Moscow knows that Ukraine may slip out from under its control after the 2015 presidential election. It looks like the Kremlin is setting the scene for a preventive attack.
The defeat of the Yanukovych regime in the parliamentary election has made the Kremlin nervous. Putin seems to be frustrated with Yanukovych – rightly so, as the Ukrainian president continues to resist Ukraine’s integration into Russo-centric unions out of fear of losing his unlimited power and the intent to build “another Russia” for his own “Family” in Ukraine. Despite this, the Kremlin sees no alternative to Yanukovych among top Ukrainian politicians. Meanwhile, a shift of power to the opposition risks ruining every chance of drawing Ukraine into Putin’s neo-imperialistic project and destroying Moscow’s accomplishments over the past few years, including the extended stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea until 2042, higher status for the Russian language in Ukraine, and a monopoly in supplying nuclear fuel to Ukrainian nuclear power stations. The latest developments suggest that the Kremlin may have counted on direct interference in Ukrainian politics and using protest sentiments as a handy tool. This can lead to controlled destabilization in Ukraine.
THE UKRAINIANCHOICE. REALLY?
The launch of the Russian government’s official publication TheRussianNewspaper with an… inUkraine insert, is a symbolic step in reinforcing Russia’s direct ideological presence. The print run is 3,000 copies, to be initially distributed in Kyiv, Kharkiv and several other big cities. A more practical step in this direction is the growing presence of Viktor Medvedchuk’s project, the Ukrainian Choice. Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev’s wife are his daughter’s godparents. The Ukrainian Choice is holding roundtables and seminars on federalization in the regions while the media back them with extensive coverage.
This looks like the implementation of an ultimatum: either you are our friends, or the voters are not your friends. Putin and Medvedev reportedly articulated this at a meeting on gas issues with Yanukovych in the fall of 2011. Apparently, they will be counting on the Party of Regions’ core electorate in southeastern Ukraine, which manifested its (dis)satisfaction in the ruling power by giving it much less support in the latest parliamentary election compared to previous ones. Meanwhile, Medvedchuk and other pro-Russian politicians call on the voters to approve the idea of Ukraine joining the Customs Union and Russian becoming the second official state language. They are ever more critical of the government and the opposition because they do not meet the voters’ expectations which, in their opinion, are largely about closer ties to Russia. At the same time, the media is unfolding a campaign, the main message of which is that delaying membership in the Customs Union aggravates the socio-economic situation and the quality of life for most Ukrainians.
Immediately after the Law On the National and Local Referendums came into effect on 27 November, which was promoted by the Ukrainian Choice, the latter intensified its efforts to unite mostly pro-Russian NGOs around it. On 30 November, 53 national and regional NGOs, including the Civil Duma of Crimea, the Union of the Citizens of Ukraine and a number of associations that call themselves “Cossack” and “patriotic”, signed an agreement with the Ukrainian Choice. According to one announcement, its main goal is to return to the people of Ukraine their constitutional right to have and exercise power. In his comment on it, the Ukrainian Choice founder, Viktor Medvedchuk, noted that the agreement was signed on the basis of ideas articulated in the manifest of his organization. An analysis of this manifest sheds some light on both its real goal, and specific mechanisms for its implemention.
The task of promoting and spreading ideas is for the media that will highlight specific questions, opinion polls and the “real” priorities of the voters “the way they are instructed to”. A consistent combination of domination in the media space – especially hidden domination – and the regular reporting of opinion poll results presented as the only accurate by contrast to all others, may create a vicious circle and provide orchestrated public opinion. The plan is to reach a stage whereby people will see imposed priorities as their own, and then use the Ukrainian Choice to launch “real public power” (this looks very similar to Bolshevik propaganda – and we all know how that ended). “You run the country, not the people you elect!” says the manifest and the massive advertising campaign that covers the entire country.
This will most likely be followed by the conversion of the influence, gained in the battle for public opinion, into political power through referendums, promoted as public initiative. Of course, this needs to be backed by a suitable law on referendums. Ukrainian Choice has one to offer. If passed, it would allow the passing of strategic laws and the cancellation of those that are in effect, decisions on the most important issues of social life, integration into international unions and associations (the Ukrainian Choice’s platform clearly defines the ones Ukraine should join) and the manifestation of popular will, which could result in the dissolution of parliament and the resignation of government.
A WEAKIMMUNE SYSTEM
The sad conclusion now is that Ukraine has insufficient immunity against internal attempts to take power. Under current circumstances, all it takes is the right organizational skills for consistent nationwide campaigns, significant funding, the lack of strong democratic institutions or resistance from an authoritarian government and an idea that at first glance is attractive to the general public.
Medvedchuk and his project already have the first two factors for success. As to resistance from the government, the Yanukovych regime has recently tried to take over the referendum initiative in order to preserve its power, passing the law on the referendum, which essentially determines that a referendum can be held at the president’s discretion. However, his ability to resist the Kremlin’s well-planned special operation in the long run is doubtful, given its international isolation, conflicts with the opposition, internal struggle between various groups of influence, and Russians holding the key positions in Ukraine’s defence block. Another discouraging aspect is the worsening socio-economic situation and increasingly protest-oriented moods that spread rapidly throughout the electorate as the quality of life deteriorates, and voters do not have the opportunity to vent their anger by legitimately punishing those responsible for this state of affairs politically, through elections and choosing different leaders.
In this situation, a possible scenario is to provoke the aggravation of existing conflicts among individual oligarchs or between oligarchs and the Family as their appetites swell both in politics and the economy, and fuel overall destabilization in the country by facilitating orchestrated “ochlocratic initiatives”. As a result, Ukraine’s top decision makers are expected to find themselves in a situation where they will have no choice, but to seek a force capable of stopping the chaos and ensuring that they will preserve their ill-gotten assets in Ukraine, since taking them, as well as those currently being prepared for privatization, out of Ukraine is next to impossible.
Finally, the concept of the campaign is a potentially explosive mix of struggle with corruption and government accountability on the one hand – both ideas are currently highly popular with protest-oriented voters - and nostalgic sentiments about the revival of the Soviet Union and a yearning for integration into Russia’s neo-imperialistic project, on the other.
THE RUINS OF THE RUSSIAN WORLD
Important provisions on the Ukrainian Choice’s agenda are to give the Russian language a privileged status in all areas of social life; the right to dual citizenship, which is essentially a step towards Ukraine being gradually swallowed up by Russia; and the peddling of the idea of Ukraine’s federalization, which is supposed to weaken ties between different parts of the country and reinforce those of regions where most citizens speak Russian or hold Russian passports.
If implemented, this scenario could lead Ukraine to a dilemma between integration into the Russian project as a whole country or losing its territorial integrity, as was the case in Georgia and Moldova. This would result in another version of the 2004 PISUAR, an abbreviation for the short-lived South-Eastern Ukrainian Autonomous Republic project, promoted by separatist movements in Severodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast, in response to the Orange Revolution.
NOSTALGIA FOR THE USSR
Socio-economically, the manifest focuses on “the priority development of high-tech industries, such as engineering, airplane and aerospace engineering, shipbuilding and the defence industry.” This looks like a curtsey for the red director-type managers who have found themselves sidelined lately as a result of the internal conflict within the Party of Regions. Secondly, this does not entail the modernization of these industries by upgrading promising facilities, eliminating unpromising ones, and building new plants in the indicated sectors.
The manifest suggests focusing on the preservation of industries referred to as “A” group in Soviet times. Its progress depended on the needs of the USSR-wide defence complex and closely linked Ukraine to other parts of the Soviet Empire.
The next passage of the manifest confirms this: “the choice of Ukraine’s foreign economic integration plays a decisive role in this context. An assessment of the efficiency of integration in the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan; Common Economic Space or EurAsEC, and possible integration into the EU… shows the undeniable efficiency of eastward integration. This will renew demand for our production.”
The manifest leaves out the fact that the “undeniable efficiency” of Eastern integration was determined by experts whose conclusions were based on the concept of preserving the current structure of the Ukrainian oligarch-controlled economy distorted by total corruption. Also, it does not mention that Russian and Soviet models were proved unviable many years ago, supported only by the proactive exploitation of natural resources, or the fact that Ukraine is bound to fall much faster as part of that model because it does not have the same level of resources as Russia.
Spin doctors behind the Ukrainian Choice probably counted on the poorly informed homo sovieticus masses, who would fail to analyze their manifest properly and believe what they hear, guided by their nostalgic sentimentality for Soviet times and aggravated by their current frustration with both pro-government and opposition political forces.
Moreover, the erroneous stereotype of better living standards in Russia has been fueled intensely throughout Ukraine’s two decades of independence by the total domination of Russian and pro-Russian media in Ukrainian media space, and superficial assessments of Russia’s and Ukraine’s macroeconomic indicators by Ukrainian experts and politicians who used this as an argument in their criticism of the Ukrainian government. According to them, the latter “was unable to ensure the standard of living of not only new EU member-states, but even that of Russia.”
Ukraine went through a similar experience in 2009-2010 when the electorate voted for promises of “improvement” and “stability” without thinking about how realistic they were. Today, the risk of the Kremlin’s successful manipulation of socio-political processes in Ukraine is reinforced by the nation’s fragmented identity, the lack of firmly-established state institutions and a developed civic society, the poor awareness and political culture of the vast majority of voters, and the excessive influence of misleading media on public opinion. In this situation, any conflicts in the opposition and the passive position of the West contribute to the threat of destabilization, orchestrated by foreign players in the 2015 presidential campaign. This would be followed by the failure of the expected return of Ukraine to the democratic European course, which many Ukrainian and Western politicians are hoping for.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners