Word’s out in Ukraine that there is “no difference” between the Regionnaires and the opposition. The implication is obvious: it doesn’t matter whom you vote for in the October 28th parliamentary elections and it doesn’t even matter whether you vote. After all, whoever wins, whether Regionnaires or the opposition, there’s “no difference.”
This is nonsense.
Let’s consider a few dimensions along which one might measure difference.
- Moral qualities: There are, as everyone knows, far too many crooks and corruptioneers among the democrats, but the crucial difference between them and the Regionnaires is that, while the former tolerate thugs within their ranks, the latter are thugs. It’s like the difference between Fortune 500 CEOs and the mafia. Are there criminals among the former? Of course. Do most of them probably do things we’d consider a tad shady? Sure. But they ain’t the mafia. Even that notorious thief, Bernie Madoff, was no Al Capone. Or to put it a different way: Whom would you prefer to encounter in a dark alley—a typical democrat or a typical Regionnaire? Arsenii Yatseniuk or Viktor Yanukovych Junior?
- Democratic proclivities: There’s no question that the Orange democrats screwed things up royally while in power from 2005 to 2010. Reform was zilch, and the government seemed to be in permanent crisis. But, by any measure, Ukraine was democratic and Ukrainians were free. And that’s because the Orange and post-Orange democrats genuinely value things like democracy and freedom. Now, compare their record to that of the Regionnaires. In the last two years, since Viktor Yanukovych’s election as president in 2010, Ukraine’s democracy has been dismantled: the president has become all-powerful, the parliament is a joke, and the courts are puppets of the executive. Moreover, freedoms of speech, of assembly, and of the press have been and are being constricted. Does anyone have any doubts that in three more years the condition of democracy and freedom in Ukraine will be even worse?
- Competence and dedication to reform: Yup, the Orange democrats proved to be dreadful managers and terrible governors, so much so that they made Yanukovych look like an attractive alternative in the presidential elections of 2010. But what he and his Regionnaire cronies have managed to accomplish in the last two years is even more astounding: their level of incompetence and their complete indifference to anything resembling systemic reform have been so screamingly obvious that they’ve succeeded in making ex-president Viktor Yushchenko look like a model of competence. And small wonder. While thugs may be able to keep order in a small province, where kicking butts usually suffices to get things done, they cannot, by definition, run anything resembling a modern state and a modern economy. Street smarts, which Yanukovych acquired while running with gangs in the Donbas, just aren’t enough in government.
- Statecraft: This one is easy. After five years, the Orange democrats managed to have lousy relations with Putin’s Russia and decent, though uninspired, relations with the United States, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and other major international actors. After just two years, the Yanukovych regime has managed even to alienate Russia, its putative pal, and is barely on speaking terms with the Americans, Europeans, and IMF. Only the Chinese have deigned to acknowledge the Regionnaires, although it’s not yet clear that their offer to lend Ukraine billions won’t be undermined by some Regionnaire blundering.
- Personal wealth: Yes, the democrats have tons of cash, much of it illicitly or semi-illicitly acquired. But no, their level of wealth doesn’t even come close to that of the Regionnaires. And do you really think that any democratic president would have built a Spanish galleon as his, or her, playground? Oh, and last I looked, the mega-gazillionaire ex–card sharp Rinat Akhmetov was a Regionnaire.
I could go on, but the point should be clear: there’s a ton of difference between the Regionnaires and the democrats.
So why the widespread perception that there isn’t any?
Well, partly that’s just the line that pro-Regionnaire publicists and politicians (like the former Orange president, Yushchenko) are pushing on all the media outlets the Regionnaires control, and if you push something long and loud enough, some people will begin believing it.
But mostly the perception is due to the fact that the democratic opposition has failed to inspire the population. The democrats are regular guys, but they lack charisma and they’re not, as one lady in Kyiv complained to me, George Washingtons. Fair enough, but what’s so bad about uninspiringly regular guys? And shouldn’t you prefer them to the mafia?
And if that doesn’t persuade you, consider this. Can Ukraine survive several more years of Regionnaire rapine? Wouldn’t Ukraine be just a jot better off if the Regionnaires got a punch in the nose in the forthcoming elections and were told to back off?
The sad fact is that, if Ukrainians keep on insisting that they’ll vote only for angels, they may just ensure rule by the devils.