Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. CREDIT: <a href="">Julia Berezovska/Press office NBU</a> <a href="">(CC)</a>
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. CREDIT: Julia Berezovska/Press office NBU (CC)

Ukraine Update

Jun 8, 2016

David Speedie discusses with Dr. Nicolai Petro the situation in Ukraine--political, economic, and the growing civil conflict between East and West--two years into the Poroshenko presidency.

Editor's note: The audio and audio podcast are slightly different from the transcript, as Dr. Petro made a few edits to the transcript.]

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. This is another in our occasional series of Ethics in Security broadcasts, where we invite experts on topics of great moment. This is one today.

I'm delighted to welcome back an old friend for this series, Professor Nicolai Petro of the Department of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. Nicolai is once again talking to us from Odessa in Ukraine.

Nicolai, welcome back.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello, David.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I believe this is the third year that we have had contact with you in Odessa. It is always very valuable to get your perspectives.

The obvious thing to lead off with here, Nicolai, is that this is, I believe, almost exactly the second anniversary of the advent of President Poroshenko.


DAVID SPEEDIE: So I wonder if you might want to give a summary of his report card to date—politics, economics, whatever you feel is most relevant for his record to date.

NICOLAI PETRO: The local Ukrainian news outlets have been discussing that very issue in great detail. So I can give you a quick overview of what I've been reading about.


NICOLAI PETRO: Most outlets point to his record as mixed and highlight three aspects of it. You've already highlighted some of them. One is his ability to establish control over the government. The second is his success with what Ukrainian officials call the "antiterrorist operation" in the east. The third is the status of the economy. There are pros and cons in each area.

As most analysts see it, Poroshenko did well in managing to gain control of the government, which is not something that he had immediate control of when he was elected. As a matter of fact, although his party, the Poroshenko Bloc, has the most seats in parliament, the popular vote was actually won by Arseniy Yatsenyuk's party, to whom he then had to give the prime ministership. As a result, they wound up fighting over key government appointments.

As a result, one of the reasons that the political reforms have had such a hard time getting underway is, at least according to some experts, that Poroshenko only got his own prime minister in office this April. Now Poroshenko effectively controls about a third of the parliament and has developed the strategic alliances with a few oligarchs who can provide him, if they continue to see eye-to-eye, with about 50 percent.

But here's the rub. Poroshenko still has not been able to constrain what the Ukrainian press bluntly calls "the party of war." This group includes Interior Minister Arsen Avakov; many delegates of the National Front, Arseniy Yatsenyuk's party, and the heads of the various Ukrainian security agencies.

Their power is evident in the appointment of Andriy Parubiy, former head of the National Security Council, to be the new head of parliament; in the increased rhetoric about Russian aggression as ever continuing and ever expanding; and in the renewed attention being paid to inflammatory and divisive issues like raising the mandatory quotas for usage of the Russian language in media, music, books and films, and in the de-communization (more properly de-Russificiation) of place names.

As a matter of fact, the speaker of the parliament was chastised recently by the small opposition bloc in parliament for saying that he considered it outrageous that some want to consider the opinion of the people about what to name the cities they live in, since these people—namely, populations in the East and the South of Ukraine—are migrants who were sent to Ukraine by the "Muscovite occupiers." Implicitly, therefore, they are not "truly" Ukrainians.

All this, of course, has lead to a slow but steady rise in the popularity of the political opposition. Poroshenko's personal popularity has also as a result suffered, going from just over 50 percent, two years ago, to under 10 percent today. Obviously, Poroshenko is not interested in holding new elections at this point.

DAVID SPEEDIE: When must he call for new elections, Nicolai, two years?

NICOLAI PETRO: There is now a one-year reprieve from new elections because there is a constitutionally mandated grace period of one year after a new government has been put in office.


NICOLAI PETRO: That new government assumed office in April.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Now, on the economy, still muddling through?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, though there is a bit of good news about the economy. I had actually just written an article with a lot of bad news, so I was glad to arrive here and see that things are not as bad as I had feared.

The good news is that the collapse of the Ukrainian currency seems over. It has stabilized at about a quarter of its value of two years ago. Alas, that new equilibrium is based on an impoverishment of about 90 percent of the population. There's a real divide between what in Ukrainian terms are the super-rich and the rest of the population. The middle class has all but disappeared.

I would compare the current Ukrainian economy to a baby born prematurely. Life support is being provided by IMF (International Monetary Fund) and other loans. But everyone understands that to survive Ukraine eventually needs to wean itself off of this life support system and be able to attract massive foreign investment.

Unfortunately, it only wants those investments from countries that have no particular reason to invest in Ukraine, at least not in a Ukraine that is not also a gateway to the much larger Russian market. Linking Ukraine's market with Russia's would make Ukraine much more attractive to foreign investors and give it more leverage when negotiating with foreign investors. But the nationalist ideology that now dominates Ukrainian politics makes that impossible.

So economically the situation is uncertain. We just don't know at this point whether the Ukrainian economy can thrive without investment from its traditional partner—Russia.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, on the one hand, it sounds like the global phenomenon of the disappearing middle class, the 10 percent rich and 90 percent abysmally poor, but to an extreme degree in Ukraine.

NICOLAI PETRO: Yet, but while this process occurs, even many countries—in the United States it has been taking place for 30 years, here it has taken just two years. The impact is therefore immediate and quite devastating.

DAVID SPEEDIE: It's a freefall, yes.

Of all you have said in these two years of Poroshenko, the thing that seems to stand out as perhaps the long-term most troubling is what you've described, I think, elsewhere as the culture wars between, obviously, the East and the South and the rest of Ukraine.


DAVID SPEEDIE: This seems to be the single biggest barrier to a more stable country with a sense of itself as a homogeneous country and so on.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, this leads me to the other issue, which is really the elephant in the room when talking about Ukraine. That is the war in the Eastern section of the country, which has turned into, as much as people don't like to talk about it, a frozen conflict. This is another mixed aspect of Poroshenkos' record.

As everyone here knows, he ran against the antiterrorist operation begun by his predecessor, then acting president Turchynov. At the time Poroshenko was the "peace candidate" who swore that he would end the conflict in a matter of weeks. The general staff however convinced him that there was a military solution and, after a few months of hesitation, he pursued that military solution. That ended in the disaster of Ilovaisk, which led to the signing of the second Minsk Accords.

Although Poroshenko was forced into signing these Minsk Accords, since then he has been able to gain international support for altering the sequence of its implementation—namely, to insist that transfering control of the border in Eastern Ukraine should be the first thing, rather than the last thing that happens, as the accords themselves stipulate. Some analysts consider this a notable success of Ukrainian diplomacy, but it has led to the situation we have now, a frozen conflict. On the one hand, Russia and the rebels want to implement the Minsk Accords as written, while Ukraine and government supporters want to change the accords.

The Western powers supporting the accords are in a quandary, since actually implementing the accords would mean forcing Ukraine to negotiate with the rebels. This is stipulated in the accords, but any mention of any kind of negotiation is immediately treated as treason by the party of war, which has a significant constituency in the media and in the parliament.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You know, you used the interesting term "frozen war." It leads to another question, if I may, and that is that certainly in the Western press—you were here until fairly recently, obviously—the attention is much less, in terms of the former Soviet space, on Ukraine at this moment in time than it is on the Baltics, Kaliningrad—in other words, Northeast Europe—with the United States resolving to quadruple or quintuple resources in that region against perceived Russian threats, and so on and so on and so forth.

Is there a sense in Ukraine that they have been to some extent forgotten about, that the attention has shifted elsewhere, and that the conflict is frozen in that sense too in the outside world's consciousness?

NICOLAI PETRO: There was an expectation among those who came to power after the Maidan that the Western powers would be writing Ukraine a blank check because, as the former prime minister and the current president have often said, Ukraine is fighting for European civilization. It is on the front line in that struggle against Russian aggression. So even though it's not in NATO, it is already fighting NATO's fight — making sure that Russia doesn't spread into the sacred havens of Europe. According to this view, the West owes Ukraine a tremendous moral debt for that, and should therefore be a lot more understanding of the problems that the country has to face.

The fact that Western organizations are supportive, but also critical of Ukrainian reform efforts is seen by many here as a sign of betrayal.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Moving to another topic, there is also, I think, in terms of another charismatic Ukrainian, shall we say—I don't know if Poroshenko is that charismatic, but certainly Mr. Saakashvili is. Isn't this the first anniversary of his accession to the governorship of Odessa? And how has that been going?

NICOLAI PETRO: Before I go on to Saakashvili, I'd like to say one more thing about the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine.


NICOLAI PETRO: A key question on people's minds is which side, the Ukrainian side or the rebel side, can be said to have time on its side? The answer to this question dictates one's choice of strategy.

It would seem obvious that time favors Ukraine because it controls 85 percent of the country and has much more international support.

But the problem for Ukraine is that it treats Crimea and Donbass like an itch that it has to scratch and that, as a result, does not heal. Thus, instead of compartmentalizing the problem and dealing with them over the long term, they affect every other issue, transforming every policy debate into a patriotic litmus test. For example, criticisms of the war or describing the war in Eastern Ukraine as a civil war rather—as several Western politicians, including Angela Merkel recently did, or as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also does—is often equated with treason and can even be prosecuted. This raises serious concerns about freedom of speech.

Another direct consequence of this failure to compartmentalize the issues of Donbass and Crimea, is the dubious economic strategy of cutting of all ties with Ukraine's major historical investor. Yet, despite every government effort to end Russian investment in Ukraine, not many people know that even now Russia remains Ukraine's largest foreign investor.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Disengagement.

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, disengagement. But not just abstractly, but down to nothing, which is actually impossible.

On the issue of constitutional reform, the speaker of the parliament has just said that there will be no decentralization, which is part of the package of the Minsk Accords, and no constitutional reforms without a Ukrainian border first under Ukrainian control. As a result, Ukraine's economics and politics are hostage to the war in the East. As a result, political reform stalls; as a result of political reform stalling, foreign direct investment does not come to Ukraine, and the economy stagnates.

The bottom line here is that the persistence of corruption and economic crisis might eventually raise the importance of social issues and eclipse the war. Even now, as a blanket excuse for the failure of consequential reforms, the excuse that "we're fighting a war against Russia" seems to be losing some credibility. The beneficiary of this is the sole opposition party, called the Opposition Bloc, which, until very recently, has had less than 10 percent popularity, but seems to be gaining throughout the country.

Now, about Saakashvili—what strikes me from a year ago, when he had just been appointed—is that then he was very much in the news. Part of this was the novelty of his appointment, and the fact that he loves to talk about the things that he plans to do. He is very much a media personality. A year later he has all but disappeared from local television screens. I watch every evening at least three local television channels, and he is rarely on any of them. I would say the story here is of the incredible shrinking governor.

For some months now, he has been in the process of transforming himself into a national anti-corruption symbol. I would almost say that he has gotten tired of Odessa and wants to play a larger role on the Ukrainian political scene.

But there is pushback from Kiev, which sent him to exile in Odessa precisely to get him away from the center of Ukrainian politics. The fact that he now wants to move beyond Odessa has resulted in a new anti-Saakashvili coalition in Kiev, which includes some of the oligarchs that Poroshenko now relies on to maintain his majority in parliament. This coalition has begun to take aim directly at Saakashvili and many of his projects in Odessa.

One year ago Saakashvili made some very specific promises. He promised to overhaul the customs system, rebuild the highway from Odessa to Romania, reform local government services, get rid of corruption, open a new airport terminal this spring. Not a single one of these has been fully realized. Moreover, many of the outsiders that he brought in from Georgia and Russia to run these projects have also now been forced to resign, some under scandal. In addition, Saakashvili has totally alienated the Odessa city government and mayor, which makes effective government difficult.

So looking at where this is all likely to lead, it seems likely that eventually Saakashvili will just be driven to exasperation and leave, and that when he leaves he will say that he was never given enough support to accomplish the good things that he wanted to do.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Finally, if I may, what is being reported about this bizarre incident yesterday of, I think, a French national being grabbed at the Ukrainian border with a carful of weaponry and some doubt as to who he was, where he got the weapons from and so on? Is that getting a lot of play over there?

NICOLAI PETRO: It's so new that it has been noted, but like a lot of scandalous issues—there are many other scandals in the news. For people here this is a small potato, sad to say.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Western Europe shook in its shoes.

NICOLAI PETRO: The highlight of political life here in Ukraine these last two weeks has been the hero's welcome being given to Nadiya Savchenko. A lot of attention here has focused on what she might bring to the political arena.

There are high hopes that she would prove to be as charismatic as she was portrayed to be while she was in prison. But some of her latest speeches have shown her to be less well equipped to be a politician—than a symbol. It's not clear at this point if she can even fit in to the Ukrainian political establishment. As a result, she is being treated like a hot potato, with political leaders trying to figure some way that she can burnish the image of Ukraine in the West without actually upsetting the applecart of current political and economic interests, many of which benefit from the status quo.

If there is anything that one can say about Nadiya Savchenko, it is that she speaks her mind, which leads to uncomfortable political questions. It will be interesting to see how the square peg of Nadiya Savchenko fits into the round holes of Ukrainian politics.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And one of the constant questions, of course, in thinking about a country like Ukraine is just future up-and-coming leadership that would in some way be a sort of more-over-the-horizon view than the same old, same old names that seem to keep cropping up.

NICOLAI PETRO: We don't really have a young generation of politicians because the people who are young enough to have participated in the Maidan, and establish their political credentials there, were either old enough that they already had political connections with all the previous regimes, or they are young and they don't have any political ties to the past.

In the former instance, since the Maidan was attempting to cut ties with the past, these past connections make them suspect; in the latter instance they are people without sufficient experience, credibility, and political knowhow. So we're really missing a mid-level younger generation of Ukrainian politicians.

The solution for people like Yatsenyuk was to bring in foreigners. They would not be tainted by association with the previous government, and would be able to think differently and propose radical new ideas. We saw from the failure of the Yatsenyuk government, however, that much of the resistance to reforms was resistance to foreigners coming in and trying to tell Ukrainians how to run their country.

So the reform agenda is in a bit of a bind. I must say, however, that in Odessa, in Kiev and in a few other major cities, we are also seeing civil society initiatives that are actively proposing new ideas. Unfortunately, there is no clear path from these civil society initiatives into politics. Political parties are widely distrusted, so they cannot serve as a conduit for civic activists to influence the government. There is no mechanism for civic activists to gain the influence politically or financially. Everything is still so new and so raw.

But it is a hopeful sign that there are so many civic initiatives, even though politically they are still very immature.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Well, let's sign off on perhaps the most optimistic note of the last half-hour or so, Nicolai. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

Our guest has been Dr. Nicolai Petro, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island.

Enjoy summer in Odessa, Nicolai. And who knows? We may be calling you back.

NICOLAI PETRO: Very good. Thank you very much.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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