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Viktor Yushchenko’s inauguration as seen by a man in the street

 

“Rights are secured by free dissent
and the participation of the governed…
We have known divisions, which must be healed
to move forward in great purposes.”

From George W. Bush’s

inaugural address

 

On January 23, I watched the ceremony of Viktor Yushchenko taking the Oath of Office as president of Ukraine on television. I don’t care for official ceremonies of any kind but this time the occasion was very special indeed — after long weeks of electoral battles, court decisions, massive protests and now, after the final victory, the new president was being sworn in. I was apprehensive lest something nasty happen at the very last moment — but everything went without a hitch.

The main chamber of the Verkhovna Rada was the venue of the swearing-in ceremony. Mr Yushchenko, standing at the rostrum, pronounced the words of the oath, his arm draped over a five-hundred-year old Bible and a copy of the Ukrainian constitution.

“A legitimate handover of power has taken place.”

There were many guests at Mr Yushchenko’s inauguration — the presidents of seven countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Moldova) as well as political leaders from many others, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Russia, by contrast, sent rather a lowly official, Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of its Parliament. As each of the leaders was announced in Parliament, the loudest applause erupted for the leaders of those countries who had over the decades risen up against Soviet domination — President Aleksandr Kwasniewski of Poland, the former Czech president Vaclav Havel, and Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of Georgia’s Parliament.

The section of the hall occupied by the MPs who either were members of the Nasha Ukrayina (Our Ukraine) faction of which Mr Yushchenko had been the leader (he resigned from parliament after the election) and of his supporters from other factions erupted in applause at several stages of the swearing-in ceremony; the factions that supported his major opponent either gave some perfunctory applause or stood in grim stillness when they were obliged to stand up when everybody did. And of course they did not join in in the orange-revolution chanting “Yu-shchen-ko!” The first and the second presidents of Ukraine were also present — Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma. The former looked nonchalant and at ease; the latter sat, slumped in his chair, wearing a mask of pained indifference on his face.

I wondered what this man, the outgoing president, was thinking about. The ten years of his rule have already been branded as the time of the scandalous corruption at all the levels of government, the shadowy economy, nepotism and lobbying of private interests of the billionaires close to Kuchma and his sidekicks. A word has been coined to describe the inept and corrupt political and economic system that has been formed during Kuchma’s presidency — Kuchmism. It has been alleged that he took a direct part in rigging the election in favour of the candidate that he had handpicked and backed himself — Viktor Yanukovych; it is alleged that Kuchma was involved in a conspiracy to have an investigative journalist, Georgy Gongadze, murdered. The list of his misdeeds is too long to present it here.

Was he thinking what would become of him and of the fortune of his family which had been amassed, as is widely believed, by illegal means? One of the new president’s closest associates said that Kuchma “was worth eight million dollars.” And yet, the acting prime-minister had time in the days that he was still in power, to grant Kuchma all kinds of privileges and benefits for life — to be paid for from the tax payers’ money. And that means for my money too!* For having done what? For having turned Ukraine notorious for corruption? Will the new president be true to his word and make sure that justice be done? If nothing is done about it by the new government I’ll be among those who will protest. It’s not what the Orange Revolution was about!

During the election campaign, Mr Yushchenko, speaking at the rallies, called those in power “criminal government” — will he have the activities of the top officials who are alleged to have been involved in criminal activities, rigging of the election and massive fraud, included, thoroughly scrutinized by the law enforcement bodies and will the appropriate actions be taken?

Of course, one is innocent unless proven guilty.

Why am I so full of vengeful thoughts, I asked myself, watching the inauguration ceremony. I do not have hard facts that prove the complicity of the top officials in robbing the country of millions of dollars, of taking bribes, of corrupting the whole system of government — but I know that if the majority of people in a country like Ukraine, with such a high human and economic potential, is living in misery; if, say, a teacher earns three hundred hryvnyas and the poverty line is at least four hundred, then something is very wrong with the way this country is run. When the president and the prime minister say that the country’s rate of economic growth is phenomenally high, how come so many people live at the barely subsistence level? It was Kuchma who appointed Viktor Yanukovych, a man with a criminal record, to be Ukraine’s prime minister and then backed him in the presidential race. As far as I know, Kuchma did not lift a finger to curb the barrage of lies and insinuations and dirty tricks directed by Yanukovych and his henchmen against Yushchenko, and kept predicting, “It’s going to be a very dirty campaign.” Why didn’t Kuchma do anything to prevent it from being so dirty? Or if he did, I was not aware of it. There are many more questions like that I could ask the outgoing president. Besides, there was something thoroughly unpleasant and insincere in this man — in the way he spoke (in bad Ukrainian and not much better Russian) shaking his head and making long pauses which he thought were pregnant with hidden meaning but which were just annoying interruptions…

 

 

Oh, stop it, I said to myself — how can you judge a politician by his appearance and by his speech? It’s not fair! Or is it?

Right next to Kuchma at the Yushchenko’s inauguration sat Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s “first president” (he was not — Ukraine’s first president was Mykhailo Hrushevsky, in 1917, in fact if not in name). A former communist party apparatchik in charge of “ideological matters” (and thus an enemy of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism”), then speaker of parliament, then president. Could a person with a thoroughly soviet background be a good president for an independent Ukraine? A person who had nothing to his name but the ideological support of the repressive soviet system? During the election campaign, he was an ardent supporter of Yushchenko’s opponent, Viktor Yanukovych. Kravchuk is one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (united). That is what the party is officially called with (united) at the tail of the name. The head of the party is Viktor Medvedchuk, until recently, head of the Presidential Administration, whatever it may mean (incidentally, the Ukrainian constitution says nothing about “presidential administration”). Medvedchuk is widely believed to have been one of key figures in building up “Kuchmism.” It was his “administration” that kept forwarding temnyky — secret instructions to the media which detailed what should be said, how it should be presented and what should be twisted beyond recognition, and what should be ignored altogether. It was Medvedchuk who was instrumental in effectively bridling the Ukrainian media which began to revive only in the course — and thanks to — of the Orange Revolution. It was Medvedchuk, back in the 1980s, who was the advocate of the trial of the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus (who later died in a concentration camp) for “anti-soviet activities.” At the trial Medvedchuk said the crimes of the poet were so heinous that he could not be pardoned but taking into consideration the defendant’s poor health, may be the court could show some leniency? No clemency was shown; “the heinous crimes” were poems in which the poet showed his national feelings and publicly displayed his rejection of the “soviet values.” How come such a man was allowed to be one of the top leaders of the sovereign Ukrainian state?

 

As I was watching the most solemn moments of the oath-taking ceremony, I felt a lump in my throat. This man, whose face was disfigured by poison, whose fate was nearly undone by electoral fraud, was taking the Oath of Office as president of Ukraine! Against all the odds, against an almost successful association attempt, in spite of the most powerful backing of his opponent by Russia and of some of the shadowy Ukrainian billionaires, he had won. The new president, backed by millions of supporters, has come to embody new hopes and aspirations of a nation struggling to be truly democratic, to become truly an independent nation at long last. My contribution to his victory was infinitesimally small — three weeks of just being with the throngs of protesters — but I felt proud that “our” cause had the upper hand, that democracy and a new hope were given a new chance.

At the end of the ceremony in parliament, the new president invited all the guests to join him at Maydan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square. And they did! Kuchma did not go, as far as I know. President Yushchenko had promised, at the time when victory still seemed uncertain, that he would read his inaugural address at Maydan, and he was going to keep his promise.

I put on a warm jacket and rushed out. I arrived at Maydan just in time — to see an enormous crowd so tight that I could not get any closer than may be half a mile from the place from which the new president was supposed to speak. I did try to squeeze my way in, but the effort proved to be beyond my physical strength. When I began to retreat, it took me at last half an hour of strenuous elbowing activity to get out of the throng which kept growing by the minute. All the side streets were also overcrowded or actually clogged with people and I left to go back home. I missed the speech but I was not upset about it — I saw hundreds of thousands of people eager to see and hear their new “people’s” president. And it reassured me — the support of the people was as strong as ever. I’ll watch it on TV, I decided, later on one of the news shows. On the way home, I remembered that I had once been very much impressed by John Kennedy’s inaugural address. I knew I was by far not unique in my admiration.

At home I reread it. And listened to the recording of this address. I was greatly amazed to find so many points relevant to the current situation in Ukraine (of course, Kennedy was speaking at the height of the cold war, and his references were to the Soviet Union and the USA, but now, over forty years later, some of what was topical then could be applied to the relations between Ukraine and Russia!)

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty…

“To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny…

“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate…

“And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor…

“In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course…

“…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country…

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

 

 

Viktor Yushchenko addressed the multitudes standing in front of the monument of Independence rather than from the makeshift stage as he used to during the Orange Revolution. “Armed only by their faith and beliefs, the people won a beautiful and peaceful victory. It is a victory of freedom over tyranny, of law over lawlessness, of future over past.”

He said it was a victory for all Ukrainians, and he pledged to honour the people’s right to worship in their own faith, to embrace their own politics and to speak in the language of their ancestors. He also vowed to fight the corruption and the shadowy economy that had become characteristic of the tumultuous decade under Mr Kuchma, when a few people closely allied with power accumulated vast fortunes. “We shall create a democratic power — honest, professional and patriotic. The wall that separates government from the people will be destroyed… Our way to the future is the way of a united Europe. We, along with the people of Europe, belong to one civilization. We share similar values… Our place is in the European Union. We are no longer on the edge of Europe. We are situated in the centre of Europe.”

I did not so much listen to the speech as I watched the proceedings — the close-ups of the faces of people in the square swathed in orange, of the guests of honour, of those who were part of Yushchenko’s entourage. The president was standing in the very centre of the square, open to view on all sides — and again a frightening thought crept into my mind. If they had tried to kill him at least once, why wouldn’t they try to do it once again? A sniper on the roof? One of the security officers? Kennedy was assassinated in the broad daylight… But, thank God, all my idiotic fears proved to be groundless.

It was most unusual to see the Ukrainian state leader addressing the people of Ukraine on pivotal issues with his family standing right next to him — his wife, all of his five children, one of whom was holding a month-old child in her hands, Yushchenko’s grandchild, all looking festive and spirited. And again, for a reason, I could not quite comprehend, I felt a lump in my throat — I was witnessing something that went beyond mere inauguration pageantry and symbolism. Will this man who is now President of Ukraine be able to do what is expected of him? He is a career banker who proved himself an excellent prime minister; he has never been a communist party functionary (his predecessor Kuchma was the party boss of the plant of which he later became the director). He talks different, he looks different, he behaves different — different from all those top officials who were ruling this country before.

Will he have enough energy and strength to deal with the enormous problems his government will have to face in the nearest future? Will the defeated, fighting the rearguard action, do irreparable damage? Will his political enemies be able to prevent him from achieving his goals? The vestiges of the old regime are like cancerous growth — if they are not removed, if there is no thorough cleansing of the whole political establishment, the cancer of corruption and greed will do this country in. Will Yushchenko’s close associates and most trusted people of his circle be able to rise to the occasion and work hard enough to bring about the promised changes? Will their personal ambitions be stronger than the cause they are supposed to be backing?

The history of Europe in the past sixty years or so has unequivocally shown that a new regime striving for democracy can hardly do without some sort of “denazification” if it wants to achieve success in establishing new principles of life and holding on to them. With the “old cadre” still retaining the key positions no real progress is possible. No one should put new wine into old wine-skins. I hope that for Mr Yushchenko, who is a religious person, this piece of Christ’s wisdom is more than just a clever advice. And I do hope that his inauguration has indeed inaugurated a new era in the history of this country — he does make an impression of a person who has all the makings of a historic figure.

 


* The Cabinet of Ministers, under the then Acting Prime Minister Azarov, passed a secret resolution on January 19 # 15 which granted Kuchma after his retirement: his full salary of a Ukrainian president; three advisors; full use of Dacha # 72 (a huge state in the vicinity of Kyiv); two cars and four drivers; full twenty-four security protection; free medical care for him and his wife in medical institutions for the privileged; one cook, two people of domestic help and two waiters; free rides in any means of transportation in Ukraine; 50 percent discounts on the use of gas, water, etc. (the source of this information is Ukrayinska Pravda, online edition, January 28 2005).

 

Photos by O. Kadnikov

 

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