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Ukraine Analysis | 11Feb2011 | Mykola Riabchuk


During my schooldays, I heard an interesting account of the etymology of the word “shantrapa” (šantrapá), broadly used in Soviet slang to define petty thugs or, as a dictionary more politely suggests, “worthless persons.” The word had arguably come from the French ne chantera pas, meaning will not sing. It referred to actors who lacked a singing voice and were used in operas as mere figureheads -- just to give the appearance of a huge chorus on the stage. In actuality, one dictionary claims, the word originated from the Czech šantrok, šаntrосh (“liar”) and old German santrocke (“fraud”).

Whatever the truth, the word has regained broad currency in Ukraine within the past year, referring both to the ruling elite and to the habits they reintroduce and reinforce at all levels of societal life. One of the notable luminaries who deployed the term recently was Taras Chornovil, a defector from the Orange camp and ardent supporter of Viktor Yanukovych during the Orange Revolution. Some time ago, he left the Party of Regions after a serious disagreement with Yanukovych’s personnel policy but he still remains a member of the pro-government majority in the parliament and, in his own words, “support[s] the government and tr[ies], as far as possible, to avoid fighting with the president.” In sum, he is neither a clear-cut loyalist nor a member of the opposition. This might be a good position for rather impartial observations of political shenanigans, especially if combined with insider knowledge of both camps.

“Yanukovych,” Chornovil says, “gave shantrapa a free hand. Even under Yushchenko, shantrapa did not behave so defiantly; there was someone who supervised them… There was no control from the top, but at least at the middle level, there were some people authorized by Yushchenko who took care of something, more or less. And, from time to time, they attacked shantrapa, keeping them at bay. Now it’s gone. And shantrapa reigns unchecked. First, they pillage en masse, and second, they shut up all opponents… Here we have an absolute lawlessness (bespredel) at the level of local authorities, law-enforcement agencies, and so on” http://from-ua.com/politics/c3bdfdac02c3c.html.

The phenomenon is barely new. Long ago, it was observed in Russia where critics of Putin’s regime argued that he created an atmosphere of lawlessness and brutality, so familiar and convenient for the post-Soviet elite that he did not necessarily need to commission the murder of Politkovskaya, or Estemirova, or other human rights activists. He just signaled to society that revolutionary expediency, not the law, reigned supreme, and that all the enemies of the regime should be cooled off in “cesspools.” This was a clear message to all the thugs both inside and outside the government that they had a free hand to decide arbitrarily who was the enemy and when and how they should be cooled off.

This is exactly what is happening now in Ukraine. All the shantrapa who were somewhat unnerved by the revolution and had kept a rather low profile under Yushchenko’s feckless rule, are now taking revenge, encouraged by Yanukovych’s comeback and his unscrupulous words and deeds. Try to imagine how post-Soviet officials (rather Soviet, than post-) feel when they see that corruption is tolerated at the top and only political disloyalty causes a problem; or when they hear the president warning opposition mayors that he will (literally) tear off their legs and screw off their heads. This is a clear signal to all the loyalist bureaucrats, police officers, judges and prosecutors, to all the unreformed host of homo sovieticus to tear and screw off whatever they wish and whoever they feel appropriate.

And they do. The number of violent crimes against journalists within the past year increased exponentially; the number of cases of tortures and obscure deaths in custody, recorded by the reputable Kharkiv Human Rights Group, doubled and tripled; the number of illegal searches, arrests, detentions and politically motivated interrogations exceeded everything that had happened within the previous two decades.

What kind of restraints can officials feel after they see how thugs from the ruling party (real thugs placed on the list of the Party of Regions as former drivers and body-guards of oligarchs) savagely beat opposition MPs (many of which were hospitalized with broken limbs)? What conclusion would a policeman make after listening to the description of the incident in the parliament made by one of the Regions’ bosses Mykhaylo Chechetov: “There was no beating. Probably they broke their own heads against the wall and now try to accuse us” http://glavred.info/archive/2010/12/17/170622-9.html.

It is no surprise that the number of detainees in Ukrainian prisons (not necessarily political inmates) who “beat and injure themselves,” and commit very unusual “suicides” has dramatically increased since Yanukovych’s installment. Some reports from police precincts sound like black humor: in Kharkiv, the Loziv district police department acquired some fame when within a week of their arrest, two detainees fell from the fourth floor window during interrogation, allegedly committing suicide -- even though in both cases the relatives claim the victims were severely beaten beforehand http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine_police_brutality/2296124.html.

Yanukovych’s spin-doctors, international lobbyists, and Ukrainian diplomats work hard to whitewash his image and to downplay the systemic and escalating character of abuses of power under his presidency. One of them, smartly enough, has recognized recently that “the corruption here is a precondition of doing business,” “the judiciary in Ukraine is a disaster,” “the mentality of the SBU is not helpful,” and so forth. Nonetheless, he assured readers, Ukraine is headed in the right direction, and “most of the embarrassing, stupid and somewhat cruel actions are random, there is no pattern,” and, perhaps most encouraging, “people in Yanukovych’s administration aren’t really bad people. Maybe they lack confidence, maybe they are poorly educated, and a bit provincial, without good knowledge of the laws and the Constitution. But they are not stone-cold killers and these are not the kind of people that try to establish an authoritarian state” http://www.day.kiev.ua/303062.

One may recollect here a similar revelation of George W. Bush who claimed some time ago to have discovered a “true democrat,” having gazed into the deep, snake-like eyes of Vladimir Putin. But we will not engage in reminiscences about the past. We just note that the features observed above in Yanukovych’s administration by his American lobbyist are exactly what political shantrapa is about. And the low-level shantrapa sense the mood and respond accordingly. If the president can nominate an outspoken Ukrainophobe, Dmytro Tabachnyk, as minister of education, one should not be surprised when a traffic policeman somewhere in Odesa responds to a citizen who approaches him in Ukrainian that he doesn’t speak that “cow language” -- an insult to a Ukrainian, that can be compared to calling someone in the U.S. the N-word.

Like masters, like servants.

Whatever the PR-specialists might claim about the “random” character of multiple abuses of power in Ukraine, the sheer statistics collected by human rights NGOs, both domestic and international, demonstrate the opposite: they are ubiquitous, definitely systemic, and growing dramatically in number and scope since Yanukovych assumed power. In other words, this is not a deviation, but rather is typical of the sort of lawless, authoritarian “normality” that is being introduced in Ukraine.

In such a context, all talk about “order,” “stability,” and the “fight against corruption” sound hypocritical. And all attempts at “reforms” -- without the rule of law -- are futile.

Maybe Yanukovych’s lobbyists are right: he is not a bad man, and his associates are not “stone-cold killers,” as Mr. Bruce Jackson puts it, and some of them perhaps are even smart enough to “be running a software company in Washington state.” I don’t know. I know, for sure, however, that “they will not sing".