Ukraine-based Le Sabot Post-Moderne explains how the system works there:
You have to understand the situation in Ukraine. The country is run by a series of oligarchic clans that actually found their beginnings in the Soviet Union, and then grew fabulously rich during the early days of “privatization”.
Compare the situation to Russia, where an authoritarian Putin faced off against corrupt oligarchs. In Ukraine, authoritarianism and oligarchy are fused. Yanukovych isn’t just another unscrupulous candidate, he’s the main man of Akhmetov — the duke of Donetsk and the richest man in Ukraine. The current president, Kuchma, is the head of a different clan, Dnepropetrovsk. The presidential administrator is Medvedchuk, who happens to run the Kiev-based Medvedchuk-Surkis clan. He also owns the two biggest Ukrainian TV stations, which is awfully convenient.
While there is jockeying for control among these clans, the overall effect is for them to sustain one another in power. They all depend on the same system for survival, and actively collaborate to keep it in place.
A good example of the clan system in action was the recent privatization of the Kryvorizhstal factory. Western firms offered 2.1 billion dollars. It was sold to the presidents son-in-law for 800 million. His son-in-law is Pinchuk, the head of the Pinchuk-Derkach clan.
Do you start to see how life works here? This isn’t about a few stolen votes. It’s about an entire system of fine control over the political, social and economic life of the people. Economics and politics are incestuously fused here in a way that is difficult to imagine for those in the West.
Ukraine-based TulipGirl quotes an essay by Ukrainian novelist Oksana Zabuzhko in Monday’s print edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Never before — even 13 years ago, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union — has Ukraine witnessed such a massive upsurge of national solidarity. People who’ve always remained politically indifferent and had missed voting in all previous elections, were disseminating self-printed leaflets from the Internet (samizdat is back — any piece of information was voraciously devoured on the spot!) in public places, and volunteering to monitor the elections on behalf of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. At a peasant food market a merchant first asked who you’re voting for — the right answer (with which you could count on a generous discount) was “Yushchenko,” while incumbent Prime Minister’s Viktor Yanukovych’s supporters were more than likely simply refused service. In the playgrounds children were playing a game called “Yushchenko beats Yanukovych.” To quote my seven-year-old neighbor, “in our class Irka alone stands for Yanukovych, and no one wants to play with her.” The slogan chanted by protesting students at demonstrations reads in English as “We’re together! We’re many! We won’t fall!” And just how may of “us” there are, one can easily see in the streets. These days Kiev, as well as other major Ukrainian cities, is defiantly demonstrating its political sympathies by wearing orange, the campaign color of opposition candidate Yushchenko.
A special term has come into use — “The Orange Revolution.” It looks like people have dragged all shades of orange, from yellow to vermilion, out of their wardrobes and adorned themselves with them simultaneously — vests and sweaters, scarves and purses, coats and umbrellas. Orange ribbons flutter everywhere — on trees, fences, lanterns, and cabs. Drivers joyfully beep to each other, and pedestrians (traffic police included!) salute them with smiles and raised fists. It feels like the capital of three million has been transformed into a sea of brotherly love! The windows of shops are lavishly decorated with things orange. Among my favorites is the stunt of my neighborhood coffee shop — its windows glow with pyramids of oranges! …
Here I have to clarify one important point. A widespread cliche used by many Western journalists to describe the major collision of our dramatic elections is that the establishment candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, is “pro-Russian,” and that opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, is “pro-Western.” This version has as little to do with the feelings of an average Ukrainian voter as with those of the belligerents of the Trojan war. Mr. Yanukovych is perceived not so much as being “pro-Russian,” but as, first and foremost, being “pro-criminal” — a Ukrainian Al Capone, who has under his belt two prison sentences for robbery and assault, and publicly uses criminal argot compared to which even the boorish tongue of retiring President Leonid Kuchma sounds as innocuous as a school textbook. A former governor of Donetsk, Mr. Yanukovych in power represents the so-called “Donetsk fellas” — a business clan with a notorious criminal background. That the latter have close ties with similar mafia clans in Russia seems to be the most immediate explanation for the pre-election outburst of a passionate love between Russian and Ukrainian leaders, an affair of which Yanukovych-as-president had been designed as a mutually satisfying offspring.
Chicago-based international relations professor Dan Drezner is more pessimistic:
A few years ago there were sizeable protests in Kiev because of “Kuchmagate,” in which tapes came to light suggesting that President Leonid Kuchma played a role in the disappearance of Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze in September 2000. There was tangible evidence that Kuchma personally ordered Gongadze — who was investigating corruption in Kuchma’s administration — to disappear. Despite months of protests, however, Kuchma stayed in office (click here for an exhaustive World Bank study [PDF] on this case).
Not to put a damper on what’s going on right now in Ukraine, but that example should be kept in mind when speculating whether the protests at the rigged election results in Ukraine will actually cause a change in government a la the Rose Revolution in Georgia [Quickly: opposition leader/reformer/nationalist Viktor Yushchenko led by double digits in Western-run exit polls over Kuchma stalwart/Russophile Viktor Yanukovich. However, the preliminary election results had Yanukovich winning by three percentage points. Outside observers are pretty much unanimous in their belief that there was massive vote fraud].
The two most salient facts in assessing what will happen are that:
a) Leonid Kuchma wants Yanukovich to win;
b) Vladimir Putin really wants Yanukovich to win.
I would love to be wrong about this, but it doesn’t look good for Yushchenko.
I’m skeptical, in short, that Ukraine is at real risk of splitting apart along ethnolinguistic-cum-political lines. And yet, I can’t help but remember Andrew Wilson’s The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, which suggested that the most likely and the most stable course for Ukraine would be a broadly centrist position, relying on slow Ukrainianization and a Ukrainian balancing act between the European Union and Russia. Going to one extreme (a strongly Ukrainianizing regime intent on immediate European integration) or another (a strongly Russophile regime intent on Eurasian integration) could, Wilson suggested, disturb the equilibrium. Mass secessions wouldn’t be the result so much as growing alienation, the formation of more coherent ethnic groups with stricter frontiers. This would be a problem for Ukraine, needless to say.