World Affairs Journal
|Alexander J. Motyl
That’s what a biting satire of the Ukrainian president on Russia’s state-controlled Channel One, the country’s most watched television station, suggests. Aired on Sunday, October 31, on the “Big Difference” comedy program, the skit — titled “Viktor Almighty” — depicts Yanukovich as an outright buffoon. Channel One’s Viktor speaks Russian with a comically broad Ukrainian accent, takes great pride in nailing a portrait of himself to the wall, orders a bowl of borscht, a bottle of vodka, a cigar, and a top hat as his first acts in office, and, after decreeing that all requests from citizens be made in writing, finds himself inundated with Post-its.
Were Channel One not state-controlled, the show would be little more than a harmless satirereminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s depictions of George W. Bush. But the Kremlin either ordered the production or determined the timing or both. Moreover, the satire comes on the heels of a July documentary on Russia’s NTV station criticizing the Kremlin’s erstwhile buddy, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, for being a dictator: not coincidentally,after he had developed a backbone in his relations with Russia.
The Yanukovich satire — which may have been sparked by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s unconcealed pique at failing to persuade the Ukrainians to agree to another round of energy concessions during his October 27 visit to Kiev — is actually far more damning. It’s one thing for dictators (in this case, the Putin-Medvedev duo) to call a dictator a dictator. It’s quite another for them to make fun of an aspiring dictator. Clearly, the Kremlin is displeased with Yanukovich, and it attacked him where he’s most vulnerable: his image.
Yanukovich has been plagued by his real and perceived cloddishness at least since the run-up to the fraudulent presidential elections that sparked the 2004 Orange Revolution. When a protestor threw an egg at him, the burly Yanukovich collapsed like a diva on stage (see the video here). He then spoke darkly of an assassination attempt, while most Ukrainians laughed. To add insult to injury, both eggs and chickens became anti-Yanukovich symbols during the Orange upheaval.
While in opposition, Yanukovich’s missteps were confined to serial malapropisms on the order of confusing the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova with his billionaire backer Rinat Akhmetov. Although the 2010 presidential elections went by without any major blunders, the next big misstep occurred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kiev on May 17. As he and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev paid their respects, a gust of wind blew a wreath onto Yanukovich’s head at just the moment he was bowing before it. The incidentbecame the stuff of ridicule on the Internet and, unsurprisingly, found its way into the Channel One satire.
Yanukovich’s ever-cool spokeswoman, Hanna Herman, dismissed the show as a bagatelle: “One must view all this very simply and with a smile. I wouldn’t make anything special out of this.” In contrast, the deputy head of the pro-Yanukovich Party of Regions’ parliamentary fraction lost his cool while making a telling slip of the tongue: “No one will succeed in getting the presidents of two fraternal peoples to quarrel: Puti- … no, I mean Medvedev and Yanukovich. No one will succeed in driving a wedge. It won’t work! It won’t work!”
Perhaps, but Yanukovich has got to be worried.
First, his mentors and protectors, Putin and Medvedev, are obviously unhappy with him, even though he’s done everything possible to appease them. Although the good news is that Ukraine’s president may finally be learning to be Ukraine’s president, the bad news — for Yanukovich — is that, after placing all his eggs in the Kremlin’s basket, he’s now got egg on his face.
Second, the fact that the skit was produced by Russian television undermines Yanukovich’s legitimacy with his electoral base, which gets most of its opinions from the Russian media. Since the satire was aired during Ukraine’s local elections on October 31, the Kremlin was obviously telling Yanukovich that he better watch out.
Third, some of his fair-weather pals in the Party of Regions may have begun sharpening their knives. Parliamentary deputy Vladyslav Lukyanov effectively defended the satire, calling it a “sign of tolerance” that proves Russia is a democracy, while Vadym Kolesnichenko, a rabidly pro-Moscow Regionnaire, claimed that “no one was laughing at our president.” With friends like these, the real Viktor must be thinking, who needs enemies?
Yanukovich may now be caught between a rock and a hard place. If the satire portends a genuine worsening of relations with Russia, Ukraine’s president will have to rethink his entire foreign and domestic policy. And that won’t be easy. His supporters venerate the Kremlin and will not take kindly to possible overtures to the West or to Ukraine’s national democrats. By the same token, after enduring eight months of Yanukovich’s relentlessly anti-Ukrainian policies, the national democrats are in no mood for compromise: they will either want to see him squirm or insist on a very high price in exchange for their support.
Either way, Yanukovich will be weakened. Having accumulated vast powers, he will be less capable of ruling effectively — which means that factional fights within his own camp will increase, the oligarchs who fund him may start thinking twice about his viability, the opposition should find it easier to join forces, and Ukraine’s politics will become even more dysfunctional. Ironically, it’s the Europeans who, now as in the past, could help stabilize the Kiev government by offering Ukraine realistic prospects for EU membership — but, of course, won’t.