And Now For “Hybrid Politics”

After parliamentary elections, another chance for Ukraine to rid itself from post-Soviet kleptocracy

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  October 27, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

Now comes the hard part. Let’s call it “hybrid politics.” With Sunday’s election of a new parliament, Ukraine has its third chance in 23 years to rid itself of post-Soviet kleptocracy and grinding poverty.

Paradoxically, the odds are both better and worse than in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and independent Ukraine was born, or in 2004, when infighting aborted the democratic birth of the Orange Revolution. The odds are better because, ironically, Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine has finally forged an unprecedented consensus among Ukrainians that they have a distinct identity that differs from the fuzzy Russian notion of an East Slav brotherhood of senior Russians and obedient junior Ukrainians. The odds are worse because painful transformation must be effected while Russia’s “hybrid war” on Ukraine is ongoing. Already, the war has cost Kiev Crimea and half of Donbas to Russian annexation and control, along with some 3,700 lives, one million displaced persons, and a projected shrinking of GDP between 7 and 10 percent.

Preliminary results suggest that a reformist coalition led by President Petro Poroshenko (21.5 percent for his own bloc) will win an unexpectedly high majority of 60 percent, in tandem with interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front (21.9 percent), and (less formally) the Self-Help Party of democratic activist and Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovy (11 percent), and the remnants of the Orange Revolution in Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party (close to 6 percent). The exact majority will be known only after votes in the single-mandate constituencies that determine half of parliamentary seats have been counted. It will clearly give the centrist parties a caucus that approaches the two-thirds majority needed to amend Ukraine’s dysfunctional constitution and allow fundamental political and economic reforms.

The overwhelming vote for centrist pro-European parties has marginalized the extremes. On the left, for the first time since independence, Communists fell far below the 5 percent minimum needed to enter the Verhovna Rada (or simply Rada) legislature. The Opposition Bloc, successor to the old regime’s Party of Regions, won 9.8 percent – a sufficiently low figure to curtail the residual influence in eastern Ukraine of Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced billionaire president of Ukraine who fled to Russian exile last February. The bloc is financed by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and former Fuel Minister Yuriy Boyko , who is affiliated with oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Firtash, the one-time intermediary for Russian gas exports to Ukraine, was arrested in Vienna last March to face an American request for extradition on charges of bribery and involvement in a criminal enterprise.

On the right, both the Right Sector ultranationalists and the more moderate Svoboda nationalists – whom Russian propaganda brands as fascist engineers of a “coup” in Kiev last February – failed to enter the Rada. The Radicals, under the flamboyant Oleh Lyashko, who is equally renowned for his fistfights on the parliamentary floor and for his role in organizing volunteer militias to fight separatists in eastern Ukraine, won 6.4 percent.

Sunday’s vote was based on old rules designed to help autocratic leaders control their party followers in the era of pro-Russian Ukrainian governments. Democratic reformers are intent on changing this party-list system. Yet in a chaotic election in which most parties campaigned on identical bland platforms of patriotism, fighting corruption, and participating in Europe’s peace and prosperity, the legacy rules helped reformers. With the old Yanukovych political machine reduced to a shadow and a horde of unknowns seeking office, the familiar president and interim prime minister stood out as heroes who had rebuilt the desolate Ukrainian army and would have defeated motley pro-Russian separatists in Donbas if Russian paratroopers had not invaded Ukraine directly in late August to save their proxies. President Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk, who is likely to continue as prime minister, should be able to keep their parties and broader coalition with them in the next one or two years.

Despite the pro-European landslide in the election, the fight for reforms will be a tough one in what is still a hybrid system with more old-timers than newcomers in the Rada. Mustafa Nayem –the Afghan-born investigative reporter who initiated last winter’s three-month-long pro-democracy protest on Kiev’s “Euromaidan” square – and his fellow activists who are now entering the Rada will have to challenge the many troglodytes still in office, including those in their own parties.

The most painful reforms will be economic and must start with a sharp hike in the cheap rates for electricity. State enterprises that have served as golden geese for those politicians or magnates who controlled them – Anders Aslund at the Peterson Institute for International Economics calculates that billionaire Yanukovych could single-handedly solve Ukraine’s budget deficit by returning money to the state that he took from it – must be privatized fairly. And the whole bureaucratic system must be stripped of regulations for business that serve as gates for the extraction of bribes.

In politics, controversial decentralization must be enacted and anti-corruption laws must be enforced once the constitution is amended. Lustration of Russian agents still in place from the Yanukovych administration must be carried out without becoming a witch-hunt. The stranglehold on politics by oligarch-criminal-political networks must be broken, and real political parties that offer coherent policy choices must be formed from the bottom up. The judiciary must be de-politicized, election laws must be revised, and the rule of law must be established. The parties, ministries, and the legal system must be depersonalized and replaced by sturdy institutions that are strong enough to resist being highjacked for private gain.

This agenda would be daunting for any government. It is herculean for a state that has had its territory dismembered by a giant neighbor that is still waging undeclared war on it. The big question now is whether the shock of Russian aggression will unite Ukrainians long enough to transform their country.

NB. This blog post was updated on October 28, 2014, to take account of changes in the projected election results.


ELIZABETH POND, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of “The Rebirth of Europe.“ She has covered Ukraine for over 30 years.

© Elizabeth Pond

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Choosing Lesser Evils

Both Ukraine and Russia face unpleasant choices

IP Journal, German Council on Foreign Relations  October 20, 2014

by Elizabeth Pond

For six weeks the imperfect truce between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country has produced a relative lull in the Ukraine crisis. Open confrontation will resume after Ukraine’s October 26 general election replaces the interim government set up after then president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country to exile in Russia last February. What happens next will depend on unpalatable choices that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko must then make.

The Russian president could follow up on his tough talk of last Thursday, when he once again asserted that the crisis threatens nuclear “strategic stability” and global “economic health.” He could increase pressure on Kiev, for example, by using Russian troops and mercenaries to seize Ukraine’s southern underbelly and build a land corridor to Russia’s newly annexed Crimea, then push on to Odessa or even Transdniestria. He could carry violence to Kiev itself, as suggested by the SBU Ukrainian intelligence agency’s announced discovery of explosives caches in the hands of suspected “terrorists” who were plotting an attack on election day.

Alternatively, Putin could settle for consolidating the gains Moscow has made so far in a stalemate in which Russia continues to dominate Ukraine’s easternmost provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk but marches no farther west.

In the run-up to the October 26 election German Chancellor Angela Merkel – to whom US President Barack Obama has essentially outsourced Western leadership in the crisis – restated the West’s interests in the outcome of the crisis in a government declaration. She ranked Russia’s land grab in Ukraine by force together with IS terror and the ebola scourge as the world’s three main challenges today. The terms of the September 5 truce in southeast Ukraine must be fully implemented, she stressed, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe must be allowed to conduct robust monitoring of the Russian-Ukrainian border that in the past half year has served as a conduit for delivery of Russian heavy weapons to pro-Russian militants in Ukraine.

This is the latest iteration of an eight-month-old contest that still pits Moscow’s short-term military advantage in the Ukrainian theater against the long-term might of the global financial sanctions the West imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in March in violation of international law and Russo-Ukrainian treaties. Militarily, Moscow enjoys local “escalation dominance” by virtue of Russia’s supremacy in regional ground forces, the weakness of Ukraine’s long-neglected army, and the West’s refusal to risk World War III to defend a non-NATO member on Russia’s doorstep. This has allowed Putin to weather a series of setbacks that began when Ukraine refused to add its 45 million to the Russian president’s pet Eurasian Union and drained the project of critical mass. He has surmounted each failure by raising the ante militarily – and reaping a nationalist domestic approval rating of more than 80 percent after each new fait accompli. Most recently, he sent paratroopers from Russia’s elite 331st Airborne regiment into Luhansk and Donetsk in late August in a direct invasion (though Russian officials deny this) to stave off a looming victory by the ragtag Ukrainian army and militias over Russia’s even more ragtag proxy separatists there.

Putin still scorns the West’s sanctions as “utter foolishness” and flaunts new trade, investment, and weapons deals with China as proof that Moscow doesn’t need the West. Already, however, the costs of Russian incursions in Ukraine are rising, both in damage to the Russian economy from sanctions and in deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Capital flight from Russia has reached $110bn this year, the ruble has plunged into freefall, the price paid for Russia’s crucial oil exports has dropped by 20 percent, and Russian GDP growth will be close to zero, Sorely needed Western investment in energy and other technology has dried up, and Russia has had to accept commercial deals with China that greatly favor Beijing. Such subordination of Russian economic interests to populist expansion of Russian territory would relegate the land to stagnation as an extraction and rent economy.

The longer such negative trends continue, the more they could cut into Putin’s popularity at home and undermine his 21st-century social contract of giving Russia’s growing urban middle class a steadily rising standard of living in return for political passivity. Despite Putin’s denials, the legal challenges to the sanctions filed at the European Court of Justice this month by Putin’s old judo partner Arkady Rotenberg and the Rosneft state oil firm suggest that they are finally beginning to hurt the president’s inner circle of old KGB hardliners.

Putin’s popularity–more Russians now say they believe in Putin (86 percent) than believe in God (78 percent)–could drop sharply as the death toll of Russian soldiers rises and as economic stagnation thwarts rising Russian expecations of better lives. The Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committee (which has now been branded as a “foreign agent” in Russia) has been protesting the secret burial of Russian corpses shipped back from Ukraine and the blackout on information provided to the families of the deceased. And a Russian plurality of 43 percent now says it would not “support the Russian leadership in the event of open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine” (as against 41 percent that would support the Kremlin).

Moreover, Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine has, for the first time in a millennium, solidified a counterproductive consensus among Ukrainians that their identity is distinct from that of Russians and is more closely linked to a European than to an East Slav future. By now the consensus includes Russian speakers in the east of the country, as shown both in opinion polls and in the failure of Russian proxy forces last summer to ignite even pointillist rebellion in six of the eight Ukrainian provinces that Putin targeted as “Novorossiya” (New Russia). Ukraine’s growing consensus has nudged Putin’s long-time client in Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to distance himself somewhat from his patron. And it has even begun to cast doubt on the the old aphorism that Russian liberalism ends at Ukraine.

Under the circumstances, Putin will face a strong temptation to continue his pattern of steady military escalation by extending “hybrid warfare” to more profitable Ukrainian provinces than the Donbas–and by stepping up his air and naval probes of ex-Soviet NATO members and Baltic non-members Sweden and Finland. Former Polish foreign minister Radislaw Sikorski argues that Putin sees his choice as either neo-imperialist glory or surrendering power–and that he is ready to sacrifice Russia’s real interests to his own political survival.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s alternate options are less dramatic than Putin’s. Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine once and can clearly invade it again at will, Kiev’s only choice is the nature of its accommodation of the giant next door. This comes down basically to using the shock of the Russian land grab to effect real democratic and economic transformation in Ukraine, even under the constant threat of Russian guns, or slipping back into the country’s post-Soviet kleptocracy of oligarchs and clientelist politics of the past two decades.

Opinion polls still forecast a 40 percent plurality for Poroshenko’s party and its allies on October 26. The Ukrainian president would need to parlay that into ad hoc majorities, probably by repeated buying of votes. Such tactics would hardly suffice to produce the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution and permit the root-and-branch reforms that are urgently needed, however. The electoral lists show that many oldtimers will re-enter parliament, will still operate within clientelist clans–and will do their best to prevent any clean-up of chronic large-scale corruption.

Petro Poroshenko’s and Vladimir Putin’s parallel choices of lesser evils will define the next stage of the Ukraine crisis.


Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine for more than thirty years.