What on Earth Just Happened in Ukraine?

The February 3 resignation of Ukraine’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius sparked another political crisis in Kyiv, a crisis that deepened with a failed vote of no-confidence on February 16. The governing coalition in parliament is unraveling and early parliamentary elections look likely. Analysts fear that a populist or even radical government may come to power, undoing the progress that has been made.


Abromavicius performed admirably, cutting the bloat in his ministry almost in half and driving the privatization of corrupt state enterprises. In his resignation speech, Abromavicius accused Ihor Kononenko, a key player in the Poroshenko Bloc, of attempting to place his own deputy minister in Abromavicius’ ministry to be responsible for state gas and oil company Naftogaz and other state enterprises. By specifically naming Kononenko in his resignation speech, Abromavicius wanted to pressure President Petro Poroshenko and the political establishment to put reforms into high gear and draw the international community’s attention to problems within the government. Abromavicius’ short tenure shows just how difficult attempts to reform are in a country where clientelism and cronyism run deep.

The West’s reaction to the crisis has been both outspoken and frustratingly vague. The West has been unwilling to target the real causes of the crisis. Backing pro-Europe politicians because they support US interests does not mean that one can turn a blind-eye to their failures and flaws. Politicians must be responsive to their own citizens and the needs of their country.

Although a group of 10 ambassadors to Ukraine released a statement expressing strong disappointment at Abromavicius’ resignation and the unwillingness of the Ukrainian parliament to focus on the necessary reforms almost immediately after the minister resigned, the statement referred only to “parochial differences” among Ukraine’s leaders that need to be “set aside” and to “vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades” that must be put “in the past.” On February 10, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde referred to “vested interests” and warned that the IMF could halt its financial support of Ukraine if the government did not do a better job fighting corruption, though she failed to mention any names.

Abromavicius’ high-stakes gamble worked, to some extent: the IMF suspended the next tranche of Ukraine’s $17.5 billion IMF program, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) has already opened an investigation into Abromavicius’s claims, and Kononenko has suspended himself from serving as first deputy chairman of the Bloc of Petro Poroshenko.

The international community also took notice. But the imprecise nature of its initial response opened the door to the high political theater of February 16, the consequences of which threaten to undermine reform significantly. In the morning of February 16, Poroshenko sacrificed Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, seen by many as protecting the interests of the old guard, and called for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign. But Poroshenko was double dealing: he called for Yatsenyuk’s resignation while hoping that he would remain in office, albeit in a weakened state. On the evening of February 16, the parliament deemed the government’s work “unsatisfactory,” but, paradoxically, failed to push Yatsenyuk out in a no-confidence vote by 32 votes. No issues have really been addressed: Kononenko remains in the party, the coalition is fracturing, and the lack of reform has not been addressed.

The West, and especially the United States, has been loath to criticize Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk directly, having supported them as they worked to stabilize the country after disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow. The United States, like everyone else, craves stability and predictability. Ukraine’s government, however, is not stable; it is stagnant. Backing Poroshenko unequivocally is no longer the answer, as the greatest obstacle to reform may be that Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk never escaped from the old system that the Euromaidan hoped to dispel. They have not been able to defeat the oligarchic interests that far too often dictate policy in Ukraine, especially as their allies often represent those very interests. The West’s representatives in Ukraine must name names, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and attach concrete strings to the support they are giving Ukraine.

Poroshenko must do more if he wants Ukraine to become a normal European country. His government is extremely unpopular, as a November IRI poll shows: 70 percent of Ukrainians disapprove of the job he is doing, 82 percent disapprove of the job Yatsenyuk is doing, and 83 percent disapprove of the job parliament is doing. Ukrainians want to see visible progress on corruption and reform, and they want their bottom line to improve. The West must support them by publicly pressuring Poroshenko to purge the elements in his bloc and government who are dragging their feet on reform, leaving sentimentality and “vested interests” behind. Unfortunately, Poroshenko himself may be caught too deep in the mire for this to be possible.

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers

Tags: , , , , , ,

Philadelphia’s Message to the World

This blog is based on a talk to 3,000 high school students at the Ivy League Model UN Conference in Philadelphia, January 28, 2016.

Late last year, Philadelphia became the first US city to be granted World Heritage City status by UNESCO.  This is an opportunity for Philadelphians to pause and reflect on precisely what it is that constitutes Philadelphia’s contribution to world history, and what, if anything, Philadelphia can teach the world today.  


Of course, we associate our nation’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States – with Philadelphia, where they were drafted. But, still, what precise lessons emerge from these documents, and how well are we communicating those lessons to the world – or even to our own children?

I have heard it said that Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern democracy. But, as the economist Steven Hanke has pointed out, the word democracy appears nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  And the bell we revere in Independence Square is not called the Democracy Bell.

If the truth be told, the Founding Fathers were skeptical of democracy, even fearful of it, for they associated it with the tyranny of the majority.  They therefore constructed a constitution designed, as UPenn historian Walter McDougall notes, “to thwart democracy.” They separated powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government, divided powers between federal and state governments, provided for each branch of government to check the others while limiting the powers of all. These are the means by which the founders sought to limit what majority rule could do.

Ultimately, Hanke explains, they gave us not democracy, but liberty.

The difference is important for the world at large, especially as we try to foster transitions to “democracy.”  That a country holds an election may make it democratic but it does not make it free if there are no protections for individual liberty and no structures in place to protect that liberty from a tyrant in the form of a person or in the form of “the people.”    

In a conference we sponsored on “The Creation of a Liberal Society: Did It Happen in Philadelphia by Accident?,” the historian Alan Tully reminded us of the signal contribution of William Penn, whose statue stands atop City Hall in Philadelphia. In 1681, he was given a charter for a province that became the commonwealth that took his name – Pennsylvania. As a Quaker, a sect once persecuted in England for their religious beliefs and practices, Penn promulgated for that province — but ultimately for the country as a whole — freedom of conscience, freedom to follow the religion of your choice. After a century of havoc wrought in Europe by the Wars of Religion, Penn’s concept of freedom of conscience was a novel idea. We take it for granted but experiences in other parts of the world – and even sometimes here at home — suggest that it is not something that can ever be taken for granted. 

Freedom of religion is our first freedom, not only philosophically but literally as well. The first of ten amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights, whose passage was promised in order to secure ratification of the Constitution in the first place, reads:  “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, freedom of religion is the very first right guaranteed in the very first amendment.  It is the cornerstone of liberty.  

Does this speak to the modern world?  It most certainly does, as many pundits have already opined that the wars of religion in the Middle East today seem so reminiscent of the Wars of Religion of yesteryear. The maltreatment of religious minorities in the Middle East, sometimes bordering on genocide, is in desperate need of correction. It is noteworthy that on January 27 a meeting of 250 Muslim religious leaders in Marrakesh, Morocco issued the Marrakesh Declaration affirming that Islam prohibits the mistreatment of religious minorities in Muslim majority states.  From William Penn to Marrakesh, you can draw a straight line. 

What can Philadelphia teach the world? That liberty is a higher value than democracy, and that freedom of conscience is the basis of all liberty. 

Historians have noted that the history of the world through time and space is a history largely of war, oppression, and poverty, save for the last few hundred years when we have carved out a space for peace and peaceful resolution of conflict, for liberty, and for prosperity.  And at least some debt for this is owed to what happened in Philadelphia in the 1700s.  It remained for the generations that followed and for us today first to understand this legacy – and then to build on it to spread the blessings of liberty.

Alan Luxenberg is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The Follies of “Mission Accomplished”

Misión cumplida: lo tenemos,” dispatched Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto over Twitter on January 8, 2016. “Mission accomplished: we have him.” Mexican Marines had just captured Joaquín Guzmán-Loera, or El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel’s leader and world’s largest narcotics distributor. Requisite congratulations to his cabinet followed.

The statement mirrored another infamous exultation: U.S. President George W. Bush celebrating Saddam Hussein’s fall on the USS Abraham Lincoln with a “Mission Accomplished” banner visible behind his podium on May 1, 2003. Eight years and one day later, President Barack Obama announced the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although careful not to declare final victory, Obama’s subsequent rhetoric and ensuing policies made it clear he saw the bin Laden raid as an “achievement” that would justify an American military drawdown.

Bush, Obama, and Peña Nieto all shared an obsession with defeating a specific enemy, and the manner and tone which each presented a seemingly conclusive moment demonstrates a misguided belief in handling modern conflict. No nation can protect and serve its citizenry by telling its people that disarming, detaining, or defeating a singular foe constitutes an effective strategy. Trumpeting tactical actions as terminal successes highlights a state’s weakness, and is a harbinger for intellectual paralysis and policy failure.

When former President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, his advisors had hoped to conjure a scene reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s acceptance of Japan’s surrender on the USS Missouri that ended World War II. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” Bush said during his speech. Almost six bloody years later, he struck a different tone. “Putting ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” Bush said in January 2009, reflecting days before departing the Oval Office.

Although Obama was careful to avoid repeating Bush’s mistake in his remarks announcing Osama bin Laden’s death as a conclusive moment, his 2012 presidential campaign positioned the bin Laden raid as the definitive justification for declaring a premature end to war in Iraq. “The tide of war is receding,” Obama inaccurately forecasted in October 2011. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership—including Osama bin Laden.”

Two years later, President Obama contrasted bin Laden with the nascent Islamic State, comparing the latter to a junior varsity basketball team. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden…versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles,” Obama said in January 2014. His comments bizarrely echoed former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2005 description of Iraq’s insurgency as “in its last throes.” Since the President’s assessment, ISIS attackers have struck Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, Tripoli, Copenhagen, Tunis, Sana’a, Kuwait City, Cairo, a French train from Amsterdam, Ankara, a Russian airplane over Egypt, Beirut, Paris (again), Tunis (again), San Bernardino, and, most recently, Istanbul. Despite Obama’s desire for tidy victory, Islamic State clearly has “the capacity and reach of a bin Laden.” Unlike former President Bush, Obama has yet to repudiate his strategic blunder.

Which brings us back to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who proclaimed El Chapo’s capture as “a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States, and a vindication of the rule of law in our countries.” In February 2010, when I was last in Sinaloa, then-President Felipe Calderón was pursuing the cartel leader just as aggressively, and with just as much public fanfare. In Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacán, street artists caricatured Calderón as a clown (see the picture above), mocking his war against the cartels as a circus. As social media comments attest, Mexicans—especially Sinaloans—see El Chapo’s arrest as a similar farce.

The American and Mexican governments have congratulated themselves over the successful manhunt in northern Mexico. Policy wonks and scholars alike claim Mexico is on the verge of a mythical turning point, comparing its prospective law-abiding future with Colombia’s decrease in violence following Pablo Escobar’s capture. But Mexico has permanent geographic advantages for illicit distribution that Colombia never offered, and the Sinaloa Cartel’s asymmetric success against the Mexican military suggests the drug lords are far from their last throes. “Drug trafficking does not depend on one person,” accurately noted El Chapo, in his widely reported interview with Sean Penn. “It depends on a lot of people. If there were no consumption, there would be no sales.” Capturing Chicago crime boss Al Capone in March 1929 did not end violence from alcohol prohibition. Repealing the ban in December 1933 did.

The recurring folly of presidents announcing a completed mission after capturing an organizational kingpin evolves from the flawed view that national governments can wield authority over non-state entities as if they were linear structures. From tragic narcotics demand to repugnant religious zeal, human desires fuel actions that override legal and political authorities. Capturing or killing a single person (or regime) offers the illusion of instant success, while simultaneously positioning a leader to avoid responsibility for the aftermath.

Foreign policy successes involving ideas and motivations from nonlinear realms of human experience inevitably take time and patience to achieve. Offering tactical victories to the citizenry as cause for celebration or strategic justification insults the intelligence of all adults who know better. People of myriad races and cultures have gone to great lengths to chemically alter their brains for centuries. Religious sacrifice has fueled millions of violent supplicants for millennia. Suggesting policies can hinge on a single leader’s fate affronts the intuitive truth all of us know: the human condition is much more complex than one person’s rise or fall.

David Danelo, FPRI’s Director of Field Research, is the author of The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide and the FPRI E-Book Toward a U.S.-Mexico Security Strategy: The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico and the Implications for U.S. Policy.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,