Sweet Talking in Ukraine

By Sergii Leshchenko, June 23, 2014

Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine

Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine

President Petro Poroshenko is not an ideal Western-type politician, and certainly not the answer to Maidan's dreams. But could he be the answer to Ukraine’s many problems? Society’s main demand is the eradication of corruption, if not at the very top, then on the lower level that citizens have to deal with, every day of their lives.

For four months, Ukraine has been in a state of undeclared war. First, the Kremlin used its soldiers to annex the Crimean peninsula. Now it is openly sending mercenaries from the depressed regions and republics of the Caucasus into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; military hardware as well.

Confirmation that the militants were being armed with Russian tanks came from NATO satellite photography. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also published proof – an APC seized by Ukrainian troops during an attempted breakthrough from the Russian side. Documents found in the APC confirmed which military base in Russia the hardware had come from.

The separatists are not only receiving help from Russia. Money from fugitive president Yanukovych and his clan is openly circulating for use in the cause. My sources in the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office told me that when their investigators arrived under cover in Donetsk and tried to carry out a search in Yanukovych’s family bank (UkrBusinessBank), it took no more than 20 minutes for armed insurgents from the Donetsk People’s Republic to come running. Because they were keen to remain alive, the detectives thought it best to quickly go back to Kyiv.

Poroshenko’s proposals
Inviting Donbas residents to the negotiating table, Poroshenko announced a weeklong ceasefire and a fifteen-point plan, his basis for a possible future compromise. As President of Ukraine he is prepared to offer exemption from criminal liability to anyone who lays down his arms. There is also a proposal to set up an exit corridor from Ukraine, a 17km buffer zone on the border for the mercenaries. The key point of the plan is the re-establishment by Kyiv of law and order in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an essential part of which would be the release of the buildings, which have been seized; and elections to the local councils.

But the situation in eastern Ukraine has shown that Poroshenko has urgent need of a negotiator, someone not involved in the murders; that would represent the interests of society and work towards disarming the militants. There are few candidates: Serhiy Taruta, head of the Donetsk region, was helpless when confronted by armed fighters; the richest Ukrainian oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, has been declared a traitor by part of the separatist movement; and the former head of the Presidential Administration, Viktor Medvechuk, who took part in negotiating the release of the hostages, is too hated a figure.

The success of Poroshenko’s presidential initatives depends on finding someone who can act as guarantor of any agreements.

Negotiating
Besides, peaceful initiatives are important as the final argument to be presented to the West. In their demands for negotiation, European and American politicians do not really understand that the fighters in eastern Ukraine are not insurgents, but criminals, for whom warring with the Ukrainian Government is not a form of protest, but a way to earn money.

By inviting Donbas to the negotiating table, Poroshenko is trying to convince the EU that he has done all he can to re-establish peace. If the separatists, armed by Moscow, choose not to come to the table, this has to be the final argument proving the necessity for introducing the third round of sanctions against Russia. The US is already prepared for this, but the indecisive EU is blocking this form of punishment for Russia.

The failure of peaceful negotiations will also leave Poroshenko no alternative, but to declare martial law, and embark on military action in eastern Ukraine. This could delay parliamentary elections by many months, and they are an important part of Porosheko’s plan to reboot the authority of the government.

Last week, President Poroshenko had a meeting with deputies from UDAR, the party of boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, which supported him during the presidential election. In an atmosphere of mutual trust, Poroshenko told his listeners that the discredited Ukrainian parliament had to be dissolved (and new elections held) no later than October. A new Verkhovna Rada (parliament) is key to the success of the Poroshenko presidency.

Election envy
Few people will probably have noticed that Petro Poroshenko’s success in the presidential election could well have been an object of envy for Vladimir Putin, even at his first election in 2000. Yulia Tymoshenko, Poroshenko’s rival, put up a poor performance, placing her a long way behind him: she had 12.8% of the vote to his 54.7%, whereas in 2000 Putin garnered 52.9% by comparison with his rival Gennady Zyuganov, who received only 29.2%.

So it is important for Poroshenko to build on his success while he is at the peak of his popularity. The last poll results from May show that Poroshenko’s party ‘Solidarity’ took first place with 27%, whereas Tymoshenko’s party (‘Fatherland’) had only 17%.

Tymoshenko has recognised Poroshenko’s victory, and she took part in his inauguration, supporting his first appointments – the Foreign Minister, Prosecutor General and head of the National Bank. Some of her people are still in the government: the key post of Foreign Minister went to Arsen Avakov, who was leader of the Fatherland party in the Kharkiv region.

But Tymoshenko’s support is an illusion. She is engaged in reconstructing her party, purging it of traitors, and eventually she will seize any opportunity she can to take her revenge. It is, therefore, politically expedient for him to call parliamentary elections as soon as possible and secure a loyal majority in the new parliament. Otherwise he will become the hostage of those unprincipled deputies, who, only six months ago, spinelessly supported President Yanukovych’s attempts to establish a dictatorship in Ukraine, and impose censorship.

Rivals
New parliamentary elections will not bring about the return of the Party of Regions, previously the voice of the Putin-inspired Eurasian movement. President’s Yanukovych’s flight put paid to the party, and there are now new projects afoot to redistribute its share of the electorate. The former head of Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, Sergei Levochkin, resigned just in time to support Poroshenko; he is launching his political project, the Development of Ukraine party. Serhiy Tyhypko is also planning to win over part of the Yanukovych voters; and Putin’s relative, Viktor Medvedchuk, is making no secret of his ambitions.

The Ukrainian nationalists, however, have no interest in a snap parliamentary election, because their results in the presidential election were dire. The leader of the far-right party Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, received just 1.16% of the vote, and Dmitro Yarosh, head of Right Sector, only 0.7%. Thus, the Ukrainian presidential election conclusively debunked many months of Russian propaganda, which had tried to spread the myth of Ukrainian nationalist Fascism.

Recent events – the occupation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine –, which provoked a surge of patriotism, have knocked one of the nationalist parties’ trump cards on the head. Poroshenko could make a gesture to the eastern regions and propose that the Russian language be granted special status.

Svoboda spent many months speculating on the topic of language. Today, they have reached the nadir of their political support. Surveys have shown that the number of supporters for Ukrainian remaining the only official language is 38%, whereas 27% think that Russian should be given official status in certain regions; and 31% are for making Russian the national language throughout Ukraine.

More important than the issue of language, however, is the question of the Russian TV propaganda machine. Urgent measures need to be taken to limit its reach. Surveys show that every second person in eastern Ukraine watches Russian TV as a source of news, which has resulted in the upsurge of anti-Ukrainian feeling.

Oligarchs
The revolutionary events of the past few months did not throw up just one potential leader, but Poroshenko was able to capitalise on the failures of other politicians. He also benefited from the fact that the old oligarchs quickly realised which way the wind was blowing, and started supporting him, even though they had previously accused him of extortion (as the current governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Ihor Kolomoiskiy, had done).

After Yanukovych fled, the oligarchs became one of the most important elements of Ukrainian politics, a paradoxical result of the change of regime. Unlike most other politicians, Poroshenko can talk to them on equal terms. Billionaires are used to looking down on politicians, because they can be bought. Poroshenko took no money from the oligarchs for the presidential election, and is free, therefore, to act as he will. He built his business empire in the competitive environment of the confectionery industry, earning the respect of many other oligarchs. Now, seeing that he is a good negotiator and clear-headed, they have united around him.

Not the answer to Maidan’s dreams
Oligarch Rinat Akhmetov controls 20-30% of Ukrainian GDP and owns the world’s most expensive flat at One Hyde Park. Petro Poroshenko is not an ideal Western-type politician, and certainly not the answer to Maidan’s dreams. His background is unusual, in that he was born in the south, in Odessa region (rather than in western Ukraine), is a member of the Moscow patriarchate congregation, and does not live off natural resources, like all the other oligarchs, but makes sweets. During a political career lasting 16 years he has changed party several times, been Economy Minister in the Yanukovych government, and managed to amass a forture of $1.3 billion as owner of the confectionery giant Roshen; he also owns sugar refineries, the TV station Channel 5 and the fashionable sports centre Fifth Element.

He may not be a typical politician of the new generation, but in the current climate he has shown himself to be the best prepared to deal with the challenges facing Ukraine. Prior to the presidential election, his team carried out voter research using focus groups. To their relief they discovered that for most Ukrainians, Poroshenko’s wealth was a guarantee that he would not steal from them while he was President.

Election to the presidency will be a test of how to divide his time and energies between government and his business. He is going to have to rebuild relations with big capital, which until now has lived parasitically off its links with politics. The sums of money involved in big business in Ukraine could well be amazing to European readers: one oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, controls 20-30% of Ukrainian GDP; he owns the most expensive real estate in the world – a London flat worth $220m, and a private Airbus 319.

Poroshenko himself is far from modest. He lives in an opulent villa, and travels in his own Cessna plane. The challenge facing him is whether he can build a just society, and not one in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, which is, of course, what initially brought people on to Maidan. His considerable experience in economics leads one to hope that Poroshenko will bring in reforms. He has, after all, had more than one encounter with the corrupt machine of state.

A mandate for reform
Putin’s military aggression has resulted in Ukrainian society uniting in a way that has not been seen during the past decade. In May 2014, the results of a poll were announced, according to which 52.3% of the electorate would vote for joining the EU, and only 22.1% for joining Putin’s Customs Union. In the Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhya regions, which are contiguous with conflict-ridden Donbas, support for European integration is twice as high as it is for becoming part of the Kremlin’s Customs Union.

This provides Poroshenko with a unique opportunity once and for all to wrest Ukraine away from the status of a Russian dominion, but for that to happen he will have to launch genuine economic reform. Although the Constitution endows the Cabinet of Ministers, rather than the President, with this power, Poroshenko’s unprecedented mandate based on society’s trust in him expands the horizon of his responsibilities. The Ukrainian voter regards him as the person who will realise the dreams of Maidan – and as quickly as possible.

 Poroshenko promised to surround himself with experienced Western-minded advisers from Georgia, but acting on their advice is going to need all the strength of will he can muster. All their recommendations start with the same requirement – removing the old officials and hiring new, younger and more educated people, able to think in a modern way. This may have worked in Georgia, but the population of Ukraine is 10 times bigger, and the national idea 10 times weaker. So this approach will demand heroism and self-sacrifice from the post-Yanukovych politicians.

Society’s main demand is the eradication of corruption, if not at the very top, then on the lower level that the citizen has to deal with, every day of his life – the police, medical, education, tax and customs services. ‘Poroshenko doesn’t have five years to bring in reforms. He’ll have to do it in three, so that people will have a chance of living their new life for at least two years,’ says one of Poroshenko’s close allies, Viktor Korol. In this case, he thinks, the presidency will be a success; and in 10 years’ time Poroshenko will be able to realise his dream of becoming the first Ukrainian representative in the European Parliament.

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Sergii Leshchenko is an investigative and political journalist. He is deputy-editor-in-chief of Ukrainska pravda, Ukraine’s leading independent online media. He was a 2012 Fellow of the John Smith Memorial Trust and a Reagan-Fascell Fellow from 2013-2014. All views expressed are made in a personal capacity.

 

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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