Ukraine’s Fractured State Galvanizes Opposition

By Will Cathcart

Several days before the New Year, the Russian state-owned giant, Gazprom, set a record for its natural gas exports to Europe and Turkey in 2013. Russia’s main transit route for natural gas to Europe is the Ukraine.

As record cold temperatures this year once again descend upon the northern hemisphere, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych is betting on the cold. This might be the only safe bet he is making because the weather isn’t the only thing growing dicey for “his” country of 46 million people.

The Ukraine president is betting that freezing temperatures eventually will send protestors home. He’s betting that the Kremlin gas-centric strong-armed policy he has chosen will prevail because EU critics of the Kremlin tend to get a lot more quiet and complacent as winter approaches and natural gas prices rise. Indeed, Russian gas prices and European political courage historically have had an inverse correlation. But it will take more than Putin’s recent $15 billion loan and 33 percent cut in natural gas prices to keep Yanukovych in power. The protests that made headlines in the final month of 2013 have begun to solidify into advanced political action in 2014.

Yanukovych knows this. That is why his government recently blacklisted 36 foreigners — including five Americans and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — and that’s why they are attacking more and more journalists and jailing more and more activists even as the protests die down. The situation is far from stable. There is no better indication of Ukraine’s current instability than Yanukovych’s desperate moves to hold onto power.

Putin knows this as well but he has already hedged his bets. As Putin’s advisor Sergei Markov said last month, “Putin believes that time is on his side and Russia will benefit in the end.” The benefit for the Ukraine, its sovereignty and its people is not mentioned in the statement, which reflects Russia’s foreign policy for the last decade: Neo-imperialist ultra-nationalist autocracy within its perceived post-Soviet “regions of privileged interest,” as Medvedev put it five years ago. To Russia, Ukraine is simply a “territory” — Russia’s natural gas gateway to Europe. For Kremlin hardliners the Ukraine “territory” is not just a matter of economics or strategic importance but one of national security.

The Ukrainians don’t really see it that way. Perhaps this is the message a group of Ukrainian protestors intended to convey to the Kremlin last month when they furiously tore down and shattered a massive statue of Lenin in Bessarabska Square in Kiev on December 8.

Throughout the Ukraine a different kind of fire has been lit and something more combustible and natural than Russian gas is pumping through the country, something that will outlast the protests even if they lose momentum. By some accounts there is hope, charisma, solidarity protests from around the world, courage in the streets, gestures of compassion, social media momentum and monuments lit in yellow and blue. By others, the deteriorating social fabric of a country, which is inherently corrupt at its very foundation, is imploding and further bloodshed on the frozen streets of Kiev seems inevitable.

The December escalation and why

If fighting to join a post-financial crisis EU may seem desperate, that’s because it is. The people of Ukraine are desperate. They have no effective judicial system — the very term in this case is an affront to the concept of “justice” — their economy is in shambles, their hope of being a part of the European community has been taken away by a self-serving president and on top of all this, that same president who for months touted the benefits of joining the EU as an economic solution now appears only to have surrendered as a weak Kremlin puppet for his own political gain. Even his supporters find themselves at a current loss for national pride and instead argue the pragmatic economics of President Yanukovych’s decision to side with Putin. The national identity of Ukraine is no longer vested in its current state of government. This may be the only thing upon which the various interests of this fractured country can agree.

Even the conflict is not as simple as copious recent media accounts have attempted to portray it. Ukraine isn’t simply divided by East and West, Russian and Ukrainian speakers. The situation is far more complex. A lack of understanding of the conflict itself seems frozen in mid-air along with the government, economy, metro stations and most of Kiev.

Yet for a country that is practically frozen, there is certainly a lot in play. The outcome of the coming months is critical. There are the fickle oligarchs who at one point distanced themselves from Yanukovych at the height of the protests only to back him again after Russia’s most recent cash injection. And then there is the emerging opposition leadership, which has been galvanized by recent events.

Considering the intensity of protestors last month and the alternative hostile and potentially brutal backlash from the Kremlin, either choice between the standard binary of resolutions for this conflict — EU or Eurasian Union — seems to lead to further suffering for the people of Ukraine. Make no mistake they are the victims here. The principles and integrity of nations and unions are indeed at stake but it is the people of Ukraine who are suffering in the cold. This point cannot be emphasized enough. Courage, creativity and competence are in dire need.

Enter Dr. Ironfist.

Vitali Klitschko is a heavyweight-boxing champion, a chess player and prominent opposition leader who enjoys relative appeal with the country’s East, West and many factions in between. Klitschko is a passionate opposition figure — though a somewhat inexperienced politician, which actually may be a good thing in Ukraine these days. Klitschko is a towering figure standing out in the cold, his head hovering above an ever-growing crowd of followers. Yet what may prove to be the leader’s greatest strength is that he has been calling for a non-violent approach.

President Yanukovych is no doubt playing a long game. He always has. Such tactics have led him from a crushing defeat after the Orange Revolution in late 2004 back into tremendous power in 2010. But the charismatic boxer, Klitschko, also plays the long game. The coming months will prove if Klitschko can politically rope-a-dope the most powerful man in Ukraine. He will have to learn to survive more political punches than Mohammad Ali ever endured from George Foreman.

Though even if Dr. Ironfist holds his own against Yanukovych, the opposition factions are not all unified in their ideologies or in their desired resolution for this conflict. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a top leader of the jailed former Prime Minister Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party, is often criticized for not being charismatic enough to unite the protestors.

If the opposition ever will unite around one leader, I’d put my money on Klitschko. Right now the Ukraine needs a fighter and that’s exactly what it may get if elections are somehow called early — a demand of those in the streets, which seems very unlikely after the recent Russian cash injection. But the differences between the protesting factions are stark and inevitably this will need to be addressed.

Ukraine in 2014?

One thing to take into account is the nature of the Russian loan and the corrupt system that the money will continue to prop up. Yanukovych refused $15.5 billion from the IMF because of the extreme preconditions and austerity measures that were required by the credit line. Whatever preconditions Moscow has prearranged remain undisclosed and thus all the more nefarious, but those conditions and even the cash itself — as it propagates the current system — will be far more poisonous for the people of the Ukraine than the IMF loan and European financial incentives that Yanukovych refused. The Russian loan was the best choice for Yanukovych personally and the worst choice for his country.

This is precisely why Yanukovych walked away from the EU. The Russian money he has received will be used simply to keep him in power and give him the finances he needs to rig the 2015 presidential elections. The idea of what is best for the people of Ukraine left the internal political discourse a long time ago. What we are seeing is just a Putin-style power play. The European leadership was at best naïve and shortsighted and at worst had no real intention of keeping Ukraine — or gaining it as an equal partner. The collateral damage could not be worse for the people of Ukraine.

What’s worse is that this situation leaves the entire region in a state of vulnerability. If this can happen to a country of 46 million people that borders the EU, then small countries like Georgia, Moldova and Armenia — with European and Western democratic aspirations of their own — stand little chance against such aggressive tactics from Russia: That is the message that Putin is sending. The EU and U.S. must send a counter message before it is too late.

Insight from the Ukraine opposition

Lesya Orobets has been a member of Ukraine’s Parliament since she was 25 years old and she has made a career of fighting corruption to the extent that she began receiving death threats earlier this year. In June her husband was forced to flee the country because of pressure from Yanukovych’s party. In 2004, before being elected to parliament Lesya Orobets served as a parliamentary assistant to her father Yuriy Orobets. Her father also made a name for himself fighting against corruption and against election fraud. In 2006 he was killed in a mysterious car crash. In 2007 Mrs. Orobets was elected to the Ukraine Parliament. She was re-elected in 2012 and Mrs. Orobets is currently a member of jailed Tymoshenko’s party.

The Mrs. Orobets said, “The decisive point was whether [Yanukovych] would get the support of Europeans or at least their neutrality for him being re-elected in some non-transparent and non-fair elections. The funny thing is that [during] Yanukovych’s visit in China he got the same answer from the Chinese government: Sign the Association Agreement [of the EU] and we will give you a $7 billion loan as we do see the Association Agreement as the security [guarantee] for you to return the money.”

She paused to let the gravity of this statement sink in. “The Chinese actually posed that question directly. They were eager to sign some preliminary agreement but saying that the Association Agreement should secure the loan.”

The fact that the Chinese government even demanded Yanukovych sign the EU Association Agreement for purely financial reasons is incredible. It is no wonder this has not been reported in the Russian press.

How to play geo-chess with Russia

A few weeks ago in an interview Mrs. Orobets provided an anecdote to explain, “the old geopolitical chess game,” as she calls it. Her predictions came true.

“Last week in Sochi, Yanukovych obviously initialed the strategic agreement with Russia … This is not the participation in the Customs Union, however this will lead to no deal with Europe ever. So signing that agreement and ratifying it in the Parliament, as [Yanukovych] still has the majority in the Parliament, will lead to a situation where the Ukraine will be under the auspices of the Russian Federation for ages.”

She paused and continued with a touch of pride now in her voice, “That is also the reason why people were so brave today standing all night on Maidan. They do understand the situation with Russia as well.”

With $15 billion from Russia Yanukovych may have found those funds but he may also have sold himself out in the process. During the peak of the December Euromaidan protests I asked a contact in Kiev this question: “In your opinion how will this end? Or — how would you like it to end? And how do you think it actually will end? To be more specific.” His reply: “Civil war or dictatorship. I don’t know what’s worse.”

I cannot disagree with him. I don’t know either. For the sake of the people of Ukraine let’s hope we don’t find out.

Will Cathcart is a former media advisor to the president of Georgia and former managing editor of the Charleston Mercury. Will currently works in business development in the Black Sea region. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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