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Poroshenko's choices

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In theory, with a new parliamentary coalition, Poroshenko can now address Ukraine’s two most pressing problems — Donbas and the economy. But his position is weaker than it appears.

David Marples
11 November 2014

After almost six months in power, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, appears to have strengthened his position following the victory of pro-Western parties in the 26 October parliamentary elections. In theory, with a new parliamentary coalition, Poroshenko can now turn to address the two most pressing problems — the breakaway regions of the Donbas and radical economic reforms. Concerning the Donbas, he has already responded firmly to the ‘elections’ in the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ (LNR and DNR): the elections were illegal and violated the Minsk Protocol signed in September.

Poroshenko’s position, however, is weaker than it might appear.

In the first place, whether or not the ‘elections’ in the DNR and LNR broke the Minsk Protocol, the Minsk accords themselves represented a form of recognition for regimes that can at best be called ‘thugocracies,’ and which are unsustainable in the long term. Even if those regimes should manage to expand their territories to capture Mariupol or other towns previously under control such as Slovyansk, the DNR and LNR cannot survive without support from Ukraine for such basic commodities as food and water. Yet in order to reach an agreement that would halt the advance of Russian regular troops, the Ukrainian side gave de facto recognition to the two Donbas regimes when they signed the Protocol in Minsk on 5 September.

The Minsk accords represented a form of recognition for regimes that can at best be called ‘thugocracies.’

Second, while Western media circles hailed the Ukrainian parliamentary elections of 26 October as a triumph for pro-European forces, the elections were probably not such an unqualified success in the eyes of Poroshenko. The turnout was woefully low by Ukrainian standards, at 52%, even accounting for the difficulties in voting in some regions, signifying the weariness of the electorate. Moreover, the popular success of Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front, which received a higher percentage of electoral support than the President’s Petro Poroshenko Bloc, may have secured the coalition, but it also represents a potential divergence of official goals. Yatsenyuk took a more militant position in his election campaign than Poroshenko; and the People’s Front became known as 'the party of war,' with a more confrontational anti-separatist stance.

The duties of the victorious parties have been carefully divided during the formation of the parliamentary coalition. The Poroshenko Bloc has been reportedly occupied with budget, constitutional, and infrastructural reforms, and the People’s Front has been concerned with national security and defence. The new Self-Reliance Party has also been involved. Its leader, the former Lviv mayor Andrii Sadovy, is tasked with energy independence and reforming the agro-industrial complex. Still, there are prognoses that the coalition might be short-lived, and even the most ardent reformers might struggle to implement their goals because of Ukraine’s current economic situation.

The national currency, the hryvnia, has fallen dramatically — it was trading at over 16 hryvnia to the dollar on 11 November — and Ukraine has lost several important industrial bases since the spring of 2014. Currently, 40% of the national budget is devoted to debt repayments and servicing, and GDP has fallen by an estimated one-third over 2014. The only solace is the agreement on reduced prices for Russian gas, achieved as a result of discussions between Ukraine, Russia, and the European Union. But the country remains the third largest purchaser of Russian gas after Germany and Turkey.

40% of the national budget is devoted to debt repayments and servicing, and GDP has fallen by an estimated one-third over 2014

The third factor limiting post-election optimism is the desire to end the period of corruption in Ukraine, which in the past was identified with former president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions. But the new president, unlike Yatsenyuk, can hardly shed his status as an oligarch who successfully exploited the post-Soviet transition to develop highly profitable business interests. Avoiding the perception of Poroshenko as ‘part of the problem’ rather than a solution may depend on Poroshenko’s willingness to take on fellow oligarchs in cleansing the system of the incestuous relationship between government and business, which has plagued Ukraine since independence. The Guardian newspaper has already delineated Poroshenko as a 'reformist' oligarch, but removing these powerful figures without bringing economic and social upheaval will be difficult.

It is the east that surely occupies most of the President’s waking hours. The parliamentary elections succeeded in eliminating the influence of the Party of Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine and other parties which might be termed pro-Russia or Soviet-nostalgic. These parties represented a section of the electorate that was wedded to the Soviet legacy, as well as the most corrupt of Ukraine’s business clans. Parliament no longer includes the parties that dominated the Donbas for the past two decades. The new situation appears to give the President a mandate to carry out substantial changes that can take Ukraine along a new path. However, in reality, Poroshenko’s options are minimal when it comes to Ukraine’s future direction because of external factors largely beyond his control.

The Western powers seem to have quietly shelved the Ukrainian question.

First of all, the Western powers seem to have quietly shelved the Ukrainian question. The West’s position was reflected on 9 November by the departing Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko, who commented bitterly that the West was no longer interested in Ukraine. The West’s fear of Russia, he said, precluded any real forthcoming aid. By contrast, Prystaiko noted that the West was far swifter in taking the fight to the Islamic State in Iraq: ‘You’re bombing, you’re sending F-18s… Iraq’s government is asking for help and you’re sending everything. Then the Ukrainian government asks you the same… and what do you tell us? No.’

The United States seems resolved to perceive the Ukrainian crisis as a European issue. Ukraine is a priority for Brussels, rather than Washington. Yet the Europeans are also divided. The leaders of some states, most notably the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, are demanding that the sanctions on Russia be lifted. Other ‘friends’ of the West are joining the chorus. Even former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev felt obliged to comment during the 25th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall that the Western powers should take into account Vladimir Putin’s comments at the recent Valdai Discussion Club. These remarks, stated Gorbachev, reflected a desire for a reduction of tensions and eventually a new partnership with the West.

As to relations with Russia, Poroshenko has made concessions, which weaken his domestic standing. As the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies shows, Ukraine has postponed the introduction of trade issues in Ukraine’s Association Agreement (Title IV: Trade and Trade-Related Matters) with the EU, and retained a Ukrainian presence in the Free Trading Area of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The postponement may allow Russia to interpret any changes in the provisions of Title IV as a violation of the agreements with Moscow, to be penalised through heightened import duties. The analysts also note that the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO, though more popular now than in the past, is unlikely to succeed at present. They maintain that the most likely scenario for Ukraine is to delay moves toward the EU and radical reforms in a ‘mothballing’ of the current socio-political system for several more years.

As to relations with Russia, Poroshenko has made concessions, which weaken his domestic standing

As winter approaches, the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in the east seem dim. The rump states of the DNR and LNR remain, with their gangster-style leaders trying to form the semblance of state structures. Over the past week, convoys of tanks have entered these territories from Russia. These developments suggest that the Russian Federation, while not committing itself to all-out war, intends to continue its protection of these quasi-regimes, which are too weak to stand alone. Poroshenko’s halting of the Anti-Terrorist Operation followed the catastrophic defeat at Ilovaysk. Although not decisive — the Ukrainian army per se was not destroyed —, this defeat proved a serious psychological setback and demonstrated that the chances of restoring Ukrainian rule in the Donbas were slim. Ilovaysk has also provoked much soul-searching as to its causes.

Moreover, despite the significant reduction of separatist territory over the summer, the messianism of the so-called Novorossiya movement is yet to dissipate completely. On 9 November, the ‘newly elected’ leader of the DNR, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, decorated the notorious former Defence Minister of the DNR, Igor Girkin (Strelkov), with the title ‘Hero of the DNR.’ The ceremony suggested not only that the current leaders of the breakaway regions wish to create their own heroic legends, but also that their ambitions may go beyond Moscow’s more cautious approach, which has studiously ignored Girkin since his departure from Ukraine.

The Donbas conflict has also raised a pressing problem of displaced persons. As demonstrated in the DNR and LNR ‘elections,’ some residents have moved to Russia. But many more have dispersed throughout Ukraine. The displaced persons factor adds to Ukraine’s economic and social woes. In the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk, the numbers of displaced persons reached 400,000 by late October, prompting Governor Ihor Kolomoisky to declare that he would not permit a repeat of the tragedy in wartime Leningrad in the winter of 1941. The lack of water, heating, and food supplies in several towns of Luhansk still under Ukraine’s control is being exacerbated by constant attacks by forces of the LNR.

But the question that faces Poroshenko most urgently is how to satisfy an electorate that has first voted him into power and has now endorsed a pro-European parliament. There is no gate to the West about to open for Ukraine, let alone accession to the EU or NATO. The Western powers have rejected his request for weapons, and his forces are ill-equipped to recapture the Donbas. Poroshenko is unlikely to view the future with the same euphoria with which many Western governments greeted the sweeping victory of the pro-EU and reformist parties in Ukraine. The new coalition will require a delicate balancing act that may test even this most polished of political leaders.

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