WORLD AFFAIRS. For a president who regularly engages in snow jobs, you’d think Viktor Yanukovych would have been better equipped to handle the massive snow storm that descended on large parts of Western Ukraine and capital city Kyiv on March 22nd to 24th. Instead, he and his Regionnaire minions were once again caught unawares.

The snow came suddenly and unexpectedly, and it made streets, sidewalks, and roads virtually impassable, leading to huge traffic jams and the cancellation of virtually all flights in and out of many of Ukraine’s airports. Public transport was battered, and electricity supplies were affected in some parts of the country. Almost overnight, Ukraine and Ukrainians were snowed in.

Smart and competent politicians would have known what to do. Major flooding in Germany in late 2002 enabled Gerhard Schröder to snatch victory from the jaws of electoral defeat by rolling up his sleeves and visibly assisting affected citizens cope with the disaster. During Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went to the people and actually extended a helping hand. Both politicians understood that natural disasters can have high political dividends if handled correctly—with genuine compassion and extensive hands-on involvement.

Not so the Ukrainian president and his Regionnaires. Why didn’t Yanukovych and his boys put on their jeans and anoraks, pick up a few shovels, and trudge down to Kyiv’s Broadway, the Khreshchatyk, and start cleaning the street? Why didn’t Prime Minister Azarov do the same? Or, for that matter, the quasi-mayor, Oleksandr Popov?

The Yanukovyches are a hardy lot: Dad works out, Junior drives fast cars, and the Dentist is a whiz at making money. Surely they could’ve decided that the advantages of good PR outweighed the discomfort associated with ruining their ostrich-leather shoes? Obviously, it never occurred to any of these guys that sharing in the people’s hardships—or, even, pretending to share in their hardships—might be a good thing to do. For themselves, if not for the unwashed masses. You have to be exceptionally obtuse or exceptionally arrogant or exceptionally indifferent to behave this way.

Instead, both Yanukovych and Azarov displayed their displeasure with quasi-mayor Popov’s cleanup efforts. Popov, naturally, passed the buck to his deputy, whom he fired a few days after the snows stopped falling. Popov’s incompetence is, of course, partly the result of his being a Regionnaire politico surrounded by Regionnaire politicos: doing a good job is not part of their job description. But, to be fair, Popov is only a truncated mayor. Formally, he’s the head of the Kyiv City State Administration, a position he’s occupied since Yanukovych appointed him in November 2010. In effect, Popov doesn’t run Kyiv. His boss does. Which means that the responsibility for the mess falls squarely in—yup, you guessed it—Viktor Yanukovych’s lap.

That’s what you get when you aggrandize too much power: you become responsible for everything and you get blamed for everything. Is that fair? Actually, yes. After all, no one asked Yanukovych to assume the mantle of Ukraine’s sultan. Now the stuff has begun melting and parts of Western Ukraine and Kyiv will soon be under water. The president will blame Popov. Popov will bite his lips. But everyone will know where the buck stops.

Meanwhile, knowing full well that they can’t count on a dreadful regime to do anything on their behalf, Ukrainians have taken matters into their own hands. Out in Western Ukraine, they initiated campaigns to save the storks. In Kyiv, locals organized their own shovel brigades and started cleaning the city. With every motion of the shovel, the people are effectively telling the regime to melt away like the snow.

Alexander J. Motyl's blog

Ukrayinska Dumka


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