Just how deep is the hole President Viktor Yanukovych is in? Take a look at Luhansk Province, Ukraine’s easternmost. With a mostly Russian-speaking population of about 2.5 million (54 percent Ukrainian, 42 percent Russian) and an economy highly dependent on a decaying coal-mining industry, the province has been a bastion of pro-Soviet, pro-Russian, and pro-Regionnaire sentiment since 1991, consistently producing huge majorities for parties and candidates opposed to national-democratic ideals. Luhansk, like its neighbor, Donetsk Province, is to Yanukovych and the Regionnaires as Texas was to George W. Bush and the Republicans.
According to two recent public opinion surveys, electoral support for the Regionnaires in Luhansk has crashed. One university study has shown that, while 53.8 percent of the region’s inhabitants would have voted for Yanukovych’s party in November 2009, only 30.7 percent would do so today. A poll conducted by the SocioLab Group puts the number even lower, at 26 percent. In other words, the Regionnaires, while still the strongest party in the province, have lost about 50 percent of their support in two years. At this rate, they’ll be down to 20-25 percent by the time of next year’s parliamentary elections and to 5-10 percent by the 2015 presidential elections.
It’s not hard to see why the Regionnaires’ core is turning against Yakunovych and his pals. Life under their rule has turned out to be a disaster. Another university survey shows that 75.9 percent of the province’s inhabitants identify high prices as their main economic concern; 67.2 percent point to low wages. In addition, 49.2 percent say their living standards deteriorated in 2010, while 42.9 percent say their health got worse. According to a second SocioLab study, 83 percent accuse the authorities of dealing poorly with inflation, 77 percent blame them for not doing enough to fight corruption, and 75 percent believe that the economy will remain bad or very bad six months from now.
The local Regionnaire authorities are as clueless about getting Luhansk’s economy going as are their counterparts in Yanukovych’s administration and the Parliament. And for obvious reasons. Economic reform means both abandoning the economic model the Regionnaires prefer—a corruptocratic alliance of Regionnaire elites, organized crime, and oligarchs that enables all three to expropriate the country’s wealth—and encouraging local entrepreneurship and small business to flourish within the context of a genuine market economy. A people’s capitalism, however, requires democracy and at least some rule of law, both of which are anathema to the Regionnaires.
Unsurprisingly, the Luhansk authorities are, like their comrades in Kyiv, responding to popular immiseration with cheap symbolism. In late May, they gave Russian the status of a “regional language” in the province, thereby bringing coal to Newcastle by enthusiastically endorsing the hegemonic status quo. After all, Russian is ubiquitous in Luhansk. It’s hard to see just how such an absurdly irrelevant motion could possibly help a destitute population with little hope in the future, but no matter. The Regionnaires know they own the province and that, in the absence of bread, innovative ideas, or democracy, circuses will have to do.
It’s not clear that Luhanskites are taking such abuse lying down. On June 7th, an anonymous caller claimed to have placed a bomb in the building occupied by the Provincial State Administration. The odd thing is that this was only the latest of a series of bomb threats in Luhansk city this year—the first apparently coming on February 15th and the ninth coming on April 18th—for a total of ten in under four months. There’s no way that the authorities can blame these incidents on their favorite bogeyman, radical nationalists from Western Ukraine. So what gives? Is Luhansk going crazy or do the threats reflect both popular dissatisfaction with Regionnaire misrule and the absence of institutional forms of protest? Whatever the answer, it’s a fair bet that the Luhansk bosses aren’t drawing the obvious conclusion: that more democracy is the answer, not less.
In any case, if Luhansk is a bellwether of Ukraine, then Yanukovych, whose ratings have plummeted in the last year, must be as desperate as his Luhansk comrades. If he can’t hold on to his Texas, then the only thing between his party and inevitable electoral humiliation is massive voter fraud. Unfortunately, they tried that already, in 2004, and you know what that led to.