On the 7th of June, Petro Poroshenko, a 49-year-old politician and entrepreneur, owner of a billion-worth business, primarily in confectionery, was inaugurated as the fifth president of Ukraine – after a landslide victory (with nearly 55%) in the first round of the national elections on May 25. His main rival Yulia Tymoshenko gained only 11% of votes, while all other candidates got even less.
Half a year earlier, one can hardy predict his so rapid rise to the top of Ukrainian politics, even though he has been quite a player in the field since the late 1990s – first, as a pro-government MP, and then, since 2001, as a major financial and media backer of opposition and close associate of its leader and eventually the president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko. In 2005-2012, Poroshenko occupied various positions in the government, including the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (2005), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2010), and, briefly, until Yanukovych’s “Family” fully captured the state, Minister of Trade and Economic Development (2012). Between 1999 and 2012 he was a board member of the National Bank of Ukraine and the head of its Council in 2007-2009.
In 2013, he was considered as a potential opposition candidate for the mayoral elections in Kyiv (illegally postponed by Yanukovych), and retained this image throughout Euromaidan where he was very active and quite efficient. At the time, the public opinion tended to bid on Vitaly Klychko as a president and Arseny Yatseniuk a prime minister, even though some people were still committed to Yulia Tymoshenko released from prison immediately after Yanukovych’s downfall.
Two major factors determined the rapid rise and ultimate victory of Petro Poroshenko in the presidential race. The first one, of tactical importance, was a “gambit deal” with Vitaly Klychko, who agreed to run for the mayor position in Kyiv and supported instead Poroshenko’s presidential bid. The second factor, of strategic significance, was Russian invasion in the Crimea and, eventually, in the Donbas. This resulted in an unusual consolidation of Ukrainian society against the external threat – something comparable to the 1991 presidential elections when the need to secure national independence from Moscow brought the first-round victory to the former communist boss-turned-moderate nationalist Leonid Kravchuk. In both cases, Ukrainians voted for the second-best option which was rather acceptable for everybody whereas the first-best options where very different and highly divisive. In other words, in both cases, Ukrainian society could not afford a real political infighting that may further destabilize the country, and opted instead for a consensual policy and seemingly the most pragmatic candidate.
Poroshenko has perfectly met these requirements. He was not as charismatic as Tymoshenko nor as popular and impeccable as Klychko or Yatseniuk. But he had two clear advantages. First, the pathetic failure of the orange leaders had substantially immunized the society against charismatic populists; and second, Yatseniuk’s and Klychko’s non-participation in the elections made Poroshenko the only feasible and legitimate representative of Maidan. His program reflected the expectations of the revolution (European integration and radical transformation of the Ukrainian society along the Western lines) but, at the same time, articulated them in pragmatic terms of Realpolitik – quite attractive for moderates and rather acceptable for radicals.
The way ahead, however, appeared much bumpier than even the skeptics predicted.
The Ukrainian army was also in ruin, dilapidated by twenty years of underfunding, corruption and completely destroyed by the last two ministers of defence (Dmitri Salamatin, 2012, and Pavel Lebedev, 2012-2014). Both were Russian citizens who acquired (if at all) their Ukrainian citizenship under very murky circumstances. Another Russian ex-citizen, and former KGB officer, was promoted by Yanukovych to head the Security Services of Ukraine, apparently resulting in its complete subordination to the Russian FSB.
Ukrainian police had degraded to the point where most citizens in opinion polls declared it a threat to their security rather than a protection. Never marked by professionalism or civic ethos, it became an instrument of repression, intimidation, extortion and racketeering. As soon as the Russia-incited tensions and civic unrest have erupted in the south-east, the local police appear not only unable, but even unwilling to protect public order and defend peaceful citizens from pro-Russian gangs. In many cases, the local police have even sided with bandits, providing them with covert support, information and occasionally weaponry.
All other institutions were in a similar mess. To reconstruct them, as Rutgers University professor Alexander Motyl predicted a year ago, “mere reform will no longer be enough. Even ‘radical reform’ may not quite accurately capture the magnitude of change that Ukraine will have to endure to emerge from the ‘Yanukovych’s Ruin’ politically energised and rejuvenated, rather than enervated and ossified.” He could hardly predict, however, that this Herculean job would have to be done in the context of a foreign military invasion and persistent political, economic and propagandistic pressure tantamount to an undeclared war.
The interim Ukrainian government led by a 40-year-old technocratic prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, rushed to hastily implement the austerity measures needed to rescue the country from bankruptcy, to ensure international credit and push ahead a comprehensive programme of economic, military, legal, administrative and other reforms. The efforts have brought some pay-off. Trust in the government reached an unusually high level – 60 per cent of respondents declared in April their support for the prime minster, 52 per cent for his cabinet and 46 per cent for the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov. The parliament that had never been popular in Ukraine (despised as useless and corrupt) acquired the support of 39 per cent of respondents and the Ukrainian army got a record high support of nearly 70 per cent.
Despite the fact that only 11 per cent of Ukrainians expected some economic improvement in the next 12 months (69 per cent expected the opposite), as many as 34 per cent of respondents contended that things in Ukraine were going in the right direction – up from 15 per cent in September 2013 (the opposite view declined from 67 per cent in September to 48 per cent in April). This was a clear sign of political mobilisation, primarily under the external threat posed by Russia, but also because of the strong post-revolutionary desire for radical changes and housecleaning. In a symbolic move, dozens of Soviet totalitarian monuments, mostly of Lenin, were dismantled all over Ukraine during the Euromaidan and its aftermath. Under the pressure of civil society, the Lustration Commission and Anticorruption Committee were established, headed by reputable Maidan activists. In April, the parliament passed the law “On the reestablishment of the credibility of the national court system” that stipulated, inter alia, a thorough lustration of corrupt judges.
The civic energy, released by Maidan, was clearly aimed at removal of multiple remnants of Sovietism and final completion of the unfinished business of the 1989 East European revolutions. All of them were about a catching-up modernization, that is, a radical change of the obsolete social and economic system, freedom and justice, thorough de-communisation and decolonisation. Ukraine has made a civilizational choice after two decades of ambiguity, hesitation and muddling through. In Moscow it was perceived, not unreasonably, as a deadly blow to its imperial plans and to the very essence of Putinism as a system allegedly common for all post-Soviet and, in particular, East Slavonic nations.
Big Brother’s embrace
Russian invasion in the Crimea and eventually in Donbas has not derailed but seriously hampered Ukraine’s post-revolutionary development. On the one hand, it detracted much of attention, energy and resources to the real, albeit undeclared war in the East. On the other hand, it discouraged potential investors that could have otherwise catalysed economic reforms and revival.
The relatively smooth takeover of the Crimea by Russian forces resulted not only from its unexpected character and good timing – when the old government fell down and the new one has not acquired yet due legitimacy, skill, and cohesion. In fact, the move was predicted by quite a few experts after the 2008 Russian invasion in Georgia that evoked rather muted international response. The post-revolutionary power vacuum was actually much less harmful than the pre-revolutionary destruction, demobilization and demoralization of the Ukrainian military. Their units, staffed primarily with the local conscripts, were neither psychologically nor logistically able to resist highly professional and motivated Russian commandos.
Serhy Pashynsky, the former head of the staff of the interim president Oleksandr Turchynov, confessed in August that they had only 5,000 combat-ready troops against 30,000 Russians, and considered their main task just to block the Perekop isthmus and prevent the “green men” invasion into the mainland. With Ukrainian commandos loyal mostly to Yankovych, and security service closely affiliated with Moscow, the government could rely only on the Maidan volunteers who had never had any weapon besides wooden shields and baseball beats.
The institutional disarray also largely explains the relative easiness with which Russian intelligence, “tourists”, and eventually “green men” manipulated the local anti-government protests in Donbas into a full-fledged military rebellion. The failure of similar attempts in Odesa and Kharkiv, let alone other regions, can be largely explained by much lower level of local pro-Moscow/anti-Kyiv mobilization, but also by some preventive measures undertaken by the Ukrainian government. They included, primarily, pacting with local elites, reshuffling the personnel, engaging the moderates and isolation of radicals.
Donbas had never had any organized separatist movement – unlike the Crimea where the “Russian Unity” party gained 4% of the vote in 2010 and entered the local parliament with 3 MPs (Sergey Aksyonov, its head, played eventually an instrumental role in the seizure of the local parliament with the “green men” assistance and assuming the role of the Crimean “prime minister”). The opinion survey carried out on February 8-18 (in the last weeks of Viktor Yanukovych’s rule) indicated that 33% of respondents in the Donetsk oblast and 24% in Luhansk would like Ukraine to join Russia within one state (the level of unification was not specified but a kind of the Russian-Belarusian union was considered probably as a template). The figures were not as high as in the Crimea (41%) but still substantially higher than in the neighbouring regions of the allegedly “pro-Russian” South East (15% in the Kharkiv oblast, 14% in the Dnipropetrovsk, and 17% in the Zaporizha). Only the Odesa oblast exposed similar results: in the same sutvey, 24% of respondents declared their support for some sort of unification with Russia.
It was only Donbas, however, where the protests against the new government eventuated into a large-scale seizure of government buildings (with a tacit support of local authorities) and ultimately into an armed rebellion. It was only Donbas where the local pro-Ukrainian forces were completely dispersed, marginalized an intimidated. “The separatist forces were simply stronger”, the eyewitness contends. “There were more of them in general, and there were more of them who were willing to employ physical violence... The police were at best passive and at worst openly hostile to the pro-unity protesters, and it didn’t get much better the higher up you went”.
Keith Gessen, in a well-researched report from Donbas, describes a dreadful dynamics of the events that would ultimately lead to multiple causalities on the both Ukrainian and Russian sides: “No one was thinking that all this would lead to war. People were scared and unhappy and doing something about it. That the protest took on such a strong separatist colour was due less to the protesters’ basic demands (regional autonomy might have been enough for many) than to the recent Russian annexation of Crimea. ‘The contradictions didn’t necessarily lead to war,’ Dergunov [a local political analyst] said. ‘But when Crimea went with the option of total separation, it pushed the extremes, both pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian, to the fore. That was Putin’s real crime – this is what created the war.’ Then, on 12 April, the police station in the city of Slovyansk, fifty miles north of Donetsk, was taken over by a group of unidentified commandos. The police were overwhelmed. ‘These were not locals with hunting rifles,’ the new chief of the Slovyansk police told me. ‘These were highly trained, well-armed men.’ It soon became evident that the commandos had come from abroad: the Russian aid that the protesters in Donetsk had been calling for had finally materialised. At that moment, what had been a people’s uprising turned into an armed revolt, and some would say a covert invasion”.
By the end of April, roughly two thirds of Donbas was under rebel’s control. Local authorities, including police, in most cases, sided up with insurgents, whereas some military units stationed in the region either retreated or yielded up to the militants, who often employed civilians, including women and children, as live shields. The rebels took also control of the significant part of the Russian-Ukrainian border that facilitated unlimited flow of money, mercenaries and military equipment. On May 11, they organized a sham referendum on the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People Republics. Predictably, about 90% of the voters supported the move. This time, however, Kremlin did not rush to absorb the regions into the Russian Federation or, at least, recognize them officially as independent “states”.
The fear of international condemnation and additional sanctions might be a part of the problem. More importantly yet, Kremlin soberly understood that Donbas, unlike Crimea, had little symbolical value whereas political, economic, and social costs of its absorption would be enormous. Moscow reasonably prefers to keep Donbas within Ukraine as a permanent source of conflicts, either frozen or hot, – something that would effectively hinder Ukraine’s reforms and westward drift.
Petro Poroshenko assumed his presidency under three major promises – to achieve the peace, to speed up reforms, and to bring Ukraine within the Euro-Atlantic community. He reshuffled a bit the post-Maidan government making it less political and more professional, invigorated the feckless “anti-terrorist” operation against the rebels declared by his predecessors as early as April 13, and employed all his professional skills including good command of English to establish close personal contacts with Western leaders.
Against the background of the institutional ruin that the post-Maidan government inherited from the predecessors, it is not Ukraine’s slowness, as James Sherr of the Chatham House aptly notes, but its swiftness in seizing the initiative that is remarkable. “By the middle of May, the new command authorities had partially replenished the forces with volunteers and completed two limited national call-ups. They had undertaken a substantial redeployment of troops, instituted a new training regime and re-established effective command and control. Forces of dubious reliability – notably the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – were disbanded and new military formations such as the National Guard established in their place. On May 9, National Guard and Ministry of Defence units re-established control over the south-eastern city of Mariupol... On May 27, they inflicted a devastating defeat of the insurgents at the Donetsk Airport. By July 1, despite intermittent reverses, the ‘anti-terrorist’ forces had regained control of 23 out of the 36 districts seized by the insurgents”.
By mid-August, the rebel-controlled territory shrank dramatically under the pressure of the government forces, and two major centres of insurgency, Donetsk and Luhansk, appeared under the real threat of encirclement. This probably forced Moscow to give up clumsy pretensions of non-interference and put its full weight behind the rebels. On August 29, Russian troops without insignia crossed the border in the southern part of the Donetsk oblast, far away from the areas of military activity to the north. With dozens of tanks and heavy artillery, they took over the town of Novoazovsk and approached the half a million city of Mariupol, interim capital of the Donetsk oblast. The move looked as an attempt to break the military corridor along the coast of the Azov Sea to the Crimea but its main goal was probably to detract Ukrainian forces from the north and rescue the besieged cities of Luhansk and Donetsk from inevitable seizure by the government troops. Another part of invaders joined the rebels’ counteroffensive near Donetsk and encircled a large group of Ukrainian forces near Ilovaysk.
The advance of Ukrainian forces was curbed and partly reversed. This made the Ukrainian Minister of Defence Valery Heletey to declare the end of the anti-terrorist operation and beginning of the full-fledged war. Russia lost a hybrid war in Donbas, he said, and launched a real war by regular troops, not just mercenaries, against Ukraine. President Poroshenko strongly condemned Russian military invasion and appealed to the Western powers for help but stopped short of introduction of martial law and large-scale mobilization, despite vociferous demands from the parliament and society. He still tried to keep the door open for a political/diplomatic solution.
On the one hand, it is clear that Ukrainian forces cannot drive away Russian regular troops which have incomparably stronger weaponry and manpower that can be replenished endlessly through the open border. On the other hand, it looks likely that Russia is also incapable to advance further west despite Putin’s reported boasting to reach Kyiv within two weeks. The Russians seem to face not only the problem of the increasing international outrage and painful sanctions but also two other problems they failed to predict. First, the ability of Ukrainian forces to fight, even though far from perfect, appeared to be much higher than they could ever expect (especially after the encouraging “victory” in the Crimea). And secondly, even more disappointedly, the local support for Russian invasion (or self-styled “liberation”) is close to nil.
If Russian strategists had ever bothered to carefully examine sociological surveys carried out regularly in Ukraine by reputable pollsters, they would have known that only 16% of the proverbial “Russian-speakers” would like Russian military to “protect” them, and that in five oblasts of Putin’s “Novorossiya”, besides Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, only 4 to 7 per cent of respondents would like to see Russian “peacekeepers” on their soil. (Donbas and Kharkiv are exceptional in a sense that there are twice more people supportive for a Russian invasion but even there the number of self-declared collaborators is balanced by a similar number of people who intend to fight Russian aggressors with arms – and actually are doing so today as volunteers).
In July 2014, as many as 86% of respondents in a nationwide referendum declared themselves “patriots of Ukraine” (6% not), including 69% in Donbas (10% not) – hardly a sign of the separatist fever that reportedly affected the region. Of course, ten per cent of ten million people who live in Donbas make up a significant group that can cause many troubles in case of their proper mobilization, concentration in crucial sites, and substantial external support and manipulation. But this does not make them automatically a legitimate and the only representative of the Donbas people who, in fact, hold very different, sometimes the opposite political views.
It seems that Vladimir Putin and his associates fell victims of their own propaganda. For years, they promoted the notion of Ukraine as an “artificial” state, deeply divided and ready to split. For months, they brainwashed their own citizens and gullible foreigners with hysterical invectives against the “fascist junta” in Kiev which allegedly persecutes ethnic Russians and forbid Russian language. (A simple fact that many members of that “ultra-nationalistic” government as well as the volunteers fighting the terrorists still speak Russian as their primary language is carefully omitted, like many other inconvenient facts).
Ukraine is a bi-lingual country, where most people have a good command of both Ukrainian and Russian and often use them interchangeably, depending on circumstances. The main divide in the country is determined by values, rather than languages or ethnicities, even though there are some correlations between all these factors, as well as the factors of region, age, education, or income. Both ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians, both Russophones and Ukrainophones, are divided internally for Pan-Slavonic paternalistic Sovietophile conservatives and more civic-minded, individualistic, pro-European modernizers. The regression analysis shows that the value-based and identity-driven divide between the Soviet/Pan-Slavonic and anti-Soviet/Pan-European Ukraines correlates much less with ethnicity and language of the respondents and much more with their education and age. Higher education and younger age predictably correlate with pro-Western orientations, whereas lower education and older age correlate with the Soviet nostalgia and Slavophile anti-Occidentalism.
Russian strategists miss, or deliberately ignore the fact that the absolute majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and a solid plurality of ethnic Russians in Ukraine are patriots of their country, not of Russia, – exactly like Irishmen or Americans who speak English remain patriots of their respective countries rather than of England. This confusion leads Russian leaders to dramatic mistakes and miscalculations, including the recent belief that all the south-eastern Ukraine was ready, like the Crimea, for grab – just because so many people there speak Russian and therefore are “almost the same folk”, in Putin’s terms. Yet, for better or worse, they are not. And this gives the Ukrainian government a substantial advantage in case of any free and fair elections or referendum in the region. The only problem is that the cognition of people’s will and its fair accommodation is of the last things the Kremlin is interested in.
So far, Kyiv reasonably rejects any bilateral negotiations with the rebels who usurped power by force, with a strong support of Russian mercenaries, money, weaponry, and intelligence. Actually, a huge number of Russian citizens in rebels’ ranks and overpresence of Russian intelligence officers in their leadership make the very term “separatists” in regard of those hybrid forces highly questionable. Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan promoted within the pending ceasefire, offers a number of carrots to the inhabitants of Donbas but virtually nothing to the rebels and their Moscow masters. They can expect only safe exit to Russia and amnesty for those who did not commit war crimes and laid down the weapon. The inhabitants of Donbas, in the meantime, are offered decentralization of power and greater self-rule short of autonomy; international economic assistance and possible creation of a special economic zone in the region; and elevation of Russian to the status of the second official language in the region (something that makes little practical sense since Russian de-facto is the first and usually the only language in all urban areas but symbolically this might be important).
The plan stipulates withdrawal of the mercenaries from the region, joint monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border, reestablishment of civil authorities (based on the local, elected in 2010, bodies), access of the region to Ukrainian, not only Russian, sources of information and holding the new local elections under international supervision (that might be combined also with the referendum on the region’s status). The plan, if accepted, places actually the Ukrainian government in a win-win situation. By all available data, any free and fair elections would bring victory to moderates connected to the local business elite, which is much more interested in a greater autonomy than secession. The same with the tentative referendum – it is most likely to legitimize the region’s belonging to Ukraine and delegitimize secessionist claim. But even if by some miracle the opposite happens and some majority in some areas vote for secession, this would be much bigger problem for Moscow than for Kyiv.
And this is exactly why Moscow is very unlikely to accept the plan, even though it looks quite legitimate, reasonable and can be easily sold by the Kremlin propaganda as Putin’s another victory. Kremlin’s own plan seems to be transformation of Ukraine in a failed state incapable of any development, either domestically or internationally, without Moscow’s consent. To this aim, Russia inserts very strong pressure on Kyiv in order to institutionalize confederalization of Ukraine by two steps: first, to recognize the rebel leaders as legitimate representatives of Donbas and negotiate directly with them the post-war settlement; and second, to grant the region, that is, the above mentioned leaders (de facto Moscow puppets), extremely broad rights in Ukrainian politics and enshrine this in the new constitution. In other words, as a Ukrainian publicist quipped, Moscow wants Kyiv to buy a Troyan horse, generously feed it and follow all its whims.
This scenario is apparently the worst possible – as the example of Bosnia graphically confirms. Loss of Donbas might be painful – like the loss of Crimea, but it is certainly better to recognize it as a temporary occupied territory than to make all the country a hostage of people who would determine its future at Moscow’s whim. Of course, the idea of giving up any territory is strongly opposed nationalists, and the government may have some problems in defending the unpopular decision. But a pragmatic approach gains momentum in Ukrainian society, giving Ukraine a chance to overplay the much stronger rival by letting him in his own trap. Taking Donbas as another “occupied territory” is probably the last thing Putin wants. If Poroshenko persuades him that the option is real and that he would rather gives up Donbas than accepts “Bosniazation” of Ukraine, Putin may lukewarmly agree with Poroshenko’s current peace plan that gives Russia no real benefits but allows at least to save the face. This may happen, of course, only in case the continuation of war becomes too costly for Putin and his entourage – which means more Western sanctions against all of them and more support for Ukraine, including with high-tech lethal weapon.
The war, despite all its ugly or even deadly aspects, creates paradoxically a window of opportunity for the Ukrainian government to thrust ahead all the much needed and badly delayed reforms. It provides also an answer to the underlying question that all the previous Ukrainian leaders have tried opportunistically to avoid: who we are, what kind of a nation we want to build, and in which civilisation we would like to belong?
Kyiv is ready to offer a comprehensive package of decentralisation reforms and enhanced self-rule to win some support of the local elites and diffuse tensions. The hyper-centralised Soviet system really does need substantial devolution and the EU-sponsored principle of subsidiarity might provide a good template here. So far, the Ukrainian government seems to be quite determined to clean up the state, rebuild institutions, and strengthen the rule of law. Civil society stays vigilant – as both the partner of and supervisor over the government. International donors are likely to provide not expertise but also efficient control over the use of resources and feasibility of reforms.
Still, even in the best-case scenario, the reconciliation between the “two Ukraines” – the pro-western and anti-western; the Sovietophile and anti-Soviet; paternalistic and civic; and those concerned primarily with survival and those concerned with self-realisation – will not be easy. Vitaly Nakhmanovych, a Ukrainian historian and Jewish-Ukrainian activist, argues that reconciliation is rather impossible because the underlying values for both groups are incompatible and cannot be quickly altered, if at all. Instead, he contends, Ukrainian politicians should think about accommodation. It might be possible if one group manages to guarantee some autonomy for the other group, respecting its values. It is very unlikely that authoritarian Ukraine, modelled on Putin’s Russia and epitomized in Donbas, can provide such autonomy for democratically minded, Europe-oriented citizens. But it is quite possible that democratic Ukraine could find a way to accommodate its paternalistic, Sovietophile and Russia-oriented fellow countrymen. This is actually what both Latvia and Estonia have rather successfully done for their Sovietophile/Pan-Slavonic co-citizens.
In the meantime, the Kremlin is likely to continue all sorts of pressure and provocations in order to keep Ukraine in the purgatory of neither peace nor war, prevent any serious international investments in the country and prove it is a failed state. This is a powerful challenge for both Ukraine’s elite and its population at large. It is also a great stimulus and perhaps the last opportunity to finally come to terms with civic maturity, national consolidation and much-needed institutional reforms. As a German philosopher put it long ago, everything that doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger.
V4 COUNTRIES SEEM TO BE DOOMED TO REPEAT THEIR HISTORY
UKRAINE: WAR AND ECONOMIC RECESSION |
Oleksandra Betliy & Vitaliy Kravchuk