Archive for May, 2012


May 27, 2012

At Eurovision-2012 in Baku the dust has settled. Loreen from Sweden won the final by a landslide. Her Euphoria beat the Russian Babushki and Serbia’s Zeljko Joksimovic. Everyone who watched the contest has their own list of winners. On mine the first two are the Babushki and Zeljko Joksimovich. They were true representatives of their countries – by the character of their songs, by musical culture, and – what is a comparatively rare phenomenon these days – by the respect to the audience.

I’m on the side of the voting majority who placed Gaitana as far down as 15th. There was nothing Ukrainian in her song or in her performance. If Gaitana wanted to perform in accordance with the “world standards”, Tina Turner or Ella Fitzgerald are definitely better. In all honesty, it was dull to listen to Gaitana.


But the Babushki were irresistible. Especially the shortest one (who is, probably, the oldest too). They weren’t at all disappointed at having been the second. “If we had won, we would have had to go round Europe with concert tours”, said one of the babushkas. “But with this result we can happily work in our kitchen gardens.” I’m also glad that their participation in Eurovision-2012 made it possible for their villagers to get central water supply. At the moment there is only one television for the whole village. Now some more televisions are promised. And president Putin is going to visit them shortly.


May 23, 2012

This spring there are lots of rabbits in the place where our two-year-old granddaughter lives in Britain. So, it was quite natural for her parents to refer to a rabbit when it came down to weaning little Sophia from using a dummy. When she started crying for a pacifier again, her mother said curtly, “A bunny rabbit has taken it.” The explanation was more than convincing: Sophia grew silent and never asked for the dummy again.

Until recently Sophia had slept in a small bed with high sides. A few days ago it was decided that she was big enough for that kind of crib, and the sides were removed.  Sophia was not in the room at the time when her bed was being “upgraded”, neither did anyone tell her about the reason for altering the structure of the bed, or how all that had been done. When somewhat later the au-pair girl, who stays with their family, entered the nursery and saw Sophia sitting in her new bed, she asked, pretending surprise: “Sophie, where are the bed-sides?” Sophia looked at her sternly and said with a sigh, “A bunny ‘as taken it.”


May 22, 2012

Rick Marschall is an American author. He has written 65 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia Magazine called him “perhaps America’s foremost authority on popular culture”) to history and criticism; country music, television history, biography and children’s books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field. He is recipient of the 2008 “Christian Writer of the Year” award from the Greater Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, and produces a weekly e-mail devotional, “Monday Morning Music Ministry.” I liked his recent entry in Assist News Service to which I have a subscription.

Hard Times

By Rick Marschall
Special to ASSIST News Service

SWARTZ CREEK MI (ANS) — On the heels from a week at the Christian Writers Conference in beautiful Estes Park CO, I come away with a heart exultant from fellowship, encouragement, and creative interaction with creative geniuses (some of them not yet published, but surely to be, soon). We also had reports and prayerful consideration of the cultural and spiritual crises facing Christians in this broken world. Human trafficking, persecution of believers, orphans in desperate situations… these “we will always have with us,” but as followers of Christ we cannot fail to respond.

I actually wonder whether Americans know what “hard times” are. I have been through some difficult patches, but I cannot say that I have known Hard Times in the sense that every previous generation in history, virtually everywhere in the world, has experienced.

I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my insulation, it is largely due to my standing as a Christian — receiving joy that passes understanding — but we also have to credit modern life, in America, with its technology, medicine, and general prosperity.

Hard Times do come in America, but somehow all the wars and crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and if not, the public grows impatient. The public has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification.

In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, “Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso” — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”

I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. “Folk Songs” was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word “Volk” refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.

Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveler,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”

It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. Abraham Lincoln almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of a kidney disease) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times? Close enough, we would agree.

Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called “Hard Times.” He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Black Joe,” “Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia,” “Way Down Upon the Swannee River / Old Folks At Home,” “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer”… and “Hard Times, Come Again No More.”

This last song has been resurrected … In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem.

Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh hard times, come again no more.


‘Tis the song, the sigh, of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times, come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times, come again no more.


There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.


There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o’er:
Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times, come again no more.



May 20, 2012

The purple acacia came into blossom in Kyiv. Red-blue clusters will be hanging in the trees all through the summer bringing back the memory of spring even in September. However, in September the clusters won’t be so heavy and the asphalt will not be washed with warm rains as it is being washed now.

The city is getting ready for the football championship EURO-2012. At the 2010 World Cup Paul the Octopus of Germany predicted the outcome of the matches. Results at Euro-2012 will be forecast by  a psychic pig. The news was announced last Friday by the city government. The authorities promise that it will be an oracle pig which knows the mysteries of football. When the tournament kicks off, the pig will predict the results at 4 p.m. before every upcoming match. Two years ago Paul the Octopus became famous by having correctly predicted (through his feeding behavior) the outcome of all Germany matches, and he also tipped the World Cup winners Spain to beat Holland in the final.  Paul passed away soon after the World Cup. Considering the lower ranking of the Ukrainian national team, the telepathic pig may have a much shorter life to live – especially if you take into account that pork is a staple of the local cuisine.

Every morning, while going to work, I pass a huge shopping center, at the front door of which there usually stands a stray dog with a wagging tail and hungry eyes. For some unexplainable reason this dog has managed to avoid teams of exterminators who were eradicating street animals – also in the way of preparing for EURO-2012. The other day I took some meaty bones from home and gave them to the dog. When I was returning home in the afternoon, I saw the dog standing in the same place. I must admit I expected a kind of gratitude from my protégée for my effort in the morning, but the dog only gave me a perfunctory glance and turned away.

I don’t know if dogs can be grateful, but what I’m now aware of is that I, who thought of myself as of a person whose left hand doesn’t know what his right hand is doing, can be excessively proud of my own kindness, can be self-admiring and even narcissistic. Our “dumb brothers” can advise us not only about football.


May 17, 2012

Today I read a  linguistic joke. The joke looks rather hairy. It may have been applied to different presidents in different countries. However, the current Ukrainian president, known for putting his foot in his mouth too often, seems to be candidate No 1 for being in the center of the joke. Although, it may be no joke at all… Just sad truth.

In 2010 President of Ukraine Victor Yanukovych was given some Basic English conversation training before he visited Washington and met President Barack Obama… The instructor told Victor Yanukovych, “When you shake hand with President Obama, please say ‘how r u’. Then Mr. Obama would say, ‘I am fine, and you?’ Now, you should say ‘me too’. Afterwards we, translators, will do the work for you.’ It looks quite simple, but the truth is… when Victor met Obama, he mistakenly said ‘who r u?’ (Instead of ‘How r u?’.) Mr. Obama was a bit shocked but still managed to react with humor: ‘Well, I’m Michelle’s husband, ha-ha…’ Then Victor Yanukovych replied ‘me too, ha-ha….’ Then there was a long silence in the meeting room.


May 15, 2012

The time when the Ukrainians were standing in long queues have irrevocably gone. However, one of the few places for “waiting in line” are windows at post-offices where people pay for electricity, water, gas, radio, accommodation, etc. This morning I was queuing up to pay my utility bills too. I came some thirty minutes before the post-office was to be opened. There were already about twenty people before me, and by the opening hour the additional forty were lining up behind.

Since long I have learned not to lose time in queues. Today I was reading Drei Kameraden by Erich Maria Remarque. It was the fourth or the fifth time that I read it. First when I was a schoolboy, before I even began studying German. Then I read it to learn the language. Now I’m reading it mainly “for pleasure.” If you can call “pleasure’ the realization of how unstable the borderline between life and death is, how tragic is the very existence of Man. The tragedy lies in the very fact of Man’s existential thinking . The moment you start to understand the isolation of your personal experience, or the hostility and indifference of the outside world, you feel you don’t “belong.” Just as didn’t “belong” the guys who had returned from the trenches of the Great War, which in those days wasn’t yet named WWI.

“I’m the second in the queue, the second!” shouted a middle-aged lady into her cell phone. Her voice was happy and there was heavy make-up on her face. She and my book were worlds apart.


May 13, 2012

While getting ready to visit our son’s family in England, my wife is refreshing her English. I advised her to read Agatha Christie’s detective stories: the modern language, lots of suspense, etc. As soon as a story has been read, Lyudmyla tells me the plot, living through it again – together with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. In one of the stories there was a portrait on a wall. When a character of the story turned her back on the portrait and looked into the mirror, in which the portrait was reflected, the man in the portrait winked his eye at the character. My wife was telling me this episode after she had been reading the story for some two or three hours. Incidentally, it was almost midnight already –time to go to bed. Lyudmyla rose from her desk, then she looked round and said, “But where’s the book? I put it right here, at my side.” The book wasn’t to be found either on the desk, or on the sofa, or on the floor… We stared at each other. After a pause I asked, “Shall we look into the mirror?”

Today we talked with our granddaughter via Skype. She is two years and one month old, and she is looking forward to meeting her granny. My son’s is a Ukrainian-speaking family, but little Sophia also uses English words and phrases which she picks up from her Yorkshire peers in the playground. For instance, when she stumbles and falls, she may exclaim “Oh, dear” in English. She also knows that a short English word “please” will make adults do anything she asks for. When my wife asked Sophia where her elder sister had disappeared (she had just been in the room), Sophia uttered a monosyllabic “Gone!” Lyudmyla turned to me: “Did you hear? Sophia already knows the third form of verbs!” After the Skype talk was finished, I photocopied a chart with English irregular verbs and their forms, including the Past Participle, which is the third form. It will be a shame, when it turns out that Sophia knows more “third forms” than we do. In the photocopied chart there are 212 verbs, which I think may be enough for the beginning.


May 12, 2012

The son of my good friends is an elementary school student. The other day he addressed me with a dozen of questions about my childhood. The interview was a part of a school project he was doing. I tried to answer the questions in the simplest way possible, but then I thought my answers might be of some interest for a larger audience.  Here they are.

  1. How popular were air flights when you were young?

Answer: ordinary people traveled by air rather rarely. To get from one place in the country to another they usually used trains, or – if distances were short – they just hitch-hiked. But there were a lot of aircraft high up in the sky. Those were military planes. The cold war was going on and the Soviet Union was preparing for the “hot war” with America.

  1. What kind of music was popular?

On the radio there used to be good classical music (Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Beethoven, Mozart, etc). That was wired radio: there were very few devices which received signals from the air. As for popular music, any foreign songs or concerts were not particularly encouraged: Russian-made music was considered by the authorities to be the best because it was “patriotic.” People who preferred western culture were called “cosmopolitans.” It was a negative characteristic.

  1. How did people communicate in the 1950s (letter correspondence, telephones, etc)?

Of course, they exchanged letters. If there was no money to buy an envelope, a written sheet was folded so that the text should be “inside” and the letter was sent this way without any stamp. The postage was paid by the addressee on the arrival of the letter. There were two or three land-line telephones for the whole village, and they were installed at the post office and at the local Communist Party headquarters. When a friend or a relative living in another city wanted to contact you, they sent a special telegram where the date and time of the future call were indicated. Usually such a telegram was received on the eve of the phone call and you rushed to the post office at the appointed time. Your friend (relative) supposing that you are informed, gave a ring to the post office at that time and you enjoyed the talk. However, there were times when the telegram arrived too late, which made you rather disappointed, to say the least.

  1. How did you find information?

Information was picked up from books at libraries. All books were approved by the Communist Party authorities. If you read some book which was not allowed (like the Bible), you could have troubles with the school administration. In such cases the information about the “incident” was sent to your parents’ place of work and the parents could be “called on the carpet.” They could be demoted in their position or even kicked out from work for not educating their child ‘properly.’ The latest news was collected from newspapers or from the wired radio. In my village a huge loudspeaker was set up on a post in the central square and the information was thundered all day all over the village. Once a week there was the so-called “political information”. It was organized throughout the country: at schools, factories, collective farms, etc. People were supposed to be politically-minded and dedicated to the Communist Party ideas. They used to instruct each other about the events in the world and in the country. That kind of instruction was aimed at making people understand the political events “correctly.” Later, with the spread of radio receivers and listening to foreign broadcasts in Russian and Ukrainian, the Party monopoly for information was undermined.

  1. Please, tell me about your school.

Discipline at school was strict. The teachers’ orders were obeyed and instructions fulfilled without any discussion. We used to write with pens which consisted of a steel nib and a pen-holder. The nib was inserted in the penholder and dipped into the inkpot for writing. Only a couple of words could be written before the nib was empty of the ink and it had to be dipped again. But while we were dipping  our pens into inkpots we had some time to think what to write next, that’s why our writing (in terms of its content) was probably richer and more informative than what you may read in pupils’ compositions nowadays :-). Subjects like history or social studies were much politicized, but programs in mathematics or classical literature were rather strong. “Robinson Crusoe”, “Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, Leo Tolstoy’s stories for children were among my favorites. If a pupil had non-pass grades at the end of the academic year, he/she had to repeat the year. However, such cases were rare, because the whole class was “responsible” for the slow-learner and they stayed with the dud after school to explain to him the homework and to help him get a pass grade.

  1. What means of transport did you mostly use?

There wasn’t much choice. The only two makes of cars that were sometimes seen on streets of cities (but almost never in villages) were box-like “Pobeda” (Russian for “victory”) and “Moskvich.” Of trucks there were the war-time “polutorka” (Russian for “one and a half”), so named because its carrying capacity was 1.5 tons, and the American  Studebakers, which remained in the possession of the Soviet Union after they had been supplied by the United Stated during the Second World War. On a good road the Studebaker could carry up to 5 tons. During the war the Russian rocket-launchers “Katyusha” were usually installed on Studebakers. However, in my village people used to go on foot. I know a family with many children who went to school in different parts of the day. They had only one pair of high boots for all the children. In cold periods of the year the children had to take turns to wear the high boots to school. And those kids who went to school in the afternoon had to wait until the “morning shift” returned and passed the boots to them for “afternoon wear.”

  1. How were you treated for illnesses?

There was a first-aid post in the village. However, there was no permanent staff: doctors at that medical station came and went. In case of a more serious illness the administration of the village gave you a truck (a “polutorka”) and you were transported to the district center some 20 kilometers away. The same happened when a future mother had to give birth to a child. When my sister was being born, there was no truck at that moment and my mother was taken to the maternity home on a sledge drawn by a horse – all the way to the district center. For all that we usually stayed healthy. You had to be healthy under such conditions. 🙂

  1. What home appliances were there?

There were none. All home appliances work on electricity. There was no electricity in my village.

  1. How often did you take a shower in the old days?

We didn’t take it at all. We used to wash in an iron tub. We were four children in the family and it was quite a job for our mother to heat two cauldrons of water in a stove and to wash all of us. The habit to be clean was instilled by our mother. “Cleanliness is godliness”, she used to say.

  1. What kinds of entertainment did you have?

As with cars, there wasn’t much choice either. In winter we used to go tobogganing (those were really snowy winters in those days – untouched by global warming!). In summer we usually swam in the river and played soccer barefoot.  Once a week a mobile cinema (a cinema van) arrived at our village to show films about the happy (!) life of Soviet villagers or some films about the war “with the Germans.” When children had no money to buy tickets, they could take a couple of hen eggs at their households and sell them to a local store. The price of two eggs was exactly what a cinema ticket cost.

  1. Were you interested in politics?

Not especially. When the dictator Joseph Stalin died, I was four years old and I didn’t understand much. But I remember the funeral music which sounded from the radio for several days and people talking almost in whisper. Under Nikita Khrushchev, who started ruling the country a couple of years later, taxes for fruit trees were introduced: you had to pay money to the state if fruit trees were growing in your garden. Many people cut down their fruit trees then not to pay the tax. My granny once said about Khrushchev: “This one will take our last shirt off us.” I remembered her words and every time when I was in the company of grown-ups and the name “Khrushchev” was mentioned, I used to importantly put in: “This one will take our last shirt off us.” The grown-ups held their sides with laughter hearing the five-year old making radical political judgments. However, Nikita Khrushchev was much more liberal and neither my granny nor me was persecuted.

As I look back, those were hard times. But why is my childhood – without electricity, luxurious cars, foreign trips, seaside resorts, without television, video or games – why is it so dear to me? Just for a few simple reasons: the sky looked so blue, the air was so fresh and fragrant, there was an exciting  mystery in every sound I heard from wildlife. There was love in our family and a feeling that you were protected and safe. And you also knew that behind those forests in the horizon which you could observe from the window of your mud house there were distant countries which you would see one day.


May 4, 2012

No half-time oranges for Viktor

Viktor Yanukovych’s mistreatment of Yulia Tymoshenko symbolises a rotten rule that Europe can no longer ignore

May 5th 2012 | KIEV | The Economist

Damsel in distress

THE hulking Olimpiysky Stadium in Kiev, renovated at a cost of almost $600m and reopened last year, was a monument to Ukraine’s integration with Europe. It will host the final of this summer’s Euro 2012 football championship. But it is not clear how many European leaders will be there to toast the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and whether the tournament will be a symbol of Ukraine’s proximity to Europe or its isolation.

Photographs of Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed former Ukrainian prime minister (and, during the 2004 Orange revolution, one of Mr Yanukovych’s two bitter rivals) show her with bruises that she claims were inflicted by prison guards. She has now gone on hunger strike. The European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, has said he will not travel to Ukraine for Euro 2012. Other leaders, reportedly including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, are reluctant. A clutch of European presidents, including Germany’s Joachim Gauck, have withdrawn from a summit in Yalta on May 11th and 12th. The 20-year-old project of pulling Ukraine closer to Europe is in deep trouble.

Relations between Mr Yanukovych and the European Union have been souring for months, especially since Ms Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison last October for abuse of office. The verdict froze progress on an association agreement and free-trade zone with the EU that would offer what James Sherr, a Ukraine specialist at Chatham House in Britain, calls “all the benefits of membership-lite.” That is something a creaking economy badly needs.

The Ukrainians still want a deal. But the EU has made clear that it cannot take effect with Ms Tymoshenko in jail. EU officials are shocked that she is now the apparent victim of violence; she, however, has used it to climb back on to the political stage. After her loss to Mr Yanukovych in the presidential election of February 2010, her star was on the wane. But her imprisonment and hunger strike have revived her image as a resistance princess and discredited Mr Yanukovych, not just with the EU but with many of his erstwhile supporters.

The power and no glory

What explains Mr Yanukovych’s counterproductive persecution of Ms Tymoshenko? In part, he is afraid. As he sees it, Ms Tymoshenko spoilt the presidencies of both Leonid Kuchma, in office between 1994 and 2005, and her one-time Orange colleague, Viktor Yushchenko, and he is loth to let her bring him down too. Yet such paranoia “exaggerates her power and popularity,” according to Mykola Riabchuk at the Ukrainian Centre for Cultural Studies, who says Mr Yanukovych is pursuing “mafia-style revenge.” This mentality reflects the political culture of the Donbass, the Russian-speaking industrial region around Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych’s home base.

Even more than the imprisonment of Ms Tymoshenko, it is the import of this culture to the capital that has sparked discontent with the Yanukovych government. Since he took power, he has pushed through a new constitution to strengthen the presidency, delayed local elections until his Party of the Regions could consolidate its grip, and pursued prosecutions against political rivals, of whom Ms Tymoshenko is just one.

Most sharply, corruption and cronyism have reached a new intensity. Mr Yanukovych, who has never worked in the private sector, lives on an estate outside Kiev valued at $10m (Mr Yushchenko, who long since fell out with Ms Tymoshenko, is still in the presidential palace). Few have done as well as “the Family” led by Mr Yanukovych and his two sons, the oldest of whom, Oleksandr, is a dentist whose estimated $99m fortune catapulted him into this year’s Forbes list of the richest Ukrainians. This group has appointed loyalists to the central bank and finance ministry, and put forward new chiefs for the security service and defence ministry-signs that Mr Yanukovych wants an independent power base beyond the oligarchs who back him now.

A partial boycott of Euro 2012 may be too late. Throughout 2010 and 2011, as Mr Yanukovych consolidated his power, the EU stayed mum, either out of boredom with Ukraine’s endless problems or out of hope that bringing Ukraine closer would moderate Mr Yanukovych. That lack of action, says Olexiy Haran of the Kyiv Mohyla University, was seen by Mr Yanukovych as “carte blanche that he could do what he wants.” Andrew Wilson, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, concurs: “Yanukovych took full advantage of Ukraine fatigue.”

Now Ukrainian officials are crying double standards. Renat Kuzmin, Ukraine’s first deputy prosecutor-general, criticises what he calls “political judgments that have nothing to do with justice.” The Yanukovych regime is telling Ukrainians that Europe was never serious about closer relations, and that its concerns about human rights and Ms Tymoshenko are just pretexts for it to shun the country.

Not all is lost. Ukraine’s political culture, and its press, remain vibrant and unpredictable. The next big test will come in October, when Ukraine is due to hold parliamentary elections. Two opposition parties-Ms Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front for Change-have said they will run as a united block. A Razumkov Centre poll puts their support at nearly 27%, against 23% for the Party of the Regions. Mr Yanukovych may find himself faced with a dilemma: does he act against his political instincts and allow his party to lose seats, or does he double up on his Donbass style and move the country one step further towards Belarus-like isolation?

Ukraine and Europe

Call foul

Viktor Yanukovych’s thuggish autocracy is heading in a dangerous direction

May 5th 2012 | The Economist

HE WON fairly in February 2010. But since his election Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, has mauled his country’s fragile democracy and weak institutions. He has bullied the media, tampered with the judiciary, exercised arbitrary power and presided over an upsurge of corruption. To see how badly he has gone wrong, consider the show trial, imprisonment and maltreatment of Yulia Tymoshenko, his losing opponent in 2010, who is now on hunger strike.

Mr Yanukovych had no real reason to fear Ms Tymoshenko. She is no angel, and lost much of her popularity after the 2004 “orange revolution” for her erratic style and questionable business dealings. But he chose to persecute her all the same, adding fresh charges to keep her in prison for longer (see article). He has done this despite a clear message from the European Union that her release is a condition for implementing a much-delayed association agreement, which would open EU markets to Ukrainian exports.

In some ways Mr Yanukovych is using similar tactics to those of his autocratic neighbour, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in Belarus. He has flirted alternately with Europe and Russia, in the hope of extracting concessions from both, yet yielding nothing serious to either. He wants the association agreement and he needs Western support for another IMF bail-out this summer. Should he get neither, he may turn to Moscow for help-which he would get only with unpleasant conditions.

This probably will not end well for Ukraine. The unfortunate Ukrainians find themselves not only at the mercy of their predatory ruler but also cut off from Europe. And it creates a headache for the West. The fear is that Mr Yanukovych could allow his country to fall under Russia’s sway. Vladimir Putin, who will be inaugurated as Russia’s president on May 7th, is pressing Ukraine to join a post-Soviet customs union instead of pursuing its EU deal. The Russians also want to control Ukraine’s gas-transit network, as they do Belarus’s. Such a setback for 20 years of Western efforts to bolster Ukraine’s independence is a grim prospect; EU countries should make clear to Mr Putin that it would damage relations with Russia.

Brickbats and beetroots

Fears of Russian influence must not be allowed to dictate a soft response to Mr Yanukovych’s autocratic ways. He tends to treat friendliness as weakness, pocketing the proceeds. Instead, the EU should tighten the screws on the president and his Donetsk business associates-while also finding ways to hold out hope to ordinary Ukrainians.

High-level political boycotts are a good place to start. Several heads of state, including those of Germany and the Czech Republic, are rightly refusing to attend an east European summit with Mr Yanukovych that begins in Yalta on May 11th. The EU’s political leaders (but not its soccer teams) should also boycott matches in Ukraine during the Euro 2012 football championships, which it is jointly hosting with Poland.

Off the pitch, the EU should press for fair parliamentary elections in October, sending as many observers as it can. Financial supervisors must apply money-laundering laws stringently to the huge sums flowing out of Ukraine to Austria, Britain, Cyprus and elsewhere. EU countries should withhold visas from those directly involved in the abuse of power. Yet at the same time they ought to make it easier for other Ukrainians to visit the West for study, trade and tourism. And they should do more to explain to Ukrainians the potential benefits of their association agreement, including the possibility that it might ultimately lead to EU membership. The West’s quarrel with Ukraine is with its president, not with its people.

%d bloggers like this: