Ukraine: Priorities for the Next Government

February 25, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Ukraine

Ukraine: Priorities for the Next Government

No time for victory laps.

It is a little early for anyone to be taking victory laps in Ukraine. As I warned last week, Viktor Yanukovych's departure from Kyiv would not be the end of the affair. Over the next several days and weeks, any interim governing authority will face major challenges that will have to be met if Ukraine is to get through this crisis.

Television cameras have focused most of their attention on what was happening in the Maidan, but Ukraine is far more than its capital city. Indeed, what has been happening since Friday can be understood as the continuing tug of war between Ukraine's two secondary capitals—L'viv in the west and Kharkiv in the east (L'viv, once the center of a medieval principality, was capital of the short-lived Western Ukrainian People's Republic; Kharkiv, originally founded in 1654 to provide refuge for pro-Russian Cossacks fleeing Polish rule, served as the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic). When the initial agreement was signed between Yanukovych, the opposition and EU mediators (although the Russian representative declined to endorse the final text)—providing for Yanukovyuch to retain the presidency in the short term but to appoint a national unity government and to hold presidential elections later in 2014—it was denounced in the western portion of the country and did not satisfy the protesters in Kyiv itself—who wanted Yanukovych to be removed immediately. In turn, when Yanukovych departed Kyiv, he left for Kharkiv, which was hosting a meeting of politicians representing the more-Russia-leaning southern and eastern regions of the country.

So far, the talk about separatism has been muted—the theme of the Kharkiv conclave was about maintaining a united Ukraine. Many of the politicians, Rada members and local leaders who were part of Yanukovych's "Party of Regions" have repudiated his leadership and have accepted that he and some of his close associates should be held responsible for the violence which engulfed the capital in the last several weeks. But the challenge is now whether or not the opposition is willing to move forward with an "inclusive transition"—something which may be difficult in the winner-take-all, zero-sum approach to Ukrainian politics, particularly when many in the opposition will have scores to settle with Yanukovych's ruling coalition and who will be looking to defeat rather than collaborate with. The revocation of a controversial language law that allowed districts of the country to raise "minority languages" to coequal official status with Ukrainian—permitting effective bilingualism in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern sections of the country—could reopen old divisions and fault lines that Viktor Yanukovych helped to exploit in managing his political resurrection after the 2004 Orange Revolution to become prime minister in 2006.

The interim government also needs to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Not everything done by the Yanukovych government was bad, and in particular, the new team should avoid jeopardizing the energy contracts that the Yanukovych team negotiated for developing Ukraine's offshore hydrocarbon reserves and its shale gas potential; delays in getting these projects started further slows the absolutely essential effort to make Ukraine more energy independent and less dependent on Russian supplies. Moving ahead with the proposed operating agreement that was to be signed with Chevron in March to start work on shale gas projects in Western Ukraine would send an important signal about continuity which would reassure foreign investors that contracts will be honored.

Much depends on whether leaders are prepared to make the case to Ukrainians about the need for "blood, sweat and tears" in the coming months and years. It was continuously disheartening to read media accounts of statements being made by Maidan protesters who believed that visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the European Union or indeed even full membership in the EU was just around the corner, or that a massive EU financial assistance package would be waiting once Yanukovych was driven from power. Visiting EU (and U.S.) officials who pledged (rhetorical) support did little to dissuade these impressions. But the association agreement that Yanukovych ultimately balked at signing—in part because many of its provisions would challenge the way things are done in Ukrainian politics and business—will cause short-term pain. Having Ukrainians endorse it—and perhaps the EU agreement should be sent to a national referendum to get popular buy-in—is absolutely necessary.

Whether Ukraine can now avoid repeating the trajectory of the Orange Revolution—where forces united against Viktor Yanukovych fragmented once in power and were unable to deliver on the promises made a decade ago in terms of battling corruption, promoting economic growth and transforming Ukraine—is also an open question. Complicating the tripartite division of the opposition is the emergence of more assertive groups among the protestors who did not man the barricades for "familiar faces" to return to power. The cool reception from some parts of the Maidan to the leading political figures—including those that U.S. officials hoped might form a new government—suggests a new avenue of disconnect where leaders are playing catch-up to the expectations of the protesters rather than setting the agenda. Certainly the restoration of the 2004 constitution—which weakens the institutional powers of the president—sets the country up for institutional paralysis should the presidency and prime ministership be distributed to different parties within the opposition coalition unless all have agreed to a common program of action (say, under the rubric of an anti-crisis national unity government).

Finally, the new administration will also need to find a way to operationalize its stated goal of having good neighborly relations with Russia "that respect Ukraine's European choice." Yanukovych won a narrow victory in 2010 because many Ukrainians believed, despite his corruption, that he would be more likely than the politicians associated with the Orange Revolution to finesse Ukraine's ties with Europe in a fashion that Moscow would accept. Ultimately, he failed in this endeavor. Russia is once again suspending its financial aid lifeline while it assesses what the new government plans to do. The EU and the United States have pledged aid, but a massive bailout package for Ukraine will not sit well with domestic constituencies who have been absorbing budget cuts. As he did a decade ago, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is prepared to call the West's bluff on Ukraine—that it will not be willing to take on the challenge of providing necessary assistance—leading to economic crisis which was also part of the reason for Yanukovych's 2006 comeback and 2010 election as president.

Ukraine needs politicians who can broker compromises between the different sections of the country and balance its Western aspirations with Eastern realities. The new speaker of the Rada, Oleksander Turchinov, who is also the declared acting president, hopes to have a new government announced on Tuesday. Whether it will be up to the task remains to be seen.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.