Ukraine In Dire Straits – OpEd


By Vilen Khlgatyan

For a few months now anti-Yanukovych and pro-EU protests have rocked Kiev and other cities in Ukraine. The protests rose to a qualitatively new level when controversial anti-protest laws were passed in mid-January, followed by the deaths of two protestors by unknown shooters. The troika leading the opposition (Vitaly Klitschko, Arseny Yatsenyuk, and Oleg Tyagnibok) have at times appeared to be losing control of the protests, and jumping at any chance to regain some semblance of leadership. A number of the opposition’s demands were met in the past two weeks, most significantly the resignation of the Prime Minister Mikola Azarov and his entire cabinet, and the parliament’s repeal of the anti-protest laws. Top government posts were offered to Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyagnibok, all of whom refused. However, the opposition still wants President Viktor Yanukovych to resign, and early elections to take place; currently one is scheduled for next year. The opposition is also seeking an unconditional amnesty and wants a return to Ukraine’s 2004 constitution to limit the powers of the president. Smelling blood and seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the protestors are not about to relent with their political demands.

Faced with one sided criticism from the political West, and little public support from Moscow, Yanukovych finds himself in a tight spot. Much of which is his own doing of course. Most of 2013 he spent playing Moscow and Brussels against one another in order to reap maximum benefits from both; in what can be viewed as Yanukovych’s version of ‘complimentary’ politics. He stated openly to his party cohorts and supporters that he would sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU at the Vilnius Summit in November. Even when it became apparent that Brussels was not going to back down from its precondition that former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko be released from prison, Yanukovych kept insisting that he would sign the AA. Therefore, his last minute decision to forego signing an AA and instead engage with Russia came as a psychological shock to his supporters and opponents alike, resulting in the latter party capitalizing on the President’s miscalculation. Since then he has lost much of his credibility with the people, most worrisome for him, this includes many of the Party of Regions supporters who form his political base. Ironically, the chaos caused by the pro-EU protestors has re-kindled some support for Yanukovych among those who see the protests as exacerbating the already fragile Ukrainian economy and body politic. However, his unwillingness to use any type of substantial force to remove the protestors from government buildings in and out of Kiev has only reinforced the image that he is weak and has very few options.

Under-appreciated and glossed over because of the more flashy protests and the slogans chanted by the opposition is the systemic nature of why Ukraine is in a state of turmoil and the inter-relatedness of factors. These are the economic and socio-cultural factors, resulting in a possible change in the kyklos of Ukraine. The kyklos concept refers to the political cycle of governments in a society, as one form of government degenerates into its debased form and replaces it. In the case of Ukraine, democracy is being replaced by ochlocracy or mob rule. The anti-Yanukovych protestors have said what they are against and what they are for, but how they plan to realistically achieve it is left unanswered by them as well as the troika of Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyagnibok. All three are more concerned about proclaiming populist slogans and scoring short-term political points at the expense of Ukraine’s viability as a nation-state in its current geographic boundaries. Democracy is not meant to be executed through mass violence led by self serving demagogues, at least not if the goal is to establish a stable form of government with a viable future. This well-known principle has been purposefully overlooked by the Ukrainian opposition’s Western backers, who are keen on geopolitically separating Ukraine away from Russia. As a side note, had such violent protests as the ones in Kiev taken place in any major Western city they would have encountered a harsh crackdown by Western authorities.

Near the verge of default, the Ukrainian economy has taken a further drubbing as protests drag on in Kiev and elsewhere in the country. Foreign debt is $140 billion, which is about 80 percent of the country’s GDP. Meanwhile, the Central Bank of Ukraine is not only intervening on behalf of the hryvnia, but it is also tapping into reserves to pay the country’s soaring debt, which is a major threat to financial stability. Increasingly foreign investors worry about a public surge to get a hold of foreign currency possibly leading to a government response similar to the one in Cyprus, where authorities used capital controls to protect the currency, and limited its movement across state borders. It is little wonder then that just last week the Bank of Cyprus said it was going to sell its Ukrainian subsidiary Alfa Group Ukraine Limited for €225 million by the end of March. And if that weren’t enough, the $15 billion loan Russia had offered Kiev in December has now been put on hold, as the Kremlin waits to see the outcome of the protests before restarting its financial aid. Ukraine’s economy is heavily integrated with and dependent on Russia, a fact that will not go away if Yanukovych loses power. Nor will the high external debt, or the inability of the EU to geopolitically absorb Ukraine in any meaningful way; this last point being conveniently brushed aside by EU technocrats and the Ukrainian opposition. These are facts that are outside the control of any single government or force structure, yet the protesters in Kiev seem to be either oblivious or unconcerned about them.

On the socio-cultural side, Ukraine is a deeply divided state where a shared history and worldview are missing, which is compounded by religious and linguistic differences. Those people living in the south and east of the country identify with Russia, Orthodoxy, and are likely to speak Russian as their first language. Those in the west identify with Western Europe, Catholicism, and tend to speak Ukrainian on a daily basis. For centuries the eastern and central portions of Ukraine were ruled by the Romanovs of Russia, while the western part was ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs. Indeed, it was not until the end of the First World War that Ukraine took its present geographic shape. And this difference in worldview and historical experiences are essentially why Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of post-Soviet Ukraine, claimed that his country is on the brink of a civil war.

Whether Ukrainians can set their countries geopolitical course and find a common history, without resorting to full scale violence remains to be seen, but the historical precedents are not encouraging. Any successor to Yanukovych will have to confront the same challenges, and address the root causes; otherwise turmoil will surely engulf the society again and take the country down the path of destitution and dismemberment.

Vilen Khlgatyan is the Vice-Chairman of Political Developments Research Center (PDRC), a think tank based in Yerevan.

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