Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Ukraine's revengeful revolution

It is not exactly clear what the Ukrainian government wants in the East of the country. At the one hand Yatsenyuk is asking for dialogue. At the other hand he is sending troops, including locally despised Right Sektor guys, has called the protests "terrorism" and has announced draconian anti-terrorism laws, has flatly rejected calls for federalism and has announced a harsh crackdown on the Eastern protests.

It is a pattern that the Maidan revolution has shown from the beginning. The talk never really covered the action.

The Maidan uprising

The uprising started as a protest against the refusal of Yanukovich to sign the DCFTA Treaty with the EU. Yet opinion polls showed that only 43% of the population supported signing that treaty. There were good reasons to oppose the treaty: it would open the Ukrainian market for EU products but did not offer any financial help or visa liberalization. That meant that Ukraine would face a wave of factory closings at the same time it faced an IMF "cure". The treaty would also open the EU market for Ukrainian products, but to make use of that opportunity many industries will first need to make major investments so that they can produce according to EU standards. Hard to do in a time when there is little money available. And it unlikely that there will be much foreign investment given Ukraine's reputation for corruption. So it was not surprising that after some time the protests subsided.

The next wave of protests came after Yanukovich announced some legislation that regulated protests. Although minor parts were rather restrictive and probably inspired from the Russian example, most of it was just common sense and common in Western countries. In no Western capital, for example, it would be accepted that protesters kept the main square occupied for months.

A third wave arose after during a shooting on the Maidan dozens of people had been killed. The protesters accused Yanukovich, who has always denied. His denials got some support due to the leaked Ashton-Paet telephone conversation where Estonian minister of foreign affairs Paet tells that during a stay in Kiev he was told by a doctor that victims from both sides had the same type of gun wounds - what raised the suspicion that one shooter had targeted both sides. Paet called for an investigation. There is an investigation but it seems very partial and refuses even to keep the family of those who were shot informed. Instead the new government in Kiev has destroyed evidence by cutting bullets-ridden trees in central Kiev.

In the end the focus of the protests came on the corruption of Yanukovich and the lack of economic growth under his reign. This resonated well with the population, who is disgusted by the corruption. However, as the Maidan protesters are dominated by oligarchs too, it is a rather weak argument. Yatsenyuk tried to make it a major issue by claiming that his government would commit "political suicide" by taking a lot of unpopular but necessary measures. Close to two months after he rose to power we have yet to see anything beyond announced IMF measures. Instead of efforts to make the state more efficient so that the budget cuts can be less severe we see the opposite: a boycott of Transdniester that costs Ukraine money, extra expenses for the army and a confrontational policy with the East that keeps tension high and investment low.

The one thing that remained constant during the protests was that it was against Yanukovich. They protested against someone, not for something. This and their methods showed great similarity with the color revolutions. And indeed it has been reported that many of the people involved in the Maidan Revolution were also involved in the 2005 Orange Revolution. And just as in 2005 now too there have been claims that the uprising was coordinated from the US embassy.

Another aspect of the revolution was treacherousness. First the insurgents used an armistice to occupy government buildings in other cities. And when an agreement was made for early elections they used the agreed withdrawal of security forces as an opportunity to grab power immediately. This didn't show much respect for the other side. More importantly perhaps, it created a climate of contempt and distrust that clouds the present situation.

Revolutionary revenge

When the revolution had acquired power it didn't start an extensive reform program. Neither did it make any effort to make up with those it had vanquished so that the situation stabilized and the country could refocus again on its economy. Instead we saw a revengeful revolution. Many people have been fired from their jobs for being pro-Yanukovich. And despite the fact that Yanukovich's relations with Russia were mediocre he was painted as a Russian pawn and the revolutionaries indulged in a number of anti-Russian measures. They initiated a boycott against Transdniester, adopted a law to degrade the status of the Russian language (stopped by the president) and fielded proposals to throw the Russians out of their Crimean bases on some flimsy pretext.

We are told that in May there will be presidential elections so that from then on there can be no doubt about the legality of the president. However, this legality will be doubtful when the elections take place in a climate of violence and intimidation. Do we really believe that the people from Right Sektor would accept it if of a candidate from the Party of the Regions wins?

Trouble in the East

In March came the annexation of Crimea by Russia. We still don't know what motivated this. Had the Russians intelligence that Kiev's new rulers were serious about throwing them out of their bases? Were they really worried about maltreatment of Russians?

Another interpretation is that Russia expects that the new rulers will make Ukraine a kind of de facto NATO member and want to limit the damage. There are some indications that this might be indeed the case. The cleansing of the Ukrainian security sector is advertised as removing Russian spies but the effect is also to create the framework for a de facto West-Ukrainian dictatorship and that might be the real goal. The DCFTA agreement contains a clause that states a desire for "convergence of positions on bilateral,regional and international issues of mutual interest, taking into account the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP)". This interpretation might explain the present events in East Ukraine. Full NATO membership is unlikely as that requires that a country has full control over its territory.

Another scenario is that Russia's primary goal is pressure to force Kiev to adopt a friendlier attitude. In that case Kiev's aggressive reaction in the East is counterproductive as it forces the pro-Russians to expand the building occupations in order to prevent them from being crushed. It antagonizes the population and might even force Russia to do further annexations.

The US plays an unclear role too. It could easily have encouraged Kiev to make a few small concessions to prevent the annexation of Crimea but it didn't. Except for some vague threats with sanctions it stayed calm. One explanation is that it may have wanted the annexation in order to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine. Given that the America's Russia policy is in the hands of known Russia haters that option cannot be excluded.

The government in Kiev shows some strange behavior too. It is under the influence of Russia hating extremists from West Ukraine so one can expect some anti-Russian policies. What is less easy to explain is why it never made any serious effort to make up with Russia. It gives me the impression that they are influenced by US advisers.

The armed operations of the Ukrainian government seems to me foolish. Even if they win they will leave the country so divided that it is de facto destroyed.


Kiev has shown very little desire for negotiations. Yatsenyuk has visited the East once and he has talked a bit about decentralization. But he hasn't produced any concrete proposals so he may well be just buying time. The fact that he simultaneously sent troops and even Right Sektor militia to East Ukraine seems to point to the latter. Neither does his talk about the protesters in the East as terrorists and the introduction of draconian anti-terror laws point to a desire for compromise. His flat rejection of federalization - that might help to limit the ethnic strife that helps the oligarchs to maintain control - doesn't show any openness to dialogue either.

The US claims that it wants negotiations too. But it says the same about Syria and we know how the US negotiates on that subject. Fact is that the US hasn't made a single move to push the Ukrainian government towards moderation. Its calls that Moscow should negotiate directly with Kiev sounded insincere as everyone knew that that implied recognition. It could easily have mediated initial contacts so that some common ground could be found on which such recognition could be based, but it didn't.

And so we have three parties - Russia, the Kiev government and the US - whose motives are not clear. That makes very difficult for the other parties to understand what they want to do. This opens the risk of misunderstandings and escalation.

If the Ukrainian government really wants to change the dynamics of the situation it should change its behavior:
- stop sending Right Sektor militia to the East and withdraw those that are there
- end the boycott of Transdniester
- involve the Party of the Regions in the government so that it becomes a national unity government
- stop firing people for being "pro-Yanukovich" or "pro-Russian"
- make a proposal for decentralization and introduce it now. Don't hide behind a referendum.
- stop introducing draconian anti-terror laws directed at those in favor of closer ties with Russia.

No comments: