February 20, 2014

The Political Subcurrents of the Ukrainian Crisis

“He soon realized part of the reason for his unease – the gunfire had suddenly stopped. It had been booming away almost without cease for the past two weeks, and now there was silence in the surrounding sky. Yet in town, in fact right ahead of him down on the Kreshchatyk, he could plainly hear bursts of rifle-fire. He turned up his coat collar and set off.” –Mikhail Bulgakov describing the civil war-torn city of Kyiv on New Year’s Eve 1918–1919 in his book The White Guard.1

Kreshchatyk, a street which runs through the Maidan, or Independence Square of Kyiv, also evoked an army camp in February 2014. Looking at the photographs and video clips of Kreshchatyk recently published in the media that depict clashes between protesters and the special forces makes one feel as if a movie version of The White Guard was being filmed there. The pictures were so dramatic as to feel unbelievable. How can such violence take place in 21st century Europe, right next to the Baltic states? What events brought the Ukrainian people so far towards the point of open rebellion? What deep factors and subcurrents have influenced the course of recent events in Ukraine? The individual events of the political crisis in Ukraine, have been covered quite well in Estonia. Still, it is important to try and form a comprehensive picture of the crisis from all the individual pieces of the puzzle in order to see how each individualized piece, when taken on its own, does not accurately represent the crisis as a whole.
Why is the Ukrainian crisis important to Estonia? First, should Ukraine choose cooperation with the European Union and NATO, it would be easier to advance western-oriented politics in Georgia and Moldova. Second, The west wind blowing from Ukraine might invigorate opposition groups in Russia. If such a vast and orthodox nation with a Soviet background like Ukraine is able to successfully integrate with the West, it signals to Vladimir Putin’s political opponents that Russia deserves better as well. On the other hand, a Ukraine in the Kremlin’s grip threatens the security of all of Europe, since it would extend Russia’s military reach towards Slovakia, Hungary, and the eastern border of Romania. All these factors have important consequences for Estonia.

Ten Years Since the Orange Revolution

In order to put the current clashes in Ukraine into context, it is appropriate to look back ten years to the events of the Orange Revolution. Before Christmas 2004, central Kyiv was also agitated due to falsified election results. The stagnant government system in Ukraine dating back to the days of Leonid Kuchma was simmering and bubbling as people took to the streets and put up tents, talking about democracy, fair elections, free media, and joining the West. In the Maidan in 2004 there was a feeling in the air that was reminiscent of the happiness derived from self-determination in the days of the Singing Revolution in Estonia. Regardless of the disappointment caused by the return to “politics as normal” which set in during the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, what happened in Ukraine during those weeks was a breakthrough, a sign and affirmation of hope which was looked back to in an aspirational sense in the free elections of subsequent years.
In 2004 a new president, Viktor Yushchenko, was sworn in. Although his face was scarred from poisoning, he had a victorious smile on his lips. In 2006, a new parliament was elected through democratic elections, and Viktor Yanukovych assumed the post of Prime Minister. In 2007, Yushchenko dissolved parliament, and new democratic elections were held. In the beginning of 2008, Yulia Tymoshenko became Prime Minister. As a result of yet another round of free elections, Yanukovych was elected President in 2010. “The orange nightmare is over. A light blue future awaits Ukraine,” he announced  in his victory address to the people. Light blue is the color of the flag of the Party of Regions, the political party Yanukovych led. In retrospect, this speech seems like it will be seen as the only lighter spot of his time in power.

Yanukovych in charge

Yanukovych’s primary task upon becoming president should have been to prop up Ukraine’s decelerating economy. Having achieved that, a head of state which cared for his people should have tackled corruption, undertaken legal reforms and dealt with the issue of energy security. The global economic crisis of 2008 hit Ukraine hard. Furthermore, a large chunk of the state coffers had been spent on election campaigns. Ukraine’s economy was in such bad shape that many middle class Ukrainians who were disappointed in the “orange” ideals and tired of everyday troubles were ready to look the other way as far as Yanukovych’s authoritarian tendencies were concerned, as long as they ensured some economic growth. The West, on the other hand, was growing somewhat weary of having to deal with Ukraine and turned a blind eye towards Yanukovych’s courtship with Moscow.
It is emblematic of his relationship with Moscow that Yanukovych began his tenure as President by signing an agreement with Russia extending the stay of the Black Sea fleet in Crimea until 2042. At the press conference following the meeting, then-President Medvedev of Russia announced that “additional cooperation between the nations” was in the works. This was because it is in Russia’s interest to obtain control over Ukraine’s economy, as well as its domestic and foreign policy. Russia is interested in incorporating Ukraine’s nuclear energy and aviation industry into a unified market and obtaining control over Ukraine’s defense industry and energy sector. The Kremlin has always been irritated by Ukraine’s desire to forge closer ties with NATO and the EU, as well as its openness to western values. Putin is personally upset with the protest spirit of the European-minded Ukrainians, since it reminds him of the mass protests on the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2011 and 2012.

Russian levers in Ukraine

Russia has multiple levers with which to influence Ukraine’s course. The most effective method is financial assistance. The purpose of aid is to entwine Ukraine into a spider web of financial dependence so that any current and future ruler in Kyiv would fulfill the Kremlin’s wishes. The anchor of debt would lock Ukraine into a gray area between the EU and Russia, and would provide the latter with an easy way to manipulate the interaction among state offices in Kyiv, the EU, and other western institutions. Were the government of Ukraine to give up its desire to integrate with the EU, financial dependence upon Russia would increase even more, since the economy of Ukraine is unable to function on its own.
Another effective means of influence that Russia has over Ukraine is its interest in the Crimea. It is in Moscow’s interests to provoke a confrontation between the regional government of the Crimea and the central government in Kyiv. Control over the Crimean Peninsula would increase Russia’s military and economic clout in the entire Black Sea region and would create in Ukraine a vacuum similar to that in Transnistria, where a separatist part of the country would no longer be under the control of the central government, but instead pledge loyalty to Moscow. There are five main components of the potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea. They are 1) the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol; 2) Russia’s aggressive information campaign that has partly been organized by special services; 3) religious and ethnic tensions related to the Crimean Tatars; 4) the questioning of the peninsula’s legal status by Russia; and 5) the central government in Kyiv, which has been paralyzed by inner conflicts and is unable to control the situation.
Moscow finances an extensive network of NGOs in the Crimea. It goes without saying that all of this support is in the interest of the Kremlin. The special history of the Crimea is tied to Sevastopol, a Hero City from the days of World War II, which is also the home of the Black Sea fleet. This provides a fertile ground for the Russian information campaign that promotes Slavic nationalism and Soviet nostalgia among the local population. If need be, the Russian military personnel and naval intelligence units are able both to provoke and suppress – if ordered – public unrest related to the Crimean Tatars.
The third lever of Russian influence is the Ukrainian media. Most Ukrainian media outlets are controlled by various oligarchs and they decide the profile of the publications. The fourth instrument is the church. Volodymyr, , the current Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), is an ethnic Ukrainian and ideologically moderate. However, he is sickly and it is not out of the question that the metropolitan could soon be replaced with a younger, more energetic, and more pro-Russian head of church. A similar church transition in this regard recently occurred in Belarus.
When Yanukovych abruptly turned his back to Europe in November, Moscow and Kyiv signed an agreement by which Russia would provide Ukraine with $15 billion in aid and lower the price of natural gas from $410 to $270 per cubic meter. One should keep in mind that Ukraine also received a 30 percent reduction on gas prices for extending the rental agreement of the Black Sea fleet. Cheap natural gas is beneficial primarily to oligarchs that cooperate with the Party of Regions, whose chemical plants and steelworks need cheap energy. This agreement with Russia was another blow to Ukraine’s energy sector, because there is no incentive to strive for energy independence when there is cheap natural gas flowing in the pipelines. Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia increases even more.

The oligarchs and ‘the family’

In the Yanukovych entourage, national interests were replaced right from the very beginning by a lust for power and the goal of amassing a personal fortune. Yanukovych’s inner circle consisted of approximately nine groups of oligarchs during his first years in power, although by now all the money and power is strictly in the hands of Yanukovych’s so-called “family” clan. The central figure of the clan is the president’s elder son Oleksandr. According to Forbes, he is one of the richest people in Ukraine, with a fortune of over 500 million dollars. The ‘family’ also includes the current acting Prime Minister, Serhiy Arbuzov, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Vitaliy Zakharchenko. The website http://yanukovych.info elaborates on those ties. Anders Åslund, who has studied the connections between the money and power in Ukraine, says that the income of the ‘family’ amounts to between $8–10 billion per year.2
Lately, Yanukovych has begun to have differences with big oligarchs who have supported the Party of Regions, such as Rinat Akhmetov, the chemical tycoon Dmitriy Firtash (who is coincidentally the owner of the fertilizer factory Nitrofert in Ida-Virumaa), and Serhiy Lyovochkin, who is close to the latter and who resigned as head of the Presidential Administration over differing viewpoints regarding the use of violence. These so-called “old tycoons” favor a balanced business and foreign policy towards both the West and Russia, and they do not condone the state’s use of violence against the protesters.

The last drop for the protesters

For many Ukrainians, the last drop in the bucket was not only the President’s cynical greed, but in particular his sudden decision to withdraw from the Association Agreement with the European Union and his attempts to break up the protests in Kyiv on  November 30. On this date European-minded citizens gathered en masse to protest against corruption in Yanukovych’s government and demand that he step down. Lately, protesters have also been demanding that the authorities stop the repression of the protests.
The protesters in the central square of Kyiv are people who have been raised in an independent Ukraine, who have a good education, and who are well versed in the new social networks – Twitter and Facebook. According to a survey that the Democratic Initiatives Foundation conducted at the beginning of February, the participants of the protest meetings have mostly been from the capital, but the core group in the Maidan camp is from outside Kyiv. They are from western and central Ukraine  and include private entrepreneurs, workers and students, 70 per cent of whom are not members of any party or movement.3
Those people are certain that if they do not do something, then sooner or later the corrupt administration will sacrifice them in the name of their own greed. Desperation is deepening. By the beginning of February, 63 per cent of protesters no longer supported even the official opposition figures who were negotiating with Yanukovych. People no longer trust Vitaliy Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok; they are barely tolerated. Even though the ideological right wing constitutes a minority on the square, almost half of the people on Maidan are ready to form armed groups against the government.
Samooborona Maidana – “Self-Defense of the Maidan,” or the Maidan militia – is the main force currently policing Independence Square. The only person whose word carries any weight among the protesters is their leader, Andriy Parubyi, who in his ‘previous’ life was a member of parliament from the opposition party Batkivshchyna. The men of Samooborona defend the barricades and conduct training. They are convinced that if they do not do something themselves, things will only get worse in the country, and that the government who used lethal force against them in January will do anything to remain in power.

Violence and compromise

In the context of 23 years of independence, the current government violence in Ukraine is vast in scale, systematic and without precedent. Protesters, and particularly journalists, have been hit in the head with nightsticks and been purposely shot in the face with plastic bullets. Detainees have been humiliated and taunted. Particularly worrying is the recruitment of civilians by the police to perform acts of violence. Such ‘titushkas4 lack any responsibility to the police, which enables them to act with impunity. Over a hundred people have gone missing, about whom there is no information. Illegal repressions against the protesters and their families bring extra tension to the streets.
The people who have been protesting on the Maidan for three months already are nervous and ready to “fight until the end.” There is no trust left between the authorities and the people. The protesters are of the opinion that the authorities must put a stop to the violence and initiate investigations. The representatives of the state think that the solution lies in amending the constitution and in certain legal initiatives. One of the principal compromise solutions has been seen in constitutional reform. Former presidents Kuchma and Kravchuk have also lent their support to such an approach. Yanukovych, however, considers returning to the 2004 constitution impossible and wants a new constitution.
There are hopes that the opposition and the authorities will reach a political compromise and a new Prime Minister will be appointed soon. However, it is not clear what kind of government and coalition are on the agenda. In order to gain the upper hand at the negotiating table, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) passed a law that grants amnesty to all parties provided that occupied government buildings are vacated. In such a form, however, the law does not do much to alleviate tension. Some simple steps would still help. The most notable cases of violence should be investigated immediately and the perpetrators should be punished. The Ministry of Internal Affairs should refrain from using civilian titushkas. This would help restore at least some of the trust between the government and the protesters.
Suspicion, a lack of transparency, and a constant reshuffling of positions will continue in Ukraine for quite some time to come. Secret emissaries from both sides conduct negotiations behind the curtains. However, one can hope that in the aftermath of the crisis Ukraine will remain free and independent to make its choices. Hopefully things will not go as they did on the 17th century when the Cossack hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky decided that the Cossacks would be subordinate to the Muscovite Tsar instead of the King of Poland. One can hope that the White Guard will have enough willpower to stand tall for its future. Bulgakov believed in this: “The sun reddened the dome of St Sophia with blood, casting a strange shadow from it on to the square, so that in that shadow [of] Bogdan [Khmelnytsky’s statue] turned violet, and made the seething crowd of people look even blacker, even denser, even more confused. And gray men in long coats belted with rope and waving bayonets could be seen climbing up the steps leading up the side of the rock and trying to smash the inscription that stared down from the black granite plinth.”5
1 Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard. Chapter 13. Translated by Michael Glenny. Copyright © 1971 by McGraw-Hill Book Company.
2 Anders Åslund, ‘Payback Time for the “Yanukovych Family”, 11 December 2013, http://blogs.piie.com/realtime/?p=4162 3 http://dif.org.ua/en/index.htm 4 The term originates from the name of Vadym Titushko (in Ukrainian Bадим Тітушко), a thug from Bila Tserkva with a background in martial arts, who attacked a journalist from Channel 5 in Ukraine in May 2013.
5 Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard. Chapter 16. Translated by Michael Glenny. Copyright © 1971 by McGraw-Hill Book Company.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.