Clearing the Maidan and paving the way for democracy in Ukraine

‘They are preparing to clear the Maidan, there are no people on the streets, people are tired of mass demonstrations’ was the description of the situation on the ground in Kiev I received from a friend currently working there. After the extraordinary events of the revolutionary winter, the fall and subsequent escape by Victor Yanukovich, and most recently, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the separatist movement in the East, ‘normality’ sounds unattainable.

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Ukraine is stuck in a limbo, its future gambled on the stage of an international arena reminiscent of the Cold War bi-polarity. It seems that the Maidan could only achieve so much. The democratic revolution was only the first step in the process of regaining freedom and independence, for which so many people died or risked their lives for in the last several months. Where people hoped for a smooth-enough regime transition, elections, and a gradual implementation of reforms and European integration, a return to ‘normality’ as such, they instead received constant provocations, an increasing threat of an invasion, separatism, and strangling gas price increases.

In the East, villages and small towns are falling under the control of pro-Russian militia forces and separatists, who are fighting for independence and calling for Russian assistance. The chaos has escalated over the last few days, as a local politician, Volodymyr Rybak, a member of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party who had remained loyal to Kiev, was found dead with marks of severe torture. Today, under the anti-terrorist eastern offensive ordered by President Oleksander Turchinov, Ukrainian forces have moved into Slavyansk and Donetsk and at least five separatists are reported killed.

The separatists are directed by the Kremlin and there are allegations that money is flowing from Mr. Yanukovich and his son, who still have some control over some local politicians in Donetsk. The region of Donetsk is hard-hit with unemployment and directly suffering from a lack of integration with the  economy and society in the western parts. The pro-Russian propaganda is strong as most people use Russian TV as their only source of information. Yet, support for the separatists has been contained to small towns and villages and the overwhelming consensus on the region is one of support for Ukrainian sovereignty.

As the Russians have gathered over 40,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, the US is also stepping up its support. Vice President Joe Biden, along with several US Congressmen, has been in Kiev, meeting with the interim government and has persistently warned Russia about the consequences of a continual escalation of the crisis. The US have also pledged another $50 million crisis support package for Ukraine to “to help Ukraine pursue political and economic reform and strengthen the partnership between the United States and Ukraine”. The packages focuses on electoral observation and constitutional reform, economic and energy assistance, and dialogue building. Furthermore, the US has sent 600 troops to Eastern Europe as the first step of a gradual reassurance of its European partners worried by the Russian military build-up.

Yet, at the moment, it seems that the biggest resistance against the separatist is coming from oligarchs in eastern Ukraine. For example, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest businessman in the country employing over 300,000 workers in the east has become a vital power-broker in Donetsk. He has held talks with separatist groups, offering his support for their demands of decentralisation of power and the protection of the Russian language, in return for their support that Donetsk stays Ukrainian. Another pro-Kiev oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, has begun his own campaign, offering $10,000 of his own money for the capture of militants and alternative awards for their weapons. This is not the first time Mr. Kolomoisky has put his money in the investment of Ukraine’s defence. Last month, he spent “several million dollars” buying car batteries for military vehicles.

The Ukrainian army had suffered years of neglect, stagnation and corruption. Like the army, Ukraine’s Secret Service is another ‘façade’ institution, which has experienced severe erosion under Yanukovich (and the previous administration), and has failed to act accordingly in the current crisis. They appear to hold a neutral ground, hoping to side with whoever seems to come on top. Also, the fact that separatists occupied administrative buildings and police-stations with such ease testifies to the far-reaching and paralysing consequences of the deep-seated state of corruption and neglect. The largest pro-Russian support was, naturally, built in the smaller towns and villages, where local officials were most approachable to bribes and the people are the most desperate.

The collapse of law and order in the East points to another major problem in Ukraine. Oligarchs are taking matters into their own hands because they have no interest in a strong central power from Kiev – they support calls for decentralisation of power and wish to remain privileged businesses in the region for years to come. The interim government is accused of being un-representative, largely ignoring the eastern part of Ukraine. Even though the majority of Ukrainians, even the opposition Party of the Regions, are strongly against federalisation, they also all agree that decentralisation of power is essential in making the political process more transparent and accountable. How this will be achieved in the future is an incredibly complex issue,  with serious ramifications to the potentiality of a lasting democratic regime.

Everything will be decided once the upcoming presidential elections are held on May 25 – as US VP Joe Biden called the vote, “the most important in Ukraine’s history.” While Russia is seemingly working towards the destabilisation and delegitimisation of the election by disrupting the process in the East, it seems that there are other, much deeper problems, internal to Ukraine’s ability to democratise. 

The initial democratic surge had been subsumed by disappointment.It seems that the leading Batkivshchyna party is working the back-channels and behind the scenes in its attempts at crisis prevention and the pursuit of self-interest. I was told that there are two upcoming amendment readings with regard to the enforcement of constitutional reform. The first is scheduled for May 15, while the second only after the result of the election, so that should Tymoshenko lose, a balance of power mechanism would be enforced, reducing the presidential powers and increasing those of the parliament. 

Tymoshenko is falling behind in the polls against Mr. Poroshenko, the successful businessman and ‘chocolate king’. She is disliked by the younger generations especially, and blamed for the perpetuation of corruption in Ukraine during her time in power. Mr. Poroshenko on the other hand, has built his entire campaign on fighting the corruption which has persisted ‘in the last 20 years’ and received a significant bump in support after Vitaly Klitschko dropped out of the race in his support. Nonetheless, an increasing scare is evolving in the Ukrainian society, after it came out that Mr. Poroshenko had the support of Dmitry Firtash, a billionaire involve in large-scale gas deals between Russian and Ukraine, who had recently been arrested in Austria at the request of the United States, and his business partner and former Yanukovich chief of staff – Sergei Levochkin.  Perhaps this is among one of the reasons that the interim government is keeping constitutional reform as a last resort of political manoeuvring.

In any case, the Maidan is clearing and the people are exhausted. That goes as well as eastern Ukrainians, who are currently undergoing their own kind of internal revolt – where the Euromaidan looked to the West and the EU for a brighter future, people in Donetsk today, look East. There, a sense of hopelessness is ubiquitous. Yanukovich was their leader, he had promised them prosperity, peace, and, most importantly, a normal life. However, with the perpetuation of corruption, levels of desperation have clearly hit rock-bottom and the people there look to Russia for help.

It is Ukraine’s profound institutional and political weakness that risks to derail the essential presidential elections. Russian pressure comes second-hand. Unfortunately, no matter the increase in support from the US, which is unimpressive as is, the state of democracy in Ukraine is not secure. There is always a period between the fall of a given regime and the inauguration of a new one. The Maidan brought down Yanukovich, but did not automatically restore democracy. Nor does the Maidan equate to a strong civil society. Quite to the contrary, civil society seems insignificant and excluded from the political decision-making. This kind of inaction may result in the growth of the far-right sector in the future. The election results and voter turn-out will provide the benchmark for all repressive post-Soviet regime change.