Democratic malaise draws Ukraine eastwards
Kiev’s Mother of the Motherland statue now represents Russia’s influence
Until recently, Ukraine seemed to be leaning westwards to a more open and democratic style of government, but following the reversal of a reform that curbed presidential powers, there is a sense that the country is being drawn to eastwards.
She is made from a massive slab of stainless steel and stands 62m (200ft) high.
She holds up a sword and a shield emblazoned with the hammer and sickle, and stretches skywards watching over the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
They call her Mother of the Motherland, built symbolically to defend the Soviet Union from an encroaching Western Europe.
Unlike similar statues in many other former Soviet countries, this statue has not been pulled down. Instead, she has come to represent the new-looming influence of Russia.
“See that?” said an American tourist.
He pointed to the top of the statue, brought his hand rapidly down to the base, then lifted it up again, then down again. “Nowadays they call it Vertical Power.”
“They call it what?” I asked.
“Or Power Vertical,” he answered. “Check it out.”
Caught in a rainstorm, Oleg Rybuchuk, who runs a think tank, arrived late for our meeting.
As soon as we sat down, I asked what was meant by Power Vertical and whether it formed part of the government’s policy.
He laughed. “It means you have the biggest boss and he gives a command and it goes through like blood in arteries and reaches everywhere.”
“Is it good or bad?” I asked. “What’s the opposite – Power Horizontal?”
“Neither is good,” he said quietly, his smile fading. “But the opposite, we call chaos.”
He was referring to the post-Soviet period, particularly the years after mass protests in 2004, hailed as the Orange Revolution, that threw out apparatchik politicians and ushered in reformists who were meant to forge a path towards European Union membership.
It was yet another notch, many analysts thought, on the scoreboard for Western democracy.
But it did not work out like that and earlier this year conservative politicians were voted back into government.
According to critics, they have been bolstering their own power and moving against activists and the media.
In Brussels, that nerve centre of the European Union, there has been much talk that Ukraine might now never become a member, that it is turning its back on the West and taking a lead from the new authoritarian Russia – from where, according to Google, the phrase “Power Vertical” first emerged.
“Ukrainians don’t believe anymore in fairytales,” said Walid Arfush, who was among the Orange Revolution demonstrators.
He became disillusioned, switched sides and is now the deputy head of the government-controlled television station.
“We never had democracy here, only something that looked like democracy that the foreign newspapers wrote about.
“The only thing Ukrainians worry about is how can I pay my bills, how can I afford schooling for my kids.”
Life of poverty
Less than an hour’s drive from Kiev, I came upon a scene that far from resembling an emerging European economy, was more suited to the pages of novel by Leo Tolstoy. It was a product – as Tolstoy wrote – of the storm-tossed sea of European history.
A young man, in ragged clothes, his face creased with work and the weather, lifted a load of hay onto his back.
Bent double, an almost Biblical figure, he carried it to a barn where his mother was gathering cows in a pen.
His name was Volodymyr Petrovych. He was 10 when the Soviet Union collapsed and today was celebrating his 31st birthday.
The farm used to be a Soviet co-operative, rows of once magnificent whitewashed buildings, now run down and broken, with stray dogs running through the grounds.
Not surprisingly, Volodymyr had not heard of Power Vertical, nor was he much interested.
“The trouble is there’s no difference between politicians,” he grumbled, bundling up another load of hay. “They’re always fighting each other. Politics is politics. But here is real life.”
“Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union, you know,” chipped in his mother. “Then our wages went three times further.”
“So, what do you want for your birthday?” I asked Volodymyr.
He stood upright and brushed dirt off his hands. “I need a horse to carry these loads. But we can’t afford one.”
Back in Kiev, I met a deputy prime minister, veteran conservative politician Borys Kolesnikov. I told him about Volodymyr’s need for a horse.
“That’s what we really have to sort out,” he answered. “Wages. This is our biggest challenge.”
“Will you do that with Power Vertical?” I asked.
He chuckled. “Our opponents make an issue of this, but the meaning is very simple. It means that decisions taken by the president are carried out. That’s all.”
“But people say it means curtailing freedoms, turning away from Europe and leaning towards Moscow,” I say.
“No,” he countered, fixing me with an iron gaze. “You tell me about the farmer who needs a horse.
“Real freedom comes when there is freedom of the economy, so this Power Vertical is not Russia or Europe or democracy or anything. It’s just making things work.”
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