Ukraine Update: The Presidential Elections and Beyond

May 27, 2014

Petro Poroshenko, president-elect of Ukraine, via Shutterstock

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. We welcome you to another of our Security Bulletins from Ukraine.

Today we are joined by two guests. Professor Nicolai Petro is, by now, an old friend. He is professor of international relations at the University of Rhode Island but is spending a year in Odessa in Southern Ukraine on a Fulbright Fellowship. We welcome Nicolai back.

We also are pleased to introduce this morning Richard Sakwa. Professor Sakwa is a professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent in England. He's also an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House in London and is the author of a recent book, Putin and the Oligarchs.

Welcome, both Nicolai Petro and Richard Sakwa, from Odessa.

NICOLAI PETRO: Hello.

RICHARD SAKWA: Hello.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, Nicolai, you've been with us on this entire roller coaster since Maidan, which seems so long ago but is only a matter of weeks.

Of course, now, the latest fascinating development and potentially momentous development are the elections that brought Mr. Poroshenko to power on Sunday, with a pretty hefty vote of, in the end, something like 56 percent.

Beginning with you, Nicolai, but then please join us in the conversation, Richard, can you give us your sense of the implication for this election, whether it will restore, ameliorate the issues that have conflicted Ukraine in the past weeks and months? What do you see as the outcome of this vote?

NICOLAI PETRO: It was a good thing that this vote took place and that it was such a decisive vote, so there's no confusion about who the victor was. Whether or not Poroshenko really has the authority now, to be able to restore law and order in the country, is the big question.

He certainly has a credit, a faith. Popular momentum, if you will is behind him, given the victory that he's achieved, but he has a fair amount of opposition to overcome in the East, where there are rebels fighting to assert their autonomy from Kiev.

There's also a group within the interim government that is probably eager to assert its own authority and to make sure that the presidency does not become too powerful in the context of the new Ukraine that they would like to build.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Richard?

RICHARD SAKWA: There are two issues that face him. Clearly, the hefty victory, as you suggest, does give him legitimacy and indeed a base on which he could begin to shape the new agenda for the development of the vision of Ukrainian statehood as well as a whole raft of policies that are essential to try to bring the country together.

However, the tendency to externalize Ukraine's problems continues. It was reflected in the message sent by the president of the United States on the victory evening, which instead of focusing on the issues facing Ukrainian statehood, it tried to blame Russia for some of the issues on the one side.

And on the other side, excessive expectations of support, help, assistance, and shaping of agendas from the West—the United States, the European Union, and other actors.

Both of those issues are rather false. Of course, Ukraine is caught between a deadly trap, east and to the west.

Nevertheless, Poroshenko has not clearly been able to articulate a fundamental question, which is that Ukraine ultimately has to establish an agenda to sort out its own problems and only then with the assistance of all of its neighbors.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'd like to get back to that, Richard, because I know you've written about this recently, but a little bit more focus on Mr. Poroshenko.

He seems a bit of an enigma, to say the least. What we know about him is, he's a billionaire. He runs the largest confectionery manufacturing company in Ukraine.

He is an experienced politician. I just found out that he served as foreign minister under Mrs. Tymoshenko when she was prime minister, so he's an experienced politician but is unaffiliated with any party at the moment. The BBC reported that he had worked with some degree of harmony, or at least accommodation, with both pro-European and pro-Russian camps. He is close to former president Yushchenko.

This is a bit of, as you say, an enigmatic figure to say the least.

Most importantly, he has said that his first visit would be to the Donbas in the East, the region that you both outlined as being a problematical proposition for him at this point. Yet he's also spoken of the bandits who are in control there.

Speak a little to this complicated person, because he's largely unknown, of course, in the west.

RICHARD SAKWA: Certainly. He has been a part of almost every single government and every single party formation for the last decade and a half. He's certainly a well run-in insider of the elite, which is an advantage on the one side, because he knows how things work. He knows who's who and what's what.

However, by that very element, he is somebody who has been part of the establishment which has led, if you like, or allowed the country to drift into this split within society, within the vision of what the Ukrainian state should look like, what the policies should be.

He has both advantages and disadvantages. The question is now whether he can articulate a positive vision to bring together, and indeed establish genuine dialogue with all the social forces and not externalize it. In Donbas, of course, he is faced with a huge challenge in Donetsk itself and at the airport.

But nonetheless, simply to say, "Look, these people, we don't like their methods," he could say, "But we understand that they want to be heard, that they feel that they've been excluded from the model of statehood for so long. Let's bring them in. Let's establish a genuine constitutional process." Not specific policies so much even at this point, because policies that can be given today can be taken away tomorrow.

But they have to be deeply entrenched in a genuine, inclusive constitutional process. I think that Poroshenko has the strength and ability to do it, but he has to get moving fast, in other words, to lever his overwhelming electoral victory, which I think was a very good thing indeed for establishing any kind of strong base to move forwards. But he has to move and not to be diverted.

And there's endless external forces whispering in his ear, you've got to do this in the other. He's now really got to show himself to be able to articulate a liberal, a democratic, and a patriotic, inclusive vision of Ukrainian statehood.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, I think you agree with that, because in an interview you gave yesterday, I think, to RIA Novosti in Moscow, you spoke on the one hand of Poroshenko perhaps trying to control the private militias who are at work in the East and are certainly part of the problem, and making a commitment to some degree of autonomy.

Yet you also said that another option for him "would be to pursue full military victory in the East against the so-called terrorists formed by some form of de facto occupation." This sounds like a sort of tough, hit-the-ground-running problem.

NICOLAI PETRO: One way that he might be able to indicate that his moderate stance actually can be realized in practice in Ukrainian politics would be to finally be the politician that acts to set up a true government of national unity, which is something that has been promised since the failed accords of February 21. I think he's actually very much what is needed to move Ukraine forward together, not to have a victory of one part of the country over the other, but really to be able to listen to those in opposition.

Because the people in Donbas, not necessarily the ones who are fighting—the main difference I think between those who are fighting and those who have not taken up arms is that the people who have taken up arms simply got tired for waiting to Kiev to listen to them. Whereas the rest are saying, "Well no, that's not really the solution that we want." But in order to actually be listened to, they have to be part of the dialogue. That initiative has to come from Kiev, and I hope Petro Poroshenko is the person to initiate that dialogue.

DAVID SPEEDIE: One of you said this a few moments ago, in passing, about some internal issues for him, in terms of the power struggle within the forces that overthrew, of course, Yanukovych some weeks ago. I think it was on the BBC that the comment was made by someone that Poroshenko's ascension to the presidency was, to some extent, due to the dithering and inability to find common ground among other candidates or parts of the opposition.

Is he, to this extent, a compromise candidate? Do you see him as a long-term viable option, or is it just too soon to tell?

NICOLAI PETRO: My sense is that it is a bit too soon to tell. He really has not defined his political agenda. He's created a coalition that is makeshift.

The thing that really put him over the rest, and made him stand out among the other candidates was when, at the very outset, he got the endorsement of Vitali Klitschko. A serious rival candidate for the presidency withdrew and put his full support behind Poroshenko.

What Poroshenko, himself, stands for is not clear. As you say, he has the makings of a centrist candidate, but I'm not entirely sure how centrist Ukrainian politics is, and whether he will have the wherewithal to make the center hold.

RICHARD SAKWA: The thing is that he must be careful not to be seen simply as the president of Maidan. Maidan was many things. It evolved over time.

Certain of those elements, obviously he needs to put himself at the head of; that is, good governance, anti-corruption, reducing the excessive power of the oligarchs, when he is one himself, which may be a rather difficult act to do.

At the same time, there are other elements in Maidan, which he has to face down. We saw already last night, Klitschko, who looks as if he's going to be the mayor of Kiev, who's already said the Maidan has to disperse.

The power has to shift away from people who were not elected and not representative, and they're not accountable to anyone, to the institutions of power, the institutions of the state. That, at the moment, is the presidency, and in due course, if he says, a new parliament. But, of course, the parliament has to reflect the real forces in society.

It's no good having new parliamentary elections, if there's no party that can represent the East and the South, or part of the regions that effectively have fallen to pieces. It will take time and indeed, at the same time there needs to be a genuine party of liberalism in the middle, which can stand not for selective solidarities, but for individual rights, to establish genuine civic inclusivity of all elements in society.

This is an agenda, which I think can be done within the new framework, but it will take an act of political courage, like King Hal, Henry V, had to face down Falstaff his old buddy, as it were, in his youth. As he passed Falstaff, he ignored him. A little quiet cold-shouldering of some of the people who propelled Poroshenko to power may be in order.

DAVID SPEEDIE: There's your next article, Richard, "The Shakespearean Elements of the Ukrainian Crisis." Of course, Shakespeare is ubiquitous and for all time, as we know.

That comes back to the key question that I raised at the beginning, of really what these elections mean. It doesn't seem, from what you've just said, Richard, from the fact that the voter turnout that you spoke of yesterday, Nicolai, as being so low, attributed to a combination of factors—the inability to open polling places, the lack of local interest and available candidates, and, quite simply, a large segment of the eastern Ukrainian population, who no longer want to be part of the country—so to this extent, this election really hasn't done anything to solve that fundamental problem of the schism within the country, has it?

NICOLAI PETRO: Not yet, but it hasn't made things worse. In the context of Ukrainian politics, the expectations are so low that that's a good thing.

Now, as we've both said, it's time to take action. Poroshenko has to give substance to his centrism by taking initiative to bring people together to the table.

Specifically, a very good move would be to re-cast, revise the idea of a government of national unity. Invite really representative people from the Donbas and from the East and the South into the national government of Kiev to say, "Although your party structures have been decimated, we are going the extra mile to listen to you and to hear your voice. We want to hear your voice in the constitution of a new national government."

The other thing is, as Richard suggested, he needs to push aside, or push into the background, the extremist voices. That latter, I think, is going to be the more difficult challenge for Poroshenko.

Not necessarily his government anymore, but the interim government certainly, came to power on the backs of these strong, nationalist voices and an agenda for a radical reform of the entire system.

Now, Poroshenko, a normal centrist politician, of course, wants to re-establish some of the normalcy and traditionalism of politics and traditional political parties and slow-moving deliberation that is the norm for civilized European politics. But he has to do so in a very short amount of time.

RICHARD SAKWA: Let me slightly modify something that you said about some of the parts of the East not wanting to be part of Ukraine. Most polls have suggested it's not so much the genuinely separatists, let alone aspirations to join Russia—these are a relatively minor concern at this stage.

What they do want, though, is a different vision of a Ukrainian state. I keep coming back to this, because we've seen, over the last 20-odd years, that a particular type of statehood has developed, and we know it's staggered from crisis to crisis, and that the East and the South have felt not part of it. Yes, in the Orange Revolution they participated. To a lesser extent than the West, but they participated, even in the initial Maidan, the Maidan for good governance. They are part of it.

So that constituency, that vision of two state languages, which even the very idea of it shocks people in the Western side of things, it's just normal to give a constitutional status to what is a genuinely bi-civilizational state. It's two civilizations.

They could use this as a positive, to say this is one of the richnesses, one of the great advantages of Ukraine, instead of making it a negative. It's become a negative because of a particular dominant narrative of what it means to be Ukrainian.

What Poroshenko now has to do is to say, "Look, to be a Ukrainian, you can have this Odessa, you can have this Donetsk identity. We will give it political form and shape, and I will reflect it."

On that basis, I think that a united, democratic Ukraine can start healing its wounds and not look to outsiders to try to solve its own issues. This has to come from within.

NICOLAI PETRO: If I could reformulate that little bit. I would say that one of Poroshenko's tasks, if he's going to successful, he will have to save the original concept of the Maidan from the Western Ukrainian nationalists and broaden it to make it a truly Ukrainian national idea.

DAVID SPEEDIE: That really gets to another fundamental point. You used in a recent piece of writing, Richard, what I find a very evocative phrase. You said that Ukraine and also, for that matter, Syria—but we'll leave Syria aside for the moment—were "victims of the geopolitical constellation." What I take from that and from what you've just said is that it's one thing to say that the Ukrainians will find this new narrative, that it's possible to be from Donetsk, from Kiev, or from Odessa and be a Ukrainian, but the rest of world has to play ball.

That means that some of the more, shall we say, excessive actions and rhetoric of the West, of the European Union, and I suppose for that matter, Russia simply have to recognize that what we're talking about is the fate of Ukraine itself and not Ukraine as a satellite state for either side. Is that a reasonable summation of what you're saying?

RICHARD SAKWA: Absolutely, that Ukraine will stop being a football and start being a playing field on which it can do its own thing.

The agendas of others have affected even, as I said, externalization. This endless talk of sanctions, if I may go straight to the bottom of it, I think is misguided.

The sanctions are as if they wish to punish Russia for something or other, not just Ukrainian interventions and activities but obviously larger geopolitical aspirations—its refusal to kowtow, to buckle down to the vision of post-Cold War order which has become dominant in the West, the idea that the West won the Cold War and all of that misleading formulation of the geopolitical situation in world, which of course Ukraine is a victim of.

We saw it over the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. We see it again, and we will see it again after this unless there's a genuine sense for the West to begin to look at itself and say, "We can't just around overthrowing regimes we don't like. We've got to establish a new, inclusive political order, which involves Russia and indeed China and indeed all the other powers instead of establishing new dividing lines within Europe."

One final thing, and that is the fact that what we see in the Ukrainian circus is that the European Union's actions were mischievous and not very helpful at best and indeed very damaging for the country, i.e., Ukraine, that they were intended to save.

I think that everybody needs to step back a minute, not talk about sanctions, not talk about pressure and punishing and so on. Only then could a relatively benign environment be established in which Ukraine can begin to find itself.

Once it's found itself, then it could establish decent relations not just with the West, which goes without saying, but also with its eastern neighbors.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Nicolai, one of the more encouraging preliminary reports I've heard is that Poroshenko is not committed to NATO membership, as some other more extreme elements in Ukraine have pushed, and that he may be ready to assure Russia on a non-bloc status for Ukraine. Is that your understanding?

NICOLAI PETRO: That's certainly what is being said right now. I believe that statement was reiterated by the current foreign minister. But I wouldn't take any of these statements as carved in stone. A lot of water will have to flow under the bridge in terms of actually stabilizing the situation inside Ukraine.

My hope is that there is an ability by the new government to move step-by-step toward a stabilization situation in the East, beginning with a cessation of hostilities.

For that to happen, there has to be at least a suspension of the regime's anti-terrorist operation, then an invitation to dialogue by those who have the arms that are fighting them. If there is goodwill and a cessation of hostilities, I think there is still the opportunity to retain and create a whole and united Ukraine.

But I keep coming back to the notion that the time for this, when these steps need to be taken, is very short.

If instead, the president goes down the route of pursuing a military solution, this will simply accentuate tensions, build hostilities in the East, and make any sort of dialogue and retention of national unity impossible.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In other words, a lot of water has to flow under the bridge, but it has to flow quickly.

NICOLAI PETRO: Exactly. We can't drown in the process.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Before we close, I want to ask a question about a dilemna that's facing Russia and President Putin.

Putin has said that he will deal with the new Ukrianian president Poroshenko even though he may find his policies "unpalatable," but there's another issue here and that is the ultra-nationalist right within Russia itself. The French éminence grise (powerful, behind-the-scenes advisor) of the far-right movement, Alain de Benoist, has recently said that Russia is the last great hope, a bastion against American expansionism. To what extent is that an embarrassment for Putin? And how does he deal with that in terms of his own domestic political situation?

NICOLAI PETRO: As Putin said during one of his recent conferences, "You can't force people to be your friend. If people want to be our friends, they will do so for a variety of reasons. Some of them are purely politically motivated, based on the domestic constituencies and polices that they wish to pursue. Russia wants to be friends with everyone, but those who wish to impose sanctions rather than be friends with us, well, we can't force them to be our friends."

Russia is in a bit of a bind here, but I hardly see it as being at fault when the mainstream political elite in the West is punishing it when it is perceived as having taken advantage of the situation in Ukraine, and continuing to punish it with the threat of sanctions when it actually goes ahead and encourages dialogue with the new Ukrainian president.

I have to ask myself, what is the incentive? What is the carrot for Putin to actually assist in the process if at every turn he is being rewarded with more sanctions?

RICHARD SAKWA: In that list of his unwanted friends, you could have added Patrick Buchanan, a traditional conservative in the United States who has spoken quite warmly.

What we do see is that there are two big seismic shifts going on. We've seen the Euro Parliament elections, which are absolutely shocking across the board. In the United Kingdom, in France and some other countries, for the first time in some hundred years you've got neither conservatives nor the Labour Party becoming the top party. [For more on the European Parliament elections, check out this panel discussion, which took place before the elections, moderated by Speedie.]

It's an absolutely earthquake internally, but this has only reflected, if you like, the larger geopolitical tensions externally.

Russia finds itself in the eye of the vortex. Whether it likes it or not, it's part of something bigger that's going on.

The traditional stereotype thinking, the aggressive talk of what we could call the McCainiacs, allied with some of the irresponsible leaders within the European Union—I'm talking about Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski and others—basically, they've treated Russia as an enemy.

Putin has so far, hopefully, been able to avoid Russia becoming an enemy, but it's certainly becoming an awkward customer, because it's actually saying things that needed to be said. As you say, it's been relatively trying to be constructive now over Ukraine. It's no good externalizing problems. It's part of the solution. It's not just part of the problem.

Once the West can begin to understand that, to accept Russia as a genuine political interlocutor, not as some sort simpleton idea of punishing it, sanctioning it, whipping it, excluding it, dividing lines in Europe. All of this is insane talk. We've really got to begin to move beyond that.

DAVID SPEEDIE: As a more reasonable American voice than Patrick Buchanan, the great statesman Henry Kissinger, said recently, "Demonizing Putin is not a policy."

On that note, we must end. I want to thank Richard Sakwa and Nicolai Petro for joining us from Odessa in Ukraine on our latest Ethics in Security Bulletin. I wish you both well. We'll be doubtless calling you again as this reaches some kind of dénouement, Nicolai and Richard. Again, thank you for being with us today.

NICOLAI PETRO: Thank you.

RICHARD SAKWA: Thank you.

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