Update on Ukraine

Feb 24, 2016

David Speedie discusses the situation in Ukraine with Nicolai Petro, including the political crisis for the governing party in Kiev, the situation in Eastern Ukraine, and the state of the Minsk accords.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, and this is another in our occasional series of Ethics in Security Bulletins from the Council here in New York.

We are back again today with an old friend of the Council, Nicolai Petro, professor of comparative and international politics at the University of Rhode Island.

Nicolai, welcome back to the Council.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, among many other qualities, is a specialist on Ukraine, and it's on Ukraine that we will be speaking today.

Ukraine is perhaps not forgotten exactly in the international scene, Nicolai, but certainly other events—most obviously Syria, Libya, and events around the greater Middle East—have certainly kind of knocked Ukraine off the front pages.

But there have been some interesting developments in the last few days. I think there was a critical vote in the Rada earlier this week, and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk just survived that vote, as I recall. Then, yesterday Mrs. Tymoshenko pulled out of the coalition. Bring us up to date. What's going on in Kiev?

NICOLAI PETRO: After the resignation of the finance minister and a series of scandals associated with that, there seems to have been increased pressure on the president to reshuffle the government. But what Western backers of Ukraine fail to understand is that the current interpretation of the constitution does not give the president that power.

Basically, the prime minister of the current government has to have a parliamentary majority or resign as a result. The president can recommend that it might be time for that to take place, but he doesn't really have the authority to enforce that.

So essentially what happened this week was that the president made public a statement in which he invited the minister of internal affairs, Mr. Shokin to resign [sic—Editor's note: Avakov is minister of internal affairs; Shokin is prosecutor general; info here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35585651]. He is widely believed in the West to be failing at his job in pursuing corruption—



And he also invited the prime minister to consider fundamentally reshuffling or to take more decisive steps. The prime minister basically—I don't think it's too harsh to say—thumbed his nose at the president and said, "It's not your decision. It's the parliament's decision."

Faced with this choice, then we had a very strange spectacle in the parliament, with the party nominally supporting the president, the Poroshenko Bloc, at the very last minute withdrawing its support from the measure to remove the prime minister.

The president essentially straddled both sides of the fence on this one, and as a result we have the current situation with a very weak prime minister whose popularity rating, depending on which polling service you listen to, is somewhere between 1 and 7 percent, and a president overseeing the entire process, and in the popular mind being responsible for holding this coalition together, but not being able to discipline that coalition.

We had a five–party coalition providing a majority for what we call the "pro-European majority" in the Ukrainian parliament. Now we have had three of those coalition members withdraw. So we now have a parliamentary crisis of sorts. The parliamentary majority does not have a majority, but it has a plurality.


NICOLAI PETRO: We will see whether they can get one more party at least back into the coalition, which will give them the majority. If not, the president, in principle, has the authority to hold new elections for a new composition of the parliament.

But nobody apparently wants to do that—not he, not the prime minister, and none of the Western backers of the current government. The reason is pretty obvious: whatever new government is elected will be less pro-European and less pro-Western than the current one.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And that would simply be a factor of the lack of public support for either Poroshenko or Yatsenyuk?

NICOLAI PETRO: The abysmal failure of the current economic policies.


NICOLAI PETRO: I mean there is just no good data to be found.

The GDP, after falling in 2014, fell again last year by more than 10 percent. Inflation was over 40 percent. Last year the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Association with the European Union came into effect in a unilateral fashion. Ukrainian goods would not be taxed for entry in the European Union, whereas the EU goods going to Ukraine would be held to Ukrainian quotas. Even with that preferential treatment for Ukrainian exports, exports to the European Union fell by nearly 30 percent!

DAVID SPEEDIE: Good heavens.

NICOLAI PETRO: Then we have the continuing turmoil in Eastern Ukraine.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I was going to get there in a moment. Can I just ask you, though, could there be another Maidan in the offing then, with this rampant failure of economic policy and public disaffection?

NICOLAI PETRO: A lot of people talk about this, but I question whether the conditions are right. Not because the economic situation is not as bad or worse than it was in early 2014—that seems clear. What led to the Maidan, I think most analysts now agree, was an organizational component and a unifying ideology, kind of like the unifying ideology that existed after April of 1917 in the Russian Empire.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Interesting.

NICOLAI PETRO: The sympathetic view of intellectuals then was that there were no enemies to the left. In this case, the sympathetic view of the Ukrainian intellectual elite is—or was—that there are no enemies to the right.

Indeed, this coalition between intellectual support for rapid integration of Ukraine into Europe could be legitimately supported by a nationalistic vision of Ukraine, which isn't exactly European but would unite the country. This coalition no longer exists. The more extreme elements of the right in Ukrainian politics have gradually distanced themselves from their support of the Maidan ideals. Hence, we have these occasional military confrontations as occurred in southwestern Ukraine near the Hungarian border in Mukachevo and other areas.

But that element as a counterweight to the current government has not coalesced. A lot of people expected it might, because there are a lot of military weapons floating around now and people have been rotated out of the military and gone back into civilian life, and unemployment is high. A lot of them have kept their weapons and that could be a scintilla that could ignite.

But the question remains, what is the alternative unifying vision? There is none. There is no pro-Russian vision.

The pro-Russian unifying component, if you will, in Ukrainian politics has been tarnished as a foreign agent. As a result, the Ukrainian elite and average people dismiss it as irrelevant. It is for national politics, but it's still very relevant in regional politics in the East and obviously in Crimea; but those are no longer part of [national] Ukrainian politics, so they are just ignored.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let's move to the East as it were. Things seem to have been quiet or quieter in terms of armed confrontation, but how are things there and where do the Minsk accords stand at this point?

NICOLAI PETRO: We are at the one-year anniversary of the signing of the latest iteration of the Minsk accords—Minsk II as it's called. We have a document.

I just want to remind people that it's very important to refer to the actual text, because what is stymying progress is the interpretation of what the accord says. All people need to do to see what the accords say is to access them online. They are readily available.

The accords can be broken down into two components. The first is the actual separation of forces or ceasefire agreement—those are points 1, 2, and 3.

Then there are the rest of the accords, which I would say are the political aspect of how to resolve the conflict once the military engagement is sufficiently reduced to say that we have a ceasefire in place. The ceasefire is not perfect, but then no ceasefire ever is.


NICOLAI PETRO: But it's very clear that for the past several months there has been a notable reduction in casualties. That's really the best that can ever be hoped for until there is a political settlement and a restoration of political control over this territory. That's what points 4 through 10 are about.

We have a problem because, essentially, the Ukrainian government has been late in implementing some points and has simply refused to implement several other points of the Minsk accords. The points that they have refused to implement are points 5, 7, 8, and 9.

Point 5 is about a pardon and amnesty for those who were engaged in the conflict.

Points 7 and 8 provide access to humanitarian assistance in Eastern Ukraine and specify that all social economic ties, including banking and social services, must be restored as part of this process. Instead the Ukrainian parliament has introduced roadblocks and shut down banking and social services to the East.

The point of greatest disagreement is point 9, which specifies that border control must be restored to the government in Kiev after local elections and a comprehensive political settlement. What is included in the comprehensive political settlement is then specified in point 11—a new constitution that includes decentralization and special status for Donbass.

All of this was to have been achieved and finalized by the end of 2015. Obviously none of that happened. There are no local elections—those have been delayed. There is no comprehensive political settlement, because there is no new constitution, and there is no special status. Literally, the restoration of the border cannot proceed, according to the text of the agreement, until all of that happens.

The final point, which Ukrainian negotiators now insist must be the first point implemented rather than the final point, is that all foreign military and mercenaries must be withdrawn from Ukraine. There is, however, no deadline specified in the text for that, as opposed to the deadline that was specified for the local elections and comprehensive political settlement.

As I read the tea leaves about what has happened in this process during this past year, anyone trying to work with the text, which is supported by Russia and the United States and France and Germany, they look at the text and go, "Aha, here's what needs to happen and it's pretty clear who needs to do it."


NICOLAI PETRO: There's no way that Russia can implement a new constitution in Ukraine. But that is not happening. There is a roadblock which the government in Kiev needs to resolve, but it doesn't have the votes to do that. So there is no political solution on the horizon.

Western support for the Minsk process is in a bind. Even though more and more political statements are coming from Western leaders, to the effect that "We're waiting for Kiev to make these necessary changes according to the Minsk accords," there is no political ability in Kiev to do that.

The West's options are in that case are not at all clear. Putting sanctions [on Ukraine] is not something that will either achieve the necessary result, or be well-received by the current government, which is the government that is most supportive of the West.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It sounds like, just from listening to this highly complicated and convoluted and problematical scenario, that there might be a need for a Minsk III to revisit and try to rechart the course.

NICOLAI PETRO: Everyone involved in the process, including the Western parties and Russia, is opposed to this. The logic is that we went through a difficult negotiation, and this is what everybody agreed to. It is a manageable process. It's a compromise where everybody gets something, and the country is restored.

It's based on a fundamental compromise, which is that the rebellious territories in the East will have their special status recognized, but then acknowledge Ukrainian sovereignty over them. One can't imagine a much better deal without that being part of the accord—in other words, some recognition that the East should have its own "special status," something that gives them the ability to be acknowledged as culturally religiously distinctive within Ukraine, and being able to defend that status. That's why they took up arms in the first place.

Russia, in a foreign ministry statement, says, "Look, we can obviously be flexible on how these steps are to be implemented as long as the spirit of the accord is preserved." That seems to be as far as they are willing to go.

What are Ukraine's options at this point? On the one hand, they don't want to implement it. On the other hand, Ukraine just doesn't seem to have the resources—or the ability to fight against the rebels successfully and to defeat them.

So this is becoming, for lack of will in Kiev to actually resolve the situation, a frozen conflict.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Perhaps for some light relief we can visit another region that you know very well, around Odessa. I guess about a year ago now Mr. Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, was named governor of the Odessa region. I would love to have an update on how he's doing there.

I did see a message from you earlier this week with a wonderful quote, where Mr. Saakashvili would like to end Ukraine's cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The quote from Saakashvili is, "The IMF is like a surgeon. When you need a bandage on the finger, why bandage? Let's cut off your entire hand. Why bother?"

It sounds like he's not keeping a low profile.

NICOLAI PETRO: No. Since we last spoke, there was a very popular YouTube video in which the minister of interior threw a water glass at him during a reform. It was a roundtable discussion on how to promote reforms more effectively convened by the president, which came to an end with the prime minister, the minister of interior, and Saakashvili exchanging compliments with each other about who was more corrupt. I forget if it was the prime minister or the minister of interior who told Saakashvili to "get out of my country," which is I think an interesting indicator of elite sentiment.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The bloom is off the rose, as they say.

NICOLAI PETRO: Even people in the current political elite wonder why are there so many "foreigners" in our government, when we carried out the revolution. We should be deciding how things are to be managed. Instead we have people coming sort of from the sidelines, with Western backing and Western money running the show. The term that is being used—of course more by the opposition than by people in the current government—is "external administration" of the current Ukrainian reform process. It was highly interesting to note that this emerged when tempers rose even in the cabinet itself.

Saakashvili is establishing some sort of national anti-corruption movement, which could, I suppose, at the drop of a hat become a party. He has dropped hints that the governorship of Odessa might be too small a position for him now. Now that he's been deprived officially of his Georgian citizenship, he really has no place to go back there and reengage in the political life.

DAVID SPEEDIE: He's crossed the Rubicon.

NICOLAI PETRO: So I guess the vistas, the opportunities, are endless in Ukraine.

Then the question arises, what has he actually accomplished in Odessa?

It's hard to be very specific about that. A number of reform initiatives, such as the privatization of the port and the sale of assets and the investments that were supposed to flow into the region specifically because of Saakashvili's connections and because of the reform team that he personally brought to the city, just haven't materialized.

I was struck by his foreign aid advisor's comments as to why that was—I'm talking about Alexander ("Sasha") Borovik—who said, "Well, given the reputation of Ukraine, what can I do?" Which is not exactly a strong selling point for what they could do were the entire team to be promoted upstairs to Kiev.


NICOLAI PETRO: The whole point was that Saakashvili would give a new air to the reputation of Odessa and set it somehow apart from Ukraine, to be a model for Ukraine. But I guess that just hasn't happened.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course, the rationale that was expressed when he was appointed is the fact that he wasn't beholden to any financial or political group in the region would make him a force for good and as a conduit for imposing the kind of reforms and thus creating a model, as you say. In other words, he wasn't in league with any of the old entrenched elites in the region.

NICOLAI PETRO: That has now been called into question by a number of leaked videos and this kind of negative PR (public relations) campaign. Once Saakashvili indicated that he has some sort of national ambitions, of course he gets all the other established interests around the country riled up and organized against him. Whether or not that will ultimately be effective in preventing his political promotion is hard to say.

I guess the bottom line for me is, would a Saakashvili prime ministership make any difference? I don't see, on the basis of what he was able to accomplish in Georgia, or what he has been able to accomplish either before coming to Odessa, when he was an advisor to the cabinet, or since becoming governor of Odessa, that he has any more experience than the people who have been in power and running the economy up until now.

I don't see the economic problem as one of personalities. I see it as one of ideology.

I don't put most of the blame on corruption, because lots of countries live very profitably with corruption, China being a good example, or with the IMF shock therapy proposals and the failure to implement them. Both of those, of course, are a damper on the economy.

But nothing has hit the economy so hard in these last two years as the ideological prescription of the government to cut off ties with Ukraine's major investor, which is Russia. When you thumb your nose at the country which in the past has accounted for as much as 40 percent of imports and exports and you reduce that by half—yet Russia still remains Ukraine's largest trading partner—but when you do everything in your power, to end that, the economy is going to go into a tailspin.

This is a concerted effort to shift the economic focus, even though it hurts thousands of people and deindustrializes Ukraine. Its only aircraft plant—Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world that could actually produce aircraft—the Antonov State Company is now bankrupt.

Every major industrial concern in the country is basically breathing its last breath. To understand why the government would do this one needs to understand where they're located. They are located in the industrial East. The regions that have traditionally been close to Russia, benefited from economic ties with it, and voted against the more nationalistic pro-Western Western Ukraine.

Eliminating the economic power base of the East has a certain logic to it, if you are trying to shift the political power structure in the country decisively.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This kind of short–term satisfaction over long–term strategic interest of the entire country leads to really the last thing I wanted to raise with you today, Nicolai. That is, I want to put a plug in for a chapter you have in a book edited by Richard Sakwa and Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives. Your chapter is "Understanding the Other Ukraine: Identity and Allegiance in Russophone Ukraine."

So much of what you're saying basically comes down to the central point that you've made over and over again, and that is the need for a cultural diversity within a unified Ukraine, but this is still a fundamentally divided country.

I'll just read a brief quote from your chapter: ". . . the Copenhagen School of Security Studies, which suggests that Ukraine's security can be enhanced by treating national identity as a shared security concern . . . the most profound security challenge that nations face today involves not sovereignty, but identity—specifically, the identity of the cultural subgroups that make up a society and whose cohesion and loyalty are essential for society's (and the state's) survival."

This just doesn't seem to be in the cards for Ukraine in the foreseeable future.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, it could be. I think if Ukraine is going to survive and—even more than survive—thrive, it will have to be.

The key will be thinking of national loyalty distinctly from national identity, not to make identity the test of loyalty, but instead focus on the creation of a common civic identity that transcends all of the divisions that exist. They exist not just in Ukraine but in any society. The models are out there for countries that have done that.


NICOLAI PETRO: The European Union itself is a larger model where civic identity and civic values can, in the best of all possible worlds, transcend what divides us—matters like religion, and maybe our histories, and even our languages.

In the past, Ukraine has been able to do that, to envision that. The problem now is that these divisive factors have been politicized and adopted by political forces in an effort to shape the country anew. What that does is create very large constituencies that are left out of the political process. They become resentful, and then they fight or sabotage the political process, and everybody loses.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The question of identity and different cultural subgroups coming together as one nation is certainly being played in an occasionally amusing, occasionally depressing election campaign that we're getting over here. [Laughter] You're right. These are serious questions for Ukraine that can be applied to numerous countries around the globe.

Nicolai Petro, thank you so much for joining us again.

We've been talking to Nicolai Petro, professor of comparative and international politics at the University of Rhode Island. Thank you so much.

NICOLAI PETRO: My pleasure.

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