Only a sharp rebuke from the West can save Ukraine from itself now. Too bad that won't happen.
For the few people out there who think that the resignation of Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will stop the ongoing slide in Ukraine toward political crisis, let’s clear something up: It won’t. In fact, the most likely outcome is that the country will continue on its trajectory toward chaos. The man at the center of Kiev’s problems, President Petro Poroshenko, still refuses to combat the endemic corruption that infuriates Ukrainians and strangles their economy. And thanks to the West, which continues to back him, Poroshenko is more deeply entrenched in power than ever before.
It’s not that Yatsenyuk wasn’t a problem: The fluent English speaker, who was favored by Washington and the International Monetary Fund, has faced plenty of scandals and accusations of being in league with Ukraine’s old oligarchical class. His attempts to implement IMF-mandated reforms have done little except hurt his approval ratings.
But Yatsenyuk’s poor performance as prime minister is not what triggered this crisis. It began back in February, with the resignations of two respected high-profile reformers: Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius and Deputy Prosecutor-General Vitaliy Kasko, who said they could no longer stand by as reform efforts continued to be systematically blocked by figures in Poroshenko’s inner circle. “The deeper our reforms, and the deeper our progress, the more pressure we had to endure,” Abromavicius wrote, in a scathing resignation letter. “Lawlessness, not the law, rules here,” Kasko added for good measure.
The resignations came as bombshells, and things spiraled from there: Serhi Leshchenko, a respected anti-corruption crusader and member of parliament, revealed in a March 16 interview that on several occasions Poroshenko had pressured him to avoid criticizing Viktor Shokin, Ukraine’s reviled prosecutor-general, because Shokin was “part of the family.” Then, in late March, Poroshenko’s party used a new law to expel two members of parliament who had publicly accused the president’s allies of corruption. And although the president finally fired Shokin, the disgraced prosecutor’s last act in office was to get rid of David Sakvarelidze, another deputy prosecutor who said that Shokin had personally stymied his efforts to root out corruption.
These, along with other revelations of corruption and intimidation, paint a sobering picture: When it comes to Kiev’s inability to battle the endemic corruption crippling the country, Poroshenko and his inner circle are part of the problem.
“The desire to change one person blinded politicians,” Yatsenyuk said in his resignation speech on Sunday. He’s a crook – but on this, at least, he’s right.
Poroshenko — a billionaire with a decades-long track record of being neither reliably pro-Russian, nor pro-Western, but pro-his own money – has lost whatever little credibility he may have once had as a reformer. Perhaps if Yatsenyuk was being replaced by an independent outsider, the new prime minister could have revived the moribund reforms process. American-born Minister of Finance Natalie Jaresko, who is highly regarded by U.S. and international entities for her work in restructuring Ukraine’s debt and other measures was at one point said to be a leading contender for the role. Now, however, all signs indicate that Volodymyr Groysman, speaker of the parliament, will become the new premier. Unlike Yatsenyuk, whose People’s Front party is independent from Poroshenko’s, Groysman is widely seen as little more than the president’s protégé. The net result is not a restructuring but a consolidation of power, with Poroshenko placing a loyalist in the prime minister’s seat.
The legacy of the Poroshenko-Yatsenyuk government is a sordid record of resisting reforms in ways big and small. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland stated in her March 15 Senate testimony, they leave behind the very real risk that Ukraine will begin “sliding backwards once again into corruption, into lawlessness, into vassal statehood.” It’s hard to imagine a Poroshenko-Groysman (read: Poroshenko-Poroshenko) government would do any better. The only chance at meaningful change for Ukraine now has to come from the outside.
Up until now, the West has resisted pressuring Kiev. Poroshenko’s March 31 trip to Washington is a case in point. At the time, Ukraine’s president was having a horrible week: It began with an uproar over Shokin’s sacking of Sakvarelidze. It ended with protesters burning tires on the streets of Kiev, after the Panama Papers leak revealed that Poroshenko was busy setting up offshore accounts the same day Ukrainian soldiers were dying in a heated battle with Russian-backed separatists.
In between those two disasters, Poroshenko had lunch at the White House, where he was handed $335 million and the promise of $1 billion more in the near future.
Poroshenko’s power lunch is the latest iteration of what is by now a predictable pattern. Every few months, new corruption allegations rock the government; Western diplomats fly in to issue rebukes and pleas for Ukraine’s leaders to think of their people; Kiev promises to do better; the West relents. In the meantime, reforms stagnate, the grip of the oligarchs tightens, and the Ukrainian people grow even more disillusioned.
The reason for the West’s seemingly endless patience is obvious: It’s called Moscow. It’s hard to imagine Kiev’s brazen kleptocracy being handed dozens of “last” chances if Ukraine were involved in a conflict with, say, Burkina Faso. But Kiev is in a standoff with Russia, a land considered by many in NATO to be a top threat, which gives Ukraine a symbolic and strategic importance.
Nobody understands — and exploits — this better than Kiev’s oligarchs. This is why any attempt to make Kiev accept responsibility for the lack of reforms sets off an explosion of indignant rejoinders reminding the West that the oligarchs are standing up to Russia, fighting for democracy, and defending Western values. (See: Poroshenko’s response to a March 31 New York Times editorial titled “Ukraine’s Unyielding Corruption,” which warned that the U.S. “cannot continue to shovel money into a corrupt swamp” unless Kiev makes significant reforms. Poroshenko’s response was to accuse the Times – whose editorial board has been extraordinarily sympathetic to his post-Maidan government – of participating in the “hybrid war” being waged against Ukraine by the Kremlin. )
From a realpolitik standpoint, shoveling money into a corrupt swamp is not necessarily a losing strategy. During the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union used it to secure the allegiances of regimes, juntas, and dictators whose financial, not to mention human rights policies left much to be desired. The problem, aside from the moral implications, is that the Our Man in Kiev approach won’t work in Ukraine. Washington may have infinite patience with Poroshenko; the Ukrainian people will not.
In the fall of 2013, pent-up anger at Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt Russian-backed oligarch who flouted the rule of law, erupted onto the streets of Kiev. Replacing corruption with the rule of law is part of what fueled the Maidan uprising, drove millions to endure freezing conditions and the billy clubs and bullets of riot police. Three years later, hints of that anger are once again surfacing in news and social media — except this time they’re directed at Poroshenko, a Western-backed oligarch.
While the West is distracted by U.S. elections and the migrant crisis, Ukraine is turning into a 45 million person, Texas-sized pressure cooker in the middle of Europe. With every new scandal, with every editorial comparing Poroshenko to his overthrown predecessor, with every reformer resigning in frustration, the pressure grows. Sooner or later, Poroshenko, or someone in his circle, will do something so unforgivable and outrageous that it’ll ignite a new wave of protests.
The difference between Ukraine in 2013 and 2016, however, is two years of war, nearly 10,000 casualties, and over 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons. Ukraine is flooded with weapons, has a hostile population in the southeastern regions, a disillusioned military, an economy fresh from teetering on the brink of collapse, and, most importantly, heavily armed battalions of far-right fighters. Another uprising is likely to push the country toward disintegration.
One telling bit of news that emerged from the Panama Papers leak is that Ukraine’s constitution does not have a process for impeaching the president. Indeed, in a nation with such abysmally low trust in the government, no such process is needed: Any impeachment proceedings will take place in the streets, as in 2004 and 2014, amid burning tires and screams of gan’ba! (shame!). Neither Ukraine nor Europe can afford for this to happen now.
The West must recognize this danger, drop its charade of portraying Poroshenko as a paladin of democracy, and start forcing him to enact visible, tangible reforms. Anemic recommendations, such as the State Department’s vague wish for “a new cabinet that is committed to implementing needed reforms,” aren’t going to cut it. Syria and Libya are straining Europe to the breaking point – imagine what a failed state of 45 million people in the middle of Europe will do.
Photo credit: EPA