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.

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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

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The Eurasian Economic Union’s growth is not good for democracy in the region

In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan officially became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia in the Russia-led European Union rival. The expansion of the EEU could spell trouble for the democratization of Eurasia.

The EEU itself is a new institution, formally coming into existence on January 1, 2015. Loosely modelled, in concept if not yet execution, on the EU, it grew out of the Eurasian Customs Union that had been founded on January 1, 2010 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—which itself was the result of a series of customs unions created by various Eurasian countries in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s—and seeks regional integration on a political and economic level.

Unlike the EU, the EEU is not held back by the necessity of considering the democracy and human rights records of potential members, as the Freedom House Freedom scores for the founding members are a  6, 6.5 and 5.5, respectively, all “Not Free.” In addition, as Russia has by far the largest and most robust economy in the region, with a GDP roughly nine times that of Kazakhstan and twenty-nine times that of Belarus, and the economies of the other countries are already so dependent on Russia, any attempts at integration will be dominated by Russia and, as a necessary consequence, Putin. Russia’s economic preponderance, codified by the EEU, will give it much greater leverage over its neighbors. Uzbekistan’s heretofore hesitancy to joining the EEU, fearing direct Russian influence over its affairs, evidences that other countries in the region are aware of this risk. Yet even here, the already established economic dependence is working against Uzbekistan: in late 2014 Russia simply wrote off $865 million dollars of Uzbekistan’s debt, with the goal of developing ties between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the European Union to court post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and bring them into direct association with the EU via programs such as the Eastern Partnership, support for European institutions is down in several key target states. In Moldova, for example, seen as one of the leading lights of the Eastern Partnership—and one of the most successful Eastern Partnership countries in terms of reform—support for the European Union hovers around only 40 percent. In 2007, 78 percent of Moldovans supported the EU. The recent protests have cast further doubt on Moldova’s chances for a successful integration with Europe; while the protestors themselves are not openly pro-Russia and have valid reasons to protest, the collapse of the fragile pro-European coalition could see pro-Russian political groups profit, with two of the most vocal supporters of the protests, the Socialist Party and the Patria Party, holding pro-EEU positions.

At the same time, support for the Russia- and Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is growing in the region as a whole. Armenia, one of the Eastern Partnership countries, has already joined the EEU, acceding in January 2015. In a poll carried out by the Moldovan Institute for Public Policy, 50 percent of respondents favored integration with the EEU, versus 32 percent that favored joining the EU. Although support for the EU in Georgia, one of the most Euro-centric countries in the region, remains high at 68 percent, 31 percent of Georgians now favor joining the EEU, up from 16 percent only last year.

That support for the EEU is rising even in countries with relatively competitive democratic institutions is deeply troubling. Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are countries that, while perhaps not yet on the level of the strongest Eastern European democracies, have slowly been taking the necessary steps to establish certain democratic and pluralistic norms that are not often found in the region.

The lack of conviction of the EU initiatives and the unwillingness of EU politicians to make any promises about the chances for Eurasian countries to join the EU, both in evidence at the May 2015 EU summit in Riga, puts these trends in an even more worrying light. The difficulty of joining the European Union potentially makes the EEU a more satisfying prospect for populist politicians looking for successes to sell to their constituents.

In creating the EEU, Putin has found a vehicle for binding post-Soviet countries more tightly to Russia. Although the EEU’s founding members were countries already linked to Russia and Putin, the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and the increase in support for the EEU in Georgia and Moldova shows that other countries in the region are being convinced by Russian rhetoric. The greatest danger if these countries fall under greater Russian influence is not only that they will move further away from Europe, but also that Putin will be able to influence their politics more directly and so any democratic gains they have made in the past few decades will be lost for good. 

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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