Why the West Is Willing to Overlook Corruption in Ukraine

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is seen in Kiev, November 21, 2014
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is seen in Kiev, November 21, 2014 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Palinchak Michael)

After the bungled arrest of Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia and governor of Odessa, Leonid Bershidsky argues it is clear the West has backed the wrong man in Ukraine.

Saakashvili enjoys little popular support but had been trying to reinvent himself as an opposition leader by campaigning against corruption in President Petro Poroshenko’s government.

Protesters freed Saakashvili from a police van on Tuesday after he had been dragged from his apartment in Kiev by security forces. Read more

As Yatseniuk Resigns, Blame Shifts to Poroshenko

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine attends a World War II memorial ceremony, June 22, 2015
President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine attends a World War II memorial ceremony, June 22, 2015 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Mikhail Palinchak)

Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk resigned on Sunday to make way for a new government but could not resist taking a swipe at his rival, President Petro Poroshenko, on his way out.

“The country’s political crisis was unleashed artificially,” said Yatseniuk, alleging in a televised address that his opponents’ desire to remove him from power had “paralyzed their will for real change.”

Yatseniuk’s conservative People’s Front, the second largest in parliament, is nevertheless due to renew its coalition with Poroshenko’s Solidarity bloc and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party. Volodimir Groisman, the current speaker and an ally of Poroshenko’s, is likely to succeed Yatseniuk as premier.

Yatseniuk earlier accused the other parties, which share his desire to move Ukraine away from Russia and closer to the West, of shifting the blame for unpopular austerity measures like subsidy cuts to his group when they were enacted to qualify for $40 billion in international support.

Tymoshenko has demanded the reintroduction of energy subsidies as a condition for returning to government. Read more

Ukraine’s Poroshenko Urges Dutch to Support EU Treaty

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is seen in Kiev, November 21, 2014
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko is seen in Kiev, November 21, 2014 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine/Palinchak Michael)

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko urged Dutch voters on Thursday to support his country’s association agreement with the European Union in a referendum next year.

But he also argued that a “no” vote would not derail the process.

“This is the Rubicon that we need to cross” to fully break with Ukraine’s Soviet past, he said. Read more

Despite Limited Voting in East, Election Boosts Poroshenko

The Ukrainian flag flying in Kiev, December 28, 2007
The Ukrainian flag flying in Kiev, December 28, 2007 (Andriy Baranskyy)

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was likely to win a strong mandate for his pro-European policy in a parliamentary election on Sunday but voting could not take place in parts of the east where rebels sympathetic to Russia have declared breakaways republics.

Nationwide opinion polls showed Poroshenko’s and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s pro-European parties ahead. While they might not win a majority between them, they should be able to form a coalition with other parties that support a united Ukraine and the reforms sought by the country’s European Union partners.

In the east, the outcome was less certain. “The Party of Regions, once the chief political vehicle of former president Viktor Yanukovich” — who was forced to resign in February after Ukrainians took to the streets to protest his decision to pull out of European trade talks — “used to be the local favorite in Kharkiv and elsewhere in the east,” according to EurasiaNet. “But the party quickly crumbled after Yanukovich fled the country.”

Voting took place in just over half the districts in the Donbas where separatists are determined to hold their own elections next month. Voting could not take place at all in the Crimean Peninsula which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.

The Washington Post reported that the elections could bring a “cadre of new faces to power, further upending Ukraine’s chaotic political system with soldiers, activists and others who have no experience as elected politicians.”

While support for Poroshenko’s Western-oriented policy is widespread, “he may feel pressure to show a harder line against Russia and the rebels,” according to the American newspaper, “since anti-Russian voices will gain in number and former Yanukovich allies, who were friendlier to Russia, will fade.”

Russia’s aggression in the east has turned even Russophone Ukrainians who were previously skeptical of a pro-Western policy decidedly in favor of deepening ties with the rest of Europe at the expense of the country’s historical and commercial relations with Russia. Russia’s popularity has plummeted since it took the Crimea and began supporting the separatist uprising in the Donbas.

The elections were called in August when Ukraine’s army appeared to have the upper hand against the rebels. Renewed Russian support for the insurrection, including the arrival of tanks and troops, turned the situation into a stalemate. Violations of a ceasefire agreed to last month occur almost daily. This week, Ukraine deployed border guards along a new internal frontier.

Ukraine’s Poroshenko Willing to Talk But with Whom?

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko takes the oath of office in parliament in Kiev, June 7
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko takes the oath of office in parliament in Kiev, June 7 (The Council of the European Union)

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said on Wednesday he was willing to talk with opponents in the east of the country, provided the pro-Russian separatists there agreed to lay down their weapons. But the rebels showed no sign of giving up and there is really no one Poroshenko can negotiate with.

Poroshenko, who was sworn in as president on Saturday after winning an election late last month, was quoted by his press office as telling the governor of the Donetsk region of east Ukraine that he would not rule out holding “roundtable” talks with “different parties.”

However, he cautioned, “We do not need negotiations for the sake of negotiations. Our peace plan must become the basis for further deescalation of the conflict.”

Donetsk is at the heart of a rebellion that opposes centralized rule from Kiev and wants Russia to annex parts of the predominantly Russian-speaking region.

The uprising lacks coherent leadership, however, blogs Edward W. Walker, a comparative political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley who specialized in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In Donetsk as well as nearby Luhansk, separatists have declared independent people’s republics yet an overarching Federal State of Novorossiya was established in May as well. Its founding congress was attended by Russian nationalist ideologues and presided over by separatists from Donetsk. Those from Luhansk, he notes, doubtless believe the Donetsk leadership “intends to use the federation to extend its authority into Luhansk.”

The Donetsk separatist “leadership,” moreover, is made up of political neophytes. “None of these people has ever been elected to public office,” according to Walker. “Their relationships with each other, their respective duties, and their control, if any, over armed formations is unclear; and whatever evidence there is suggests that, as individuals, they have very limited popular support in Donetsk.”

The same is largely true for Luhansk where the former Soviet paratrooper Valery Bolotov was elected president of the breakaway region last month.

Given the separatists’ lack of unity, Walker finds it difficult to believe that Poroshenko would be willing to negotiate with any of them. “Nor is it in the least clear who to invite to the negotiating table.”

Complicating the problem further, participants in the uprisings have different preferences, ranging from institutionalized protections for Russians and Russian speakers, administrative decentralization, full autonomy, independence or incorporation into Russia. And of course the preferences of the pro-Russian forces in the east do not necessarily reflect the preferences of the public as a whole.

Finally, there is Russia itself. Despite seizing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March and massing tens of thousands of troops on the eastern border of its former satellite state — which President Vladimir Putin claims have since been withdrawn — it has stopped short of endorsing the Ukrainian separatists’ calls for annexation. It proposes turning Ukraine into a federation instead to give especially ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast more of a direct say in how they are governed. The authorities in Kiev see this as a ploy to divide the country.

Walker believes Russia won’t allow a negotiated settlement that restores the central government’s sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk. It is more likely “to try to keep the region at least at a low boil for the foreseeable future and continue its covert efforts to spread the rebellion to other parts of the east and south, notably Mariupol and Kharkiv,” the objective being to keep Ukraine divided and out of the Western sphere of influence generally and out of NATO in particular.

After Election, Ukraine Renews Offensive Against Separatists

Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko holds up a flag during a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, March 12
Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko holds up a flag during a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, March 12 (European Parliament)

Following a presidential election on Sunday in which Ukrainians overwhelmingly backed the billionaire Petro Poroshenko, the government in Kiev launched a renewed offensive against pro-Russian separatists in the east that killed more than fifty on Tuesday.

Hours after the polls closed Sunday night, the government carried out airstrikes against rebels in the east of Ukraine, near the Russian border, where they have proclaimed two independent states. Helicopters and warplanes attacked the airport of Donetsk, which separatists had seized on Monday, and paratroopers were flown in to root them out.

In his first news conference after winning the election, Poroshenko promised to invigorate the government’s “anti-terrorist” campaign, saying it should to be able to put down the revolt within hours.

First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema later said, “We’ll continue the anti-terrorist operation until not a single terrorist remains on the territory of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian troops previously hesitated to attack the rebels on such a scale, fearing Russian intervention if they did. However, the authorities in Kiev appear to have interpreted the outcome of Sunday’s election — which saw more than 80 percent of Ukrainians voting for candidates that supported their national unity, according to preliminary results — as a mandate for more decisive action.

Russia has proposed turning Ukraine into a federation to give especially ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast more of a direct say in how they are governed. Authorities in Kiev see this as a ploy to divide the country.

Poroshenko, who owns Roshen, a Ukrainian chocolate manufacturer and one of the world’s top confectionery firms, got more than 54 percent support against 13 percent for his closest rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Turnout was highest in the west of the country which tends to favor closer relations with the European Union. In Donetsk and parts of Luhansk, most polling stations could not open due to the violence.

The two regions are home to most of Ukraine’s heavy industries and account for more than 15 percent of its total gross domestic product. Losing them to either the separatists or Russia would be a crippling blow to a country that is on the verge of bankruptcy six months into a political crisis that began when its former president, Viktor Yanukovich, suddenly pulled out of an association and trade agreement with the European Union in November.

Following months of protests, Yanukovich was deposed in February and replaced by an interim government that signed the association treaty the next month.

Russia subsequently seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, claiming to support an indigenous uprising there. It also massed tens of thousands of troops on the eastern border of its former satellite state which President Vladimir Putin said last week were withdrawing.