Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The debate

The debate was held this past Monday and it was an interesting thing to watch. This article by the BBC, Ukraine rivals clash in TV debate, summarizes some of the points but comes to a conclusion based on the "experts" that it will sway no voters.

Experts say that neither of the two candidates are likely to win any new converts after the debate, and have simply reinforced their own electorates before the 21 November run-off.

The debate has had absolutely no affect on my own and my friends' voting preferences," Olexander, a computer programmer, told the BBC News.

His words were echoed by another voter, Galyna, who said that she "has not changed her mind" after the debate.

I don't know what kind of experts these would be or how they could possibly know this to be able to comment on with any degree of credibility. The polls have been all over the place depending on which group does them. (One reason for this is that I think the answers are tailored to what the pollee feels is the poll takes preference. There has been so much pressure exerted on people, especially in government work which is a significant portion of the workers, that the risk of making public the wrong preference is not acceptable to most.) So polling I think would not be a good enough source though that might not stop a polling expert from giving his opinion about this. Maybe they read chicken entrails, roach parts or the standard tea leaves to come up with this.

I think the experts are wrong. Yuschenko has not had much exposure on TV at all to make his case to the voters. That has changed somewhat with stations now carrying his advertisements on a more equal basis to Yanukovych's but this is the first time that many of the voters have had a chance to hear Yuschenko speak about what his policies would be and what he thinks about the future of the country. And it looks like about half the country watched the debate. This can only help him.

Yuschenko made sense and sounded like an ardent patriot. He always referred to Ukraine as "my country" or "my nation" and he spoke in Ukrainian only resorting to Russian to make a specific quote from the Russian original (or interestingly the Polish original at one point.) This might insulate him from the criticism that he would sell out to the Americans but I think he means it. Lots of passion there. The interesting thing is that even though the Yanukovych campaign has made TV spots saying that Yuschenko would turn over Ukraine to the Americans--playing to some anti-American sentiment among the people here-- in the debate he argued that the US was an important trade partner. Even he had to admit reality when put to it.

And Yuschenko made point after point about adequate funding for medicine, education and pensions and in putting Ukraine on a proper economic footing. But from my perspective the most important point he made, a point that also makes it hard to see that he will be elected even with popular support, is his condemnation of corruption:

[Yushchenko] Dear friends! One of the fundamental problems of my nation and the current government is its inability to manage the state offers honestly and fairly. On the one hand, five years ago people who worked at the presidential administration were driving to work in a Zhiguli 2105 [Soviet-era Lada car]. A used one, by the way. Today, they are on the list of the top 100 rich men in Europe or at least top 100 rich men in Ukraine. This is one side of the Ukrainian truth. On the other side, the pensions and wages of Ukrainian citizens are 33 per cent lower than in Belarus and 60 per cent lower than in Russia. Armenians and Kazakhs have higher pensions and wages than Ukrainians. If we mention Lithuania, Estonia, Lithuanians, their pensions and wages are four times what the Ukrainians are getting today. I will not talk about Poland where wages and pensions are six and a half times higher. I ask that those happy with these statistics, who are proud of this government policy, to raise their hands. I am convinced that an honest government employee will not raise a hand. Everyone knows that pensions and wages in Ukraine are lower even that the subsistence level. Often it is less than half of the subsistence level....

Political changes are the second part of the things I would like to talk about. I will not talk about the so-called political reform that the authorities have been carrying out for the last two years, whose goal is not to democratize society but to retain power. I will talk about another component of political changes. Here I would like to talk of corruption. Corruption, friends, is not something that is located far away or concerns some government officials far from us, or something that visits us once a year in our or someone else's home. I am convinced that corruption to Ukrainians is what destroys our society, our morality and our way of life. Corruption is widespread and people want to see a candidate who proposes a future without corruption and who is honest.

These are the two pillars of my election campaign. I repeat. First, jobs, wages and stable prices. Second, fighting corruption throughout the country. This, people, is the goal. The mechanisms for achieving it are transparency, trust and the law of Ukraine. This is where conflict arises between transparent politics and politicking. This is not a conflict between two Victors. This is a conflict of two world views, two moralities. Our choice is very simple. Either we live according to the code of ethics of the criminal underworld or we live like free and affluent people...

In this election, the authorities did not stand against the opposition. The authorities stood against the people. Nonetheless, I defeated the candidate backed by the authorities in the first round. The main thing is that it is not my victory. It is the victory of the Ukrainian democracy, and the Ukrainian people. I am convinced that after 21 November we shall change this country. I believe in it with every fibre of my body. It will be so. We have created a strategy for Ukraine. I have already approved a package of presidential decrees which I will sign right after my victory. The first one, is a determined fight against corruption at all levels. State officials will declare not only their personal incomes, but also their spending, not hiding behind the backs of their family members. I will ban state officials from accepting presents.

I will ban officials from buying expensive cars, having luxury flat renovations and constructing government buildings. All this money will go on social programmes for people. The priorities of the law enforcement bodies will change. Police will protect the life and peace of ordinary Ukrainians and not serve the oligarchs. The courts will be purged of judges who are implicated in corruption or give verdicts to order. The authorities will take care of the unity of the Ukrainian people. And the most important thing, I will issue a decree requiring the work of all local officials to be assessed according to clear criteria that people can understand....

Yanukovych spent much of the debate accusing Yuschenko of being part of a ruthless cabal that once had power, had drained the country of capital and was now seeking power once more to do it all over again. Yuschenko did work in the government as the head of the Bank of Ukraine and held some other posts, but as head of the bank he set the currency on a sound footing which has allowed it to be a stable currency for the past few years. This is a significant thing for a country that came through the economic torrent of the nineties when people found that the rubles they held had become almost worthless overnight.

Yanukovych's position was that he had only been in office for a couple of years and that he was trying to come to grips with the problems he had found--the beleagured public servant trying to do his best against the odds. (Or more to the point, the benignant ruler trying to do the work of the people who is thwarted by the machinations of those evil ministers who surround him. That is an enduring myth that affects people to this day in this area of the world. It is linked with the idea of a "big brother" or a "father" figure that solves the problems of the nation. In an article in the October 30, 2002 of Moskovsky Komsomolets, entitled "PUTIN'S PRESTIGE WILL INCREASE MANIFOLD" a political expert was quoted as saying "Our society wants the 'older brother,' the father of the nation, the man capable of taking the responsibility to solve our problems. All our sociological research points out at this phenomenon. Society itself (meaning on its own) doesn't know what it wants. It's more of a society of subordinates rather than a society of citizens. That's why it is willing to let somebody else make the decisions." This gives them someone on whom they can place their hopes as a result. But this makes democracy and democratic systems a problem here.) He argued that the economy was much better than it had been, that people were better off and that that was a result of his administration.

It is true that the economy is humming along at a growth rate of over 13% and Yanukovych should deserve some credit for that. But what benefit has come to the government from this fact? Living standards may be up but up from ground level may not mean all that much. (The GDP of Ukraine is about the GDP of Honduras.) And Yuschenko made the point that though the GDP was growing at that kind of rate, the government only added a small percentage of that to it revenues.

"We have 13.4 per cent of GDP growth. We have already overtaken Singapore! But do you know how much extra budget revenue we have got from this miracle? It is 1.8 per cent. The very simple economic question is, Mr Yanukovych, where is the rest? Where did it all go? Who gains from it? You said you were going to be a president of rich people. But two thirds of my nation are poor people, who are below the poverty line. So where is this difference between 13.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent being channelled? Why is it that in Poland, 47 per cent of the GDP goes into the national budget? Why is the figure so low in this country?"

I thought Yuschenko did a good job setting out his positions and taking the government on for its failings. He sounded like a patriot , as I said, and talked about benefitting the people of the country and working to get the government to work for them instead of against them and their interests. Yanukovych sounded like someone who had power behind him. He responded half heartedly to the criticisms of his administration and heaped all the blame for the past evils of the government onto Yuschenko. This tactic seemed too conspiratorial to be believable but that was my take. It might work for some segment of the population especially those who feel much better about the way things are going economically right now.

In the end, though, Yanukovych made a personal appeal that seemed to me to come from way out in left field:

"I have always respected the people I lived all my life with. The people who were beside me, my family, my wife, whom I have lived 32 years with, my friends and the people I have worked with. They are my bulwark. So they know very well that everything you said about me is simply a blatant lie. I am a believer - and you often talk about morality - I have often asked God to forgive you for your sin. And I thought, maybe that was because you were ill, and your emotions, as you said, got the better of you. I would really like that you understand me as a human. So I have got the blessing of the old men on Mount Athos, in Jerusalem, and here in Ukraine. And without their blessing I would not have run for presidency. I felt people's support. The new government has already come, Mr Yushchenko, you simply didn't notice.

The attacks didn't seem to me to be personal enough to warrant the "my-mother-loves-me-and-that-makes-me-a-human-being-an-object-of-sympathy" kind of response. The attack on government corruption was on the governrment as a whole and though there was a charge that a steel mill was sold for a fraction of what it was worth to the son-in-law of President Kuchma, Yuschenko didn't say Yanukovych was personally responsible. It just seems to me that this was a prepared response to what they thought would be the tone and substance of the debate.

Then, significantly, came a warning:

It [that government that has come] has already started working, and it must be understood that it is not going anywhere, and there is no way to dislodge it. ...And I am absolutely confident that our future is not a walk in the park. And we know that we must work round the clock - and we did, and all the ordinary people know that only by their work can they earn their future. I believe in our common victory, and I believe that Ukraine will win. (Emphasis mine.)

That line, "there is no way to dislodge it," is an example of the type of power the guy has behind him and the arrogance that comes from it. This is a public admission that he has the power to take office and that no one can stop him from doing it. That has been the feel here for a long time and has been the attitude of the government party the whole election. The problem is, I'm afraid he's right.

There were some little things that were significant in the debate. The moderator helped Yanukovych at one point when he mispoke. He talked about keeping the people "unsafe" and the moderator interrupted to tell him that he had mispoken. The other thing was that there was noise while Yuschenko spoke, the clinking of glass on glass, the sound of rustling of papers and of papers hitting the microphone. I thought the clinking sound was Yanukovych filling his glass with something but he must have been drinking that "something" with abandon because it was too many times I felt to be purely for thirst. (And the stuff he was drinking was not clear like water would have been.) None of this happened while Yanukovych spoke.

It was not really a debate at all. It was more like a mutual speaking engagement. There were no questions except for what the candidates asked each other, Yuschenko doing more of this than Yanukovych. The topics were board categories like foreign policy and domestic policy. They simply gave their positions and attacked the other side.

But we shall see what will happen. This is an important election for Ukraine but also for the US. Russia, under Putin, has begun to be more authoritarian once again. Not necessarily Soviet again, but for most of the history of Russia and this region, authoritarian governments have been the rule. (Soviet government was much more completely and effectively so but otherwise a variation on the theme.) Lukaschenko has already lodged himself in power in Belarus for as long as he likes, by virtue of a defective vote and the power to enforce it. If Yanukovych wins, the worst instincts of these people who hold power will be confirmed, not only in Ukraine but also in Russia. This cannot be a good thing for the region or for the US.

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