Ukraine’s outlook is bleak

Ukraine’s outlook is bleak

After initial enthusiasm the outlook for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution is turning increasingly bleak. In the East there is a war. Everywhere there is an economic crisis. There are hardly any reforms. Power remains in the hands of oligarchs and militia’s rather than parliament or government. And both the will for peace and the will for reforms are weak.

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By Wim Roffel

Revolutionaries without a cause

When Yanukovich refused to sign the DCFTA trade agreement with the EU he was not without support: only 43% of the population supported the treaty. The protesters against his decision liked to point to opinion polls that showed that a half to two thirds of the population want Ukraine to become an EU member. However, that wasn’t offered and is unlikely to be offered in the near future.

Ukraine’s exports are evenly divided between the EU and Russia. It is in Ukraine’s interest to maintain and expand good relations on both sides. Being in a similar position Belarus has doubled its economy since 1990 – growing just as fast as Poland. Unfortunately Ukraine’s leaders have been too occupied with self-enrichment and infighting to pay much attention to how they can make the best use of their position.

Yanukovich is a good example. He didn’t pay much attention to details of the negotiations. Unfortunately the EU had allowed a Russia-hating minority of its officials (Sikorski and Bildt) to take control of the negotiations and to shape the treaty so that it would seriously harm Russian – and with that indirectly also Ukrainian – interests. Russia tried to get involved to correct that, but its efforts were declined by the EU with the claim that they were a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. This was rather insincere, as a treaty with the EU is to a large extent an EU dictate – leaving the other side (Ukraine) with hardly any sovereignty.

Yanukovich’s last minute demands for financial concessions from the EU showed major diplomatic clumsiness. The bureaucratic EU is not the kind of flexible organization that can make such concessions. Yanukovich should have tabled his demands during the negotiations. Now he only embarrassed both himself and the EU.

The trade agreement would immediately open the border for EU imports. Ukraine on the other hand would first need to make its products compatible with EU regulations and attractive for that market. So there would be a painful transition period. Unfortunately at that time Ukraine was living beyond its means and expected severe IMF imposed budget cuts. No economist would recommend combining those two “cures” simultaneously. So Yanukovich’s demand for financial support during this transition made sense. As did his choice for Russia as partner who made the best offer.

The real goal of the protests was to get rid of Yanukovich. The DCFTA treaty was just an excuse to get the protests started. Soon other – equally dubious – arguments were used to keep them going.  The anti-protests law that Yanukovich introduced in January were not as outrageous as the protesters claimed: in no Western capital would it be tolerated that protesters occupied the center of the capital for months. Ukraine needed laws to catch up. The shooting of protesters was regrettable, but the lack of thorough investigations by the new government suggests that rumors about a false flag operation may be true.

The fall of Yanukovich

In the end Yanukovich contributed much to his own fall. He failed to understand the true nature of the uprising and for that reason he failed to suppress it in the beginning when it could still easily be done. And near the end he agreed to conditions that were seen by the security forces as a betrayal and that led them to abandon him. But that doesn’t take away that his fall had many elements of a coup.

The deposition of Yanukovich went not according to the constitution: the constitutional court was not consulted and the required 75% majority in parliament was not achieved. The latter despite considerable pressure and violence against parliamentarians. The problem was circumvented by claiming that Yanukovich had “unconstitutionally” left his post. Unfortunately Ukraine has a long tradition of unconstitutional behavior that is motivated by claiming that others behaved unconstitutionally.

The Gallician coup

Most participants in the uprising had come from Ukraine’s Westernmost provinces. They also controlled the new government: 60% of its ministers (including Yatsenyuk) came from the 5 provinces (with in total 16% of the population) that were once part of the Habsburg empire. Those provinces only became part of Ukraine in 1939 – when they immediately faced the worst of Stalin’s repression. That made the region sympathetic to Hitler’s invasion in 1941 and led to a lasting aversion against anything Russian.

When the Maidan revolution put this region in charge of Ukraine they started a cultural revolution: the Russian language was degraded, Nazi symbols were allowed and the communist party – that is mainly supported in the Russian speaking regions – was banned. Not all those measures stuck but it was telling that these issues took priority over the economy and corruption.

One of their most far-reaching acts is a lustration law with very vague criteria. Like the de-Baathification in Iraq the purpose is not to weed out a few bad apples but to make a segment of the population powerless. Under EU criticism the law is now being revised but as it is already being implemented the effects may be limited.

The power of West Ukraine comes from its right extremist militias. Their semi-military formations prevented the police from clearing the Maidan. They kept playing an important role after the uprising. With threats of violence they press politicians and others not to take any decisions they didn’t like. They were also sent in when politicians and administrators that the new government wanted to replace didn’t go voluntarily. After the revolution they consolidated their power by acquiring considerable control over the police and the army.

In the elections in the autumn the right extremists didn’t do well. However, the main parties have adopted much of their program so that their influence stays large.

A divided country

Ukraine’s Maidan revolution had only moderate popular support. Opinion polls in December 2013 showed that a small majority rejected the uprising. A month after the revolution an opinion poll showed that only 51.2% considered the new government legitimate. Yanukovich was definitely unpopular at the end of his rule, but many didn’t like or trust the Maidan protesters and believed that the democratic rules should have been respected and that Yanukovich should have been allowed to stay until the end of his term.

Research shows that popular revolutions have the best chance of success if they employ consensus-based mechanisms such as negotiations or elections. Yet the new government hasn’t made any attempt to coopt its adversaries.

As the situation polarized many were arrested: in Kharkov alone more than hundred. The turning point came with the Odessa massacre of 42 “pro-Russian” protesters on May 2. Although the exact circumstances are disputed – protesters claim it was planned by the government – the aftermath of a sloppy investigation and mass arrests among the victims made it clear that peacefully protest was no longer safe.

In name Ukraine is still democratic. But the opposition has only marginal access to the media. Opposition candidates and representatives are regularly threatened and beaten up. And the conflict in the East serves to paint them as minions of the Russian enemy.

Rather soon after the revolution we saw the rise of armed resistance in the East. Russia certainly plays a role, but there is also strong local support. The Maidan government reacted by sending the army for an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” – antagonizing the local population. The willingness of the government to cause massive destruction and human suffering in its Eastern provinces  without making any serious attempt to solve the conflict peacefully is another symptom of the blind hatred in Western Ukraine towards anything remotely Russian.

During the campaign for the presidential elections of 25 May Poroshenko posed as the moderate candidate who promised more autonomy for the East and advocated dialogue. However , after he had been chosen he intensified the military operations in the East. He gave his voters the Orwellian explanation that a crushing victory was needed to achieve peace.

On 20 June Poroshenko declared an armistice. Again his true intentions were different: during the 10-day armistice the Ukrainian army reinforced its positions and prepared an offensive that a few days later resulted in the fall of Slavyansk.

Since September there is a new armistice in East Ukraine. Although some fighting has gone on there haven’t been major offensives since then and the front lines have remained largely the same. Yet the government has again shown little enthusiasm for negotiations and concentrated on reinforcing its troops.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Given their weak popular support the Maidan revolutionaries needed to ally with some oligarchs. But these oligarchs don’t want reforms that would restrict their freedom to pilfer the country. Before the revolution Yatsenyuk had declared that the economy needed drastic measures and that he was ready to take them even if that would mean “political suicide”. After the revolution he backtracked.  In the summer the head of the new anti-corruption agency and the economy minister resigned. Both complained that they had achieved almost nothing due to bureaucratic obstacles.

Under heavy pressure of the IMF and Western governments the Ukrainian government has recently adopted some budget cuts and reforms. However, the budget is seen as unrealistic and it is doubtful whether the reforms will become more than paper.

Ukraine now faces a conundrum. In support of its hardline approach to the conflict in the East Western countries have given it credit after credit under soft conditions. When the conflict is over that leniency will end and the government will be forced to implement very painful reforms. The only way out is to become the kind of thorn in Russia’s eye that Georgia once was under Saakashvili – who received very generous US aid. As Saakashvili is nowadays a trusted advisor in Kiev it looks like Kiev has chosen that option. However, the Ukrainian economy is more than ten times as big as the Georgian and in a worse shape: it is unlikely that the US will want to spend enough to make a difference. Also, the moral justification is missing: unlike Saakashvili Yatsenyuk isn’t much of a reformer.

Regime change

Western efforts to take control of Ukraine have a long history. The Orange Revolution in 2005 was a classical color revolution with the US ambassador in a leading role. In 2008 it was tried to make Ukraine a member of the NATO Membership Action Plan despite opinion polls that showed great aversion against NATO membership. The Ukrainian government was bribed with the promise of military and financial support to act against the will of its population.

Many Western politicians came to the Maidan protests to declare their support in violation of the principle of non-interference. Both before and after the revolution US “advisors” played an important role. It is widely believed that the present hard line on the uprising in the East comes from them. Ukraine would not have been able to keep on that war going without generous loans from the IMF and the Western countries. Disturbing was also that the IMF loan was conditioned on winning the war.

The Ukrainian conflict has a lot in common with the Yugoslav conflict. In both cases minor existing tensions became acute due to one-sided illegal actions: the independence declaration of Slovenia and Croatia and the “revolution” in Ukraine. In both cases the Western countries embraced these illegal moves enthusiastically and are even suspected of having helped to initiate them. In both cases the West used demonization of the leaders at the other side – Milosevic and Putin – to avoid discussing the real issues. The result was in both cases a situation where both sides had some good arguments but some of those arguments couldn’t be discussed because of taboos imposed by the West. That made negotiations very difficult.

Similarities are there also in the peace talks. The Western countries might believe they were sincere in wanting peace. But because they were also partial their attempts were doomed to fail.

The mood in the government controlled part of Ukraine reminds me of the cargo cults in Melanesia at the start of the 20th century. The destruction of the East of the country and the disastrous economy hardly get any attention. Instead the government tries to please Washington with anti-Russian rhetoric and military campaigns while it has declared NATO membership a priority. The implicit belief is that if they behave well enough (from the Washingtonian point of view) the country will get Western financial support and EU membership and will grow just as rich as its neighbor Poland. They will certainly be disappointed. Destroying your own country in the hope that foreigners will reward you generously is a fool’s errand.


The Ukrainian government is on the road to disaster. My advice to them is to completely reverse course:

  • Stop also talking in propagandist terms like “Putler”, “terrorists” and “cyborgs”. Talking in nationalist abstractions creates a parallel reality and makes discussion with the other side impossible. Talk with and about people instead.
  • Don’t aim for the impossible. Russia won’t give up on Crimea and you can’t win a war. The best you can hope is that somewhere in the future when Russia is more democratic the inhabitants of Crimea will opt for reconnection to Ukraine.
  • Don’t boycott Crimea. It will backfire. Ask Spain how they shot themselves in the feet with a boycott of Gibraltar.
  • Don’t deny geography. You are situated between Russia and the EU and it is in your interests to keep good relations with both. As Ukraine is a big country different parts of it feel connected with different countries.
  • The only thing that matters is “pro-Ukrainian”. So don’t allow yourself to be caught up in discussions about “pro-West” or “pro-Russian”. They distract the attention from the real issues like the effects of the small print in treaties you sign.
  • Don’t be fooled by comparisons between Georgia and Ukraine. In the early 1990 Georgia committed massive ethnic cleansings among its minorities for which it never has taken responsibility. It is against that background that South Ossetia and Abkhazia don’t want Tbilisi to take control over them again. However, by shelling East-Ukrainian cities you are increasingly creating a situation where East-Ukraine will no longer want to be ruled by you.
  • Take the long term view. A few decades from now you may find it hard to explain what the conflict was about. However, some of the damage will still be there.

Wim Roffel is a freelance political analyst specialized in modernization, ethnic conflicts and uprisings.

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