Today Ukraine finds itself under enormous external and internal pressure, which together may bring it to the boiling point and culminate in an even bigger international crisis with even more unpredictable consequences.
The internal pressure comes from the fact that the key reasons for Maidan have not been addressed: there is no serious effort to carry out fundamental and systematic reforms, to eradicate corruption, abuse of power by the ruling elites, oligarchs, and entrenched bureaucracy. The old kleptocratic/oligarchic system, which just mutated into a more polished and Westernized look, continues to suffocate the country and its economy. Indeed, after nearly two years since the start of the Maidan movement, nobody from top echelons of the previous regime responsible for corruptions and violence was brought to justice. The public is becoming increasingly frustrated with the new government, providing a basis for political infighting, finger-pointing, and rising populism.
The external pressure comes from Russia and the West and focuses on the political settlement outlined in Minsk II agreements. The two main demands for Ukraine, which were recently reiterated by the French President Francois Holland, as reported by BBC, are to hold local elections at the territories controlled by separatists during the nationwide local elections on 25 October and decentralization by granting autonomy to separatist territories before 31 December. Mr. Holland, as reported by BBC, only named the commitments of Ukraine, and was quick to point out that if Ukraine complies, he “will ask for sanctions to be lifted,” referring to sanctions imposed by the EU, US and some other countries on Russia for its aggression against Ukraine.
There is a logical contradiction in this position. The lifting of sanctions against the aggressor should be based on the fulfillment of the commitments by the aggressor rather than by the victim. Mr. Holland did not point out that Russia must withdraw from Ukraine, and pay the damages for the destroyed lives and property. There was no mention that Russia must release Ukrainian citizens it kidnapped and subjected to its cannibalistic “justice” system, or that Russia withdraws from Crimea, or that Russia lets Ukraine take control of its State border in Eastern Ukraine.
This position is viewed by Ukrainian public as fundamentally unfair. The recent deadly tragic events on August 31, 2015 during the vote on the decentralization amendment to the Constitution is the case in point. Clearly, any actions that can be interpreted as legitimizing the separatist regimes of “DNR/LNR” risk causing even more violence.
Perhaps, this is exactly what Russia wants. Indeed, at present Russia does not need to be engaged in any visible military activities in Ukraine. The plans for “illegitimate” elections scheduled in so-called “DNR/LNR” before the legitimate nationwide local elections in Ukraine on 25 October, can be scrapped too. Then, Ukraine will be trapped. If Ukraine, following the ceasefire, does not allow elections on 25 October in “DNR/LNR”, it will violate Minsk II. On the other hand, if Ukraine allows these elections, it is predictable who will win elections held at a gunpoint in the territories controlled by the separatists, and this can cause a storm inside Ukraine.
Putin has always ignored Ukrainian people as a force on the geopolitical arena, and got himself into a lot of trouble because of that. Without public support in Ukraine, any political resolution will not be sustainable. Having Ukraine’s political elites on board is not enough. Recall that the political settlement between Mr. Yanukovich and the opposition leaders in February of 2014, mediated by the Western and Russian representatives, was rejected by the public and Yanukovich’s regime fell just days after.
Today, the West should not repeat this mistake. Scores of Ukrainians went through the hell of ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) defending Ukraine against separatists and the Russian army in the East. Many have died. After this major sacrifice, Ukrainians will only accept a fair deal. The risk of explosion is real, which can trigger a big war with Russia directly affecting Europe (the current refugee crisis in the EU will be dwarfed by the flood of refugees from Ukraine).
Although in this case the explosion will be caused by external pressure, it will be fueled by the internal pressure caused by extreme frustration of Ukrainians with the current leadership. The only chance to peacefully release this internal pressure is for the country leaders to give a signal to Ukrainian public that the existing post-Soviet kleptocratic/oligarchic system will be decisively dismantled from the top. Ukraine is fortunate to have a group of true reformists, as for example the Governor of Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili, Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko and others, who could spearhead this fundamental task. This process must start immediately, well before the 25 October local elections. The overwhelming support for the on-line petition to appoint Mr. Saakashvili the Prime Minister is a sign of tremendous public demand for reforms and leadership (the petition has bypassed the required 25 000 votes in only 7 days).
There are several positive developments that will make it easier for Ukraine to proceed with fundamental reforms as quickly and deeply as possible. First, the macroeconomic situation has shown signs of improvement, which was confirmed by IMF Chief Christine Lagarde during her recent visit to Ukraine. Second, the debt-restructuring deal with creditors achieved by the Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko should give Ukraine the much-needed breathing space. Third, the overwhelming public disgust with oligarchs and corruption creates favorable conditions for de-oligarchisation and fundamental reforms. Fourth, Ukraine has support from the West as long as it implements reforms. Finally, Ukraine has people on the ground, both Ukrainians and foreigners, who have experience, will and courage to make a radical change.
Ukrainians have demonstrated incredible resilience, self-organization (including the massive volunteer movement), common sense, tolerance and patriotism both in economic and political terms. By all accounts Ukraine should have been in ashes by now as the weight of adverse factors has been daunting: almost 25 years of stagnant economy caused by the post-Soviet kleptocracy, enormous concentration of wealth and political power by a handful of oligarchs, dramatic Revolution of Dignity, followed by Russia’s aggression (occupation of Crimea, supplies of weapons and manpower to the separatists in the East, economic blockage and blackmail). We can only imagine what an incredible progress Ukraine could make if it can get rid of the old oligarchic-kleptocratic system and join the civilized world. This chance is hanging by a thread right now. Immediate, decisive actions are needed from the country’s leadership, supported by a fair geopolitical deal for Ukraine accomplished by the West.
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