The good news from Ukraine is that after half a year of intensive shelling across the Donbas ‘truce’ line, the big guns went silent on 1 September and have stayed silent ever since.
Russia has reined in the hotheads among its proxy separatists in eastern Ukraine who wanted to keep on fighting and seize more Ukrainian territory with the superior heavy weapons Moscow has showered on Donbas over the past year. Russia has also just initialled a deal to resume gas supplies to Ukraine at a competitive price over the winter months. And it has returned to Tallinn the Estonian security officer it kidnapped at gunpoint on Estonian soil a year ago, after first jailing him and sentencing him to 15 years for alleged spying.
At long last, then, Russian President Vladimir Putin's unwonted charm offensive in the Ukraine crisis makes Kiev’s race for a Western identity Ukraine’s to lose.
The bad news, however, is that Kiev may in fact manage to lose in the new peace what it gained in adversity, just as its forerunner Orange Revolution did a decade ago. Then, pro-democracy Euromaidan protesters forced a rerun of fraudulent elections to win Ukraine's presidency and a parliamentary majority for the first time since Ukraine became independent in 1991, only to destroy themselves through infighting at the top. Now, as Putin suspends his undeclared war on Ukraine, the original shock of that attack is already wearing off. The fear of more Russian land grabs that forced a core of Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs to cooperate in self-defence over the past year and a half has vanished. Political fratricide is back. Corruption as usual has resumed, albeit with fewer pots of state gold to plunder. The crucial political and legal reforms that President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk began are stalling.
This may seem like harsh judgment of a land that has already achieved miracles in the midst of its existential war. Within months it turned last year’s underfunded ragtag army of only 6,000 deployable soldiers into forces that fought well and came close to defeating Russian-armed rebel fighters – until Moscow sent in its own elite troops to bail out its proxies in August 2014. Millionaire Ukrainian tycoons financed formidable private militias that bore the brunt of battle in Donbas. The extraordinary civil society that the Euromaidan demonstrations spawned rallied to supply what the state did not; volunteers knitted socks and even imitation fibre vests to clothe and protect Ukraine’s defenders.
Politically, Ukrainians improvised an interim government after Putin’s henchman Victor Yanukovich failed to quell the Maidan demonstrators by having a hundred of them shot, and then fled into exile in Russia in February 2014. Voters, under the gun, nonetheless elected and legitimised a new president in May and a new parliament in October 2014. And the new parliament passed a series of urgently needed reform laws to curb graft, probe the murky energy sector and begin building nascent democratic institutions. Moreover, under Putin’s threat Ukrainians – for the first time in their history – forged consensus on a national identity as distinct from Russian and allied instead to European identity.
As peace breaks out, however, the heavily armed 9,000 Russian soldiers in Donbas and 50,000 others still massed just over the Russian border no longer seem menacing to Kiev – and the will to root out corruption and implement tough reform of Ukraine's post-Soviet kleptocracy is ebbing proportionately. In recent days former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer and current US ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt have both warned Kiev politicians publicly to stop squabbling and press on with reforms.
Pifer hailed ‘the most reform-minded cabinet in Ukraine’s history’, but charged that ‘oligarchs continue to play an outsized and unhealthy role in the country’s politics…Some politicians are turning to populism…The key relationship between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk is fragile’. Voters are disenchanted with the sluggish reform: ‘The post-Maidan honeymoon is over.’
More bluntly, Ambassador Pyatt declared: ‘Corruption kills…Ukraine can, and must, address the problem of corruption now…Rather than supporting Ukraine’s reforms and working to root out corruption, corrupt actors within the Prosecutor General’s office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform. In defiance of Ukraine’s leaders, these bad actors regularly hinder efforts to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials within the prosecutor general’s office.’
Even more acerbically, Taras Kuzio, senior fellow at the University of Alberta's Institute of Ukrainian Studies, pans the Kiev government's entire record on fighting corruption. Ukraine claims that 2,702 former officials have been convicted of corruption, he writes, but won't reveal their names. The ‘billionaire-cum-politician Poroshenko’ has failed to ‘follow through on his promises to combat the pervasive influence of the oligarchs…The business empires of Yanukovich’s allies, including his eldest son Oleksandr, are still in place in eastern Ukraine, and they continue to profit from them.’ The Interior Ministry is ‘bloated, corrupt, and incompetent … The prosecutor’s office, massively over-manned and itself corrupt to the core, has remained virtually untouched. Poroshenko has compounded the problem by appointing incompetent and corrupt chief prosecutors who quickly discredited themselves through inaction or by defending their corrupt colleagues…Pro-Russian forces and oligarchs are untouched by Ukraine’s corrupt judicial system and remain as powerful as before.’
A comparison with the implosion of the Orange Revolution of 2004 is sobering. Then as now, euphoria reigned after pro-European Maidan protests forced a repeat election and Victor Yushchenko became president. For a few fleeting months fear of a Russian-backed Yanukovich restoration forced the oligarchs – who had become rich by buying privatised state assets cheaply in sweetheart political deals – to negotiate seriously about going legitimate, paying their taxes and redeeming their debt to society by good social and charitable works. Unfortunately, however, Yushchenko and his co-leader at Maidan, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had a bitter falling-out. The feud paralysed the government, halted the evolution of robber barons into civic benefactors, reinstated backroom crony capitalism, disgusted the public and handed the presidency back to Yanukovich, this time in a fair election. That moment of transformation was lost.
So far today’s infighting among politicians and oligarchs has not reached the destructive nadir of a decade ago. But the tensions are clear. The small nationalist right includes hardliners who want to keep on fighting Russians in Donbas despite the formal year-long truce and the folly of provoking Putin's huge army. Most spectacularly, a month ago the right staged a violent protest outside parliament against devolving power to the separatist territory in the east, as agreed on in the German-led ‘Minsk’ truces of September 2014 and February 2015. Three National Guardsmen were killed when a veteran of the eastern front threw a grenade at them, and some hundred policemen were injured in the mêlée that followed.
The ongoing political feuds at the top are more dangerous. President Poroshenko is letting his protégé, ex-Georgian president and present Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, run a campaign to topple Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, whose popular support has in any case eroded to 2–3%. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky – who was fired from his post as Dnipropetrovsk governor last March by Poroshenko after armed men from Kolomoisky’s private militia occupied the buildings of Ukraine’s largest gas and oil extracting company – is campaigning actively against the president. Yulia Tymoshenko – the main protagonist in the feud that doomed the earlier Orange Revolution and now a member of parliament – has told confidants that she expects President Poroshenko’s party to lose heavily in the upcoming local elections and pave the way for early presidential elections in the spring, which she will win.
The good news, then, is the same as the bad news: Ukraine’s vaunted adoption of a Western identity is now Kiev’s to lose.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and author. She has contributed several articles to Survival, most recently ‘Serbia Reinvents Itself’, in vol. 55, no. 4, August–September 2013, pp. 7–30.