Lost in Translation: the Story of the Tymoshenko “exposé”

28 November 2011, 16:00

The publishers of the text say that they want to show that the West is not unanimous and unreserved in its protection of Yulia Tymoshenko and that it has no illusions about who she really is.

Well, the article, which is readily accessible online, is indeed interesting. It is an effort to reveal the phenomenon of Tymoshenko through an account of her rise to power, starting from CEO of United Energy Systems (UES), the conflict with Viktor Yushchenko and current political prospects.

Clearly, unreserved support for Tymoshenko is not to be found in the article. (Who would expect it there? She is, in general, compared to Václav Havel or Lech Wałęsa only as a target of government persecution.) Moreover, the article evidences the exact opposite of what the authors of its Ukrainian translation claim – not all Western experts have a perfect knowledge and understanding of Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych or Ukraine.

But let me first analyze certain nuances in the translation. In general, the Ukrainian text is very readable; the translator’s lexicon is rich; and in almost all cases the translation is faithful to the original. This may be the reason why the few existing shortcomings stand out so vividly. One case in point is the sentence “At a hotel in downtown Kiev, men with machine guns stood guard outside her suite.” In Ukrainian, “machine guns” is translated as kulemety (non-portable machine guns), while the context clearly suggests the guards had some variety of sub-machine guns such as modified AKs. But this is a minor thing. Even translating “Orange crowd” as pomarancheve kodlo (literally, Orange mob, where kodlo is a jargon word with a strong negative tint) can be disregarded, even though Kaminski is clearly not using jargon in his article and a stylistically neutral equivalent would be more fitting here.

But there is one inconsistency that opens a wide vista for political manipulations. “UES tallied up revenues of $11 billion in 1996 alone, on which it paid, it was later revealed, just $11,000 in taxes,” writes Kaminski. The Ukrainian translator opted to use the word prybutku (profit) instead of, properly, dokhodiv (revenues). This changes the entire story: to pay peanuts in taxes while reaping 11-digit sums in profits is a horrendous case of tax evasion! Not so with revenues: you first need to deduct the amount spent and, usually, taxes before you see how much profit you have made.

Couched in these terms, the statement is meaningless and can confuse only undereducated people. Kaminski does not intend it as a definitely condemning piece of evidence. Rather, it is used to showcase the special business climate of Ukraine where corporations with close links to the government are able to minimize their taxes to the point of paying virtually none at all.

The $11 billion is indeed mentioned in the UES case as the corporation’s annual sales volume. It is indeed a colossal figure – more than one-fifth of Ukraine’s GDP at the time – but it is not profits that you can put in your pocket or take to an offshore zone. You have to spend a big part of it on payroll, purchased goods, infrastructure, bribes and kickbacks and so on. Was there no one to correct the translator’s mistake? Or was it done intentionally to expose the “indecent profits” reaped by “damned Yulia”?

I have a bigger bone to pick, though, with the author of the original copy. Kaminski was in Ukraine on numerous occasions, has contacts in well-informed circles here and is considered an expert on Ukraine.

He writes about UES as a “recently formed company.” But the company was, in fact, established in 1991 and operated under the name of the Ukrainian Petrol Corporation (UPC). In 1995, it was rebranded as UES and reregistered under the new name. The reason was UPC had legal tax concessions as a “company with foreign investments,” so renewed registration permitted keeping this advantage. A trifle? Not at all – it exposes the author’s lack of expertise in what he wrote about then and now, as well as his reluctance to use specific details or thoroughly study facts.

Inaccuracies mounted as I continued reading the article. “In a couple of years, Ms. Tymoshenko—by all accounts out of business for good—was a deputy prime minister in a Ukrainian government run by the eastern, Russian-speaking elites. Eventually she fell out with them, a common theme in her professional life.” Honestly, I did not believe the translation and went to the original and could not believe my eyes – this was what the author indeed wrote. Following his logic, Viktor Yushchenko was a representative of “the eastern, Russian-speaking elites.” But in actual fact, Tymoshenko started speaking Ukrainian when she took the deputy prime minister’s office in Yushchenko’s ostentatiously Ukrainian-speaking government (barring few exceptions) which had a much wider geographical representation than just Dnipropetrovsk, not to mention Donetsk. Yushchenko’s Cabinet of Ministers was dominated by the central Ukrainian elites. Virtually all its members spoke Ukrainian in public and were almost evenly split between native Ukrainian and Russian speakers. It was this government that conflicted with “the eastern, Russian-speaking elites” and the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United) and was dismissed by the Verkhovna Rada with what essentially was Leonid Kuchma’s blessing.

The claim that Tymoshenko “fell out” with this government raises additional questions for Kaminski. He is silent on Tymoshenko’s activities in this government and why Kuchma removed her – and he did so precisely to meet the demands of the real eastern Ukrainian elites. She prepared a program to fundamentally reform the coal-mining industry which, if implemented, would have undermined – to a large extent if not completely – the power of the people from Donetsk. So it appears that the readers of such an authoritative periodical have been denied crucial pieces of information. Moreover, they are left disoriented by the author, because he suggests that the main cause for Tymoshenko’s resignation could have been her conflict-prone personality.

“When she re-emerged in 2004, at the head of street protests against her former political allies, Ms. Tymoshenko was reborn as a nationalist dressed and coifed in the style of a Ukrainian peasant girl,” writes Kaminski. Another sentence riddled with inaccuracies. First, Tymoshenko “re-emerged” in big politics after parliamentary elections in early 2002 when her bloc became the second largest opposition force and one of the leaders of major street protests (Rise, Ukraine!). Second, what “former political allies” is the author talking about? The Party of Regions? Kuchma? Almost all members of Yushchenko’s former Cabinet joined the opposition at the time. Third, “coifed in the style of a Ukrainian peasant girl” is off the mark – Tymoshenko adopted an element of the hairstyle popular among female Ukrainian intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century. Another trivial point? Not at all. It has to do with a false image of Ukraine which the author shapes in his readers’ minds based on his rather removed familiarity with the subject.

He exhibits an equally inadequate level of expertise in Ukraine’s affairs when he says that Tymoshenko “didn't like to share the glory with another Orange leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, and their political marriage collapsed.” Glory is, no doubt, important, but there were other factors that led to the political divorce. To name just one, there was a veritable invasion of Yushchenko’s “dear friends” at the top level of the government. Any projects or tasks their hands touched went under, and they also fuelled Yushchenko’s personality cult.

I am not going to comment at length on Kaminski’s description of Yanukovych’s victory over Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential elections: “He defeated her to win the presidency fair and square.” I will only say that I would happily read what American political writers would write about an American presidential hopeful if he even to avoid a TV debate with his rival in a “fair and square” fashion.

I could cite here several more examples of this kind from Kaminski’s article, but I will spare my reader. They can easily be identified in the text. Crucially, it is their quantity that proves a certain quality, namely a very vague awareness of Ukraine’s realities even among noted Western experts who come to Ukraine on a regular basis and are in constant contact with our politicians and journalists. So what is the matter? The pressure of time that prevents them from taking a closer look at a county which “got stuck” between the East and the West? A reluctance to learn based on the belief that things will do as they are? An inability to think out of the stereotypical box in analyzing the situation in this region of the world or another? (This also pertains to events in the US and the EU.) Or is it something else?

One way or another, Kaminski fails to reach an adequate level of generalizations based on his factual survey. While noting in the lead that Tymoshenko is a populist and emphasizing her heavy hand, this Western expert ignored the real foundation which has generated (and will continue to generate) precisely this kind of political style in Ukraine. A year ago, the Moscow-based political writer Yulia Latynina noted that in a poor country a politician who wants to act efficiently and bring benefits to the people is doomed to either populism or dictatorship – or both. A sad prospect, isn’t it? But at least it has been said fair and square.

In contrast, Kaminski’s article makes no such generalizations and is, thus, interesting only as an indicator of the West’s close attention to Ukraine combined with its inattention to the facts that largely determine reality in Ukraine.

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