The man who would be Milosevic, but isn’t

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former Communist country he presides over as president has sunk into a deep economic crisis. In each of the past 10 years, the economy has unfailingly shrunk. Industrial production has plunged 70 percent, agricultural production has halved. Wages have imploded, contracting 70 percent, while prices for heating oil, electricity, bread and public transit have skyrocketed, along with unemployment. The country’s debt has ballooned. And grinding poverty has left many ordinary citizens fed up.
Posters appear everywhere, tacked up by a student resistance group that aims to oust the president. The posters declare the president to be “kaput.” Tens of thousands take to the streets demanding the president step down. They mass in front of government buildings. An attempted assault on the president’s administrative offices is beaten back by security forces.
The political opposition accuses the president of corruption, of press censorship, of organizing a police state and of ballot stuffing and vote buying in an election branded a complete disgrace by international observers.
In an attempt to redirect the country’s attention, the president whips up enmity toward an ethnic minority.
Milosevic, before he was chased from power by mass protests?
No. Leonid Kuchma, president of Ukraine, a man who fits the media’s description of Milosevic almost to a tee, but has never rated even a fraction of the media’s attention.
Why not?
It’s the economy, stupid!
The Ukraine’s economic woes are not unusual for a formerly Communist country undergoing free-market “reforms.” Russia, Poland, and other countries of what used to be called the Eastern Bloc, have seen the dream of a consumer society turn into a nightmare of plummeting production, massive unemployment, sinking wages, substandard health care and collapsing educational systems. Rather than becoming dynamos of capitalist energy, they’ve become saddled with debt, and prisoners to the harsh medicine of the IMF. Growing poverty, not growing prosperity.
Here and there there’s been opposition to the IMF-directed austerity, notably in Yugoslavia under Milosevic, and also in Russia, quickly quashed there by an authoritarian Yeltsin.
Yugoslavia is instructive. Despite years of sanctions and a 78-day Nato bombing campaign that knocked out refineries, factories, schools, and hospitals, Milosevic’s government controlled prices so that people could make it through the winter, contrary to the IMF’s “remove all subsidies no matter what the human cost” approach.
The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which was backed morally and financially by the West, is now in power in Yugoslavia and Serbia. The DOS are IMF supporters. They’ve let the price of staples, like bread, and fuel, skyrocket and wages collapse. Worries about making it through this past winter were acute.
The opposition parties arrayed against Kuchma in Ukraine couldn’t be more different than the DOS. Like Milosevic, they’re not big fans of the IMF, either. They’ve held up Kuchma’s latest IMF-directed budget. They want to put an end to the continued collapse of wages and unremitting rise in prices.
Which may be why Jane’s Security predicts, for all of Kuchma’s failings, the “Ukraine without Kuchma” movement is unlikely to get any support from the West, unlike the DOS. The IMF represents the West, and the interests of Western investors. Indeed, Kuchma represents the West’s best hopes of getting a return on Ukraine investments. The “Ukraine without Kuchma” movement doesn’t.
John Tedstrom, senior economist at RAND, and Christopher Walker, formerly director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs at the US National Security Council , argue that the West should stand four square behind Kuchma, despite corruption, despite the mass uprisings, despite evidence of electoral fraud, and despite what accounts for Kuchma getting whatever passing media coverage he’s had — his connection to the disappearance and death of Georgy Gongadze.
Gongadze, a fierce critic of Kuchma, was editor of Ukrainska Pravda, an Internet journal that exposed corruption within the highest levels of the ruling elite. In September of last year Gongadze went missing. In November, he was found — headless.
A tape made by one of Kuchma’s bodyguards has Kuchma ordering his critic’s abduction. Kuchma admits it’s his voice on tape, but says the tape has been doctored.
Tedstrom and Walker say never mind. Kuchma is the West’s best hope for economic “reform” in Ukraine. He should be supported.
And so a man who might be called iron-fisted, ruthless, and authoritarian, the strongman of Ukraine, the murderer of Kiev, a man accused of stealing elections and cracking down on dissent, is blithely ignored in the Western media, but for the occasional references to a titillating murder scandal. He’s the West’s best hope to push through an IMF-directed program of economic reform, which, judging by its track record, has been an unqualified disaster for the people of Ukraine, though much more pleasing to Western investors.
Milosevic, on the other hand, has been called ruthless, a strongman, iron-fisted, a vote stealer, and the butcher of Belgrade, and yet almost all that he’s been accused of , Kuchma, who the media ignore, has been accused of too. Maybe Milosevic made the mistake of not being sufficiently accommodating to the interests of Western investors. Had he been more accommodating, and had Kuchma been less so, it may have been Kuchma’s name, not Milosevic’s, that the media turned into a byword for corruption, ethnic trouble-making, heavy-handedness, and authoritarianism.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.