Monday, February 24, 2014

Understanding the Real Revolution: Yulia Tymoshenko and the Future of Ukraine

People seem to breathing easier in Ukraine.  While in some places like the Crimea and Kharkiv there is still some resistance to the new order, even die-hard supporters of the regime are now reasserting their commitment to the territorial integrity of the country. Yet in the eyes of many protestors, this revolution is only partly done.  While the corrupt and murderous Yanukovych is gone, the entire political class that includes both the former supporters of Yanukovych in the Party of Regions and the opposition parties now need to come to terms with the fact that the people did not stage this revolution simply to replace one leader with another.  The past three months have been and, likely for quite a while yet, will continue to be about Ukrainians demanding that they be treated as citizens rather than subjects.  

It was the centrality of this change that frustrated specialists as they followed the limited coverage of the events and in the Western media with its focus on dramatic moments that were, at least until the past few days, of limited relevance to the key developments of the protests.  Not that there weren’t images that did not reach the public consciousness.  The piano player on the Maidan did get noticed, but that only caught a glimpse of what was going on, which was the breaking down of a post-Soviet mindset and the forging of civil society.  In a certain respect this was also the rediscovery of ethical thinking and action, something that church leaders were quick to pick up on.  It is not that Ukrainians were not religious before, but the religion as it was practiced in most cases took a rather atomized form, a legacy of decades of repression.  

Admittedly such things are hard to capture in a soundbite, or even through an anecdotal reportage, because the extent of the attitudinal changes is not easily measured by one event or an interview or two.  Pictures can do somewhat better.  The pictures of the masses of people who converged more than once to the Maidan caught the fact that people cared about how the government’s use of violence to suppress dissent, as did the pictures of the fighters on Hrushevsky Street, but even these did not to mind convey the connection between people that has been developing.  In that respect, the exception for me was a picture of people standing on the tracks in Dnipropetrovsk to prevent a train full of riot police and civilian thugs from moving.  It is all the more meaningful because support for the Maidan came slowly in Dnipropetrovsk, and was only galvanized after the riot police and thugs in civilian dress attacked protestors in January.  

The best evidence of this revolution in how Ukrainians think about their relationship between themselves and their government has been the response to the release of Yulia Tymoshenko.  In the west Tymoshenko is known as the beautiful politician with the braids wrapped over the top of her head, who was the most visible force during the Orange Revolution almost ten years ago and since 2011 has been imprisoned following a conviction on corruption charges.  While there is no doubt this was a highly selective prosecution, Tymoshenko is no Aung San Suu Kyi, and is probably better compared to the late Benazir Bhutto, who was likewise a talented populist whose reputation is sullied by corruption. In Tymoshenko's case that includes her close association with Ukraine’s former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko, and her accumulation of a vast fortune while heading a gas monopoly using the same combination of connections and lack of transparency used by other oligarchs.

Ironically, a decade ago that past and her populist skills made her an appealing political figure.  Then there was virtually no way to be politically consequential without being well connected to the business interests which had emerged as the old Soviet regime collapsed, and having been on the losing side of the battle between the so-called Dnipropetrovsk and the Donetsk clan, she not only had an axe to grind, but she had some ideas where the bodies lay, and understood the centrality to the secret deals in the gas industry to the rapid growth of oligarchs.  Put that together with an unmatched talent to speak to the people that was on display during the Orange Revolution, and her popularity was understandable.  What is more her 2009 deal with Russia, was actually transparent and helped expose the oligarch and Yanukovych backer Dmytryi Firtash as someone making money off the Ukrainian people.  Yet, the situation is different now, and were Ukrainians to see Tymoshenko as their political saviour they would be taking a huge step back, because were Tymoshenko to return, so too would the ugly pattern of politics driven solely by elite interests and kompromat, the compromising material that all the political elites had access to and used to protect their interests and reshape political alliances.  Further, Tymoshenko’s return would be the best way to confirm the Russian view that the past three months were all part of a plot orchestrated by the U.S. and the EU to replace Yanukovych with their own pawn. 

Fortunately, the protestors of the Maidan saw this.  They recognized the symbolic relevance of Tymoshenko’s release, but that was it.  Crowds did not shout out calling for her to take the reigns of power.  Rather, very quickly the talk was that people had not given their lives to install Yulia as president, and the clever poster-makers who have been an important part of the revolution were quick to make their contribution to spreading that word.  

Caption:  People did not die for this.

This skepticism, and its breadth among Ukrainians is true sign of the changes that have happened in Ukraine, and now after three months of persistently running behind the protestors at the Maidan, it is time for the established politicians do their part and recognize that they are no longer administrators of elite expectations they are observers of the people.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Pace Quickens and Desperation Appears on the Increase

With due respect to the more than 100 people who have been killed of the past seventy-two hours, the events in Ukraine have taken on the quality of a gangster film at the point where the gangster is on the run and tension builds as his options narrowing rapidly and his desperation increases.  It will not be over until its over, but there are a few points that deserve note as we prepare for tomorrow.  

Today’s extraordinary session of parliament was a landmark.  In effect, as of today, Ukraine once again has something resembling a functioning parliament for the first time since 2010, even if nearly half its deputies were absent.  The question is how Yanukovych and other sectors of government will react to this?  Right now I place odds on the fact he will try to ignore them, and hopes that the army will finally see things his way.  As I write, the deputy chief of staff has resigned upset at Yanukovych’s efforts to draw the military into the conflict.  I applaud him for showing junior officers that they have an alternative to following illegal orders. (Incidentally, it is also worth noting that many of the officers have, thanks to the Partner for Peace program which emphasizes things like proper relations between the military and the civilian authorities and not following illegal orders.)  So we shall see how they stand up to increasing pressure from Yanukovych, right now based on experience so far just as I would put odds on Yanukovych trying to get the army to attack the protestors, I would put odds on the military finding ways to avoid doing so.

If the big question remains whether Yanukovych can draw the army into the conflict, there are two things to look for to judge where he stands or thinks he stands.  The first is who shows up to parliament tomorrow.  It was in the interest of Yankovych loyalists in the Party of Regions and Communists not to show up today in the hopes that they could prevent a quorum from being reached.  They failed, but if they come running back in large numbers tomorrow and try to reassert their authority, or to be more precise return toe parliament to irrelevance, then we know that Yanukovych still thinks he can shape events in the realm of conventional politics, which is not to suggest he would stop with that.  If the PR and Communist deputies are back, it will also mean that the rumors about large numbers of deputies leaving the country are false.  If, on the other hand, they do not return, it suggests that Yanukovych has lost his hold on them, and that in the way of criminals they are now busy saving their own skin.  Given multiple reports from everyday people that people in Mercedes are at Kiev's secondary airport, I think the latter is more likely than the former.

Second, if snipers return to attacking the protestors,  but nothing more drastic ensues, it likely means that Yanukovych is again trying to buy time and/or provoke the protestors into some kind of violence that he can claim represents terrorism, but has otherwise run out of ideas other than using terror himself, which, as we see, has not deterred the protestors. Regarding the snipers, one more point seems worth noting.  The mayhem caused by them has been terrible, but the cost of human lives today is nowhere what it would be the internal forces deployed a machine gun or two.  Some of my fellow experts disagree with me on this, but I see this as a sign that even among the ostensibly loyal internal forces there is a reluctance to use lethal force in the scale that could resolve the Maidan situation quickly. 

Beyond that we shall see.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again: The situation in Ukraine as of 7 pm (Ukrainian time) 18 February 2014

On Saturday news came that the protestors on the Maidan were ending their occupation of the Kyiv City Council building and that even Pravyi Sektor was dismantling some of their barricades such that Hrushevsky Street would be passable.  All this was part of a deal that would lead to the release of activists who have been detained by the authorities since 30 November 2013.  For this observer sitting some 5000 miles away, it was a hard to believe.  On previous occasions when the opposition had brought back news that an amnesty had been arranged, they had been booed and the protestors on the Maidan had not gone along.  Why had they gone along now?  Was this part of a much larger back room deal being quietly brokered that would lead to more dramatic announcements in the days to come?  Or was this just another just ploy to throw the protestors off guard, and were they just too tired to say no? 

We got our answer today, and all optimism that there were serious divisions in the Party of Regions, and that moderates would lead Ukraine out of its crisis by breaking entirely with Yanukovych has been dashed. Perhaps such people really do exist, although I am doubtful, but if they do they have been outmaneuvered by hardliners and Putin who created conditions that led to today’s violence.  I am writing today before the dust has settled, and so I will not speculate on who escalated to violence first, but the reported deployment of snipers on the roofs of buildings in the government district does not fit with the spirit inherent in an amnesty agreement.  At the same time, with the report today that Russia has agreed to release an additional 2 billion dollars of loans he had offered Yanukovych in December, we see who is the real provocateur in the Ukrainian crisis.  

Were the negotiations that led to the amnesty agreement, a manipulation by Yanukovych, or were they real and was Putin just so overcome by his imperial ambitions that he decided to throw good money after bad?   Only they know right now, and it really doesn’t matter. what does is that the traditional Ukrainian opposition, the U.S., and the EU all look stupid today.  They, in the end will be forgiven, but the same cannot be said for Yanukovych or Putin.  

Putin, of course, does not need to worry right now about being removed from power, but  it is very hard to see this ending well for Yanukovych.  If, as has happened on all previous occasions, the internal forces and Berkut are unable to clear the Maidan, the additional 2 Billion dollar loans will do little to restore his authority. The negotiations between the government and the opposition will continue tomorrow as scheduled, except Yanukovych will look weaker than ever, and his chances of getting yet another infusion of cash from Putin will be diminished further.  If forces loyal to Yanukovych do succeed in clearing the Maidan, however, his future does not look much better.  The more violent the clearing is, the worse he will look in the eyes of Ukrainians, and as such the violence will feed more demonstrations, even in the East.  Moreover, clearing the Maidan is a very different thing from reasserting control of the country, especially in the West of the country where his authority has been totally rejected.

There has been increasing anxiety about a civil war, and today’s events have done nothing to allay the fear that Ukrainians see no other way out than the destructive all or nothing option of war.  That said, there are reasons to believe that the clearing of the Maidan, if successful, will not push the country into civil war.  Here we can all be thankful that the regular army has refused to take sides or given any sign that it would allow either side to gain access to its weapons.  That, along with the the salient fact that people in Western Ukraine are not advocating separatism means that the comparisons with Yugoslavia circa 1990 are limited.  Of course, there is no guarantee that the current situation will continue to obtain and prevent a civil war, especially if Yanukoych decides to reassert control of Western Ukraine, but he would be a fool or desperate to do so before he has a firmer grip on the rest of the country, and that seems unlikely in the short-term.  The Euromaidan protestors have shown themselves to be amazingly creative in finding ways to carry on their protests, and damaging as the loss of the Maidan would be, new kinds of protests will appear that will keep Yanukovych scrambling.  For now though, we will have to see how events unfold in Ukraine during the next few hours and days. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Where Things Stand as of 11 February 2014: The Significance of the Leak of Asst. Sec. Victoria Nuland’s Conversation

It has been nearly two weeks since I have checked in here.  Like everyone else I have been continuing to wait for something to happen,  With no further progress on a negotiated solution the big question on people’s minds is what Putin will do after Sochi is over, and while I remain skeptical that Putin will intervene militarily, I see no need waste ink on more speculation.

Thus, the most substantive event as far as the news cycle has been was the leak to Youtube of the private conversation between Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State, and the Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador, where they were talking strategy.  My initial impulse was not to comment on it, because, apart from the unwise wording regarding the EU, what I heard showed my tax dollars well spent.  The assessments Nuland and Pyatt made about the main opposition figures was accurate and corresponded to informed opinion among Ukrainians.  Nonetheless, the conversation has clearly raised alarm bells among people sincerely concerned that the U.S. is trying to manipulate events so some explanation seems appropriate.

First, as for the posting of the conversation, it was clearly calculated to do two things: 1) drive a wedge between the US and the EU, and 2) provide evidence to those inclined to distrust US that the Euromaidan protests are illegitimate and essentially part of a western plot to upend the eternally friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine.  Regarding the first point, the leak heartened me, because it suggested to me that, if as assumed Russia was behind the post, it suggested that Russian intentions in Ukraine were limited.  After all, the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, is likely well aware that a direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces would quickly trump the anger generated by the leak, so its effectiveness as a vehicle to sow discord between the US and the EU depends on Russia not getting overtly involved in Ukraine’s affairs.

Regarding the second, I doubt the leak has changed many minds in Ukraine or Russia. Based on how Russian media has portrayed events in Ukraine, the conversation simply confirmed what Russians already believed, and the same is true in Ukraine, except that most Ukrainians know enough not to believe that the Euromaidan is some kind of foreign intervention.  Likewise, in the west the leak appears to have had the most impact among people who were already suspicious of American foreign policy, often for good reason.  Certainly, hearing the strategizing about which opposition figure should enter a new government through roundtable talks does sound like Nuland and Pyatt are picking winners and losers, which they are, but not necessarily against the will of the Ukrainian people, assuming Ukrainians supporting the Euromaidan were to embrace a roundtable agreement.  

So what does it mean when Nuland and Pyatt say that only Yatseniuk (called Yats in the conversation) should go into a government and that Klychko (called Klych in the conversation)?  First, let us be clear this talk assumes that the new government would continue to operate with Yanukovych still in office as president, an arrangement that can only be accepted with a return to the Constitution of 2004 that limited the role of the president in order.  It is not attempting to remove Klychko from the scene.  Indeed having Yatseniuk as the only opposition leader in the transitional government would keep Klychko’s hands clean.  This would put him in a position where he could run against Yatseniuk in the 2015 elections claiming that Yatseniuk had sold out by cooperating with Yanukovych.  By contrast, insisting that Klychko take a position in any government would put him and Yatseniuk and a relatively even playing field. That might sound like the fairer thing to do, but it would also create conditions where the opposition vote would be more likely to split creating a means for Yanukovych, or his chosen Party of Regions successor to stage a comeback.  Whether Tyahnybok is included in the transitional government is less important, since he does not have a sufficient base in the East to run and win.

So does Nuland and Pyatt’s strategizing run against the interests of the Ukrainian people?  I think not.  At the start of the protests, Yatseniuk and Klychko were arguably on a level playing field for credible leader of an all-Ukrainian opposition.   Neither rose to the occasion in the way that Yulia Tymoshenko did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, however, but Yatseniuk has shown himself somewhat more tone-deaf to the mood of the Maidan than Klychko.  So even though Yatseniuk’s stock has risen some in polls about a prospective raise between him and Yanukovych, which at this point show that even Tyahnybok could win against a match up with Yanukovych, Klychko would still do even better.  Nonetheless, Yatseniuk has much more parliamentary experience and on that basis would likely be the more effective prime minister in the near term.  Further, if the balance of power between the President and Prime Minister return to what they were according to 2004 an electoral agreement where Yatseniuk backed Klychko for president in exchange for carrying on in the office of prime minister would hardly write Yatseniuk out of political power.  Whether the two men trust each other enough to do that is uncertain; although, current evidence suggests they do not.

If there is a weakness in Nuland and Pyatt’s thinking it is the failure to take the Euromaidan protestors into account.  While most Euromaidan activists recognize the need for some kind of negotiated agreement, and recognize that they have to live with the political establishment they have, they have their own goals -- not just the change of government but moves towards making Ukraine “a normal country.,” i.e. one where oligarchs do not have so much power and corruption is greatly reduced.  Sadly, when the Maidan chose representatives to meet with the government none of the leading activists several weeks ago, the opposition leadership managed to control the nominations in ways that excluded any of the Euromaidan’s leaders, of whom there were several possible candidates.  That has meant that when negotiating with Yanukovych they do so without someone to remind them of the mood on the Maidan, something that helped contribute to the outbreake of violence on 19 January.  If I were Nuland and Pyatt, I would be working on convincing the opposition to bring on one of the Euromaidan leaders, who could help smooth the way for a deal to be approved by the increasingly radicalized Euromaidan.  The last thing we need is for a reasonable deal to be reached that militant elements on the Maidan, like Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) which is at the forefront of the fighting on Hrushevskyi Street, reject with the support of other members of the Maidan.