Ukraine's Phantom Flu

How Yulia Tymoshenko created a swine flu panic to get herself elected president.

The global swine flu outbreak has become something of a political football in every country where the pandemic has spread, but Ukraine's response to the virus has achieved a new level of blatant politicization. According to a campaign advisor to Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate purposely inflated fears of an ongoing swine-flu epidemic to aid her presidential run.

"We had to create a phantom and then have a white knight riding in to save the day," Taras Berezovets, a senior campaign advisor for Tymoshenko's BYuT bloc, told me in a Kiev restaurant, confirming widespread suspicions among Ukrainian journalists.

Since October, Ukraine has been in the grips of a full-blown panic over swine flu, complete with quarantines, school closures, runs on pharmacies. The Ukrainian health system, already badly dilapidated, was caught off guard and almost 400 people died of the flu in just three weeks.

Tymoshenko flew into action, organizing a delivery of the antiviral drug Tamiflu -- and the requisite press conference -- at the Kiev airport in the early morning hours of Nov. 2. She quarantined nine regions of the country, closed all schools and univeristies, and petitioned the president for $125 million in emergency funds to fight what seemed to be "the plague of the 21st-century plague," as one Ukrainian put it. Incidentally, she also banned all mass gatherings and political rallies -- after she had already had hers.

Although the World Health Organization concluded that "the numbers of severe cases do not appear to be excessive when compared to the experience of other countries," the call for calm was drowned out by Tymoshenko's drumbeat of action. Pharmacies ran out of surgical masks and medicines as panicked Ukrainians dangerously hoarded supplies.

The fracas couldn't have come at a better time for Tymoshenko, the self-styled heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who was losing the race to the very man the revolution disgraced: Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate. Tymoshenko's second term has been marred by vicious backbiting with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Victor Yushchenko, her perceived pandering to Russia on gas deals, and her apparent inability to save Ukraine from the absolute implosion of its economy.


As GDP contracted by over 15 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and Tymoshenko continued to bicker with Yushchenko, her approval ratings plummeted from a high of 47 percent in the spring of 2005 to just 14 percent in October. (And that was an improvement from her summer numbers.) Yanukovich, on the other hand, a man few Ukrainians trust because he twice did jail time for unclear reasons and who was suspected of poisoning Yushchenko, has seen his numbers climb to double that.

Thanks to her vigorous response to a swine-flu panic she herself manufactured, however, Tymoshenko has been steadily catching up, nearly halving the gap in the polls. Outfoxed, Yanukovich tried to return the parry by ordering more surgical masks, but the damage was already done.

But with the WHO concluding that there was nothing unusual about Ukraine's flu outbreak and the government ending the quarantine, saying that the epidemic had peaked after just a few weeks, journalists and political observers have long been questioning whether the swine flu actually affected Ukraine disproportionately or if this was simply a campaign ploy used by the prime minister, a suspicion now confirmed by one of Tymoshenko's top advisors.

When asked for comment on Berezovets's statement, a Tymoshenko spokesperson said, "I have not heard any such information. All I know is that Yulia Volodymyrovna used all the government's powers to prevent the spread of swine flu and the visiting WHO delegation which was here yesterday gave her high marks."

Some observers -- including the WHO -- point out that, spin job or not, Tymoshenko's energetic response did help put Ukraine's failing health system in some order ahead of an oncoming second wave of swine flu.

But for Tymoshenko's people, the one true benefit is clear. As Berezovets put it, "We won in the media."

Editor's note: In the comments below, Taras Berezovets contends that his quotes were taken out of context by the author of this piece. However, in an e-mail exchange prior to publication, which has been reviewed by the editors of Foreign Policy, Berezovets did not dispute the accuracy of the claims attributed to him in this article. 



The Militarization of Sex

The story of Hezbollah's halal hookups.

Mohammad, a 40-year old Lebanese Shiite who lives in Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs, was holding forth on the virtues of resistance, loyalty, and sex. "You could create the most loyal army by providing political power, social services and fulfilling the desires of your men -- namely, sexual ones," he declared.

"And Hezbollah has been very successful in this regard," Mohammad continued. It is hard to disagree. Hezbollah liberated South Lebanon from Israeli occupation, expanded the Shiite community's political power within the country, and has provided social services, such as health care and education, to its constituency since the 1980s. Today, it is also working to fulfill the sexual needs of its supporters, though a practice known as mutaa marriage.

Mutaa is a form of "temporary marriage" only acceptable within Shiite communities, one that allows couples to have religiously sanctioned sex for a limited period of time, without any commitments, and without the obligatory involvement of religious figures. In conservative Muslim societies known for their strict sense of propriety, mutaa offers an escape clause. The contract is very simple. The woman says: "I marry myself to you for [a specific period of time] and for [a specified dowry]" and the man says: "I accept." The period can range between one hour and a year, and is subject to renewal. A Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man, but a Muslim man can temporarily marry a Muslim, Christian, or Jewish woman, as long as she is a divorcée or a widow. However, those interviewed for this article confirmed that Hezbollah-the "Party of God"-has allowed the practice to spread to virgins or girls who have never married before, as long as the permission of her guardian (father or paternal grandfather) is obtained.

Temporary marriage has long been practiced by Shiites around the world. However, it has recently become more commonplace in Lebanon, notably within Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs and in southern Lebanon after the 2006 war with Israel,

Hezbollah's recent encouragement of this phenomenon highlights the compromises it had been required to make in order to remain the preeminent force among its domestic Shiite constituency.  As the party gained strength due to its effectiveness in fighting Israel, it was forced to cope with the reality that many Lebanese Shiites did not share the Iranian-inspired religious beliefs of Hezbollah's leaders. They came to dominate a community that was shaped by the secular leftist trends of the 1970s and 1980s, and the cosmopolitan culture embodied by Beirut. Today, Lebanese Shiites are exposed to pop icons such as sexpot singer Haifa Wehbe, countless Western advertisements and programs, and technological innovations such as online dating. Allowing these Shia to balance their sexual desires with their support for the "Resistance" against the "Zionist entity" is a vital ingredient to Hezbollah's staying power.

According to Shiite writer and activist Lokman Slim, Hezbollah party members are not allowed to practice temporary marriage for security reasons, unless assigned by the party to do so. "We should make a clear distinction between Hezbollah as an organization and Hezbollah as it runs the community's culture and social affairs," Slim said.

But for everyone else, Hezbollah apparently decided to expand its support for this practice after the 2006 war, to maintain its support base and keep the Shiites in Lebanon under its control. "After the 2006 war, Iranian money came to Lebanon in abundance, and money opened the door to sexual luxury that could not be ignored or controlled," noted Slim. "Therefore, Hezbollah decided it is easier to allow sex under certain religious titles in order to keep the control over the community."

The havoc wreaked by the 2006 war and a more difficult domestic political situation also encouraged Hezbollah to shift its position in order to consolidate support. Sheikh Mohammad Ali Hajj, imam of the Imam Ali Mosque in the Sad Bouchrieh district of Beirut, remarked that after 2006, Hezbollah had to strengthen its support among its communities. "They created a military group, The Resistance Saraya, which took in anyone ready to join, religiously and ideologically committed or not," he said. "They had to contain the Shiite community around it with all its aspects, the good and the bad, and found measures to control it, including the temporary marriage," he added.

Hezbollah is in charge of enforcing resolution in the event unpleasant scenarios arise, such as pregnancy or disagreements between couples. "It is only a matter of more control rather than being tolerant," Slim explained.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah's legitimization of mutaa has created semi-official channels that Lebanese Shiites use to hook up. Hassan, a 30-year old Shiite from Beirut's southern suburbs, is a high school teacher. He graduated from the Lebanese University with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, and considers himself secular but supports the resistance as a political, not a religious, movement. He is enthusiastic about the initiative taken by a number of Hezbollah party members and supporters to act as matchmakers between couples, and sometimes turn their shops, bookstores and workplaces into meeting places for young men and women.

"My cousin, a hard-core Hezbollah supporter, finds pleasure in using his mini-market as a hub where both men and women refer to him to hook them up in a temporary marriage. He even has Excel sheets to help him organize and control the contacts, and of course he practices temporary marriage himself," he added with a smile.

Nevertheless, Hassan remains very critical of those in the community who use this kind of marriage as a cover for prostitution networks functioning inside the suburbs. "Some made it a trade and Hezbollah usually turns the blind eye to these networks because they do not want the Lebanese Internal Security to interfere in its stronghold."

However, once the sex trade got out of control, Hezbollah finally requested the ISF to enter the southern suburbs to help control some of the community's illegal practices, such as traffic, drugs, and prostitution.  This month, The ISF began coordinating with Hezbollah and the heads of local municipalities in the southern suburbs under the slogan "Order comes from Faith," initiated by Hezbollah, to control these crimes.

There is also no shortage of ways that Shiite men and women make contact to form a temporary marriage; sometimes, the experience ends up bringing them closer to Hezbollah. Ali, for example, is a 26-year old man from southern Lebanon who has "temporarily married" a number of girls in the last two years. "I usually meet them in Hezbollah's public library or the center, where young men and women gather to attend religious and political preaching," he explained.

The men and women are put in separate rooms, but he finds a way to communicate. "If I want to approach a girl, I ask her for her number and call her later, but mostly I get approached by girls who directly ask me if I am interested in temporary marriage," Ali said. "Although they are veiled from top to bottom, you can always guess how she looks like from her face and eyes," he added with a wink.

With his designer jeans, trendy haircut, and sharp sense of humor, Ali seems to be an unlikely Hezbollah supporter. He has always supported the resistance and what Hezbollah has achieved in this regard; however, in the last couple of years, he has developed a strong support for Hezbollah on issues he was previously critical of, such as its affiliation with Iran, involvement in domestic politics, and its religious rhetoric.

Coincidently or not, these developments took place as he was drawn to practice temporary marriage. In his southern village, it is difficult to meet girls and have normal relationships with them, and he acknowledges that getting closer to the party's social network has helped him meet more girls who were open to this kind of marriage. Gradually, Ali stopped drinking alcoholic beverages, took up praying and fasting, and never skipped a Hezbollah's rally or village events, where he also meets potential "wives." However, it is obvious that the slickly dressed Ali never gave up his love of fashion.

It is, of course, not only men who take advantage of mutaa. Zahra, a fully veiled 25 year-old Shiite woman who is completing her master's degree in English literature, comes from a family of Hezbollah supporters and party members, and has been a lifelong Hezbollah member herself. She explained that she practices temporary marriage because it is a religious duty.

"I take good care of myself, and make sure I look perfect every time I go into a mutaa marriage because I should please my husband, temporary or not," she said. "It is my religious duty to do so. God allowed this kind of marriage for a reason, and I never question God's wishes."

Zahra is divorced and believes that Islam has acknowledged sexual desires for both males and females, which is why temporary marriage is permissible. "It is also a religious duty to fulfill your sexual desires," she insisted, noting that temporary marriages with women whose husbands had been killed fighting Israel were especially encouraged. "[T]hose who satisfy widows of martyrs have more reward in heaven," she said.

While the practice of mutaa may sound exceedingly strange to those outside of these communities, it is an important outlet for many Lebanese Shiites. As the community is increasingly defined by Hezbollah's conservative ideology and isolated by the increasing sectarian divisions in Lebanon, it is more and more difficult to form relationships with people from different backgrounds. In this sense, mutaa marriage has become a convenient and practical solution. However, it comes with a cost: Hezbollah has increasingly been able to harness the appeal of mutaa to bolster its support within its constituency. And there should be no doubt that Hezbollah's increased control over Lebanese Shiites comes with consequences that are anything but temporary.