Please keep an eye on my country!

I guess I’d better do something about my subconscious. I don’’t like my dreams one little bit. For a few months now they have been haunting me with an astonishing intensity and persistent regularity. They started around the time when Ukrainian reality itself began to resemble a total dream. And the worst thing is – this is a dream you cannot wake up from. It will go on for at least ten years, as incorrigible optimists claim. That is, at least during our current President’s two terms of office.

But back to my dreams and the theme that runs through them. They feature an assassination. I am the last link in a conspiracy chain. I have a gun with a scope and a good observation post. My task is to save the country by shooting a high-ranking official. He presents a convenient target, tall and portly as he is. But I simply cannot finish the job and pull the trigger. It’’s bad to have dreams like that. I’’m ashamed of them.

Although lately they have become less frequent. Could it be because the people who assumed power in Ukraine earlier this year have slowed down the pace of their reforms? Is that why I have been less bothered by my extremist dreams? But perhaps things are much worse, perhaps habit has set in and my sensors are getting insensitive. That must be it – for there’’s absolutely no sign of a slowing down.

It’s all about revenge

Present-day Ukraine provides abundant textbook material on the topic of The Frailty of Democracy or How We Are Being Driven Back Into a Dictatorship. If I were a foreign political scientist, I would be sitting here making observations and recording the reforms. That might provide me with professional fulfilment and happiness. However, I am neither a political scientist nor a foreigner, I am an inhabitant of this country and that is why all I have left is a clenched hand and my subconscious dreams.

But what do reforms really mean in this context? It’’s all about revenge. The man who has deeply internalized the insult of 2004 is savouring his revenge in big gulps. The fourth President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, is the first minority president in our history – he got less than 49 percent of the votes in the second round of election. It seemed, therefore, that he would be even less assertive than his predecessor. But that’’s just how it seemed to us naïve people who believed that a country’s constitution was sacrosanct. As it’’s turned out, it’’s not so much a question of constitution but rather of controlling the majority of judges on the Constitutional Court.

As early as in mid March the newly elected President seized all power with astonishing ease and turned the country around by 180 degrees. Today he has a submissive parliamentary majority that is incapable of anything else but carrying out his orders and ignoring the opposition. The latest example is last week’’s night-time vote on the fundamentals of the foreign policy. Not a single one of 420 amendments proposed by the opposition was adopted. It was the physical constitution that has proved to be decisive in the inter-parliamentary struggle – the ability to give your opponent a bloody nose or a good punch on the head. And when it comes to the number of former free-style fighters, boxers or bodyguards in its ranks the President’’s party is beyond competition.

This used to be a country that wasn’’t all that bad

The government is headed by a man who is an enemy of small and medium business; he is also exceedingly loyal to the President.  His favourite occupation is subjugating and milking all those who are not with us.  For example, the new bill on taxation he has proposed includes a provision that would allow tax inspectors to enter and search private homes. The goal of such innovations is obvious: to create a docile middle class, to put administrative pressure on and exploit the enemy allowing his own people to get richer in the process.

The Constitutional Court is not the only institution controlled by the President. I cannot remember when a court last passed a verdict in favour of the opposition. Surely the opposition cannot always be wrong in everything! No sooner has the Parliament adopted the new law on public assemblies have the judges regarded it as their noblest duty to ban protest actions even though the police has proved itself capable of dealing with them without any judicial bans. We have again become accustomed to the fact that peaceful demonstrators are beaten up (if they carry the wrong flags and slogans) even though, over the past few years, we had nearly forgotten that demonstrations could be broken up by violent means. However, it is not so much the lightning speed with which power has been usurped that is really surprising but rather the lightning speed with which fear has made a comeback. Actually, first there was indignation, fear came later. And now? Has fear started turning into apathy? This used to be a country that was not so bad at all, one that offered hope and knocked on Europe’’s doors. Where has it all gone?

The most successful reform so far has been the turning of the Ukrainian security service back into a Soviet-style KGB.  With increasing frequency we have been hearing of so-called preventative conversations with journalists and representatives of public life; of intimidation and recruitment attempts that are quite subtle to begin with; of loyalty lists being compiled and of files on particularly active citizens being opened. Rectors of Ukrainian universities are being invited to cooperate and obliged to threaten their students with punishment for participation in street protests. Of all Ukrainian rectors only one was willing to publicize the content of such a proposition. Luckily, there is at least one person like that. Unfortunately, he is the only one. Although I hear that the head of the SBU himself (who also happens to own the largest media group in the country) came to see him to apologize for the carelessness of his colleague.

Or is it perhaps all about connections with banks?

In any case – be it the best or the worst-case scenario – it is becoming clear that once again the SBU is beginning to turn into a political watchdog and the country into a police state. Once again is the key word here. We have arrived back in the past. Sometimes it seems we are back in the – hang on, which decade is it actually? The seventies?

Well, this is hardly new – it’s just a version of Putin’’s Russia. By the way, Viktor Yanukovych has also started talking of our own and sovereign Ukrainian democracy.  The local elections, due this autumn, are expected to end in a clear victory for the local version of United Russia, that is, Yanukovych’’s Party of Regions (the aim is seventy percent national average). The desired result is to be pushed through by the administrative machinery, the so-called vertical power structure, which is as united today as never before. The reforms aim at turning Ukraine into a sort of Russia 2, except more lame, backward and even less attractive. And the appropriate social order for this kind of structure is neo-Stalinism of the feudal and oligarchic kind. It’’s not a coincidence that Stalin monuments have again started appearing in Ukraine.  This isn’’t just a figure of speech: on 5 May at the initiative of the local population a new monument of the dictator was unveiled in the city of Zaporizzha. Odessa and Sevastopol are said to follow suite. And the communists of Luhansk have initiated a change of the national anthem. The flag might be next.

Only one mystery remains: what does the Yanukovych regime need Europe for? What is the point of this integration game and of the unchanged euro-rhetoric? Is it all about connections with the banks? Or about the favourite holidays in Sardinia, in Monte Carlo or in the French Alps? But if Europe is our goal, this is not the way to go about it. Real reforms do not start with the closure of archives, and they do not continue with civil rights activists being kicked out of universities. Something is not quite right here.

Only the new future is bleak

The fact is, nothing is right at all. Never before did we have rulers so remote from European values. Sometimes it makes one wish for Kuchma to come back. Sometimes it makes one wish we were living in Lukashenka’’s Belarus. And that is why I appeal to the European community: Watch this Ukrainian government as carefully as never before! Who knows why, but it still seems to care about what you think. Don’’t fall for its “law-and-order”’ talk!

Actually, all I want to do is finish dreaming my dream. Five years ago I believed that my vision of this country, which was shared by many others, would prevail. I could not have imagined that this vision could suffer such a crushing defeat in 2010. It’’s wrong to speak of a lost battle – it’’s the war that has been lost. And the consequence of a lost war is occupation. In Ukraine we already have an expression for this – internal occupation. We have been occupied from within, by means of presidential elections and parliamentary machinations. And that is why the near future seems bleak to me.

But only the near future. For it simply cannot be that such an anachronistic system begotten by Stalin’’s legacy could win in the long run. These days, this not entirely uncontroversial belief is what all my hope rests on.  Or rather, what there is left of it.

Translation: Julia Sherwood
This essay was published in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and in Slovak in Fórum, a supplement to the daily SME.