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31 July, 2012

Political Faith Donetsk-style: Yanukovych Now a Traitor, Putin Still a Hero

“He that lives upon hope will die fasting,” Benjamin Franklin said. Finally, Donetsk residents are beginning to grasp this truth. But things are not that simple and promising. Recognising the consequences of a malady does not always mean its underlying causes have been eliminated.

The Party of Regions will find itself missing a large number of traditional votes from Donetsk Region in the coming election, . Even manipulating the first-past-the-post component of the election system is unlikely to be of much help. This trend is becoming increasingly evident. No matter what they say about this coal-mining region (where the present author was born), many people here are already prepared to punish “their” government in the future election. People’s eyes are gradually opening to the essence of Viktor Yanukovych's leadership. It would seem that the law of evolution does apply to political culture after all.

However, it is saddening to see that this region continues to admire Vladimir Putin, his policies and image and the scale of popular support he enjoys in Russia. In conversations with average residents in Donetsk, it becomes increasingly obvious that, to them, Putin remains the political ideal, while Yanukovych is very far from this image today.

Despite large-scale manifestations of critical attitudes toward the current Ukrainian government, the fundamental problem of Donbas’ political psychology persists. After being tested by the policies of the ruling Party of Regions, Donetsk voters seem to have concluded that the problem lies not in authoritarian oligarchy as such but in the fact that Yanukovych proved to be less authoritarian than necessary and has failed to subdue all of the oligarchs. Had he done so, the prevailing thought contends, life would be good.

Yanukovych has ultimately failed to become another Putin. That is why average Donetsk residents who voted for “their own” candidate in 2010 reply to the question “Who do you respect more, Yanukovych or Putin?” by almost unanimously picking the Russian president. Many are clearly surprised by the question as if to imply that “Putin is, no doubt, a tougher guy”.

Yanukovych is often condemned in Donetsk Region for “not walking the talk”, while Putin is still mythologised as one who is leading his country to a “bright future”. This is the image of Putin many Donetsk residents see in the news broadcast by Russian TV channels like ORT, RTR and NTV, which are popular in the region. They rest their judgement on the image they see on television. Few are going to study in detail cases where Putin has failed to make good on his word. Putin is always right, and Yanukovych is guilty of failing to strengthen friendship with Russia. To citizens of Donetsk, this is sometimes more important than having their “own guy” in power in Kyiv. In fact, all these things are secondary. The main thing is to tune in to a Russian channel, become immersed in the illusion of political reality and feed the special imaginary view held dear by everyone nostalgic for Soviet times: seeing contemporary Russia as a reincarnation of the “bright” and “good” USSR. Whatever Russian channel you pick – ORT, RTR or NTV – you will see the same picture.

A similar monopoly simply does not exist on Ukrainian television, no matter how you look at it (disregarding remote villages reached only by the First National Channel). For the Party of Regions’ electorate to change their choice, they need to not only come to recognise that their favourite political force is doing nothing for them but also frequently hear the same from journalists, experts and the opposition on television. That is possible in Ukraine, but not in Russia.

It can be observed that with each passing year of Ukraine’s independence, even the most Soviet-minded people in Donetsk Region are gradually becoming accustomed to the thought that their contemporary fatherland is not the USSR (which is somehow supposed to return) or Russia (which the Donbas is supposed to join at some point in time) but an independent Ukraine. However, these people want to see in Yanukovych the same kind of “patriot” that they believe Putin is and to live in a country where the same “spirit of patriotism” reigns supreme as in they felt it once reigned in the Soviet Union. This thought may strike some as strange, but the Donbas still cherishes the hope of having a political leader that would be a national patriot rather than just a regional boss. Here, of course, it can be argued about what average Donbas residents understand as national Ukrainian patriotism, but it is clear that the locals need a chief with demonstrative love for their land and a strong hand.

Despite the fact that its criminal past carries a romantic aura among the populace of Donetsk Region, the image of “twice unconvicted” Yanukovych cannot compete with Putin’s image as an officer. Donetsk citizens tend to place their political confidence in the following way: the Russian president continues to command trust, while Yanukovych is capable of fraud. Thus, the latter is more likely to be blamed for worsening Ukrainian-Russian relations than the former. Donetsk supporters of the Party of Regions seem to be more prepared to reject their “blue-and-white” leader than lose faith in a “good tsar”.

Those who live in the Donbas will hardly contest the claim that average Donetsk residents perceive Putin largely as a charismatic chief, flag-bearing leader and great reformer. Against this background Yanukovych comes across as a “lackey president” (a president serving oligarchs) who wants to become a leader-cum-entrepreneur (i.e., seeking exclusively to enrich himself). As a Donetsk resident, I must say that the progress achieved in this region in assessing the current government has not, unfortunately, helped the “collective subconscious” come to an understanding that people can have a good life without being ruled by “a good tsar”. Hopefully, this too, will pass.


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