Ukraine has a new president, and for all the valid reservations about the election, it marks a transition to a new political phase.
First, Ukraine managed to show that there is a functioning political space covering most of the country, though it’s still possible to dispute the formal legitimacy of the elections.
Second, the revolutionary fervor is coming to naught. Tired of chaos and unpredictability, people want a respectable and prudent leader who seems able to solve problems. Only this can explain why billionaire Petro Poroshenko, a pillar of the very system that Maidan opposed won the election in the first round.
Third, the widespread opposition to the Ukrainian government in the east cannot be ignored and can hardly be suppressed. The Kiev authorities will have to find ways to accommodate the rights and interests of the forces that they call «terrorists.”
Finally, Russia will have to take a strategic rather tactical approach to the Ukrainian government, which the rest of the world, with a sigh of relief, can now treat as fully legitimate.
Today, three months after the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, the Euromaidan revolution produces a strange impression. The powerful shock it created led to the collapse of the previous political system and all but destroyed the Ukrainian state. However, it has not produced new leaders or even provided any fresh blood to the political establishment. Perhaps the sole exception was the victory of Vitaly Klichko who won the mayoral race in Kiev, although it is still difficult to treat him as a serious political figure rather than a celebrity.
Even as Ukraine teetered on the brink of collapse in the past four months, the country’s oligarchic framework held tough. Power is now officially held by Ukraine’s business heavyweights. Billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, the recently appointed governor of the Dnepropetrovsk Region, is the most influential player in Ukrainian politics and the country’s security apparatus. In the next few months, financial and industrial tycoons will fight to reassert their control over the crisis-stricken country and its economy. Rinat Akhmetov, the shadow boss of Donbass, is sure to be at the center of the battle. He will have to fight the “people’s republics” to reclaim his own assets and his status.
The fight against the oligarchs, which united the advocates of Ukraine’s “European choice,” is doomed, as the dying economy has no source of support other than private interests. It is no accident that participants in Oleksandr Turchynov’s May round tables spoke about forming an alliance with oligarchs in the name of restoring Ukraine.
Now Maidan’s anti-oligarch ardor has migrated to Ukraine’s east.
Here the movements born of political and linguistic opposition to the new ideology in Kiev are becoming chaotic in form and anti-capitalist in nature. Incidentally, if you know Ukrainian political culture, you know that “privatization” and commercialization of these forces are not far off. If these movements hope to be long-term participants in the political process, they will have to evolve from a paramilitary organization to a civilian one.
The “people’s republics” are entering a critical period. Poroshenko has an opportunity to disassociate himself from the failed attempts of the transitional authorities in Kiev to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity following the loss of Crimea and the outbreak of civil war in the south-east.
A continuation of the “anti-terrorist operation” will hardly be met with enthusiasm, least of all in Europe and America, where the victory of the chocolate king was a welcome development. The more likely outcome involves conciliatory promises in public and behind-the-scene deals. Kiev may also change its tone. The Bandera element in the government, which gave ammunition to the new regime’s critics, is fading into the background.
The majority of people in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions long for peace and order. Ordinary people in the “people’s republics” are sure to tire quickly of martial law declared in response to events in the “neighboring country” to the west. Any halfway sensible proposals from Kiev will seem like a better alternative than the armed disorder in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Furthermore, Moscow is not rushing to recognize their independence. In order to achieve real decentralization with the force of law, they will need professional political assistance in addition to security assistance.
Russia must ask itself if it is truly interested in stabilization in Ukraine. And if so, what kind of stabilization?
Moscow could decide to provide total support to the “people’s republics” thereby paralyzing Ukraine. This would aggravate the crisis given the country’s extreme economic problems and the West’s visible weariness of the protracted crisis. Europe and the United States have only one answer for Ukraine’s problems – additional sanctions against Russia. Neither Washington nor Brussels can think of anything better. If this comes to pass, Moscow will have to assume material and moral responsibility for what is happening in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
The other option is to take part in building the new Ukraine, but this will require flexibility and diplomatic artistry.
By ramping up support for Donestk and Lugansk, Moscow would at least block Kiev from moving closer to Europe, while helping to build a new Ukraine will cause the country to continue its westward drift, which Moscow will have no choice but to accept. Crimea’s accession to the Russian Federation and the chaos in southeast Ukraine have only strengthened pro-Western attitudes in the rest of Ukraine. And unless Kiev makes a fatal blunder (which can’t be ruled out), these attitudes will prevail.
Moscow views Ukraine’s membership in Western alliances as an unacceptable threat, but understands that it would be too costly, risky and unpredictable to cause a neighboring country to fragment. Any solution must involve institutional guarantees of neutrality.
No guarantees are 100%, but a combination of external and internal levers is required to make them at least relatively stable.
First, it is essential to create an effective, pro-Russian organization on the basis of the chaotic movements we’ve seen in the south-east so far. This organization should become a major player in Ukrainian politics. Second, considering the importance of Ukraine to European security, the new constitutional design of the country should be developed with the participation of all interested external parties.
While it may smack of colonialism, the fact is that both Russia and the EU have to sign off on Ukraine’s new political structure. All realistic Western politicians understand this, even well-known “friend of Russia” Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Kiev has failed to keep its word, instantly revising deals with other factions in the country as it saw fit. Only a rigidly defined external framework can keep Ukraine from turning into a perpetual powder keg in Russia-West relations. In other words, Ukraine needs something like Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia in late 1995. The sides of this internecine conflict were brought to the table by US and European pressure backed by Russian efforts. Ukraine does not need a formal protectorate like Bosnia and Herzegovina but rather a mechanism for protecting the interests of all parties both inside and outside Ukraine.
Now that the elections are over and the West is breathing a sigh of relief that they were a qualified success, Moscow should capitalize on the advantageous position of the “people’s republics” and suggest a serious deal to Europe and America. No deal will be able to decide the question of Ukraine once and for all, but it would at least put an end to a serious crisis that has extended far beyond its borders.