WORLD AFFAIRS:  Last winter’s health scare in Ukraine was swine flu. This year’s is far worse: Regionnaires’ Disease, an illness that eats away at political organisms and turns them into ethical zombies.

The carriers of this terrible illness are the cadres of the Party of Regions, the hierarchically organized, anti-democratic, and Russian supremacist political force that brought President Viktor Yanukovich to power and serves as his political base. The Regionnaires control the Parliament, the cabinet, and most regional and local governments.

Many Ukrainians refer to the Regionnaires as bandyty, a word best translated as “thugs.” The term fits them well. All too many of them actually resemble Hollywood versions of gun-toting mugs. They generally lack anything resembling a political program — and the “vision thing,” to quote George H. W. Bush, is completely absent from their mindset. Instead, like the gangster Johnny Rocco in John Huston’s 1948 film Key Largo, their goal is simply “more.” More power and more wealth, to be precise. More insight, more knowledge, and more sensitivity are not exactly on their agenda.

Neither are more manners. On December 16, a band of Regionnaire thugs broke into the Ukrainian Parliament and viciously attacked opposition politicians protesting government harassment of Yulia Tymoshenko. This wasn’t just an instance of the run-of-the-mill fisticuffs for which the Parliament has become known. It was, as one democratic website put it, nothing less than a “pogrom.” Take a look at the YouTube video of the attack. The big guys throwing punches and swinging chairs are Regionnaires. The little guys hiding for cover are the opposition politicians. Oh, and by the way, the Regionnaires have officially declared that the violence was “provoked” by the opposition.

Just a few days earlier, another Regionnaire deputy, the 34-year-old pretty boy, Vitaly Khomutynnik, exhibited his party’s classy side. When asked by a female journalist to name the date of the Treaty of Pereiaslav — the Russo-Ukrainian accord was signed in 1654, and it’s about as elementary a part of Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet history textbooks as 1776 is in American texts — the married head of the Regionnaire youth wing refused to answer the “provocation,” as he put it, and quipped that, after all, he wasn’t asking her about her bust size. Sounds like unacceptably crude sexism, right? Sure, but who cares? Back in March, 63-year-old Prime Minister Mykola Azarov stated that the reason there were no women in his cabinet was that, well, politics wasn’t women’s work. Like fathers, like sons, I guess.

With lugs like these running the country, just what chance does Ukraine have of actually implementing anything resembling serious reform? Zilch might be an optimistic answer, and most Ukrainians expect the Regionnaires to grab “more” in the few years they stay in power. And maybe then, after Ukraine becomes a kind of Zimbabwe lite, things will change.

Yanukovich, who knows that thuggishness is not the best way to people’s hearts, is now caught between a rock and a hard place. Without the Regionnaires, he’s nothing — and both he and they know it. Small wonder that he failed to condemn the pogromchiks explicitly, stating instead that he’s “categorically against using physical force in the Parliament.” Indeed, Yanukovich’s hyper-centralization of power in no small measure made the pogrom possible. What else are Mickey Mouse parliamentarians with no responsibilities — and lots of testosterone — to do?

But with Regionnaires’ Disease, Yanukovich is doomed to become a reviled tin-pot dictator. He could even give Robert Mugabe a run for the money — unless vanity or common sense intervenes and the Ukrainian president decides to accept a democratic cure.

In the meantime, the West may want to consider the advice of my fellow World Affairs blogger Vladimir Kara-Murza that we issue travel bans for evildoersand impose a quarantine on pogromchiks with Regionnaires’ Disease.

Alexander J Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


Great Britain The Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain has many branches throughout the country. Select a branch below to find out more information.