Eastern Ukraine: The Neverending Crisis

September 3, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign Policy Region: UkraineRussiaUnited States

Eastern Ukraine: The Neverending Crisis

"Russia has responded to popular aspirations in eastern Ukraine very differently from the way it responded in Crimea."

Kiev’s assessment is, of course, very different. According to Ukrainian government officials, Russia seeks to destabilize Ukraine in order to prevent it from leaving Russia’s orbit. By promoting instability, Russia can continue to exert political and economic pressure on Ukraine. Breaking this influence is typically characterized as making a “civilizational choice” for Europe and against Russia.

But from Russia’s perspective, this is not a civilizational choice. It is merely the choice of the present Ukrainian government. So long as Ukraine remains a democracy, it is possible, even likely, that some future Ukrainian government will choose close cooperation over confrontation with Russia. Indeed, one of the main reasons that Russia objected so strongly to being excluded from any discussions of the impact of EU association, is that it enshrines the notion that a civilizational divide exists between Russia and Europe, and that Ukraine must choose one over the other.

The present government in Kiev has embraced the ideology of “civilizational choice” and given full vent to the notion that choosing the EU is a rejection of Russia. In keeping with this ideology, it has made “Russian aggression” a core aspect of its political strategy.

The Uses and Abuses of “Russian Aggression”

It is quite understandable that Kiev seeks to place the blame for its all of its setbacks on Russia. Promoting the notion that the country must rally to defend itself against external aggression is a time-honored strategy among fledgling regimes. It is troubling, however, that this motif is increasingly shaping domestic policies and limiting opportunities for political dissent.

In the name of resisting “Russian aggression,” for the first time in post-Soviet Ukrainian history, mass political parties have been banned from parliament, legislation is being introduced that would prevent whole categories of civil servants from ever again participating in public life, foreign television broadcasts are jammed, and the Ukrainian media is now subject to legislation that makes it a violation of national security to say anything, or even to show pictures, that might undermine the war effort.

Given the historical absence in Ukraine of classically liberal parties and politicians, and the gutting of institutional and judicial constraints on abuse of power, nationalist rhetoric has become the mainstream in Ukrainian politics. Moreover, it has become a handy tool for suppressing criticism of the current government. Thus, Prime Minister Yatseniuk recently suggested that anyone opposed to the draconian hikes in utilities fees must be an agent of the Russian security services. Even Maidan activists are not immune from accusations of being paid Russian agents.

The following is a partial short list of recent government initiatives to combat “Russian aggression:”

- In addition to banning certain Russian films for “distorting historical facts,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture has also come up with a list of 500 Russian performers and artists who will not be allowed to perform in Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Sych has gone a step further and proposed that all Russian language books be licensed and quotas imposed on all foreign literature sold in Ukraine.

- The State Television and Radio Committee has asked all Ukrainians (not just officials) not to speak to any Russian news agency. To give teeth to what have so far been merely requests, new legislation would allow the government to close media and block websites on national security grounds without a court order. [Reporters Without Borders, http://en.rsf.org, August 12, 2014]

- Other legislation recently introduced gives state authorities the right to confiscate the assets of any official, media entity or private enterprise that is deemed to have expressed separatist sentiments, or that might do so in the future. Such “de-separatist lustration,” as it is known, will allow the government to confiscate the assets of individuals suspected or accused of separatism, and prevent them from holding public office for fifteen years.

Some might argue that such legislation is necessary to prevent rebel leaders from someday being elected to local office. That day is still far off, if it ever arrives. Meanwhile, the law is being applied to some of the most moderate voices in Ukrainian politics, like Sergei Kivalov, a longtime representative from Odessa in the Ukrainian parliament who is also the dean of a local law school, and Ukraine’s longtime representative to the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission.

He is probably best known, however, for being the co-author of the 2012 law that allowed regions to adopt languages other than Ukrainian for official use. His past sins caught up with him last month when the current governor of the Odessa region formally requested the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to investigate Kivalov for treason.

The broad strokes with which the term “Russian aggression” is being applied have dramatically changed the Ukrainian political landscape. Less than two years ago, the European Parliament deemed the political views of the Svoboda Party to be so “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic” that it called upon all Ukrainian political forces to eschew any coalition with it. Today, with the deputy speakership of parliament and four ministerial portfolios, it is considered almost mainstream in Ukraine.

Individuals and groups even more extreme have profited from this rightward shift. Oleg Lyashko, Ukraine’s own version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, gathered a surprising 8 percent of the national vote in the presidential elections earlier this year, while the coalition of political forces known as the Right Sector has been able to parlay its own virulent brand of nationalism into political clout that far outstrips its electoral support.

The Kyiv Post reports how this past June, the city’s chief prosecutor and three of his deputies were suspended at the insistence of the Right Sector. And in late August, the Right Sector’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, told Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko that he had just forty-eight hours to release the members of his organization detained by the police, and fire the deputy minister of internal affairs, Vladimir Evdokimov. Failure to do so, he said, would result in a mobilization of the Right Sector’s reserve battalions for a “march on Kiev.” Needless to say, Yarosh’s demands were quickly met.

President Poroshenko himself has not commented publicly on any of these incidents, though he did refer to the members of parliament who oppose the current military campaign because of its heavy toll on civilians as “a fifth column controlled from abroad.” He also signed into law legislation to disband the Ukrainian Communist Party in parliament. Both actions make his inaugural pledge to protect the distinctiveness of eastern and southern Ukrainians ring hollow.

Same Problem—Different Solutions

So how does this conflict end? Both Russia and the West say they want stability in Ukraine, but they have very different ideas about how to achieve it. Western governments appear oblivious to the cultural context of the conflict and how it affects the country’s political and economic choices. They assume that the main problem Ukrainian society faces is corruption. If corruption can be tackled, so the argument goes, then regional differences will simply fade away.

Russia, on the other hand, sees Ukraine as a culturally fragmented society. Endemic corruption builds on these divisions and leads to political gridlock. Only by finding a way to resolve this cultural divide, Russia argues, can Ukraine prosper.

These different perspectives lead to very different approaches to resolving the conflict. For the West, dealing with the concerns of the Russian-speaking population is a distraction. Moreover, Kiev has convinced many in the West that Russia is only supporting the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine for its own political advantages and that it is therefore perfectly justified in promoting Ukrainian culture at the expense of Russian culture.

Russia, on the other hand, does not believe that the issue of cultural rights in Ukraine is going away anytime soon. Based on the previous experience of the Yushchenko regime, it believes that government efforts to forcibly Ukrainianize the east will exacerbate social tensions and lead to a backlash. The only way to ensure the stability of Ukraine is to grant the Russian cultural minority equal rights throughout Ukraine. This is something that the current regime in Kiev categorically opposes.

None of this bodes well for a rapid end to the conflict. While military resistance in the region may eventually be quashed, Ukrainian military commanders understand that this will not end rebellious sentiments in Donbass. According to the deputy commander of the Azov battalion, one of the many privately funded units that fight alongside the Ukrainian army, his men are being retasked for the indefinite mission of combating the “separatist underground.” To assist in future pacification, President Poroshenko recently signed legislation that allows state prosecutors in liberated areas to initiate investigations without judicial oversight.

Since it cannot count on the loyalty of former officials, Kiev will also be obliged to impose an entirely new political and economic elite on Donbass. By some accounts, the governing oligarch of the neighboring region of Dnepropetrovsk, Igor Kolomoisky, is planning to acquire a large portion of Donbass after it has been pacified.