Ongoing violence in the country may prevent its fledgling government from pushing through much-needed reformsby David Patrikarakos / November 6, 2014 / Leave a comment
Ukraine’s problems are getting worse. Despite a ceasefire agreed between President Petro Poroshenko and the Russian-backed separatists on 5th September in Minsk, Poroshenko has just ordered more troops to the eastern Ukraine for fear of further aggression. Both sides are gearing up for more fighting. It is going to be a long winter.
Poroshenko faces two problems, the first is obvious: Russian-backed internal aggression. The second is less obvious but arguably more dangerous: internal Ukrainian politics. The separatist threat is serious but it is not existential. The greatest threat to Ukraine’s viability as a state comes not from Donetsk but from Kiev. The country is broke; its government and bureaucracy paralysed by inefficiency and waste. Corruption has lubricated the wheels of state since independence and the people are sick of it. Poroshenko need to implement huge legal, political, constitutional and economic reforms—and to implement them now.
Ukrainian civil society found its voice during Maidan Revolution. Many of those who faced Yanukovych’s riot police on the frontlines at Independence Square are now on the frontlines of the fight against corruption. NGOs and civil society organizations desperate to reform the state have mushroomed across Ukraine this past year, with limited success. “The political will is lacking,” a young NGO activist told me over coffee in Kiev. “The [politicians’] reply is [always] the same: the situation in the east must be resolved before we can think about reforms.”
It may well be that Poroshenko is trying to do both. Despite the tough talk, he is a businessman and a pragmatist who has long expressed a willingness to make concessions to East Ukrainians on issue of concern such as greater rights for minorities and decentralisation of power.
Critically, this willingness exists throughout Ukraine’s government. Privately, officials believe that extraordinary elections may be needed to give marginalised voters in the southeast a voice and to create a political class able to deal with Kiev. There has even been talk of allowing separatist leaders into mainstream Ukrainian politics. Over the summer I met with a Ukraine Security Council official in a Kiev café. He was blunt. “We are facing situation like you had with the IRA,” he said. “We could easily exclude them, and it would be popular, but it doesn’t solve anything.” He continued: “We don’t like these sorts of solutions but sometimes you have to choose between the bad and worse outcomes.”
The question is: would this help? Poroshenko subsequently made good on many of these promises at Minsk when he agreed to guarantee the right of Russian language use, an amnesty for the majority of rebels and gave Donetsk and Luhansk “special status” allowing them greater political, cultural and economic autonomy. He also agreed to the staging of local elections in the area on 7th December. The separatists, it seemed, had got much of what they wanted.
Things, it seemed, were improving. Parliamentary elections held on 26th October offered Ukrainians the chance to elect a new legislature and finally complete the overhaul of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s government. But they came with their mirror image: an almost simultaneous non-official “election” organised by pro-Russian separatists in cities across the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) of Eastern Ukraine. Just days ago each swore in its own president following another unilateral vote on 2nd November. Poroshenko was furious and said the special status law will now be scrapped. The separatist leadership hit back, saying they would prepare their own peace plan. In the meantime, sporadic fighting still continues and anger is growing. “Someone has to deal with these bastards” was a refrain—in various formulations—I heard again and again in reference to the separatists during my time in Ukraine.
These parallel elections exemplify the essence of the three-fold problem facing Kiev that began with Russia’s March seizure of Crimea and that continues to sustain the crisis today. The first two problems are obvious: Kiev remains unable to effectively govern its territory and it is clear that the separatists are going nowhere—despite the various overtures Poroshenko has made to them.
The third problem is perhaps the most difficult: Concessions to separatist demands don’t work for the simple reason that it is Moscow that drives the rebels and controls their leadership. “The centre of the crisis is the Kremlin,” the security official continued that sunny afternoon and this is a view shared by almost every single politician I met in Ukraine.
The exact scope of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine is uncertain but it is clear that keeping the conflict going serves his interests. Russia’s deep-rooted social and economic problems have receded in the public imagination since the annexation of Crimea. A resurgent Russian nationalism now sees Putin as a new strongman who will avenge past humiliations. Poroshenko’s problem is that he can fight Russian soldiers in Ukraine (however imperfectly) but he can’t fight internal Russian politics.
And in the meantime, desperately-needed reforms go unchecked. Measures such as a new lustration bill, designed to cleanse the Ukrainian political, legal and military elites of corruption, have been passed but if the problem is not tackled en masse Ukraine’s future is bleak. A while back I met with Ukrainian MP Lesya Orobets. “The pressure [for reforms] is considerable,” she told me. “It comes from huge civil expectations. Every day we are asked: what is happening with Maidan’s goals? Are we making progress? We are just the engine for reforms: the fuel are the expectations of civil society.”
At the moment Ukrainians remain willing to give Poroshenko the benefit of the doubt. There is much anger—at the handling of the war and at the slow pace of reform, but there is also the realization that, at the moment, there are no realistic alternatives. But Ukraine does not have the luxury of waiting much longer for its government to act. Orobets was clear: “To speak in medical terms: we are in reanimation,” she said. “We have only a few hours left to do something.”