the balls and keep them hanging for a night.”[3]

Then came the elections in 2004 which where nullified by the Supreme Court since “fraud was so widespread that the winner could not be determined.” 1.887 criminal cases for election fraud where opened in 2005. Yanukovych again denied stealing the elections. The whole truth will probably never surface. Not a single individual was identyfied and tried. Ex-Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko has claimed that the leaving president Kuchma and the incumbent president Yushchenko made a compromise to not prosecute the culprits.

As stated, Yanukovych won the 2010 presidential elections. CNN’s Matthew Chance asked him: “In the past you have been linked with corruption, with fraudulent elections, with inappropriate ties with big business. Do you think you have changed over the past five years as a politician and that you are now fit to lead a country like Ukraine?” Yanukovych responded:

“This is what the Ukrainian people who voted for me think. They voted for the change I offer.”[4]

As the German newspaper “Die Zeit” reported: “The country is used to polarization due to different cultural imprint between west and east. (…) At least during the first 20 years of independence none of the competing groups wanted to overreach themselves — maybe only for fear of revenge.”[5]

Yulia Tymoshenko on trial in 2011

That was about to change. Yanukovych’s opponent Yulia Tymoshenko was put on a show trial for alleged gas price fraud. As likely as the allegetions seem, the process was far from fair and she was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Tymoshenko shows bruises she allegedly received from being punched by a prison guard.

Yanukovich’s foreign policy was erratic at best. On one hand he signed a treaty with Russia that continued to give the Russian fleet harbor in the Crimean for another 25 years on very favorable terms. On the other hand he entered dialogue with the EU, preparing an associative agreement since 2011.

Then Yanukovych started to alienate his own people. The Ukraine Week gave a summary on how Ukrainian state mechanisms were built and now endangered:

  • Leonid Kravchuk — 1991–1994. The slogan was to build the state. Against the backdrop of passionate patrioctic speeches an unabashed grabbing of state assets took place, accompanied by quick impoverishment of the population.
  • Leonid Kuchma — 1995–2004. Building the hierarchy. In his struggle against political opponents, Kuchma relied on Oligarchs. He nurtured what they are today.
  • Viktor Yushchenko — 2004–2010. His term passed neutralizing his allies.
  • Viktor Yanukovych — 2010–2011. Anything for friends. Laws for enemies. The fourth president grabbed old and even more new power, taking courts under control. Close oligarchs caught up on what they had lost. Oppenents ended in jail. Media gradually purged.
  • Viktor Yanukovych — 2011. This is mine, and that is mine, too. Growing desire to redistribute closer to the family. Loyalty and partymembership no longer guarantees securtiy. Oligarchs are alert and remind him to play by the rules.[6]

Ukraine-born US-American historian Alexander Motyl says about Yanukovych:

“I think his third blunder — and this is all, mind you, within the first few months of his coming to power — came in October [2010], when, in a pretty shady fashion, [Yanukovych] changed the constitution and arrogated to himself enormous powers. He essentially came to become what was known as a ‘super president.’ That was seen with alarm by people with democratic inclinations. But it was also a major mistake because he then became responsible for the entire country.

Had he been a genius, a statesman like Bismarck or something like that, he might have been able to pull it off. Possibly. But Yanukovych is not a statesman. He has no experience. He’s pretty much a teenage hooligan who happened to survive and make it to the top. The result of that was a series of enormous mistakes — politically, socially, culturally — which proceeded to alienate a large portion of the Ukrainian population.”[7]

So by the end of 2013 Yanukovych relied on a close knit “family” that he had made rich, a political structure whose survival depended on the ‘super president’ and a growing number of both former (oligarch) allies and a deeply angry populace that got more and more restless. His majestic declaration to not sign the Associative Agreement with the European Union was the match. In subsequent weeks he deliberately lit the powder keg.

The next Chapter 4 — Match in a Tinderbox takes a critical look at the Associative Agreement of the EU over which the people took to the streets.


[1] eXile, 10.12.2004


[3] quoted from Ryabchuk, 2005

[4] Kyiv Post, 11.2.2010

[5] Die Zeit, 25.1.2014

[6] Ukraine Week, 30.1.2014 —


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