Saturday, 7 December 2013

UKRAINE: WHY OH WHY, TAKE 2!




Sweet picture of youth!

In my previous blog-post, I described briefly the most likely reasons Yanukovych walked away from the EU deal, with the main one being that there was nothing in it for himself - quite the contrary.

But a goodly chunk of the country really wanted that association with Europe. The polls I saw and which put support for the EU deal anywhere between 45 and 55% (depending on how the question was phrased and who was doing the survey) did not convey the depth of feelings of those pro-Europeans.

There are two main reasons for that pro-European passion, in my opinion:

The first one is that a significant number of Ukrainians want to get definite political independence from Moscow, no ifs and buts. It's not that they reject the cultural similarities or do not want to have a close and special relationship with Russia. It's that they want this relationship to be on a more equal footing, brother-like rather than master and servant-like. That's why the West of Ukraine is more pro-European than the East of Ukraine and why the nationalistic party Svobodan is so well represented in the demonstrations.

The red-and-black flags you often see with the Ukrainian or European flags are that of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a WWII Partisan/Ukrainian nationalist movement who fought the Nazis but also the Soviets and the Poles...

File:Євромайдан- 2013. Прапори на Євромайдані..jpg


The second reason is more amorphous but can be summarised as the aspirations of democratic middle class wannabes. They're mostly the youth that has been the core and the anchor of the movement so far. This youth knows that the game is fixed and that there is little future for them if things keep going the way they've been going. Not everyone can be the son or daughter of someone important, well heeled and well connected. Furthermore, these young people have TVs, they have internet, they're well-informed enough to know that there are no reasons they could not live the same kind of lives we have in the rest of Europe.

That's why I call them 'democratic middle class wannabes'. And they rightly saw this Association Agreement as the path to change the rules of the game in Ukraine and modernise/normalise their country.

It's telling that a great many of young Ukrainians would like nothing more than leaving Ukraine. Since they know it cannot really happen and that most of them will be stuck in Ukraine for life, manifesting to get the changes they want seems like a pretty logical Plan B to me.

It's also telling that, contrary to what happened with the Orange Revolution, the opposition was taken by surprise. I have said how many people I talked to thought the Ukrainian people were thoroughly disgusted by politicians and apathetic given their lack of political options for real change. The Orange Revolution was organised by the opposition leadership and had a clear goal: Getting a fraudulent Presidential election annulled and new elections. They eventually got that and won the new election but thoroughly discredited themselves once in power thus paving the way for the election of Yanukovych.

Those demonstrations were not organised, their leadership is non-existent, though the opposition does try to surf on the wave of discontent. in this respect, Klitschko and its Udar Party (the acronym means 'punch' or 'strike') seems to be the main political winner in this, so far, as he had been the most vocal about fighting corruption.


The aim(s) of those protests are as nebular as their leadership. The government survived a vote of non-confidence in the Parliament (the 'Rada') but this means very little. Yanukovyvh could still end up firing his cabinet in an attempt to pacify the crowds. And several political figures have already deserted him, not to mention that there are rumours (did I mention conspiracy theory is a major hobby in Eastern Europe?) about his oligarchs' backers abandoning him... To me, it smells very much like 'fin de regne' ...

The problem is that Yanukovych might not see it that way and/or be out of good options. If he resigns or call for new elections, as has been proposed by the opposition, he will most certainly lose his job and he will also lose his fortune, maybe his freedom. I suspect he's not interested.

To my mind, the next Presidential elections were always going to be a tense point if Yanukovych was not within striking distance of a 50% result (cheating gets you a handful of points, maximum, before it becomes too obvious and invalidates the result). Given the obnoxious thievery he's orchestrated, the arrest of Yulia Tymoshenko and trying to use tax residency reason to bar Klitschko from entering the race, his opponents, if they won, would have no reasons to be merciful. Thus, it meant Yanukovych releasing power was always going to be a difficult time.

These manifestations have mostly hasten that crisis but, in my opinion, it was baked in. For now, Yanukovych seems to mostly want to wait the demonstrators out. His attempt at using force failed and backfired spectacularly. Using yet more force would be a very risky gamble. So he's waiting. He's got the weather on his side - I would personally hate to have to demonstrate during a Kyivan winter. But the Ukrainians, during the Orange Revolution, proved they could actually hold, despite the cold. The opposition, too, is mostly waiting. There are no real legal or constitutional option open to them. The best they can do without breaking the law is float propositions - call for government dissolution, call for new Presidential elections, whatever - that Yanukovych will most likely ignore...

Political impasses like that are dangerous. It would only take one serious miscalculation on either side for the situation to become a lot more serious.

I see two or three potential outs:

One is that Yanukovyvh gets enough support from outside to show he's still a winner. China seems to have passed on the opportunity (and it's not clear to me that Putin should take more kindly to Ukraine becoming a Chinese client than a European one). Russia-as-a-backer is an issue since it would be seen as yet more interference from Moscow. For example, last year, Russia banned the import of Roshen, a Ukrainian sweet manufacturer (the ban has since been lifted). Officially, the ban was because Roshen failed food safety measures - an entirely plausible claim given the poor hygiene standards of foodstuff production in Ukraine. It was also speculated that this was merely retaliation for Ukraine raising taxes on imported cars. But one cannot help think that the pro-West positions of Poroshenko, the oligarch behind Roshen (he supports Ukraine getting into NATO!), might have had something to do with it too. Yanukovych has also said he'd be happy to resume talks with the EU but, barely ten days after having been slapped in the face, the EU is not very willing to let itself be used as cover by Yanukovych.

A second option would be to call for a referendum on the European question. Whatever the results, as long as Yanukovych then follow through on the will of the citizenry, it might have a chance to keep his seat till at least 2015. And, in two years, who knows, he might have recovered. I am not a specialist of the political, legal and constitutional niceties in Ukraine but, if I were Yanukovych, this is the route I'd try. If nothing else, it should give him time and force the opposition to spend said time campaigning on fairly specific EU propositions which may not, for valid reasons, be all that popular and away from thinking about regime change and about upsetting the rules the game.

The last option is that someone in the EU decides to take matters in their own hands and grows some balls. The EU could lean on the oligarchs backing Yanukovych pretty hard (assets freeze/confiscation, travel bans etc) and indeed on Yanukovych himself in the same way with the aim of getting him to resign. That would be the stick.
At the same time, the EU could promise that, should he step down peacefully, he'd be allowed to take a goodly chunk of his loot with him and spend the rest of his natural life in decadent splendour wherever he wants in Europe - London seems popular with Eastern European crooked billionaires but France should be willing to let him settled in the Riviera, if he prefers the climate there. That would be the carrot.




It would not be clean or just or fair but it would be far from the worst for Ukraine and the Ukrainians.