Christian Caryl

Get Real, Nick Kristof

Happy talk isn't going to help Ukraine and Moldova deter Vladimir Putin.


Everybody loves to pick on the columnists at the New York Times. They’re too liberal, or they’re too conservative, or they’re too middle-of-the-road — just take your pick. Convinced centrist that I am, I generally don’t have a problem with their politics. But I do have a problem with silliness.

Here’s Nick Kristof on a recent swing through the village of his forbears in western Ukraine:

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC, and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy," and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

I have news for Kristof: The days when the yearning for bluejeans or fondness for American pop helped us to separate ideological friends and foes ended in 1991. Nowadays there are plenty of Putin supporters, inside Russia and out, who play Grand Theft Auto and study English. As for using YouTube or Facebook, supporters of Putin’s hard course in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been doing a highly effective job of using social media to get their own message out. (Indeed, the interwebs are rife with catchy memes and snarky online commentary supplied by pro-Russian forces.)

But this is low-hanging fruit. Of greater import is Kristof’s conclusion that a visit to his ancestral village, on the far western edge of Ukraine, can yield deep insights into what all Ukrainians think. This is a questionable assumption at best — as I saw during my own recent reporting trip to Ukraine, about the same time as Kristof’s. My visit took me to Odessa, a city where many Russian-speakers view the government in Kiev with deep suspicion. Ukraine remains a country profoundly divided by history, language, and regional identity. You won’t get a proper picture of what Ukrainians want — all Ukrainians — without talking to people who represent other views. Yes, there are plenty of people from western Ukraine, and elsewhere, who supported the Euromaidan. But as recently as 2010 there were also enough Ukrainians who supported Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions that they were able to vote him into the presidency. Those voters haven’t just disappeared.

Putin didn’t create these divisions; they’ve been around for decades. The central government might have been able to assuage them, laying the groundwork for a Ukraine marked by healthy diversity rather than self-destructive feuding, had Kiev’s post-Soviet leadership troubled to build effective state institutions. Instead, the politicians — "pro-Western" and "pro-Russian" alike — chose to steal the country blind, leaving their citizens to pick up the scraps.

When I arrived in Odessa, a city of 1 million people that today lives largely on tourism, I was startled to see that the baggage claim in the airport consisted of a long, knee-high piece of particle board on which airport workers simply dumped the passenger’s bags: You’d think that the local and central government could have done better than that in the past twenty years. One sharply observed dispatch from economically stagnant eastern Ukraine described a state of "war without war" — a good description not only of the current pro-Russian insurgency but also of a Soviet-era industrial wasteland that has languished for years without investment or serious reform.

I was particularly struck by a conversation I had in Odessa with Zoya Kazanzhi, a self-described Maidan activist. When I asked her how the West should help Ukraine, her response had less to do with defending her country from the Russians than with protecting it from its own politicians. Ukrainians will be voting in a special presidential election on May 25, a vote that was scheduled after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in February. "Send election observers," she said. "Lots of them." She emphasized that monitors need to be sent not on election day but right now, in order to prevent members of Ukraine’s own political elite from using their traditional methods — bribery, rigging, arm-twisting — to tweak the result.

Specifically, Kazanzhi was worried about ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Kazanzhi, who doubles as a journalist, told me that she’s been hearing that Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party (which controls the current interim government in Kiev) has been making backroom deals in Odessa with members of Yanukovych’s old political party to give her the necessary votes to win the election. Similar reports in the Ukrainian media say that Tymoshenko is forging an alliance with Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man (and erstwhile Yanukovych backer), to guarantee her a victory. Akhmetov and his old buddies from Yanukovych’s old political machine know a thing or two about techniques for fixing elections, and Tymoshenko wants the help: right now, according to the polls, she’s trailing billionaire Petro Poroshenko.

Kazanzhi, like many Ukrainians I spoke with during my trip, is profoundly suspicious of Tymoshenko, whom she associates with the corruption and political infighting that has discredited the Ukrainian elite. The Euromaidan protests that ended up toppling Yanukovych were, in part, also an uprising against establishment politicians like Tymoshenko, who have spent most of the past two decades stealing their country’s wealth or fighting among themselves. The prospect that Tymoshenko might use dirty dealings to orchestrate a return to power horrifies those Ukrainians who want to see substantive reforms. Activists hope that a robust monitoring effort by the Europeans and Americans will help to ensure that the next president actually turns out to be the one that Ukrainians end up voting for.

Kristof doesn’t seem to have noticed any of this. If anything, his follow-up column, from Moldova, doubles down on the cheerleading: "If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova," he writes. "Wobbly politicians from Europe and America should come here to get spinal transplants." Just in case we didn’t get
the point right away, he goes on to describe Moldova as "plucky" and "gutsy."This isn’t a country; it’s a basketball team that’s about to come out of nowhere to win the playoffs.

I’d be only too happy if Moldovans managed the equivalent of an upset victory. Sadly, the realities of international power do not reward pluck, and, in any case, Moldova — which, again, I was visiting about the same time as Kristof did — offers a good example of a country that has often been its own worst enemy. It’s probably the poorest country in Europe.  It’s estimated that around 1 million of its 4.5 million citizens now live outside its borders (many of them, incidentally, in Russia, where there are plenty of low-paying jobs that are still better than what you can find in Moldova). Many of the Moldovans I spoke with complained of a culture of rampant corruption and of a political environment dominated well-connected oligarchs. In some cases, Moldovans told me, the very same party bigwigs who rail against Moscow in public are busy making deals with Russia behind the scenes.

To be sure, some Moldovan politicians have tried to capitalize on such discontent by proclaiming a pro-European course — not unlike the one favored by the activists at the Euromaidan. But the current government, a messy coalition of three feuding parties, has failed so dramatically to deliver on its promises of clean government and economic growth that opinion polls currently give a lead to the Communist Party, which wants to move Moldova into the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s attempt to create a Moscow-dominated counterweight to the European Union. The Communists (who, by the way, actually launched the push to join Europe when they were in power a few years ago) now look set to win the next general election this fall. (The photo above shows nesting dolls on sale in the central market of the Moldovan capital of Chisinau.)

It would be bad enough if countries like Ukraine and Moldova only faced a threat from their enemies in the Kremlin. The reality, though, is that the people in these nations are also trying to survive the destructive whims of their own ruling elites. And this is something we have to be very frank about if we really want to help Ukrainians and Moldovans fend off Moscow’s efforts to undermine them.

Should Europe and the United States support Ukraine and Moldova? Absolutely. The West must do what it can to help them reform their economies, maintain their territorial sovereignty, and resist further Russian aggression. But Nicholas Kristof’s pep talks won’t impress Vladimir Putin one little bit. What we need are policies that are realistic, effective, and tough. Taylor Swift isn’t going to cut it.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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