Now We Know Who Really Runs Ukraine

This week's government showdown in Kiev is proof that the oligarchs are still firmly in control.

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After hours of public bashing by lawmakers in the session hall of Ukraine’s parliament, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk rose from his chair, visibly nervous. These were the last minutes before a no-confidence vote that he and his government were likely to lose. Nevertheless, he did his best to make his case: “We inherited a plundered country, with the Russian army and Russian boots marching on Ukrainian territory. We had no army, no money, no public administration. But we kept this country together. I ask you to respect that,” he said, clenching his fists. But the speech seemed to fall flat. This would surely be the end of Yatsenyuk and his cabinet, Ukrainians all across the country thought, as they followed the scene yesterday on live television and on the internet.

But suddenly, Mustafa Nayyem, a well-known reformist legislator, saw a sight that must have chilled him to the bone. Moments before the vote, dozens of legislators from a range of parties, all affiliated with powerful oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoiskiy, and Victor Pinchuk, suddenly left the session floor — they weren’t going to vote against the government. Nayyem rushed to Twitter to warn the country: a backdoor deal had been reached, and the no-confidence vote would likely fail. But it was too late. The voting had already started.

Just hours before the vote, most Ukrainians had been sure that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was finished: his popularity ratings were dismal and international pressure to remove him for failing to tackle the country’s massive corruption was rising. In recent weeks, one top reformer after another kept resigning from the government, citing the impossibility of making any progress in a system that was still corrupt at the very top.

Finally, on February 16, President Petro Poroshenko himself called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation, officially ending their two-year post-revolutionary alliance. Yatsenyuk and his cabinet were due to defend the performance of their government over the previous year on the parliamentary floor. After hours of heated debate, the gathered lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected the report as “unsatisfactory,” by 247 votes out of 339. The success of a no-confidence vote, due to take place just 10 minutes later, seemed a foregone conclusion.

But in a maneuver reminiscent of “Game of Thrones,” the campaign against Yatsenyuk collapsed in a matter of minutes, leaving Nayyem — and everyone else — with dropped jaws. First came the walkout. Then, almost three dozen legislators from President Poroshenko’s party failed to support the no-confidence vote. In the end, the no-confidence motion gathered just 194 of the 226 votes it required. Yatsenyuk and his government had survived. After the vote, most of the gathered legislators were dead silent, as if stunned — and the minority that opposed the motion erupted in cheers. Ukraine’s rent-seeking oligarchic elites were free to celebrate their latest and greatest victory against the forces of reform since the 2013 Euromaidan revolution.

Foreign observers, politicians, and diplomats started complaining to me immediately afterwards: “Again with that chaotic Ukrainian politics!” Well, let’s make it clear once and for all: Ukrainian politics is anything but chaotic. There are no party lines, no real policy debates, no ideological clashes: just cold-hearted vested interests and short-term alliances between various oligarchic groups. The second you accept that, and stop seeing Ukrainian politics through the political lens of the developed world, you’ll see what I see: a simple pushback by oligarchs against internationally backed efforts to finally rid the country of the corruption that inspired the Euromaidan.

For too many of the current elite, a new prime minister could mean a shake-up of the whole government, and possibly a restart of much-delayed reforms that would threaten their financial interests. Or it could also mean more competition for resources — a further takeover of some of the top positions in government by business interests connected to President Poroshenko’s ruling party. Either of these scenarios would be a loss for the vested interests. Preserving the status quo, in which everyone’s territory has already been carved up and divided, was the optimal equilibrium for Ukraine’s top kleptocrats. As usual, the interests of the Ukrainian people themselves barely registered on anyone’s agenda.

In Ukraine, it is utterly naïve to search for any dichotomy between the crooks and the reformers along party lines. Recent investigative reports and scandals have exposed what most people have long already known: that clusters of corruption thrive inside almost every party, including that of President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, the Opposition Bloc, and others. Further, the various corrupt forces successfully cooperate with each other, even when they are not “formally” allied politically. For example, a productive alliance that protects corruption within the energy sector reportedly exists between political and business elites tied to the fugitive former President Yanukovych, current President Poroshenko, and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk.

The same is true of the reformers: you can find brave fighters for change not only within heavily corrupt parties but inside the corrupt government as well: from the anti-corruption crusader Serhii Leshchenko of President Poroshenko’s party to reformist Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko. Unfortunately, these reformers are outnumbered by the kleptocrats.

The West shares the blame for the reformers’ failure to win the fight for change in Ukraine. As direct stakeholders in its future, with billions of dollars already invested through bailout loans and aid, the country’s foreign partners and supporters have been remarkably idle in pushing for specific reforms. Many have closed their eyes to exactly how much power the vested interests among the post-revolutionary political elites still wield. Western policymakers and diplomats have rallied for the well-spoken Prime Minister Yatsenyuk while ignoring his almost two-decade background in dirty Ukrainian politics and reports of his close allies’ alleged involvement in corrupt schemes.

Not a single question was asked when President Poroshenko staffed his administration with former business partners and friends with dubious backgrounds while refusing to sell his own vast corporate assets, as he had promised. Crucial initiatives led by reformers within the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of the Economy, and the Ministry of Infrastructure have not found enough articulate support from abroad.

Now, as the political crisis mounts — and, perhaps sensing weakness, Russia-backed separatists probe the country’s defenses — Ukraine’s Western partners may find themselves facing much higher costs to fix the mess. Ignoring complex crises hasn’t worked very well for the developed world in recent years, and Ukraine is just another illustration. It’s true that in recent months we’ve seen growing pressure from the country’s international partners demanding real reforms. But that should have happened two years ago, not two months ago.

There are still ways for the West to avoid a full-blown Ukrainian collapse. First, it must fight hard for the remaining reformers: as long as the hands of powerful people like Minister Jaresko or anti-corruption crusaders like Mustafa Nayyem and Serhii Leshchenko aren’t tied, there’s a chance that the country’s development will continue.

Secondly, the West shouldn’t fall for the cheap theatrics of a “political cleanup” that are being propagated by the country’s ruling elites. In an apparent alliance with various political groups in parliament who have ties to the oligarchs, President Poroshenko and his Solidarnist party have built up suspense by keeping allegedly corrupt officials in place, accumulating negativity around two specific people — Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Now, by publicly bashing the former and dumping the latter, these elites hope to release the pressure and convince the public and the international community that a cleanup is underway.

But after two years of empty promises, neither Ukrainians nor their foreign partners should be satisfied. In Ukraine, it doesn’t matter who runs the government or the General Prosecutor’s office. With Yatsenyuk and Shokin or without them, the alliance of oligarchs and corrupt officials will stand strong — unless we stop paying attention to personalities and demand real, structural reforms.

The resignations of these officials are irrelevant if they are not followed by criminal prosecutions, and then systemic changes. For example, has anyone investigated Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s ties to his close ally Mykola Martynenko, after Martynenko’s resignation from parliament following an international corruption investigation? Nope. What was the fate of President Poroshenko’s business partner and a lawmaker Ihor Kononenko after his alleged corrupt practices triggered a wave of resignations among reformists in the government? Nothing.

Then there’s Shokin himself, the disgraced prosecutor general, who has failed to pursue a single high-profile corruption case, neither against officials of the former Yanukovych regime nor against today’s highly-placed crooks. Since his abrupt resignation on February 16, his duties are being performed — at least for now — by his loyal and devoted deputy, Yuriy Sevruk.

If this charade doesn’t stop, the system will just keep replicating itself without ever changing — and the hopes of yet another Ukrainian revolution will have been betrayed.

In the photo, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk gestures while speaking during his annual report at the parliament in Kiev on February 16, 2016.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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