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Thoughts from Kyiv – Jan 28, 2014

Thoughts from Kyiv – Jan 28, 2014

Maybe I’m imagining things, but I have the distinct impression that the mood on Maidan and Hrushevskoho St. changed significantly in the wake of today’s events in Parliament. The resignation of Prime Minister Azarov was accepted by the President today, and each minister in Ukraine’s government is now (as a result) an “acting minister”. The draconian laws passed with massive procedural irregularities on January 16 were also rescinded today by Parliament. Both of these events presumably should have been celebrated by the protesters – in fact, many are worried, twitchy, and apprehensive. Tension is particularly high near the barricades on Hrushevskoho St. where defenses are most comprehensive, but also where police lines are in plain view of the demonstrators. Standing next to a burning barrel (temperatures have dropped to about -15 C during the day) listening to conversations between helmet-clad young men, it seemed to me that a single “spark” (in whatever form) would be enough to rekindle violence.

One wonders how the good natured atmosphere of seemingly calm but determined protest that I experienced on Sunday could have transformed so quickly (by Tuesday). Demonstrators continue to cooperate, and their individual resolve certainly has not slackened, but the openness, collegiality, and implied trust in one’s fellow protestor seems to have become (temporarily – I hope) moderated. Clearly the problem is trust – or rather its absence – both in the leaders of Ukraine’s opposition parties and in the proclaimed promises of the Yanukovych regime. Everyone that I have spoken to recognizes the need for negotiations because the alternative is more violence, and more casualties. However, the ongoing negotiations between the regime and the opposition involve the opposition party leaders only (no representatives of the Maidan are present), and the implementation of negotiated concessions (of necessity in stages) requires a certain degree of trust not only of allies, but also of one’s opponents.

Few on Maidan rejoiced today after the announcement of Azarov’s resignation. Many (like me) were cautious that this might some sort of trap: before noon we pointed out that the resignation still needed to be accepted by Yanukovych; then the Presidential decree dismissing the government was published, and the Jan 16 laws were abrogated, but people are still asking “what’s the catch?” After all, Interior Ministry troops continue to be mobilized across the country; strange concrete barriers were set up overnight around key government buildings in the center of Kyiv, and then suddenly disbanded around noon; rumors abound regarding the contents of special telegrams being sent last night by the Presidential Administration to Army officers in the regions; oblast governors, who had previously remained relatively tranquil when faced with mass demonstrations in front of their administrative offices, today suddenly became more vocal in their demands for order; police attacks on AutoMaidan leaders continue with several now in jail, and Dmytro Bulatov still missing; ominously, today was the day that Ministry of the Interior Directive №1011 (originally passed 24 Oct. 2013) which legalizes the use of lethal rounds in firearms by Berkut special forces came into force. The demonstrators on Maidan have many reasons not to trust the regime, and many still believe a declaration of martial law is in the works. Furthermore, given that during the past 2 months of protests many on the Maidan have viewed the 3 opposition political party leaders as allies, rather than “team members”, they do not fully trust Klitschko, Yatseniuk and Tiahnybok. All of this (unfortunately, and according to my subjective impression) has led to a decreased level of interpersonal trust on Maidan.

The reality is that the regime changed its tune exceptionally quickly. Whereas yesterday the entire country seemed to be preparing for a declaration of martial law, suddenly today, Azarov was fired and the “dictatorial” legislation passed on 16 January was rescinded. As was the case with Yanukovych’s previous about-face with respect to EU Association, many are asking “why?” I have spent most of the day (like many others I expect) trying to figure out an answer to this question, and what follows is a theory that (I stress) is based on “educated speculation”. Please do not criticize me for providing insufficient evidence for my claims. I recognize that I am being insufficiently “scientific” in drawing conclusions – but these are revolutionary times, so I ask for some indulgence.

During a short telephone conversation this morning with a friend who is highly placed in the current government, the phrase “revolt of the oligarchs” was all that was offered as an answer to the query as to what is happening within the regime. It will come as no surprise to anyone that the ruling Party of Regions is not a monolithic political force: according to an article in the Ukrainian edition of Forbes magazine (Oct 2013), 7 identifiable groups exist within the parliamentary faction (187 MP’s), with four representing the core of the Party. Specifically:

1) The Firtash group, nominally led in Parliament by Serhiy Tihipko, but in fact (until last week) forming the base of support for Serhiy Liovochkin, Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration Head; Yuriy Boyko, Deputy PM responsible for energy, represents the interests of the gas tycoon Dmytro Firtash in relations with Russia.

2) The Akhmetov group which is represented in the Presidential Administration by Irina Akimova (as of Jan 17 she is the “President’s representative in the Cabinet of Ministers), in Parliament by Yuriy Voropayev, and in the government by Deputy PM Oleksander Vilkul, Health Minister Raisa Bohatyriova, Economics Minister Prasolov, and Sports Minister Safiulin

3) The Kliuyev group, led in Parliament by Serhiy Kliuyev, whose brother Andriy was until recently Secretary of the National Security Council, and last week replaced Liovochkin as Head of the Presidential Administration; Andriy Portnov (legal counsel of the Presidential Administration) is considered to be part of this group.

4) The Yanukovych group which represents the interests of the President directly – in Parliament, in the Executive and in Ukraine’s murky world of big business. First Deputy PM Arbuzov (now Acting Prime Minister), Justice Minister Olena Lukash, Interior Minister Zakharchenko, Defense Minister Lebedev and Revenue Minister Klymenko are all considered to be directly loyal to the Yanukovych “family”.

The three additional (less influential) groups within the PR include a) the Ivaniushchenko group – represented in the Azarov government by Agriculture Minister Prysiazhniuk and Ecology Minister Proskuriakov, b) the Russian lobby represented in Parliament by deputy Kolisnichenko (author of the Jan 16 laws), and in the executive by the notorious Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, and c) the Luhansk group led by Parliamentary faction leader Yefremov, and represented in government by Social Services Minister Nataliya Korolevska.

Clearly the above characterization is “broad-brush”, but it seems to reflect some interesting cleavages within the Party of Regions. As we can see, prior to the current political crisis, the four main power groups seem to have found a means of balancing their interests against one another – effectively by dividing specific spheres of influence among themselves. This balance was delicate, but it held until the middle of January 2014 – although it had begun to unravel approximately 2 months before. The catalyst for the conflict seems to have been the EU Association Agreement turn-around: Firtash and Liovochkin had supported its signing whereas Kliuyev and the Russian lobby had opposed it. During the week before the Vilnius summit, Azarov sided with the latter group.

It is rumored (I have no evidence for this, except authoritative statements by “people in the know”) that Serhiy Liovochkin, Head of Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration, had in fact supported the initial Euromaidan student protests in the run-up to Vilnius. Immediately after the November 30 beatings of students on Independence Square (according to testimony by former Kyiv mayor Popov given to prosecutors, this attack had been ordered by Security Council Secretary Andriy Kliuyev), Liovochkin submitted his resignation, but it was not accepted by Yanukovych – likely because such a change would have tipped the balance between interest groups within the Party of Regions. Liovochkin’s resignation was finally accepted on January 17, and separate decrees firing the President’s press attaché Darka Chepak, and Andriy Yermolayev, the Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies (both Liovochkin loyalists) were issued on the same day.

By pushing Liovochkin (and the pro-EU “doves”) out of the President’s inner circle, and simultaneously pushing through draconian laws through Parliament, it would seem that the Kliuyev group (considered the “hawks”) had scored a decisive victory, and that a forcible removal of protestors from the center of Kyiv was inevitable. It is for this reason that many insiders considered the initial violence on Hrushevskoho St. on Jan 19 to have been instigated deliberately – as a front that would provide an excuse for the future imposition of martial law.

However last Saturday, it would seem that Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov decided otherwise. The holding company System Capital Management (SCM) which he owns, issued a public statement condemning the use of force to resolve Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis. It offered “deepest condolences to the families and relatives of those who lost their lives” and called for “constructive negotiations” and “compromise” in the interests of the whole country. By Monday, swiftly organized negotiations between the President and the opposition had resulted in Yanukovych’s offer of the Prime Minister’s job to Arseniy Yatseniuk – an offer that has been rejected, but nevertheless was seen as a very real olive branch from the regime. Incidentally, influential journalist Serhiy Leshchenko today reported that a Swish bank had informed Akhmetov on Friday that due to the political situation in Ukraine, it would be forced to reevaluate its financing arrangements with SCM. In addition to irritants such as pickets in front of Akhmetov’s apartment in London, the warning of future difficulties accessing cheap loans may have been the final catalyst for the oligarch’s decision to press Yanukovych into real negotiations to end the violence.

What does all of this mean? Well, it shows that the Party of Regions is far from monolithic, nor is it completely pro-Russian. When negotiations begin on the formation of a new post-Azarov Cabinet of Ministers (according to the Constitution, Yanukovych has 60 days to submit a candidate for PM to Parliament for approval, but he has promised to do so within a week), we will see whether the pro-EU Firtash-Liovochkin group has been completely sidelined within the Party, or whether it reemerges with some representation in the executive. However, before this happens, the latent conflict between Akhmetov’s “doves” and Kliuyev’s “hawks” must be resolved.

Prior to the Azarov resignation this morning, the conflict had clearly not been resolved: some branches of Ukraine’s government were still preparing for martial law (e.g. setting up barricades, organizing a massive “Anti-Maidan” gathering in the park near Parliament) while others were working towards a peaceful solution. Some of the anxiety on Maidan may well be a reflection of a feeling in Kyiv that the conflict within Ukraine’s political elite is (perhaps) more dangerous to human lives than street fighting and protest.

There are two unknown elements within this elite power game that could dramatically affect the direction in which events evolve in the near future. Firstly, which side will the Yanukovych group within the Party of Regions choose to ally with? Yanukovych is clearly still in control, and he is surrounded by a loyal inner circle (including Acting Prime Minister Arbuzov), but the financial and political resources that his loyalist group controls are insufficient to maintain power without cooperating with others. So, will he choose the “hawks” and Russia, or Akhmetov’s “doves” and Europe? Both groups are composed of individuals from Donetsk with whom Yanukovych has long-standing ties, so the President’s decision will not be based on regional preferences – a fact that may make it even more difficult for him.

Secondly, in a post-Azarov world, how will Ukraine’s political-economic elites build a new balance of power? In other words, if an internal compromise cannot be found, and the President makes his choice (be it for Kliuyev or for Akhmetov), what does the losing side do? Could the current crisis gradually turn into a Godfather-style “hit the mattresses!” gang-war between former Party of Regions “business” partners? Recent Ukrainian history (and specifically Donetsk during the 1990’s) has seen precedents of this kind of open warfare between business groups. Indeed, such a gang war could actually be in Mr. Putin’s interests: with Ukraine descending into anarchy during the coming weeks he could move in as a legitimate peacemaker immediately after the Sochi Olympics. Then, Russian military intervention in Ukraine would not be masked under the questionably legitimate pretext of “helping brother Slavs” in border regions, but rather as a humanitarian mission aimed at ending uncontrolled street violence.

What worries me in all of this (and I suspect it worries many of the demonstrators freezing in Kyiv’s city center) is that resolution of the current crisis through either a war or a deal between the oligarchs leaves little space for the Maidan as an independent political actor. In order for the events of the past 10 weeks in Ukraine to truly transform into a revolution (i.e. systemic change in Ukraine’s society – including both its political and economic spheres), rather than a coup d’etat (i.e. a rotation of elites), the protestors must make themselves heard. The Maidan cannot remain a social force (however massive) that relies on having its political interests represented by the opposition party leaders. The Maidan must become an independent political force that is able to counter/ally with (as distasteful as this may sound) at least one of Ukraine’s oligarchic groups in addition to allying with the opposition.

One option might be to ally with oligarchs that are not represented in the Party of Regions (e.g. Viktor Pinchuk or Ihor Kolomoyskiy). Since the start of protests, they have largely remained politically neutral. The extent of their activism has been to allow journalists working for their media outlets to report on the situation in Kyiv without having the TV channel owner’s editorial preferences imposed upon them. However, given their political passivity under Yanukovych during the past 4 years, I believe that they are unlikely to become overt allies of Maidan during the coming end-game (except for Poroshenko who has already clearly demonstrated his political preferences and ambitions – other smaller oligarchs like Zhyvago or Bakhmatiuk may yet follow his lead).

So we are left with the distasteful prospect of cooperating with a group within the Party of Regions. Furthermore, if further violence and casualties are to be avoided, the Maidan may yet be forced to accept a Yanukovych presidency (although with reduced powers – the return of the 2004 Constitution seems to basically be a done deal) likely lasting until at least the end of 2014. In such a scenario, will the protestors remain on the Maidan? Will they remain united? For how long?

As I was leaving Independence Square today, the last thing I noticed was a large sign with the following questions:

1) Where are those who beat students on the night of Nov 30?

2) Where are those who beat journalists and wrecked property?

3) Where are those who kidnapped and killed Yuriy Verbitsky?

4) Where are those who killed Serhiy Nigoyan and others?

5) Where are those who have harassed and attacked Kyiv residents?

6) Where are those who destroy the property of AutoMaidan activists?

7) Where are those who enjoy abusing and then being photographed with nude Ukrainians?

Finding these people – these are the basic demands of the Maidan – not who is going to be responsible for what ministerial portfolio…

If we are to find the answers to the above questions, and if we are to duly prosecute those responsible, “we” on the world’s Maidans may have to make some difficult compromises; possibly allying ourselves with some distasteful people. The alternative (unfortunately) is to remain a social movement that delegates its political agency to the leaders of Ukraine’s opposition parties. To many, that prospect is even more distasteful…

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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