"Conversation with the country."
That's how Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's media handlers decided to call his three-hour midday television and state radio marathon on the first anniversary of his inauguration. Sadly, the "conversation" was much more of a well-rehearsed but artistically mediocre performance in a provincial theater than a genuine conversation between a president and his fellow Ukrainians.
A glossy blue studio, a furling Ukrainian flag on a large screen, multiple screens tying in various parts of Ukraine where people had been dutifully assembled to the Kyiv studio, a large table in the shape of the letter "C" with the president in the middle and three journalists at each end, a seasoned television journalist as the master of ceremonies -- all of it provided great form but very little substance.
The preselected questions focused on social issues, low pensions, rising prices, utility costs, subsidies for children. And interspersed through it all cloying panegyrics to Yanukovych the man, the former colleague, the spiritual president, the man who loves children and workers, the man who believes in God. Some of these were delivered by priests, others by former colleagues from Yanukovych's first serious job in a car depot in Yenakieve, some by well-rehearsed children dressed in matching sparkling white hats.
At times the sheer exaggerated and pretentious theater of it all was utterly exhausting. All the questions were "painful" or "even more painful," the president "cared," "would look into the matter and get back to everyone," would "gladly visit" places, where his grateful citizens were inviting him, "will try to get a higher price for coal," will direct "the governor will take care of the problem," "the attorney general and the local procurator will investigate this issue and get back to me," "I will consult with you and listen to you," and so forth and so on.
The regional approach to the questions was more than predictable. Questions from Western Ukrainians suggested "living apart until our arguments grow less sharp," to which the wise president responded that we are "doomed to live together" and his first task is to unite the country. Eastern Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and Kryvyj Rih, home to steel and chemical plants, asked for help with pollution. Residents of the Crimean city of Kerch asked when a bridge to Russia would be built across the strait. And through it all, the complaining and pleading note of the questions was complemented by the bolstering tones of the president's reassurances:
"We must change our lives for the better, without reforms we cannot achieve anything. But we are decisive and will push through reforms that will change our lives. Those reforms will yield results a little bit later; you will see improvements in front of your eyes soon, but this needs your support. We have inherited a bad situation and we're doing our best..." Yadda yadda yadda.
Not everything Yanukovych said during his "conversation with the country" was paternalistic and simplistic. A question from an annoyed university student from Odesa who "is used to living in a Russian-speaking environment and is attending university where she is forced to study and take exams in Ukrainian and it would all be so much better if Russian were made a second state language" received an answer that was surprisingly supportive of the Ukrainian language. This issue has been bandied about for 20 years, said Yanukovych, and parliament will not get 300 votes to support this. "Learn Ukrainian, that will be normal. Learn other foreign languages. We live on Ukrainian soil and we should respect and honor it." Wow!
Neither the questions nor the answers were particularly interesting or spontaneous. There were comedic moments, such as when Yanukovych, waxing poetic about the special atmosphere of Odesa ever so gently broke into song -- "Beloved City" a song popularized by the Mark Bernes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjT5GzPBiQ0 -- or when he launched into a protracted speech in Russian predicting when the fruits of painful but necessary reforms would finally be felt (2012!) and forgot a Russian word but seemed to know its Ukrainian equivalent.
This kind of political television theater has been done many times by Vladimir Putin, one might even say he has perfected it. Like a beneficent tsar, every year Putin dispenses advice, promises reviews, chastises bureaucrats and his underlings, resolutely commands local governors to look into the problem and come to him with solutions, promises to take care of this and that. Seeing as Yanukovych holds Putin up as a role model and seems determined to deliver to Ukraine the same kind of "managed democracy" and stability that has enveloped Russia, it is only logical that he would ape the Russian strong man even in his interaction with his countrymen. The Russians may like that kind of interaction. Ukrainians, however, have long ago gotten used to a more direct and real form of communication with their presidents. Yanukovych, alas, seems determined to return them to the past.
-- Irena Chalupa