Aired on KERA (NPR) Dallas, TX, April 2014
Kiev is a pastel city, beautiful, baroque and steeped in tragic ironies, its Orthodox churches and graceful buildings, feminine in their radiant pinks and blues, besieged, seemingly forever, by a bitter and brutal fate. When I was there with a foreign policy group, then President Leonid Kuchma gave a lunch for us. He was a little short on charm but was friendly to the West, interested in joining NATO, and maybe, someday, the European Union. Woe, however, to those who crossed him. The most recent casualty had been a journalist, murdered after some tough reporting on the president. It was not unusual, I was told, for opponents of the regime to die in auto accidents, never explained.
We also met Kuchma’s son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, a billionaire with a primary business in steel tubing, a collection of modern art and a New York advisor on public relations. He and his wife, Elena, could not have been more ingratiating. Since then, their influential friends in the West, from Tony Blair to the Clintons, whose foundation has benefited from the Pinchuks, have helped these cats on a hot tin roof survive endless upheaval in their own country. Some say Pinchuk, however ill-gotten his gains, may have an important role to play in the months ahead.
Not long after we left Kiev came the Orange Revolution, led by Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister sacked by President Kuchma. We spent a morning at his new party headquarters where the air was rife with excitement and a bold bid for power in the coming election. This was before Yushchenko’s handsome face was pock-marked by poison, slipped to him, some said, by a Russian agent during his celebrated campaign for president which was hardly happy news in the Kremlin.
I still have the orange notebook they gave us at that meeting, and the blue and cream-colored pen with a logo that suggests Ukraine’s growing place in the world plus a couple of words with lots of consonants. But the notes I wrote that day are so similar to the slogans heard this year in Independence Square it’s heartbreaking—crime, corruption, need for free expression and the rule of law, and above all, a yearning for Europe.
After a fraudulent election that triggered the Orange revolution, Yushchenko won the presidency in a sensational repeat runoff. He turned out, however, to be less a politician than a central banker, as he once had been, and the economic reforms for which he called got lost in a vicious dispute with a woman named Yulia Tymoshenko who twice became his prime minister and now, newly released from prison after a conviction that had the aroma of politics, may emerge from the current imbroglio as president. That, apparently, would please Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The most persuasive piece I’ve read on the latest conflagration was by Ruslan Pukhov, the head of a Russian think tank. “The net result of yet another Ukrainian revolution,” he wrote, “will be de facto Russian control of Crimea, and a Kiev government commercially and personally bound to Putin. A weaker and more destabilized Ukraine will continue zigzagging between East and West, until the next cycle of tumultuous Ukrainian politics arrives.”
It may not happen exactly like this. Threats and counter-threats, sanctions and weapons, could indeed lead to war of some sort. But I suspect the end will not be so different from the sadness he foresees. As one young woman put it,
“Kiev is famous for her beauty and her misfortune.”