A year that began with the battle of Debaltseve in Ukraine ended with more centrally based conflicts inside the Parliament. The contrast is symbolic: the main problems for Ukraine may now lie within the heart of the country rather than from the Russian-supported separatist regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Debaltseve conflict, which saw the separatists capture the key town linking Donetsk and Luhansk in February, threatened to unhinge the Minsk-2 agreement, a bizarre series of negotiations that had seen Ukraine represented by a disgraced former president, Leonid Kuchma, and which were presided over by a self-proclaimed dictator, Aliaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus. The agreement anticipated the impossible, namely that Ukraine would be in control of its eastern borders by the end of 2015.
It also promised regional decentralization without formally recognizing the two breakaway “republics,” the leaders of which were signatories of Minsk-2. The year also saw what has been termed “Decommunization,” ending with the disbandment of the Communist Party of Ukraine, itself a rehash of the original Soviet party headed for many years by Petro Shelest and Volodymyr Shcherbyts’kyi.
The introduction of four laws that were approved by President Petro Poroshenko in May also laid the groundwork for the eradication of Communist memory—alternatively Soviet memory—with the removal of Lenin statues and the prospective changes of hundreds of towns, villages, and streets. It also defined the so-called “fighters for the independence of Ukraine” in the 20th century, with nebulous punishments decreed for those besmirching the reputation of these organizations and their leaders.
The Parliament in theory is a united assembly, comprised mostly of the leaders of the ruling coalition made up of President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk and their respective followers (the Radical Party left the coalition on September 1). Smaller groups include some remnants of the Regions Party who are no longer officially affiliated, but essentially there is no official opposition. Ostensibly the goal is structural reforms, and already there have been some positive results, such as the creation of a US-supported new police force (but see http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/29/the-problem-with-ukrainian-police-reform-ukraine/). Other programs have made slower progress, generally blamed on the continuing prevalence of oligarchs.
In late May, Poroshenko made an intriguing addition to the political leadership with the appointment of former Georgian president Mikael Saakashvili as governor of Odesa, possibly the most corrupt region of Ukraine. The move was seen as a direct affront to one of Saakashvili’s worst enemies, Russian president Vladimir Putin. But it actually served to undermine the ruling coalition as became evident by the end of the year.
In the background to these political events was a struggling economy and the virtual collapse of the national currency against the dollar. A much-needed IMF loan came with demands for reforms, the raising of domestic gas prices, and a stringent budget for 2016 that was passed toward the very end of the year. Beyond the ruling coalition, the hard right forces organized demonstrations in Kyiv, culminating in a major protest against autonomy for the eastern regions at the end of August. Grenades were thrown by demonstrators, killing several people and injuring dozens, including 90 police, and the culprits evidently were members of the Radical and Svoboda parties. The bill attained a majority in the parliament notwithstanding.
But it was the December events in Kyiv that will remain in the minds of many, largely because of their visual transmission through social media. On December 11, as Yatsenyuk ended his question time period in Parliament, Oleh Barna, an MP from the Poroshenko faction, approached the podium bearing a bunch of red roses. As the bemused Prime Minister accepted them, he was hoisted into the air by Barna who tried to drag him from the podium. Yatsenyuk attained the antithesis of the sort of images sought by current Russian leaders, by clinging to the podium without dropping the flowers. Poroshenko condemned the attack, but the damage was done.
Much was made by analysts of the typical parliamentary “circus” but few observed that during the ensuing brawl, there were no Regions Party MPs and no Communists. The pugilists were almost all supporters of Euromaidan and mostly pro-Western politicians.
Three days later at the Council for Reforms, the Azeri-born Interior Minister Arsen Avakov was addressing the assembly. Sakaashvili, seated prominently at the front of the room shouted out that he (Avakov) was a thief. Avakov did not take the insult lightly, resorting to obscenities and demanding that Sakaashvili should “get the hell out of my country.” Sakaashvili elected to stay, rising to his feet with staccato attacks on the speaker, who then responded by flinging the contents of a bottle of water at the former Georgian leader. Yatsenyuk further demeaned himself by joining in the attacks on Sakaashvili.
Opinion polls in Ukraine suggest that Sakaashvili is now the most popular political leader in Ukraine, and a potential replacement for the unpopular Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. In fact in an open contest he would also beat his old friend, the president, quite convincingly. Other politicians such as Finance Minister Natalia Jaresko, came to the defence of Yatsenyuk, whom Sakaashvili maintains is deeply enmeshed in corruption, including in the latter’s new home of Odesa.
The two events demonstrate a deep rift within the ruling coalition. Only the two leaders of each branch remain civil to each other. Sakaashvili’s appointment is simply a catalyst since the fiery politician can be counted upon to inflame feelings by his uncompromising attitude and Boris Yeltsin-style populism. Just as Yeltsin was initially removed from his post as Moscow city leader by Gorbachev in 1987 after his attacks on corruption in the city, so Sakaashvili could also find his new career cut short. Alternatively (and also like Yeltsin after 1989), he could rise to the very top in Ukraine, which would mean the end of the post-Euromaidan coalition.
Neither option should be entirely surprising. Ukraine’s political leaders since independence have been former Communists or oligarchs, and sometimes both. Only Viktor Yushchenko could be termed a national reformer but his tenure was marred by political in-fighting and a miserable record on all fronts. His comments in late December blaming Yulia Tymoshenko for all his troubles only illustrate his continuing self-deception. It is precisely because of the records of former and current leaders that the prospect of Sakaashvili appears so enticing and the reason why some respected analysts are calling for a new Euromaidan. But both these “solutions” would constitute major disasters.
The country requires a period of sustained stability, which is best served by the ruling coalition. Poroshenko needs to support his ailing Prime Minister, rather than sit on the sidelines. Neither figure may survive in the long term, but at present they are the elected leaders and best placed to attain reforms—their own business interests notwithstanding.
As Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund has commented, Ukraine is “flirting with political suicide” and one can no longer simply lay all the blame on Russia and Putin. The east and the success of the peace process remains in question, but it would only be exacerbated by an internecine conflict within the Kyiv leadership. Two years of turmoil and warfare, as well as the loss of Crimea, have taken their toll. The watchwords for 2016 should be compromise and survival, rather than confrontation and revolution. The survival of Ukraine depends on it.