Ukraine: From Orange Revolution to Political Purgatory
With the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko staining its global reputation, can Ukraine find a way out of its political purgatory?
June 23, 2012
The first International Biennale of Contemporary Art in Kiev may aspire one day to compete with Venice’s illustrious Biennale. For now, it serves as both a testament to Ukraine’s burgeoning civil society and to the increasing controversy enshrouding its political regime.
The British sculptor Phyllida Barlow prepared Rift specifically for the Biennale. Orange cushions fall toward the floor, and wooden beams rise above them, tied together with black cloth. It is easy to see the work as an allusion to Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution — the demonstrations that peacefully overturned the November 2004 presidential election — and the regime that has since come to power.
In French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois’s Cells (Black Days), tailored dresses are displayed within an enclosed space from which there is no apparent exit. In the Ukraine of 2012, Bourgeois’s sculpture calls to mind Yulia Tymoshenko — the former prime minister who was imprisoned by the current regime last year — and her penchant for designer clothes.
Ukraine’s presidential administration provided partial financing for the Biennale, which Prime Minister Mykola Azarov opened in late May, in time for the Euro 2012 soccer championship that Ukraine and Poland are co-hosting.
“These two events are linked and temporarily make Kiev a center of very interesting events,” Azarov said. “The language of contemporary art is a very good communicator between countries, between peoples. I’m sure, due to the presence in this exhibition of famous modern artists, Ukraine is open for them.”
Indeed, the Biennale’s artistic director, the British curator David Elliot, says that the Biennale is “about what artists do in different places in the world.” In Ukraine, he said, “there have been no attempts to censor me.”
That did not stop the Chinese embassy in Kiev from trying. It turned to Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture to dissuade the organizers from exhibiting the work of Chinese dissident sculptor Ai Weiwei. The request was rebuffed.
Prime Minister Azarov toured the Biennale’s exhibit halls, where he walked alongside Uzbek artist Vyacheslav Akhunov’s Alley of Superstars: a red carpet with stars bearing pictures of such despots as Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Hussein, Ceausescu, Gaddafi, bin Laden and Assad.
The artist also included stars for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. He spared Ukraine’s leaders from his list.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not been so sparing. In a speech to Germany’s Parliament on May 8, she referred explicitly to people still suffering under dictatorships and repression in Ukraine and Belarus.
Merkel and leaders of other West European governments — including the UK, France and Sweden, the three teams that played Ukraine in the first stage of the Euro 2012 tournament — have announced that they and their ministers would not attend any of the Euro 2012 soccer matches in Ukraine.
Not to be left behind, NATO also issued a declaration at its May summit in Chicago, expressing concern “at the selective application of justice and what appear to be politically motivated prosecutions” in Ukraine.
Yet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich won’t budge. (Yanukovich was the “victor” in the 2004 presidential election that the Orange Revolution overturned, leading to a second election won by Viktor Yushchenko, who installed Tymoshenko as prime minister.) Yanukovich asserts that the prosecutor’s office is an independent entity and that he may not intervene in judicial matters.
So, is Tymoshenko’s incarceration political persecution or retribution? When she served as the country’s prime minister, Tymoshenko renegotiated Ukraine’s natural gas contract with Russia. In the process, she eliminated an intermediary holding company in which private Ukrainian “business interests” held a 45% stake.
Three senior government officials who implemented the agreement were incarcerated for a year. The former interior minister, environment minister and acting defense minister are all serving prison terms for alleged abuses of office. The former economics minister has been granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.
None of this bodes well for Ukraine’s future. The most charitable interpretation is that different political clans and groupings are engaging in acts of retribution, depending on who holds power, unleashing a downward spiral that makes a mockery of Ukraine’s democracy.
So where is Ukraine going? Without a substantive change in the political dynamic, the video installation Allegoria Sacra by the Russian film artist group AES+F provides an ominous response. On the second floor of the Biennale, their installation stretches across the expanse of a long room, depicting a purgatory in which people from different nations and religious faiths appear in an airport terminal, waiting to board a flight that is delayed in perpetuity.
Seven years after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the country is increasingly outcast to a geopolitical netherworld. On March 30, the European Union and Ukraine initialed an association agreement that is intended to deepen Ukraine’s political association and economic integration with the EU. Final signing and ratification of the agreement is on hold indefinitely, pending a satisfactory resolution of the imprisonment of Tymoshenko and her political allies.
In the meantime, the Euro 2012 games go on. On the back collar of the official Ukraine soccer jersey, a slogan is written in small print: Ukraina pered, which means “Ukraine forward.”
The Ukrainian electorate will go to the polls in October for parliamentary elections. The next presidential election is slated for 2015. Yet one wonders: Is there a political caste that is truly capable of leading Ukraine “forward,” out of the country’s current geopolitical purgatory?
Kiev's Biennale serves as both a testament to Ukraine's burgeoning civil society and to the increasing controversy enshrouding its political regime.
Seven years after the so-called Orange Revolution, Ukraine is increasingly outcast to a geopolitical netherworld.
On the back collar of the official Ukraine soccer jersey, a slogan is written in small print: <i>Ukraina pered</i>, which means "Ukraine forward."