Ghosts of the Maidan

First revolution. Then war. Now what?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News

KIEV — "Don't listen to the police!"

KIEV — "Don’t listen to the police!"

Oksana Forostyna was explaining why I was late to our meeting at Oliva, a restaurant just off Maidan square in central Kiev. I’d asked directions from local law enforcement about a block away from my destination, and been inevitably led astray. Forostyna is the editor of Krytyka, which might be thought of as Ukraine’s answer to the New York Review of Books, and she was kindly instructing me on the new rules of navigating post-revolutionary Kiev. 

They’re the same as the old rules. "The police are at best useless and at worst criminal," she said. The same lumpen elements that had populated the Interior Ministry and police force during the Yanukovych era were still at work, prompting a necessary but difficult reckoning in reconstruction options. Do you purge the cops and risk having them descend wholly into underworld activities, or do you a cut a deal with them to remain and simply hope that they don’t steal too much — until they can be phased out by honest professionals?

These are the questions Ukraine is now asking itself, six months on from the popular protest movement that ousted a kleptocratic satrapy of Moscow. The new president, Petro Poroshenko, dissolved the entire Verkhovna Rada, which was stacked with Yanukovych loyalists and MPs accused of sponsoring the pro-Russian separatists in the east — though the parliament continues to hold sessions and act as a legislature before new elections are held at the end of October. Nevertheless, the bricks-and-mortar work of state-building goes unnoticed to ordinary Ukrainians. "Kiev is like it was a year ago," Forostyna said. "The winter period is now over."

Cosmetically, at least, the summer has been impressive. Gone are the makeshift Hooverville-cum-barracks that had dominated Maidan since before Yanukovych fled as a thief in the night to Russia. The streets have been completely cleared; the paving stones that had once been dug up and used by civilians as weapons against Berkut snipers and armed titushki thugs have now been re-laid. Car traffic has resumed down Kiev’s main Khreshchatyk Street, cafes and telecom shops have been reopened, and the trade union building across from Maidan that had been torched during the violence in February is covered by advertisements, masking the charred concrete beneath. Superficially, all that remains of the original protest movement and its brutal suppression are a few flower memorials to Yanukovych’s victims and some photographic billboard testaments to the city under siege last winter. Every evening, patriotic songs are belted out from a now-famous soundstage, often by young girls wearing traditional venok wreaths. Blue and gold — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — are omnipresent throughout the city. 

That any vestiges of Euromaidan remain in Kiev is impressive considering what Ukraine has been through since. Crimea has been seized and annexed by a Russian Anschluss. An international commercial airliner has been shot out of the sky by Russian-armed "separatists" — a word that has little meaning in Ukraine, where "terrorists" or, simply, "Russians" will do. As a result, "There’s been a forging of a new Ukrainian national identity," one U.S. official told me. "You’ll never have another Yanukovych-style regime with a corrupt oligarchy that makes its peace with Moscow for the purpose of personal enrichment." The same official said that the cleanup operation of the ploshchad (square), which was more poignant and controversial to Kievans than the ouster of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park ever was to Manhattanites, was "bordering on miraculous. It’s like it never happened. It needed to be done because Maidan had become a gathering point for skinheads and homeless." The revolution that had galvanized the city had also shut it down. But now it’s back to business for Ukraine’s middle class and back to school for its youth. What distinguished the first day of the school year this September, the U.S. official said, was the sea of blue and gold.

But the romantic, patriotic fervor that had borne aloft high hopes for instantaneous reform has begun to ebb. Yanukovych’s mafia state was so entrenched, and had enriched so many, that it will take years to dismantle completely. "Ukrainian corruption has decreased a bit, but not by much," Aleksei Shalaisky, the country’s leading anti-graft campaigner and the founder of the website Nashi Groshi ("Our Money"), told me. "The problem is that stealing money is inbuilt into the law, unlike in Russia, where it’s technically illegal but still tolerated. And you cannot change the law until you get rid of all the old people who made it." But where’s the incentive to criminalize get-rich-quick schemes for freshmen parliamentarians or newly minted government ministers?

"Corruption in Ukraine is very intellectual," Shalaisky said with a smile. "Sometimes we come up with such interesting schemes that it makes me proud of my nation." He cited one lucrative racket done away with about a month ago: the use of intermediary resellers of police-confiscated property — from real estate to contraband cigarettes to helicopters — by Ukraine’s crooked Ministry of Justice. The resellers were all private companies, which then auctioned off the goods at a 15 percent markup, thereby depriving the state of additional revenue. The companies, of course, were owned by Yanukovych cronies.

"Now the government will be selling these items directly to buyers, using the Internet," Shalaisky said. "The middleman has been cut out entirely." He hopes that a promised Poroshenko reform — the creation of an independent anti-corruption bureau tasked with investigating high-level government cases — will be implemented soon. "The salaries must be high enough for policemen and prosecutors to want to do their jobs: $1,500 to $2,000 per month."

Poroshenko seems to be keeping his end of the bargain on fighting graft. In late August, he submitted a draft bill to the Rada outlining the nature of and appointment process for the envisaged anti-corruption bureau, which will focus on first- and second-tier civil servants. "It’s unprecedented," Dmitry Shymkiv, Poroshenko’s newly appointed deputy chief of staff, told me from his office in Kiev, remarking on the way the bureau will be outfitted. "The president, the cabinet of ministers, and the Rada will select three nongovernment public figures who will, on TV, select the person to run the bureau. Then the president will appoint that person by decree." The elaborate protocol spelled out, not to mention the length of the draft law, have engendered complaints, Shymkiv admitted — but all the niggling details are in there to ensure that the anti-corruption bureau itself remains incorruptible.

* * *

Shymkiv is himself a symbol and a promise of what a Western-leaning Ukraine aspires to be. For one thing, the 38 year-old Lviv native and former general manager of Microsoft Ukraine is a technocrat, not a politician. He began his political career in July, a few weeks before agreeing to meet me in his office in Kiev. Shymkiv talked about political and economic reforms — and the various foreign "models" that can and can’t be replicated in Ukraine — the way others talk about fantasy football teams. He occasionally lapsed into David Brent-like management-speak, but was also incredibly frank about the "inquisition" (his word) to which he’s going to subject holdovers and time-servers from the old government.

All department heads in the new administration, he said, must speak English as he does, because it’s the lingua franca of the global business community: "I have no time for translations, full stop." And civil servants who can’t justify their positions or are reduplicating the work of others will have to be culled. "Already some bureaucrats have begun writing letters to us saying, ‘We need to exist,’" Shymkiv said. "My answer to this is: ‘Goodbye. Go find a new job. You’re well qualified. You can now go work for the companies you’ve been raiding.’ As you can imagine, the opposition to [reforms] is huge because people are living off these corrupt schemes. And how can you replace them on the official budget? How can you hire someone to be in the civil service for a salary of between 3,000 to 5,000 hryvnia a month, which, at the new exchange rate, is less than 50 bucks? It’s a joke!"

I mentioned Forostyna’s complaint about the untrustworthiness of the cops and asked how it was possible to disband an entire police force that, once unemployed, would likely devolve into full-time criminals. Shymkiv’s eyes brightened: "Thank you! You are the first one to recognize that the model that the Georgians used in Georgia cannot be done here," he said.

"Security is a huge concern for us. Half of the guys in the Interior Ministry have been trained in Russia. Look at their backgrounds. Their buddies with whom they spent their student lives — they’re not deployed to the front in eastern Ukraine; they’re patrolling our streets. So this is going to be a delicate balancing act. We need to strip some people of power." A lot of corruption among police officers, he said, was to do with minor infractions such as speeding tickets. "When I tried to analyze why people pay bribes to police officers standing on the street — and in many European countries, this happens — it’s usually about time. People pay for time. The time to process a fine, it’s an inconvenience, so people would rather it go away with a few dollars. Once you understand how it works, you can avoid wholesale elimination of personnel; just change the interaction."

At the macro level, however, much more is to be changed if Ukraine’s post-revolutionary period is to succeed. Vladimir Putin’s face may now adorn toilet paper rolls and his name may be inextricable from the phrase "dickhead" on T-shirts sold in Kiev, but his abiding influence can still be felt. Forostyna and Shalaisky both mentioned Vesti, a widely read pro-Russian newspaper handed out for free on the metro. In May, Ukraine’s tax authorities seized accounting documents linking the publication’s parent company, Vesti Mass Media, to a legal entity "tied to Serhiy Kurchenko." That would be the 28-year-old oil-and-gas oligarch who is currently subject to an Interior Ministry investigation for billion-dollar corruption charges, not to mention EU sanctions for embezzlement of state funds. Kurchenko has conveniently gone missing from Ukraine but is rumored to be living — where else? — in Moscow. In addition to investing in Vesti, he also owns the Ukrainian Forbes, which he bought in 2013, after the magazine ran an investigation into his dodgy business practices — and after he reportedly threatened its reporters. Kurchenko’s international pariah status led the New York-based Forbes Media to announce that it was revoking his license to publish the Ukrainian edition. (According to Vladimir Fedorin, the former editor of the Ukrainian Forbes, Kurchenko is now in litigation with Forbes Media and the license cancellation is suspended until a verdict is reached; the magazine, meanwhile, is still being put out.)

I asked Shymkiv about how he plans to rein in Ukraine’s unruly band of oligarchs, many of whom are still seen as agents of the Kremlin. He cited American robber-baron capitalism and the era of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. "All those foundations and charitable groups they eventually created — it wasn’t always like that. There was a certain moment in time when Roosevelt made it happen through the courts and government regulation."

But Vanderbilt and Rockefeller were not beholden to foreign governments, I said. True, Shymkiv replied, but there are mechanisms by which Kiev can control outside influence. He’d very much like to pass a Ukrainian version of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits companies and individuals from paying bribes overseas. "What’s the limit of gifts for public officials in Ukraine? It’s my favorite question; I ask people on the street," he said. "They don’t know. ‘Oh, there’s a limit?’ Yes! ‘You can actually give gifts?’ Yes! How do I know this? Because I worked in an American company that burned it into our brain. And even though U.S. jail is much nicer than Ukrainian jail, I still want to spend the rest of my life with my wife and kids."

"The preliminary accumulation of capital is over for this country," Shymkiv said. "So the question is: Are you planning to now play by the rules and bring back, invest in this country, or are you going to face a challenge from the new rules and principles? If they don’t do it, they become irrelevant — or they’ll go to jail. It’s clear-cut. There is no maybe. And if the government doesn’t make it clear-cut, then civil society will make it clear-cut."

* * *

The role of civil society in the new government is palpable. Shymkiv’s boss, Poroshenko, another former businessman who made his fortune in the confectionary industry, had won high marks for prosecuting the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) vigorously after the early failures of a largely defunct military to fend off the insurgency. The people rallied behind the president. "Tanks wouldn’t run, planes wouldn’t fly," the U.S. official said. "Oligarchs had to pay for batteries. [Ihor] Kolomoisky [the governor-oligarch of Dnipropetrovsk] had to buy gas. The army couldn’t mobilize." So instead, civil society and private enterprise mobilized on the army’s behalf. Nataliya Popovych, the co-founder of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, said that the upsurge in the army’s capability owed a lot to ordinary Ukrainians’ willingness to pay for a war their government couldn’t afford. "Civil society has sustained the military and the war," she said. "It’s raised money for everything from bulletproof vests to radios for the soldiers. There’s a babushka [grandmother] who donates her pension check to the Defense Ministry."

ATO forces had spent the latter half of the summer retaking whole swaths of separatist-held territory. But that was before Putin’s "humanitarian convoy" chimera, a clever piece of theater that distracted the world from his dispatching of 1,000 Russian Airborne Troops (VDV) across Ukraine’s southeastern border, backed by tanks, armored vehicles, and SA-22s, some of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems in existence. Technically, Russia invaded Ukraine in March, during the Crimea takeover, but then it really invaded, in so naked a fashion as to earn that 21st-century certificate of historical authenticity — its own hashtag, #RussiaInvadedUkraine — as well as to evoke the i-word from several international leaders, notably the Estonian and Lithuanian presidents, if not Barack Obama. 

Ukrainians have come to expect little from Washington or Brussels, and most I talked to were well aware that, when it comes to resisting Russia in the short and long terms, they’re on their own. An analyst in Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said, in reference to Putin’s alleged claim that Russia could take Kiev in two weeks, that actually it could roll into the capital in a matter of days. In that unlikely event, every Kievan would take up arms and resort to partisan warfare. "We would bleed the Russians," the analyst said matter-of-factly.

That phrase — "bleed Russia" — was echoed in other observations, some more bombastic than others, that I heard from all sectors of Ukrainian society. It was also the reason given by diplomats and military experts for why Putin’s war in the Donbass — the region constituting Donetsk and Luhansk — has remained undeclared, dirty, and schizophrenically prosecuted. "Putin expected everyone in the east to rise up against Kiev and ask to join Russia," one activist told me. "When they didn’t, he resorted to using these guerrilla idiots to represent that phantom population."

The primary goal of Russia’s current war efforts, most Ukrainians I spoke to claimed, is to establish a land bridge to Crimea, without which the peninsula is entirely in thrall to Kiev for electricity, water, and telecommunications. According to Marieluise Beck, a German MP who visited Luhansk, Russian troops are laying power lines and handing out Russian passports in that city — reminiscent of what they did in South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. But how far would Putin go? Would he take Odessa in the southwest, thereby creating a contiguous Russian-occupied territory stretching from Transnistria to the port city of Mariupol, and depriving Ukraine of all access to the sea — a contingency that would all but end its export of grain and steel and destroy its economy? Would that move cross a line that would impel the United States and European Union to send weapons to Ukraine’s embattled military? So far, there is no real indication that that is happening, although Poroshenko, emerging from the recent NATO summit in Wales, said that he’d received assurances it would.

* * *

"The easiest way to save Ukraine is [for Kiev] to declare war on China," said Oleh Shamshur, a former Ukrainian ambassador to Washington and a man fluent in the vicissitudes of Western politics. "Because to get to us, they’d first have to invade Russia."

He was relaying a popular Ukrainian joke to me at a lovely outdoor cafe five minutes from Maidan, just as the latest diplomatic fiasco — a failed "peace" negotiation in Minsk between Poroshenko and Putin — was renewing the sense of high dudgeon on the street.

Why did Poroshenko fall for another trap? Everyone knows that Putin is at his most dangerous when he sues for peace; it’s then that the tanks and personnel carriers and VDV troops pour in.

For Shamshur, the West’s failure to apprehend the old KGB method of dissimulation — outwardly seek comity while quietly undermining your partner’s negotiating position is the central indictment of its response to the Ukraine crisis. Putin, he said, plays political "harpsichord": he did it with George W. Bush by wearing a crucifix to his first encounter with the born-again president; he did it with Obama by giving tacit approval to a "reset" with the United States, only to undercut every modest achievement of oversold policy. The difference here is that Ukraine is no pushover, and Ukrainians like to say that they "can still think like Russians."

"This will not be an easy war for Russia," Shamshur said. "Look at Ukraine’s history, what our people lived through."

Ukraine was ground zero for what historian Timothy Snyder calls the "bloodlands" of 20th-century Europe. Terror, famine, and three occupations by two mass-murdering totalitarian regimes have hardened the spines of even those Ukrainians who never lived through any of these atrocities but grew up hearing stories from their parents and grandparents. The U.N. estimates that upwards of 3,000 people have been killed so far in the east since the fighting began in April, yet I saw not a single antiwar demonstration in all my time in Kiev. If anything, the prevailing sentiment was one of "Let’s keep going."

And while it may be a bit too sententious to claim that suffering is in Ukraine’s DNA, it was nonetheless intriguing to hear from everyone from Forostyna to Shymkiv that the one nation-state from which they have most to learn is Israel.

Indeed, the irony of both the Kremlin and the media’s fixation on supposed Nazism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine is that this is the only society in Europe in which intellectuals, activists, men-on-the-street, and government officials all admire the Jewish state’s underdog success story, its militaristic and nationalist orientation, and its siege mentality.

"Our best friends until now were Russians," one Ukrainian told me. "Now they’re Jews." (This can sound quite creepy coming from the wrong speaker, but it didn’t in the current example.) "If you look at Israel, this is a good example of how focusing on one thing — defense — can trigger a lot in the economy," Shymkiv said. There’s even an Israeli flag hanging in the office of Hromadske, the independent web-based television network, whose editor in chief Mustafa Nayem, an Afghan-Ukrainian Muslim, was responsible for starting the Euromaidan protest in November, after Yanukovych refused to sign the EU association agreement, by posting a call to assemble on his Facebook page. 

This may account for why Ukrainians think that they exact a heavy toll on Russia all by themselves. "This war is not a piece of cake," Sasha Danilyuk, an advisor to Ukraine’s defense minister, said at a cafe on Khreshchatyk. "We are not Georgia. We can bleed Russia." Even still, Danilyuk said, the casualties Ukraine has already suffered are "much worse than the Western media is given to understand or has yet to appreciate" — and the number of Russian forces in Ukraine is orders of magnitude higher than what the United States or NATO have acknowledged. Danilyuk claims that if you combine the regular soldiers Russia has dispatched with the "mercenaries" from the Commonwealth of Independent States or Russian-occupied statelets such as Transnistria, Ossetia, and Chechnya, you get a total Russian deployment figure closer to 30,000, or roughly the equivalent of what Ukraine itself has dispatched to the front, including its highly controversial "volunteer" battalions.

At present, NATO claims there are about 1,000 Russian servicemen still inside Ukraine, with an additional 20,000 stationed along the border. But it is also the case that no one knows for sure how many "little green men" — an epithet for Russian soldiers in disguise — are running around Donetsk and Luhansk. Several separatist commanders are, by their own admission, "former" Russian intelligence operatives. Reports have emerged — from independent Russian news sources, no less — that Russian troops, minus their insignias, are being billeted in apartment blocks in Donetsk. Dirty wars aren’t fought in fogs; they’re fought in blizzards.

Curiously, though, the "bleed Russia" argument has also begun to resonate within Russia, even among Putin’s own constituencies, which are now asking themselves just how high a price they’ve so far paid for a conflict with a neighboring state that doesn’t officially exist. Recently, Russian officials have told the relatives of missing or dead soldiers that there may be at least 100 dead and 300 wounded so far. Lev Shlosberg, a member of the Pskov regional legislature, was beaten and hospitalized a few weeks ago after he launched a probe into the missing soldiers in his region from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, inquiring into the actual body count. Shlosberg has subsequently submitted 12 cases of probable military deaths to the Russian Prosecutor’s Office. Meanwhile, Russian NGOs have begun asking embarrassing questions. The Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg submitted an additional nine cases of soldiers reported dead in battle in Ukraine, mainly from Dagestan, to the Defense Ministry.

* * *

As I was about to leave Kiev in early September, news broke of a "cease-fire" struck between Poroshenko and Putin — even if Putin then denied it, and his dutiful relay organs, such as RT, struck their own original headlines insisting that Russia couldn’t broker a cease-fire since it had absolutely nothing to do with the fighting in east Ukraine. As of this writing, a truce has nonetheless been implemented and inevitably violated by both sides. Still, it remains intact enough that Poroshenko himself was able to visit Mariupol on Sept. 8 to rally the troops and declare that Ukraine would not be dismembered. But this was a day before he met with Vladislav Surkov, the "gray cardinal" of the Kremlin and Putin’s aide in charge of managing the other lopped-off territories of sovereign nations. What they discussed is unknown, but subsequent actions taken since suggest a broader deal has been struck.

On Sept. 16, the Rada passed a law codifying a "special status" for the Donbass, which had been announced by Poroshenko as part of the cease-fire agreement. The law is incredibly nebulous but enshrines Russian-language rights in the east as well as some form of self-government and amnesty for militants. There are already signs that Ukraine and Russia will interpret it differently. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for instance, said in a statement that the law grants the "development in certain regional districts of cross-border cooperation designed to deepen good-neighborly relations with the Russian Federation’s administrative and territorial units," which is a pretty way of describing a breakaway autonomous zone removed in all but name from the central authority in Kiev. (The Russian Foreign Ministry, which still maintains it has nothing to do with the insurgency in the east, threatened more war if the law is not upheld or implemented properly.)

Separatists, meanwhile, think the "special status" dispensation betrays the organizing principle of "Novorossiya," the establishment of a Russian imperium based on blood-and-soil nationalism. For their part, the Ukrainians who elected Poroshenko largely on his campaign promise to ensure the territorial integrity of their country fear that this deal is another kind of sellout: the de facto ceding of the Donbass to Russia, or the perpetuation of an occupation in all but name. This is why protests objecting to the special status law have recently erupted outside the Rada.

"The mood at the ministry, specifically with the new foreign minister and his team, is to get it over with," a Ukrainian diplomat told me, referring to a then-nascent cease-fire agreement. "There is one fear that we will have a new Transnistria. The other is that [the war] goes on indefinitely. The first is more awful." Though this will necessarily mean an end to Ukraine’s NATO ambition, which the diplomat said "was flimsy in the first place," even if Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently reaffirmed it in response to the undeniable Russian invasion of late August. "I can’t imagine ever shaking hands again with a Russian counterpart," the Ukrainian diplomat said, asking that his name not be mentioned for this article. "I feel so disgusted with what I’ve done."

* * *

"There could be compromises; there could be dancing around," Shymkiv said when I asked if he approved of his government’s making concessions to Moscow for a war Russia started. He replied that this wasn’t his purview — he’s Poroshenko’s reformist, not his military or foreign-policy strategist — and answered in a personal capacity. "As a Ukrainian citizen, I don’t want to see compromises. This is my land, my country, and I want it [to be] free and belong to the citizens of Ukraine. I don’t want somebody who thinks that he can grab pieces of my land, of my people, and constantly disturb us. In the long run, my view is that, connected to the reforms and the plans that I’ve drafted right now, we need to become a military state."

But whether Ukraine can be Sparta or Israel, with a stable enough economy to attract foreign direct investment and pursue energy independence from Russia, is an open question. And perhaps it’s a bit premature to even hope.

"We are going to be in a crisis for a long time," Shymkiv said. "This is the new normal. We need to find a way to sustain ourselves — and actually, this is a better state to be in. This is our history. Ukrainian dignity stands out. It has for years. Russia tried to kill it; Poland tried to kill it; even Turkey tried to kill it. But tough luck. The dignity is still there."

Michael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss. Twitter: @michaeldweiss

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