Ukraine is a state in political turmoil. It is over-burdened with grappling to sustain order in the east of the country, having already suffered the annexation of Crimea, while at the same time fulfilling ‘the Maidan mandate’ of overhauling a corrupt system. Dual success would be an enormous task in any circumstances. Russia argues that the state itself is failing or on the verge of collapse, unable to establish or maintain legitimacy across the whole country and control its territorial units; others that the conflict is being artificially fuelled by Russia and its eastern proxies. A final question is the extent to which the interim government is really committed to radical change of the old system, or whether it is possible at all under such pressure.
Control in the east
The capacity for legitimate control over its territory is a central element of the definition of a modern state. Over the past few weeks, the state’s control in the eastern regions has gradually ebbed away. With little resistance, pro-Russian militant groups have seized control over local militia, intelligence services and municipal buildings, and declared the birth of self-proclaimed independent republics. Attempts to restore order have so far resulted in little success. Local militia and intelligence services have reportedly not only failed to help the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) initiated by the central authorities in Kyiv, but also helped pro-Russian militants, effectively sabotaging efforts to restore order.
With the central authorities’ control diminishing in the eastern regions, a power vacuum has emerged. In mid-April acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the creation of a new 12,000-strong professionally-trained militia. On 1 May conscription was re-introduced. The Interior Ministry claims to be the main funder of the new militia, but local and regional authorities as well as the private sector have been invited to contribute. Certain oligarchs have actively stepped into this role to exploit the opportunity to protect their interests at a time when the supposed cleansing of the system threatens their positions. A good example is Ihor Kolomoisky, who controls one of the most powerful oligarchic groups and is also Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. He has promised to provide substantial funding to this militia as well as financial rewards for intelligence on pro-Russian separatists or the surrender of weapons in his region. Though posters offering ‘$10,000 for a Moskal’ (a pejorative term for Russian) were reportedly faked. With this strategy, Kolomoisky has maintained relative calm and, more importantly, robust control over the region, which has equipped him with substantial bargaining power vis-à-vis the central state, whoever gains the presidency. On the other hand, relying on the crutch of oligarchic influence puts into question the whole lustration agenda.
A rather different strategy has been employed by Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch who has traditionally de facto controlled the Donbas region. Many believe he could have prevented the surge of separatism in the region, but instead he seems to have resorted to hedging his bets — the chaos has presented him with a different kind of bargaining tool in dealing with the centre. He is accused of ‘silently’ exploiting the government’s current weakness in the region to negotiate guarantees for the safety of his interests after the elections.
A recent poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology on the 8-16 April suggests that the new interim government has indeed failed to establish legitimacy in the southern and eastern regions. Across the eight regions of the south and east, full support for acting president Oleksandr Turchynov and the cabinet led by acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stood at 16.6% and 17.0% respectively, with the figures for Donetsk only 6.4% and 5.7%. On the other hand, full support for Yanukovych as the legitimate president of Ukraine was only 10% in the south and east as a whole, and only 19% in Donetsk. Neither set of figures was overwhelming. Most were agnostic or indifferent to all. Only 12%, rising to only 18% in Donetsk, supported the ‘actions of those who seized local government buildings with arms in your region’. But 33% thought Russia was ‘justly defending the rights of Russian-speaking citizens in the south-east’, and 47% in Donetsk.
The interim government’s psychological and physical distance from the south-east has made the public feel unrepresented and excluded from political developments. In another poll by USAID released on 30 April, when asked to assess the ‘level of control exercised by the Ukrainian government’, 42% in the east replied ‘no control at all’. Though 41% in the east still said they were ‘very likely’ to vote in the national presidential election on May 25, and 27% ‘somewhat likely’, which in the current circumstances would be almost a victory.
However, most of the leading candidates in that election and most key figures in the new government came to prominence under the old rules of the game. The old system was based on patron-client relationships between a hyper-presidential power and relatively autonomous elites who established de facto control over their regional enclaves. In exchange for securing votes during elections, the president provided the elites with protection and effective autonomy in running their regions. A ‘blackmail state’ was also established as a tool for state control under Kuchma’s presidency in the late 1990s. Corruption was permitted and even encouraged by the central power, whilst state agencies simultaneously collected ‘kompromat’ (compromising information), which was used in case of non-compliance. This practice was developed under Yanukovych’s presidency (2010-2014), compelling elites to cooperate or face the ruin of their businesses or imprisonment.
Central to the Maidan demands was the lustration or cleansing of this system. The Maidan movement established two organisations, the Lustration Committee (LC) headed by a Euromaidan activist Yehor Sobolyev, and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) led by the journalist Tetiana Chornovil. Both organisations are currently operating as non-governmental civic organisations. Mainly consisting of volunteers and operating through grass-roots activism and social media, they have made commendable efforts in trying to push reforms forward, but are often patronised by the central government as amateur enthusiasts. The two bodies remain under-funded, and have openly clashed with the new interim government over initial attempts to carry out the lustration of judges. A special ‘Interim Special Commission of the High Council of Justice’ will sit for one year; five members are from the LC and ACB, but they are out-numbered by five representatives of the parliamentary factions and five from the Supreme Court (the old judiciary). While the LC has pushed for a more radical approach to tackling corruption, parliament has behaved selectively, often turning a blind eye to the continuation of illicit practices.
Power in parliament
Following the ousting of Yanukovych, parliament has effectively become the key decision-maker, setting and enforcing the agenda. The informal modus operandi of parliament remains effectively unchanged; internal webs of influence are still dominated by oligarchs who hide behind formal political parties. The coalition parties (Fatherland, Svoboda, with UDAR’s voting support), lack a majority on their own, and have resorted to the same old ways of making deals behind closed doors.
Factions in Parliament, as of 1 May
- Fatherland — 88
- UDAR — 41
- Freedom — 35
- Economic Development — 38
- Sovereign European Ukraine — 36
- Independents — 72
- Party of Regions — 104
(linked to Akhmetov) — 52
- Communists — 33
Many official parties contain so-called ‘grey cardinals’ who represent oligarchs’ interests behind the scenes. Needless to say, they care little about cleansing the system. One example is the deputy party leader of UDAR, Vitaliy Kovalchuk, who has reportedly been an influential figure in forming the would-be presidential tandem of Vitaliy Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko, which has since been endorsed by Dmytro Firtash, a ‘gas lobby’ oligarch. Another example is the current Head of Presidential Administration, Serhiy Pashinksy. He is considered to be Tymoshenko’s ‘grey cardinal’ and has links with Andrey Portnov, one of the key legal advisors to Yanukovych during the Euromaidan crisis. Portnov has fled to Russia, and has reportedly been involved in advising the Russian authorities on legal issues related to the annexation of the Crimea and on Russia’s version of draft changes to the Ukrainian Constitution. It is also claimed that Portnov has potential influence on the work of parliament’s Temporary Special Constitutional Commission, charged with preparing the draft law for amending Ukraine’s Constitution, through his political connections with current members. Moreover, despite the first wave of lustration in the judicial system, many figures linked with both Yanukovych and Portnov still hold key positions: Yaroslav Romanyuk still heads the High Council of Justice, and the new head of the Arbitration Court (the key court for business disputes) is Bohdan L’vov, an old ally of Portnov .
The interim government’s capacity for lustration reform is further diminished by its fragility and dependency on the support of other political forces. Lustration of the ‘Donetsk clan’ has resulted in the Party of Regions’ (PoR) loss of almost half its members in recent months. Nevertheless, most of these former members have remained in parliament, having defected to new parliamentary factions. The ‘super-majorities’ that forced through changes in February and March can no longer be relied on. Voting in parliament is much tighter and the new ‘centrist’ oligarchic factions hold the balance of power; Economic Development with 38 seats, linked to Kolomoiskyi, and Sovereign European Ukraine with 36 seats, linked to another oligarch Ihor Yeremeyev.
Oligarchs only strengthen their influence
Both factions contain former Party of Regions members and could be described as mercantile, selling their support in exchange for being allowed to continue illicit practices, as well as being offered political appointments and preferential access to the coffers of the state. For instance, Kolomoiskiyi’s bank ‘Privatbank’ has a preferential relationship with the National Bank of Ukraine, reportedly receiving the greatest financial support. Another source of preferential access to state coffers is the state-controlled UkrTransNafta, Ukraine’s oil transportation system. Kolomoiskiyi and Yeremeyev are reportedly locked in dispute over the oil trade and the state has allegedly turned a blind eye to their attempts to take control of UkrTransNafta.
Behind the scenes there are struggles to take over the assets of the old Yanukovych ‘Family’. Kolomoiskyi has allegedly targeted the interests of Serhiy Kurchenko, the youthful front-man for President Yanukovych’s son’s shadow business. Other elements of the ‘Family’ survive and even prosper, such as Vitaliy Khomutynnik, in the Economic Development faction.
Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov holds firm control of Party of Regions, which is still the largest political party in parliament. Having recently changed its leadership, Akhmetov has effectively re-privatised the party, re-focusing its attention on the Donbas region as it was in its original format under Kuchma’s presidency in the late 1990s. Whilst Tymoshenko is launching a more aggressive anti-oligarch attack on Poroshenko and Firtash in the lead-up to the election scheduled on 25 May, the Party of Regions has focused on the preservation of its electoral capital and hence its control over the Donbas region. An overhaul of the old system is still a long way from being achieved. In the meantime, Akhmetov and other oligarchs are seeking to re-establish their regional enclaves, which will provide them with a continuing bargaining tool in a patron-client system, whoever is at the helm.
Clearly, it is asking a lot of the new government to undertake reforms under such enormous pressures. Many are openly questioning whether it can even try to do so under current conditions, or whether it can only proceed if a deal is done with Russia. Unfortunately, all the signs are that Russia wants the government in Kyiv to fail as well.