No Class Struggle for This Left
A Ukrainian innovative technology company has at the request of civic authorities developed little robots that shut off people's water. These little wonders, which crawl through the pipes to block flow to individual apartments, have been likened to type of thing you might see in science fiction films such as "The Matrix."
The purpose of these wonderful little gadgets is to punish those who haven't paid their water bills -- whose number have risen dramatically in Ukraine -- but still want to take the occasional shower or have a cup of tea. About half of Kiev's inhabitants turn out to be of this rather undisciplined ilk, and the numbers are the same in the rest of the country.
Realizing that people can get around not having running water in their apartments, the inventors are tinkering with other devices. People can get water from public taps or from neighbors, but it's harder to get by without a sewage outlet, so the clever folks have come up with models that clog sewage lines as well. The government of St. Petersburg has already shown keen interest in both inventions. So if a metallic centipede crawls out of your toilet tomorrow, it might be a sign that you haven't paid your bills rather than a hallucination.
When the Orange coalition came to power in Ukraine, it seemed liberal reforms were imminent. While prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko acted as the "defender of the people," and radical measures were not introduced. But when Viktor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions formed the government last year it did not hesitate to push forward reforms. The Communist and Socialist parties have supported these policies.
These parties' supporters are upset. They didn't expect their votes for the Communists and Socialists to result in robots climbing into their bathrooms. The leaders of the leftist parties have explained their behavior by labeling water, sewage and heating as trifles and saying that the important issues are whether Ukraine should join NATO or the status of the Russian language.
The Communist Party has been gathering signatures in a "people's referendum" on NATO and presenting the "for" and "against" lists to the government, where Communist ministers then study the signatures and debate whether to move on the issue. As part of the parliamentary majority, why don't they just skip the referendums and decide?
"It is in the interests of the Communist Party and the Party of the Regions not to decide this issue," Viktor Shapinov, the editor of the Kommunist.ru web site, told me.
As long as people are busy arguing over NATO or the status of the Russian language other decisions can be put off. If these parties use their parliamentary majority to pass a law on Russian language status or to forego NATO, politicians will be forced to answer questions about rising electricity costs and sewage service.
People disillusioned with the official leftist parties founded a new association, the Organization of Marxists, in Kiev last week. But the radical left still has few supporters, despite widespread discontent. Populist groups on the left and right are vying to become the voice of social protest but often lack the resources. Tymoshenko had been the most active in this role, but a rival has now appeared. Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, who left the Socialist Party to set up the National Self-Defense organization, is criticizing his former colleagues even more loudly than Tymoshenko is.
Only memories remain of the 2004 Orange coalition, and populist groups of all hues are likely to win a large number of votes in the next elections. But will that change life in the country?
Public discussion in Ukraine is far more dynamic than in Russia, where political competition has been reduced to infighting between bureaucratic elites. It will be interesting to see whether this will enable Ukrainians to defend their individual interests better than Russians.