“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
People often burst into the ‘Never again’ emotional song at the twilight of fading conflicts or man-made catastrophes. But it seems that History’s lessons never stay long in our little human brains. World War One was called ‘the war to end all wars (“la Der des Der”, literally the last of the last) by French people just 20 years before another major –and more damaging- war broke out between the same countries.
The Cold War between the US and Russia has been over for just 25 years, and the tremors of its resumption can already be felt. Putin is not the only one to blame for reviving the old flame of rivalry for world domination. This week, in his speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany, Putin denounced the US for attempting to dominate a “unipolar world”. On the other hand, both the US and Europe enjoy demonizing Russia and making it into the ‘big bad guy’ against the ‘forces of Good’ that Western democracies incarnate.
It’s high time we realize that international cooperation is so much more needed than bickering about which country is the ‘best’ or the most well-deserving. Russia, just like China, has known a century filled with hardships, civil wars, and human tragedies. It is not always easy to emerge from such traumatic times. France went through a pretty bumpy 100 years after the 1789 French Revolution took place. We had our share of dictators, and alternated between short-lived democratic republican experiments and monarchical restorations until the end of the 19th century. Throwing the stones at countries that have a hard time adjusting to major regime changes is not going to benefit anyone. Progress takes time, and international collaboration is key.
The European diplomacy now finds itself in a difficult position after granting enthusiastic support to the popular Ukrainian uprising of 2014 against Viktor Yanukovych, and then slowly letting the newly elected Ukrainian government deal with the repercussions of such a geopolitical shift. Russia, of course, played its own cards and took advantage of the fragility that the upheaval had engendered.
2 days ago, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko asked UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to send peacekeepers to the Donbas region where a conflict is still raging between governmental troops and pro-Russian rebels. The international community needs to be ready to make all the efforts necessary to peacefully resolve a situation it vastly contributed to provoke.
It is crucial to remember that positive changes can happen, but that they also need to be accompanied by a more general shift in framework. A democracy cannot invent itself. It needs to be built over time, the elites need to be renewed, and citizens need to learn to use their political rights. And indeed, political changes seemed rather unlikely just a few years ago, and for many Ukrainians it seemed that the country had very few prospects of getting rid of the corrupt elite that had taken over after the end of the Soviet era. Stéphane Gillier, a contributor to Nótt Magazine, witnessed the bleak reality of the 2012 parliamentary elections, which he recalls in the following exclusive article.
“These elections are an illusion. No change will come out of it“
A trip to Ukraine during the 2012 parliamentary elections
Saturday morning, 20 October 2012, Paris. The usual misty morning. But an email had somewhat shaken me awake. Vinnikov’s message was concise and straight to the point: “Kiev, parliamentary elections, next Sunday, care to join?” After a frantic ride through the apartment, slipping on the wooden floor of the corridor, I had reached the red Ikea cupboard in the entrance hall and grabbed my collection of city maps. I had rampaged through it, only to come to the conclusion I had suspected: I had no map of Kiev.
The Ukrainian elections were six days away. A quick check somewhat relieved me: no visa was needed, even if I were to transfer through Moscow. Good for Kiev, then.
Before my friend Vinnikov invited me to join him on his upcoming trip, I had absolutely no idea of what was going on in Ukraine. I had heard, like everyone else, about the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a symbol of the pro-Western coalition, and about the previous pro-Western Prime Minister who had been poisoned; that was about it. But this was already old material. The only up-to-date information I had regarding the country came from the European Football Championship. That was quite thin, to say the least.
To be frank, after two days of research, I still had no idea about what was going on in Ukraine. I had found out on the Internet:
Firstly, that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was still in jail and barred from running, as was Viktor Yushchenko, the other leader of the Orange Revolution.
Secondly, that the coalition led by the ruling Party of Regions, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, was set to win the election.
Finally, that Vitali Klitschko, the reigning WBC world heavyweight champion, seemed set to become a political heavyweight as well, by entering the Parliament as the leader of UDAR, a political party credited with 15% of votes in the last polls.
That left me with few angles to cover the event. I could go for the use of the art of boxing in politics, trying to get an interview with Klitschko. But I didn’t really like Klitschko’s boxing style, which consists in exhausting the adversary instead of overpowering him. Or I could just go there and wait for an hypothetical outburst of violence during some hypothetical post-election demonstrations. That is what reporters usually do, waiting for chaos to erupt. But, well, hum, it was too, let’s say, hypothetical.
After a while, I decided the best I could do was to go there and meet common, politically active Ukrainians, and find out what they were up to, what they were saying, and who they were. But for this, I needed Vinnikov to give me a hand.
Vinnikov, whom I had met during my graduate studies, was a senior advisor for political affairs in the OSCE, and as such was a member of a monitoring team set to control the Ukrainian elections. He was a tall and broad Oxford-educated chap of Russian origin, accidentally born in Holland – his parents had left Russia in the 1970s. I had met him during my graduate studies, played tennis with him, lost most of the time. He could speak seven or eight languages. I called him, asking if he could put me in contact with grass roots Ukrainians involved in politics in Kiev. He said he could, and that I should send him a short description of what I needed.
I needed one or two fixers, and cheap accommodation. After all, I was only a penniless freelance writer who had decided to go on a reporting trip to a country I knew nothing about, without pre-sales to any news outfits. It was going to cost me a lot. A few minutes after our call, I sent Vinnikov the following brief : “French journalist looking for a young political activist able to provide housing and connections with politically active groups from October 26 to October 30 in Kiev, material details to discuss“.
Ten minutes later, it began to happen. Dozens of emails started to fill in my inbox. It was last night.
At 1 pm, I was sitting in the restaurant at 33 Saksaganskogo Street, as I had been asked to, a little earlier, by SMS. I had a green scarf on, so that she would recognize me, as I had no way to recognize her. The place was quite empty, big, with a lot of light. It was Friday, October 26. At 1 pm sharp, she was standing in front of me, holding some food she had already ordered. She was a tall, slender and joyful-looking girl of 26.
Elisa was born in Chernivtsi, a border city of 250,000, located in Western Ukraine. She had studied political science there before a final year in Budapest, through a scholarship awarded by the United Nations Development Programme and the Soros Foundation. She would not vote on Sunday, she told me. She had been involved with several foreign policy research organizations, like the Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, a think tank created by the former Ukrainian foreign minister, Borys Tarasuyk, to whom she had been an assistant. Now, she was working for an investment company, and sometimes for the US Congress, guiding Ukrainian professionals selected by Washington there.
The streets of Kiev were covered in political posters. I only recognized the UDAR’s poster, because Vitaly Klytchko was on it. But he was precisely the one that mattered to me since Elisa had arranged for me a tour of the polling stations on elections day with a UDAR militant.
On Saturday, Elsa recommended I attend a political discussion group, the Polit Club, in a downtown bar, which I did. A lot of students were there, some older people too, mostly men, to listen to a debate moderated by Vitaly Portnikov, the host of an Ukrainian talk show. The editor-in-chief of TVI, a TV channel, was there. I had to fight to stay focused as several TVs broadcasting National Geographic-like programs caught my attention. As Portnikov was doing his best to explain to the audience that these elections would not change anything since the oligarchs would continue to choose and control the victors, on the screen just behind his head Felix the cat was trying to escape the bad professor with the white moustache. I do not think it was an effect done on purpose. Or maybe it was Ukrainian humour. I did not dare asking Elisa anyway.
Tomorrow is elections day. The Party of Regions will win, Kiev will be cold and the Oligarchs will be in control at the end of the day. Nothing very new there. This is Ukraine.
Sunday, October 28, 10:30 am: Elections day. The car was cruising easily through the wide, grey streets of downtown Kiev, North East of Tarasa Shevchenka Boulevard.
My fixer, Elisa, had found people for me. To be more accurate, she had found Andrei, campaign manager of Ruslan Britsky, one of UDAR’s district candidates in Kiev. Half of the 450 MPs were to be elected through first-past-the-post contests at district level, whereas the other half would be elected through a national level proportional vote for parties list.
At 7:30 in the morning, Elsa had given me a ride to an old-but-not-shabby, late nineteenth century house on the outskirts of town. Young men, the muscular type, were gathered in front of the place, chatting in the cold. After five minutes, a blond man, flat-nosed, in his early 30s, came out of the house and told us to come in. It was Andrei.
“Let me introduce you to Ruslan and the team“, he told me once inside. Elisa had apparently told him everything he wanted to know about me. I shook hands with a dozen men, all in their twenties, except Ruslan, the candidate. Ruslan Britsky was a 5 feet 9, grey-haired man in his forties, with a square jaw and a well kept figure. He shook my hand energetically and said : “Today, there will be a lot of cheating, but we are ready to fight for our right to a fair election“. I nodded slightly, not too anxious to know more. The angle of my reporting was set now, and candidates, experts or media guys were not part of it.
Twenty minutes and a cup of tea later, I was assigned to the team led by Vladimir and Yaroslav. And to a black Mercedes we went.
I was not sure at this point what a “mobile team” was. I had not ruled out the option that I was set up with a strange crowd hired by UDAR. Hadn’t Vladimir told me that, in his small white Lacoste handbag, he was carrying a gun in order to protect the team in case of a problem? And they were posing as journalists, so as to bypass the rule limiting the number of political observers entering the stations. I did not know what to think.
Vladimir was 23 years old, earned his living renting out real estate he owned to food sellers. He was set on voting for Vitali Klitschko. “I admire the guy, his honesty, his strength“, he told me when I asked why he was working for UDAR. “Are you being paid for this work?”, I asked. “No, we are volunteers”, he said.
Yaroslav was less talkative, a bit shy, or maybe it was just because he could not speak English. He was slightly plump. He had a job in an insurance company and also ran a company producing cigarette shells. “If you do not do some business on your own in Kiev, you can not afford the rent“, Vladimir said.
At 8:30, we parked along a side street to conduct our first visit to a polling station. The job was actually quite simple: Vladimir and Yaroslav were to enter the station, find the observer working for UDAR and ask him if he had observed irregularities. We proceeded like this for three or four hours, visiting a dozen stations. No tensions, no fights, just some minor irregularities, not worth telling. Each time, Yaroslav would hand over to the head of the polling station a paper summarizing the sanctions provided for by criminal law in cases of electoral fraud. Even though Vladimir was still carrying the small white bag, I decided after an hour that this was not shakedown stuff, only electoral monitoring in Ukraine. Would a strong-arm man bother to bring some leaflets restating the law?
At around 1 pm, the job was over. We stopped at a McDonald’s drive-in, ordered some food, and ended up eating burgers in the Mercedes while riding randomly between 1970s buildings. We talked about football. Vladimir was impressed by the last victory of PSG against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League. “But I don’t really care because my team is Shakhtar Donetsk, you know, the team owned by Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch“.
The French fries were history now; we were sipping our Coke. Vladimir and Yaroslav were tired, and wanted to go back to Ruslan’s HQ to rest. “The problems will happen after 6pm, when the observers’ attention decreases. Now, we can take a break“. They asked me if I wanted to go with them, I said no, thank you, maybe later, after 6. They dropped me off where I asked them to, in front of Shevchenko University, a gigantic red building.
I spent the rest of the day in the media hall of the Ukrainian News Information Agency, on Bohdana Khmelnytskoho Street, attending the information marathon organised by the National Exit Poll 2012 Consortium and the International Renaissance Foundation. This event and the exit polls to be released at 8 pm were funded by the EU, the Dutch government and USAID, among others. Listening to the monotonous sound of voices, I drifted quietly through the afternoon, in my seat, only to be brought back to reality by the mayhem caused by the exit polls announcement. UDAR had collected around 15% of the votes and the Party of Regions was in the leading position.
(Almost 3 years later)
Thinking about Ukraine close to three years after the 2012 parliamentary elections feels somewhat odd. The strong victory of the Party of Regions (185 seats out of 445) in these elections did not protect Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, from adverse events. In February 2014, he was forced by mass protests to flee the country, not before having ordered the police to shoot a few demonstrators. On February 27, 2014, a new provisional government was established, led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
In March 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. In April 2014, the Donbass region rebelled against Kiev and started a war of attrition against central authorities, with the help of Russia.
On May 25, 2014, Petro Poroshenko was elected president, with 54,7% of the votes (Yulia Timoshenko took received 12,81% of votes). On the same day, Vitali Klitschko was elected mayor of Kiev. He then led the Petro Poroshenko Bloc to a 132-seat victory in the October 2014 parliamentary elections, gave up his seat on November 21, 2014, and returned to his mayoral activities. He stopped boxing. I do not know where Vladimir and Yaroslav are now.