Eighteen Months On: Post-Maidan Ukraine

Jul 14, 2015

Professor Nicolai Petro was a Fulbright scholar in Odessa, southern Ukraine, for a year in the aftermath of the Maidan revolution. In Odessa once again, he offers his impressions of the economic, political, and security situations in Ukraine today.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. This is another in our regular series of Ethics in Security Bulletins.

Our guest today is Dr. Nicolai Petro. Dr. Petro is a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, specializing in Russia and its neighboring states. He has previously served in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and has held fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. He is the author of several books on Russian democratic development and foreign policy, and has published in The American Interest, The New York Times, The Nation, The National Interest, The Wilson Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Last year, Dr. Petro was a Fulbright Scholar in Odessa, Ukraine, and we spoke to him on several occasions there during that tumultuous period in Ukraine. He is now back in Odessa.

Nicolai, welcome back once again to the Carnegie Council.

NICOLAI PETRO: Nice to be back.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The first, I guess, most obvious question, Nicolai, is, given the fact that you are back after almost a year away, what has changed in the parts of Ukraine where you have been; what has changed over that period, for better or for worse?

NICOLAI PETRO: Speaking of the region of Odessa, where we lived last year and have now returned, the economic situation here, as in most of the rest of the country, is worse. The currency has fallen significantly with respect to Western currencies. There is a general decline in the standard of living. And there is not a lot of economic activity going on right now, as most foreign investors, and even domestic investors, are not quite sure which direction the country is headed, whether it will be toward stability or whether the political and—well, the political situation will continue to deteriorate and, as a result, also the economic situation.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In that regard, Nicolai, obviously one of the things that has just been festering over since the crisis of Maidan and beyond is the question of foreign investment, of propping up the Ukrainian economy, the significant amount needed to do that. Is this a question of confidence? Is this just something that is lingering and not liable to be resolved in the near future?

NICOLAI PETRO: My sense is that Western investors—and not just Western investors but also their Russian counterparts, their Chinese counterparts, and many Ukrainian businessmen—have little confidence in the ability of the government in power now today to be able to come up with a packet of reforms that can be pursued consistently. As a result, they feel that the economic situation in the country, both legally and in terms of the stability of the banking system and of the currency, is unpredictable.

Despite Western assistance through loan guarantees and through credits, the amount that would be needed to revitalize, not just stabilize—sort of to put it on life support, but to really revitalize—the Ukrainian economy is much greater than what has been offered by the combined packages of the Western countries supporting the current government.

What is really needed is a massive amount of investment in the country, and that is not something that Western governments can guarantee. There needs to be a revitalization of confidence of business investors in the country.

One of the things that has really gone against that is the government's illogical stance to sever commercial links with Russia, which even today, more than a year after the Maidan and after a number of specific measures taken to cut off Ukrainian economic ties with Russia, Russia still, I recently read, remains the country's largest trading partner. Everything that the current Ukrainian government is doing is aimed at undermining that relationship, with nothing coming forth from the West comparable to that.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It sounds like a self-defeating, quixotic proposition.

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes. It's really an irrational economic policy. But it is driven by an ideological perspective of the current government that seeks to distance or remove Russian influence, including economic influence, in the country, when Russian economic influence remains all-pervasive. And there is nowhere Ukraine is going geographically; it will always be Russia's neighbor and Russia will always be very significant in its life.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You mentioned before we came on the air that President Poroshenko is in Odessa today [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded on July 8, 2015.] for a meeting of regional governors. Is this some sort of a crisis meeting or is this routine?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, it wasn't announced before that, but I would say that this week the Ukrainian government has been in crisis mode because there was an unexpected populist vote that led to a split within the government coalition. There was an attempt to pass a law that allowed investors to repay loans taken from banks when the local currency was at a rate of 5:1, whereas today it is closer to 23:1, to the dollar. That particular vote, which the president and the government urged parliamentarians to vote against, actually passed in the parliament because the majority of the president's own party voted in favor of it.

Now, everyone understands that Ukraine cannot possibly afford to do that, to repay loans taken by private citizens in banks at a rate that no longer exists. But, in a populist move, the parliamentarians voted for it.

As a result, there was supposed to be a meeting again of the parliament and a revote to rescind the prior vote. But they apparently do not have the votes in parliament, so they have delayed that vote.

The majority whip in the parliament for President Poroshenko's party has resigned. Now, he is being asked to reconsider his resignation. There have been, in addition to that, several ministerial resignations. Basically, I would say that every minister's portfolio currently in the government looks shaky.

And this is all taking place on the eve of crucial negotiations with the IMF [International Monetary Fund] over the status of creditors that need to be repaid this year.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Hardly encouraging.

Let me move to a question concerning Odessa. One of the more, at least on the face of things, bizarre moves of late was the appointment of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of the Odessa region. You wrote at the time in an article, an opinion piece, "What to Expect from Saakashvili in Odessa," that "his appointment to the governorship of the Odessa region is primarily a domestic reshuffling of cadres in anticipation of further infighting among the various clans in Ukraine, rather than a policy decision aimed at Russia." This just seems to add to the fairly chaotic scenario that you have been describing.

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes. Sadly, there does seem to be a lot more infighting. Although it's hard to tell, because we're sort of watching this theater from a distance, the average citizen can't really know what's happening behind the scenes, but Saakashvili's support comes directly from the president. So President Poroshenko is going out of his way again to indicate that he is supporting Saakashvili's initiatives in this region for reform by holding a regional governors' meeting. But his policies here over the course of the past months have met with considerable, I would say, unease. Saakashvili has summarily fired or shed heads of districts. He has fired local prosecutors. He basically has made a great show on television of coming to meetings yelling at local officials and then summarily sacking them.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It sounds very Soviet, doesn't it?

NICOLAI PETRO: It is not quite clear what happens next. In other words, there is no one yet to replace the individuals who have been fired. Yet, presumably, government must continue to function somehow.

So what we're left with is a sense of increasing chaos, rather than increasing order, coming from uncertainty.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Yes. And, you know, this sort of begs the whole question of Saakashvili's record. I think you mentioned this in the article, that his record as president in terms of economic performance in Georgia was hardly stellar, was it?

NICOLAI PETRO: It was mixed. He has been and is credited with making inroads against corruption in a very demonstrable way. But the problem is that that corruption wasn't eradicated; it simply moved into another sphere, sort of up the food chain, to groups closer to the top of power and closer to Saakashvili.

What is happening now in Odessa seems to be that, having dismissed local political figures, he is in fact replacing them with people that he knows from Georgia. As a result, he is now establishing a network of people that he is familiar with. Whether that will suffice—that new network that he is creating of people loyal to himself, of Georgians loyal to himself locally—whether that will suffice to overcome the established older Odessan and south Ukrainian networks is, I think, a very big question mark, as is, especially, the time that he has, or wishes, to commit to transforming the region.

In my article, I suggested that for Saakashvili, even as he was appointed, he was suggesting that this particular appointment was little more than a launching pad for getting into Georgian politics, and it was just the right time for him to make this move in Ukrainian politics to burnish his credentials as a reformer because the party that he had led in Georgia had suffered from a very serious series of defections, which basically crippled his power base in Georgia.

So that's what we're left with here, is an uncertainty as to how long he is actually—what his commitment is to transforming Odessa, or whether this is simply a staging round for a return to Georgian politics.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You've written another recent piece—essentially, the title is something along the lines of "bringing Ukraine back into focus." In it you really highlight again one of those issues that had been pretty much consistent since the original uprising of, I guess, some 18 months ago now, but the fundamental issue of two Ukraines, of, as I think you put it, divergent narratives, that neither the east, the pro-Russian forces in the east, and Kiev on the other hand—neither is willing to either give up their identity or to contemplate dividing the state.

Is this two Ukraines a sort of thing that we have to live with permanently? Put another way, can there be a modern Ukrainian unified state?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, let me start by saying that I think Ukraine has always been multilingual and multicultural, and that this characteristic is best reflected in the large presence of Russian culture in Ukraine. People who see themselves as part of Russian culture in Ukraine don't think of themselves as pro-Russian; they are simply Ukrainians who are expressing their cultural heritage as loyal Ukrainians. They have never been anything but Ukrainians in their own minds. That was true before the Soviet Union collapsed and after the Soviet Union collapsed.

So it's not really accurate, and quite misleading, when news reports talk about pro-Russian separatists as if they were not Ukrainians, because they are simply Ukrainians who wish to have a bicultural Ukraine, as opposed to those Ukrainians who wish to have a monocultural Ukraine.

The former bicultural Ukrainians really are advocating for equality of both identities in a single country, whereas the monocultural Ukrainians are arguing for the supremacy of one version of Ukrainian identity, and then anyone who doesn't agree with that would essentially be tolerated as a minority.

So what people in Eastern Ukraine, and to some extent what the issue in Crimea was about, was would those people be willing to tolerate being not equal in status to Ukrainians but, rather, a minority within the country? They basically are resisting that.

The Minsk accords, at least the protocols which were signed in February as a roadmap, really highlight the fact that there is an attempt in Eastern Ukraine to establish a process for being recognized within Ukraine as having a special valued status—not just as a people who would then be a minority in the country, but as having equal status in Ukraine. They are arguing for a vision of that as something that can be applied not only in Eastern Ukraine, but if the constitutional reform were to go through as indicated in the Minsk accords signed in February, then this would be an option for the country as a whole.

So we are still talking about really a crisis that seeks to define what actually—who has the right to define who is a Ukrainian.

DAVID SPEEDIE: At the end of this article on essentially bringing Ukraine back into focus, to your credit, you don't just diagnose the problem, you propose a two-part solution that basically speaks of constitutional reform and economic investment, and indeed economic reforms. In the context of all you've been saying, it seems that this is perhaps a bridge too far at this point. What do you see as the prospects for this agenda for a solution to the current situation?

NICOLAI PETRO: It might seem fantastic right now to talk about a civic culture coming about in Ukraine, but without it I don't see the country—and so, the only alternative to promoting a civic culture through a constitutional reform that enshrines the diversity of Ukraine and that makes that diversity of cultures inclusive, rather than focusing, as it currently does, on distinctiveness of the cultural identities within Ukraine—without that, we will simply be returning to the core issues that have led to the current conflict.

People argue that this current crisis was inspired by Russian intervention. But that overlooks the long history of tensions, which many political leaders have ignored or brushed aside, but which, when the current Maidan movement in 2014 took on a very nationalistic flavor, was seen by many in the east and south of the country as a potential threat to their civil rights. When that threat was not reduced but became in fact the theme of the Maidan and the theme of the new course of government, it's not at all surprising to me that they took up arms to defend against what they saw as the potential threat to their status.

So if they don't address that status in the context of the constitution—and decentralization is one possible way to do it, a more sensible and logical way historically and in many countries has been some form of federalism—but the current government in Ukraine has an allergy to that word, so they prefer the term "decentralization." But nevertheless, the contents of that decentralization, as indicated in the Minsk accords, needs to be to grant local autonomy and the ability to determine their cultural identity and their religious identity and their language uses based on local preferences. Without that, there is little hope of ending this conflict anytime soon.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And once again, these issues of language rights and the federalism/decentralization—devolution might be another term to use, I suppose—


DAVID SPEEDIE: —these are all things that have been there ab initio, from the very beginning, so it seems.

And by the way, on the Minsk accords, I am sure you're aware that the sort of glib response in the Western press is that Russian perfidy in setting up problems in the east make the Minsk accords sort of dead on arrival. Is this just something that the Kiev administration is using as an excuse not to implement them?

NICHOLAI PETRO: I think there are definitely external actors involved in the Ukrainian Civil War. I can't think of a civil war where that has not been the case. Russia has certainly tremendous interests at stake, so it's not surprising that it would be involved in some way.

But I don't believe that this involvement in this conflict is the core issue and that if Ukraine could somehow be taken away and could be somehow moved geographically and create an island maybe in the South Pacific several thousand miles away from Russia, we would still be left with the key issue, the core issues, which is the lack of understanding—or let's say the conflict—between two distinct views of Ukrainian identity.

On the Minsk accords, let me say something that in addition is very important. The presumptive basis of the accords, particularly the ones signed in February, which provided a roadmap for the political resolution of this crisis, was that Kiev would negotiate directly with the rebels about their status. That's why there needed to be a ceasefire, that's why there needed to be a process of decentralization, and why there needs to be constitutional broad reforms.

Now, Poroshenko agreed to all of this in the accords. But his government and the parliamentary majority have disagreed with him and have thwarted, therefore, the implementation of key points of the February accords on direct negotiations regarding local elections, on the status of territories, on constitutional decentralization and special status for the territories, on amnesty, and on restoring banking services.

And then, in addition, about two weeks ago, they added fuel to the fire by blockading the rebel-held territories, including even humanitarian assistance coming from Ukraine itself, whereas the Minsk accords specified that the exact opposite should happen.

So as long as what locally people are calling "the party of war" holds the upper hand in the parliament, little is going to happen with respect to these accords being implemented.

I've been listening to some Ukrainian political analysts that argue that what is needed now is an imperative external mandate—in other words, a third party, the UN or the United States or someone, coming in, putting down peacekeepers, and forcing the government and the rebels to negotiate, to reach a settlement. Others, however, argue that Europe needs to put pressure on Kiev.

As long as the parties want to hold the upper hand in Kiev, it's not likely that the accords will be realized. How to get around this conflict within the Ukrainian political elite—some people I know, political analysts here, have argued that there needs to be an imperative external mandate, maybe a UN force, something that comes in and establishes not only a ceasefire but actually coerces the parties so that they come to some agreement.

Others feel that that's not necessary; all that's really necessary is for Europe to put pressure on Kiev. They suggest that Germany appears willing to do so, but that the United States is not.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me finish with a couple of questions about Ukraine in the world, so to speak, not just the domestic situation.

Clearly, Ukraine is somewhat off the radar—certainly in the United States, and I think in the Western press, things like the ISIL [Islamic State or Iraq and the Levant] crisis in the greater Middle East, the Iran negotiations in Geneva [and Vienna]. Is this diversion of attention sensed in Ukraine? Is there some concern that "we are the sort of forgotten issue"?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, of course, the civil war here is front and center, as it is in the news, not just in Ukraine but also in Russia. So they, of course, in Ukraine have a very strong interest in making sure that the West keeps its eye on Ukraine and have a strong interest also in making Russia the target in order to divert, to get at least some more potential assistance out of that for the Ukrainian economy.

It doesn't seem to me like a long-term strategy. It seems like a makeshift strategy. One of the things that one hears increasingly now is: What is going to happen after the presumptive local elections in October here in Ukraine; and whether or not there will be new parliamentary elections, and what sort of parliament that might yield, because the party of Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, which actually won the last parliamentary elections, has plummeted in popularity. It is quite possible that a new parliament will be less willing to conduct a military campaign in the east and more willing to negotiate.

But it is not at all in the interests of the current parliamentary majority to yield power to that sort of parliament because many of the people now in power see themselves as true believers in the cause of the Maidan and the further Ukrainian transformation of society and as committed to a radical transformation, which may include—indeed, for many does include—seeing this war through in the east to a victorious conclusion.

DAVID SPEEDIE: A similar question in terms of Ukraine's sense of itself at this point, or at least Kiev's sense of itself: Even as we speak, there is this meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization going on in Ufa in Russia.

Speaking of competing narratives, even as the Russians and the Chinese are apparently in some sort of concert to some extent in taking on the American role and influence in Asia, there are two narratives here: with Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union of course, and China having a different plan of some sort of "Silk Route" that extends down into South East Asia.

Clearly, there are a lot of moving parts here in terms of the future of the whole Eurasian land mass. Is this somewhere where Ukraine will simply be left behind? Do they have any interest in being somehow involved in this unfolding drama, as it were?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, not under the current government. But I think again we come back to those two very distinctive and to some extent mutually exclusive narratives about Ukrainian identity. The monocultural Ukrainian identity, which is currently being imposed, sees itself as creating a Ukraine against Russia, against Russian influence, and its source of support will therefore be a Europe which is also counterpoised to Russia.

Now, in a Ukraine which is bicultural or multicultural, Russian culture would be valued as would the possibility of having economic, cultural, political interactions with Russia—and not just with Russia, but with all of the former Soviet states, several of which are now included in the Eurasian Union and, beyond that, in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and through both of those in the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa].

So if there were to be a multicultural or a bicultural Ukraine, one could easily see a shift in the political orientation of Ukraine. But not under the current government.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, that's a very, very skillful and convincing way of tying the domestic situation with the broader picture of the developments in Eurasia.

Once again, Nicolai, thank you so very much. It has been wonderful to speak with you. I hope to be back in touch again during your time in Odessa.

Nicolai Petro, thank you so much.


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