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11 June, 2014

In the “Almost” Mode

The developments in Ukraine change rapidly. Every time we think we can end something with a full stop, they prove that even a comma would be too soon

We have a new President. All he still has to do to fully enter the top post is ceremonial formalities. But what will his powers be, and what majority in parliament will he rely on? Which part of the country will he be able to control de facto?

We have democratic elections. Almost. The presidential race did not generate any major complaints. The local elections, however, brought back the bribing of voters, and turned into a scandal in Kyiv where the new party Democratic Alliance got to the Kyiv Council only after its activists insisted on vote recount.

We have the war. Almost. Three letters of ATO (the anti-terrorist operation) are almost like Lev Trotsky’s formula of “no peace, no war”: the Donbas is a place of full-scale war action with stricken Ukrainian aircrafts, cargos 200 flowing to peaceful parts of Ukraine and through the Russian border, while the government only now moves to “considering the imposition of martial law” in the hotspot.

RELATED ARTICLE: Donbas battalion commander:“Our format is a compromise between state agencies and the voluntary movement. We want to change our country”

The military report about dispersed separatist checkpoints and proactive phases of the operation. It is almost an excuse for optimism. Meanwhile, generals’ reports hide the reality where some units are essentially encircled by terrorists, and frontline soldiers complain of poor supplies of food, clothing and ammunition. Lunahsk border unit and National Guard unit in Luhansk have long been in the enemy-controlled city: separatists had long occupied government bodies there, as well as SBU and police oblast departments. That the border unit and National Guard unit would be the next targets was an easy guess. Yet, the generals overlooked that.

The Maidan has won. Almost. The regime has been toppled. Still, the Maidan is standing. Moreover, the previous government has its eyes, ears and other parts in Ukraine. And it has all that in the parliament. The games of yesterday’s Party of Regions MPs suggest that the “Kurchenko group” is being established. Meanwhile, Kurchenko’s media keep working while his capital is quietly flowing from Ukraine to the occupied Crimea. It took investigators three months to put another financial functionary of the regime, ex-NBU Chairman and Vice Premier Serhiy Arbuzov, on the wanted list.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Birth of New Political Reality: Presidential elections are merely a prologue to the dramatic overhaul of political landscape

The fatal “almost” haunts us in foreign policy, as well. The West has recognized the presidential election and is ready to help Ukraine. Almost. Indeed, Petro Poroshenko was welcomed in Normandy where the heroes of World War II were commemorated. Vladimir Putin attended the ceremony in the role of the key “successor” of that victory. As France hosted the commemoration ceremony, another gesture from Paris became more visible. Despite sanctions against Russia and countless “concerns”, Mistral military ships made in France will reinforce the Russian fleet. More symbolically, they will be based in the Sevastopol Bay, not in the Pacific as planned earlier.

Ukrainian society and politicians are ready for the next snap parliamentary election. Almost. Noble motivations of “rebooting the system of government” and “cleansing the parliament” abound. Yet, the question arises: how will we choose MPs? It won’t work with the current mixed system. Election districts will continue to serve as a field for administrative leverage and falsifications for quite a while. An equally important question is about the territory of the actual elections. Without successful actions of the military in Eastern Ukraine, full-scale voting will hardly happen. Moreover, the legitimacy of the Central Election Commission is in the air: most of its members will soon have to leave office as their terms expire.

In fact, the entire previous 20-plus year “path of reforms” and “European integration” was full of small and big compromises, and numerous “almosts”. Not a single government risked to implement effective changes because each one preferred to act as a good tsar, distribute privileges and subsidies, throw something to the potential electorate from the budget, promise improvements in the future and stabilize the situation (the favourite phrase of Viktor Yanukovych) in the face of yet another looming parliamentary or presidential election.

RELATED ARTICLE: Polish reformer Leszek Balcerowicz on how Ukraine can embark on market reforms 

The current government is, too, tempted.

It has huge opportunities for the “almost” accomplishments. It can sit down at the negotiations table with Putin “for the sake of peace and agreement”, seize military actions in the Donbas, and bless the establishment of Transnistria 2.0 there. It can “hear” Eastern Ukraine and provide it with exceptionally generous subsidies to the joy of the local oligarchs and yet another generation of those milking Ukrainian taxpayers. It can freeze the land market for another decade, keep health care and education underreformed, and get rid of unimportant low-level officials to present it as lustration. With skillful media coverage, all these actions can look like pragmatic compromises for the sake of “stabilization”.

Ukraine’s chronic diseases are so old that the only cure is deep surgery. The real frontline today goes along the verge of the compromise the politicians and society are ready to take. How serious is the President about his intention to sell his business? Will he just transfer it to someone formally, or will he actually sell his plants and TV channel? How willing is he to surround himself with “old professionals” and overlook stains on their reputation? How carefully will the Premier choose advisors for every ministry? Will he opt for professionals or those who only talk of goals, while hampering reforms and blaming failures on specific Ukrainian circumstances? Will the new government have a majority and a constructive opposition, or will it remain an elite club for behind-the-stage deals and button-pushing? And will society fall into despair every time it can, or will it take proactive part in the reboot of the country, no matter how routine and boring the process is?

RELATED ARTICLE: Andrew Wilson: “The West did not react adequately to the usurpation of power by Yanukovych”

It is sometimes helpful to learn from your enemy. Ours is now acting in violation of any rule or law, and accepts no “almosts”. Of course, we should not borrow the violence and cynicism of the state the keeps pretending to have nothing to do with the war on the territory of its neigbour. However, the Kremlin’s uncompromising stance, as well as that of its agents in all self-declared republics, is something worth looking at. If you offer your hand to a beast, you risk losing it. Almost all of it. 


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