Thursday, January 30, 2014

Breakdown of the Soviet System with a Capitalist Face in Ukraine

Most people in the U.S. first became aware that something was going on when the statue of Lenin was torn down at Bessarabs`kyi Square.  Sadly, journalists who covered that event did not answer the question that many Americans were probably wondering about as they heard the news:  if Ukraine has been independent for more than twenty years and has already had one revolution, what was Lenin still doing up there anyway?  I know journalism is about news, but really it is about answering people’s questions about current events, and since many of the journalists were probably wondering the same thing it would have been nice had they shared what they learned with viewers.  I raise this not to snipe at journalists, even though coverage of Ukraine has been so lousy but because that question gets at the heart of the broader context that led to the Euromaidan revolution.  

So to all who have been wondering about that Lenin statue’s survival until 2013, it lasted because bold as Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 was, it was not a revolutionary act.  Rather, it was driven by discontent with the major economic reform Gorbachev was then preparing to introduce, and national sovereignty was used as a justification by the Ukrainian Party elite to retain power.  That path to independence has largely shaped Ukraine’s political and economic development since, and explains why the Orange Revolution brought so little change, for even as people sincerely lined up on different sides in 2004, the underlying issue was which faction of the post-Soviet elite would wield power.  What became clear after the Orange Revolution, however, is that the interconnections with the elite where stronger than the will for reform.  

Those, including the much of the Western media, who have chosen to view current events through the prism of the Orange Revolution are, however, sadly mistaken.  From the beginning observers have noted that the Euromaidan demonstrations are not about exchanging one political elite for another, they are about a reshaping the relationship between the government and the governed.  As such, it reflects a revolution that has taken place in Ukrainian society that began but did not end with the Orange Revolution. Moreover, the fact that the protests have remained strong despite repeated government efforts to bring Euromaidan to heel speaks for a new maturity of post-Soviet Ukrainian society, and shows that the Soviet system with a capitalist face that has prevailed in Ukraine for the past two decades appears to have lost its legitimacy.

To be sure, that change is most evident in the west where the Party of Regions, which for all intents and purposes is the functional, if not legal, successor of the Communist Party, has never been a political power.  Yet, the coventional treament of the East-West divide misses the point that even in the east and south of the country the legitimacy of the Soviet system with a capitalist face has broken down under Yanukovych’s rule.  Until recently seeing no credible alternative people there have accepted the leading role of the Party of Regions.  During the 2004 Orange Revolution and again in 2010 and 2012, people there voted for Yanukovych expecting that he would deal with the considerable unemployment there, and encourage the oligarchs to modernize the heavy industry in their control in ways that would improve the economy and spread the wealth.  Yet, Yanukovych did not do that, and Ukrainians in the East have seen their image of the local boy made good after a rough start completely sullied, as he has neglected them leaving their situations have remained unchanged, while his family has in the space of three years joined the oligarch class through legitimate source other than connections.

Of course, thanks to Yanukovych’s strong-arm tactics, people in the East still have no credible alternative to the Party of Regions, but contrary to the usual western portrayals they are not sheep.  Last weekend spurred on by the sudden passage of laws restricting protests, significant numbers of protestors gathered in many eastern cities threatening to take over regional government offices, just as their fellow citizens had done in the West.  Compared to the numbers active in the west their numbers were modest, but rather than demonstrate a sense of moderation on its own turf, the leadership showed its fear and its belief that it is as above the law.  In Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhe, the Berkut riot police cooperated with hired thugs dressed in sport outfits, who used the Berkut lines to run hit and run attacks on the protestors.   One commentator, has described this as affecting people in Dnipropetrovsk in a similar way that the original 30 November beatings at the Maidan in Kiev had on people in central and western Ukraine.  

Of course, many of the protestors have been arrested, but the people will not forget this, and regional officials are clearly running scared.  In Luhans`k, Mykolaiev, Kherson, Odessa, Kharkiv and Donets`k, the Party of Regions run administrations have barricaded themselves into their buildings in preparation for attacks from Banderists (a reference to the Ukrainian Insurgent leader, Stepan Bandera whose followers fought against the Soviet regime during and after World War II).  Governments confident in the support of the people just do not do that, and it cannot help but spur a sense among more previously passive locals that the Party of Regions grip on power is far weaker than they had believed.  That does not mean there is a credible alternative, but it may well embolden people to act and create one in the process.

We are nowhere near the end of the crisis in Ukraine, but anyone who wants to establish a long-term solution will have to do more than just restore order.  They will have to offer a new political and economic ideas that will provide solutions to the problems that the cooperation between Ukraine’s post-Soviet elite and the oligarchs who have manifestly failed to resolve. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Yanukovych’s Concessions Will Not and Should Not Satisfy the Euromaidan Opposition

In the West, we are taught that compromises are part of democracy.  So when people hear about President Yanukovych’s recent concessions to the demonstrators, the first reaction of most will be it is time for the demonstrators to be conciliatory too, and the offer of being allowed to form a government sounds really good.  Indeed, it was this path Poland travelled to democracy in 1989.  So a brief explanation of the analogy with Poland in 1989 is limited and why Yanukovych’s offer remains unacceptable.
In late 1988, after strikes earlier that spring, the Polish government reached out to the old Solidarity leadership to negotiate the opposition’s way into politics.  Poland was in an economic crisis, and the government knew it had to introduce radical measures ending the socialist economy but that it did not have the legitimacy to do that.  The Solidarity opposition understood this and was very concerned that if they were given too much power.  So the original deal was such that the Polish United Worker’s Party (PUWP) was supposed to be guaranteed to remain in power following free and fair elections.  That arrangement fell through when the PUWP’s candidates lost so resoundingly in the June 1989 that they could not form a government, and it was only at that point that Adam Michnik suggested the way forward could be “your president, our prime minister.”  

That is not where Ukraine is now.  Like Poland in 1989, Ukraine is not just in a political crisis it is in an economic crisis, and for precisely the same reason that the Polish Solidarity leadership was so reluctant to take power in 1989 the Ukrainian opposition has wisely rejected Yanukovych’s offer.  Yet, unlike Poland in 1989, Yanukovych’s offer cannot provide the basis of a way forward.  He does not have the same answer to Ukraine’s economic crisis that the opposition does, Yanukovych has shown himself quite happy to accept terms from Vladimir Putin that will end Ukraine’s economic and military independence, while the opposition supports association with Europe.  Were the Ukrainian opposition to take Yanukovych’s offer, and even if Yanukovych were to allow the opposition to implement their plan, which will create short-term economic difficulties for many people, Yanukovych and his allies would adopt populist rhetoric to appeal to people hurt by the reforms expected by the European Union to curry favor for his policies that would end Ukraine’s independence.  Further, Yanukovych has only been chastened by protests, not at the ballot box.  He has not offered new elections, let alone significant changes in the electoral laws that would reverse rules passed in 2010 to give advantage to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and make it much more difficult to engage in electoral fraud. 

Finally, the Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski was a Polish patriot eager to maintain as much Polish sovereignty as was possible given Soviet domination.  Yanukovych is not. He is a hugely corrupt politician, who as said above is more concerned in his own well-being than he is in Ukrainian sovereignty.  Anything short of his resignation will leave him room to attempt to manipulate the situation to his advantage, and will perpetuate what the current corrupt system, which might be described as the Soviet system with a capitalist face. That is not what the people at the Euromaidan want, they want real democratic change, and fortunately they are not so in awe of their allies in the political opposition that they would accept it were the opposition to compromise with Yanukovych.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Yanukovych Admits Defeat. We Now Await the Terms of Surrender.

Today Yanukovych expressed a willingness to disband the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and create a new government with Arseniy Yatseniuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, as Prime Minister.  Vitaliy Klychko, the Leader of UDAR, would be made Deputy Prime Minister with a brief for Humanitarian Issues.  There is no news the leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok was offered a position in the government. [Ed Note -- this is how he spells his name in English, so I have adopted this over the Library of Congress transliteration used earlier.]  

Yanukovych’s offer was conditional and well below the minimum set by the Maidan, so he knew it would be rejected, as it was.  Indeed, it was designed to put the opposition in the corner by suggesting that by rejecting the offer the opposition showed that it was unwilling to accept the responsibilities of governing.  After turning in poor performances in their previous efforts to win support from the Maidan protestors, the opposition leaders finally found the right message tonight with the help of Petro Poroshenko, the only oligarch openly supportive of the Maidan.  In his speech he confirmed their rejection of Yanukovych’s offer but declared that this did not reflect the opposition’s unwillingness to accept the responsibilities of governance.

Yet, if the opposition is finally getting on track, today’s move really amounted to Yanukovych admitting of defeat.  For the past two months Yanukovych has played at being conciliatory, but always in ways designed to belittle the opposition.  At the first “round-table talks” arranged by the previous Ukrainian presidents in December, Yanukovych managed to include all sorts of supporters and seat the opposition well away from him.  Even the talks earlier this week, when Yanukovych offered nothing substantial to the opposition, and then only if the protests disbanded first, was also insulting, something that further hurt the opposition’s reputation with the Maidan protestors when they did not immediately address this insult during their speeches.  

Maybe the boos the folks on the Maidan gave the opposition finally convinced Yanukovych that the protestors were not in the pay of the West, or maybe it is it is the growing unrest even in what the Ukrainian East.  Most likely though it was a meeting with the oligarchs who urged a peaceful solution that finally forced Yanukovych to offer something that on the face of it at least had to be considered.   Yanukovych may not realize it himself yet.  He has dug and is still playing games, but today he admitted that he cannot go forward without acknowledging that the Maidan has won.  Having done that he cannot go back, because he has admitted weakness.  If that was not enough, this evening Maidan protestors stormed Ukrainian Institute (once the Lenin Museum), which was right behind the Maidan but had been used as barracks for special forces and Internal Troops.  They did not fight back, and more importantly, for the first time in a week the peaceful Maidan protestors regained center stage, when they formed a corridor to insure that the troops inside were able to leave the Ukrainian Institute unharassed.  

There will be many difficulties ahead.  We can expect more trickery by Yanukovych, and those that have stuck with him have more reason to stick by him as the prospect of punishment for what they have already done becomes real.  Still, in some ways the biggest obstacle has been overcome today, Yanukovych's denial that he is responsible to the Ukrainian people.  Sadly there are several stages of grief left to go before acceptance.

[Updated 26 January]

Friday, January 24, 2014

Where Is Russia in This? Or Why I Am Not Losing Sleep over a Russian Intervention in Ukraine, Yet

Things are now moving very fast in Ukraine, and if things continue as they have been, it is hard to imagine Yanukovych will last another week.  This raises the question of whether Russia will intervene?  Smart observers like Professor Mychailo Wynnyckyj (Kiev Mohyla Academy) are assuming that even if things get really bad, Putin will wait until the end of February when the Olympics in Sochi are over. That seems right, but even though I have never looked Putin in the eye and seen his soul, I do not think Ukraine can expect a serious military intervention soon afterwards either.

As the highly knowledgeable analyst Edward Lucas has reminded us this week, when Yanukovych and Putin reached the loan deal there was talk that Yanukovych would also have to put down the protests.  While we cannot know for sure, that seems to have been the plan this week, which leads one to wonder again, what was the rush?  As Lucas and others have noted the protests were again losing steam.  Perhaps, it was just impatience on Yanukovych’s part, but another possibility is that Putin gave Yanukovych a deadline, presumably the date next week when the first influx of money is to reach Ukraine.  

Now of course Putin wants to be sure he is not left holding bonds declared invalid by a new Ukrainian government, but really why would Putin insist that the clampdown happen at a time when Putin’s hands are tied during the run up to Sochi?  The reason was that he wanted to test whether Yanukovych could actually handle the job, and Sochi has given Putin the perfect excuse not to do anything, at least not more than send some Special Forces to age in the dirty war that has been going on against activists.  

It doesn’t look like Yanukovych is going to pass that test.  So Putin will not waste the blood of Russian soldiers to put Yanukovych back in control.  What is more, today’s events where even the rebellion is now taking place in key centers of the eastern half of the country will make it much more difficult to use civil war as an excuse to partition the country in the name of maintaining order.  Indeed, if today’s trends continue, it would be painfully clear to all that he was fomenting civil war, not preventing it.  

Of course Putin will not give up on his plans to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold.  Among other things, the return to using Gazprom as weapon seems almost certain, but with Yanukovych gone and the Party of Regions discredited with him, Putin is going to have to cultivate a new ally, and that will take time.   

The Revolution Reaches the Next Stage

Four days ago, it looked like it was just a matter of time before Yanukovych had crushed the fighting on Hrushevskyi Street. The Internal Force troops (something equivalent to our national guard) would then move on and clear protests at the Maidan a few blocks away using the actions of those on Hrushevsky Street to justify any violence, even though the protests at the maidan had remained resolutely committed to non-violence.  That in turn would usher in a new phase of civil disobediance that would bring people out on the street in a week or two.  That of course did not happen.  The revolution proceeded to a new stage but because the fighting on Hrushevsky street carried on, giving the first indication of the soft support for Yanukovych among the Internal Forces.  One only had to consider that if those troops were unwilling to use deadly force against people attacking them, they were even less likely to fire on the unarmed and peaceful protestors at the Maidan to realize how weak Yanukovych’s hand had become.

That put Yanukovych in a bad position, that only looked worse the longer he was unable to bring things under control.  When 2 people were killed on Wednesday, the first time Ukrainian forces have ever killed Ukrainian protests he had to do something, and by the end of the day a truce had been called with talks between the government and the three parliamentary opposition for Thursday 24 January.  This proved to be a typical Yanukovych trick, however, as he offered no serious concessions, and instead seemed to be playing for time.  Parliament would be reconvened, but not until 28 January, and those arrested would be released if the the protestors abandoned their positions on Hrushevsky Street.  The opposition leaders dutifully brought that news back to the Maidan, and again disappointed by not immediately condemning these offers as unacceptable.  The Maidan rejected the offer, and extended its occupation to a couple more blocks of the government district in Kyiv.  

Meanwhile, people outside the capital, have seized the initiative.  Predictably mass takeovers of regional governments started in the West where several regions are under complete control of the opposition forces, but as it has become clear just how weak Yanukovych is that kind of rebellion is spreading fast.  The story is not over, and sadly that weakness has led his loyalists to increase disappearances and other shameful acts, but this does not look like a civil war, it looks like what we supporters had always hoped, the removal of a criminal regime that was willing to sell out the country for the price of some deaths and loan guarantees that would allow Yanukovych to continue to enrich himself.

See the map below as of the evening of 24 January.  

Crimson:  Taken
Red:  Blockaded and under siege
Pink:  Anti-government meetings

Monday, January 20, 2014

Where Things Stand in Ukraine after More than 24 Hours of Violence in Kiev: The End of the Beginning

When violence broke out in Kiev yesterday, the original instigators were identified as a radical right organization “Pravyi Sektor”  the Right Sector.”   Their involvement invariably leads to the question as to whether or not they were acting as provocateurs since they are a shadowy and small group whose base and funding are secret.  If indeed Yanukovych and his allies cynically enlisted the radical right yesterday as provocateurs to discredit the Maidan protests, as they have been accused of doing before, the Yanukovych team blundered terribly.  While the protests at the Maidan have remained peaceful, the “provocateurs” have become heroes.  From her cell imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has shown herself more in tune with many of her ostensible political allies who have spent time at the Maidan by declaring her support for those fighting government forces on Hrushevskyi street.  The inability of the government forces to restore order within 24 hours and without the use of deadly force cannot help Yanukovych either, since it makes him look weak.  That said, with reinforcements coming from Donetsk and with permission to use deadly force, it seems highly likely that government forces will eventually restore order, when they do a new stage in the revolution will begin. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Primer on the Situation in Ukraine

Returning After an Absence

For the past several years I have been distracted by many things, but recent events in Ukraine compel me to bring this blog back to life.  In the coming weeks, I will post thoughts here about the situation.  While I am not on the ground there myself, I count people who are among my friends and believe my insights will be helpful to those who are unsatisfied with the information they are getting about the unrest in Ukraine they are getting in western media.   I anticipate things will be unsettled in Ukraine for a while, so that should keep the posts coming at regular intervals for a while.