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18 May, 2015  ▪  Oles Oleksiyenko

Dangerous Liasons

How and when are Ukraine’s reactionary forces most likely to strike back

Just as it happened after the Orange Revolution in 2004, the new Administration has been unable to properly neutralize reactionary forces and make the renewal of the nation’s political elite irreversible. The lustration process has bogged down: functionaries from the Yanukovych Administration and agents representing the most influential oligarchic groups from that time continue to form the backbone of the mid-level civil service and enforcement agencies. Investigations against members of that regime are slowly grinding to a halt, while in those instances when cases actually come to trial, Ukraine’s corrupted judiciary proceeds to undermine them. This corrupt system has always played a key role in the functioning of the corrupt oligarchic model. Lately it threatens to make the reincarnation of the Yanukovych regime in a new guise not only possible, but ever-more-probable.

The comeback kids regroup

The most dangerous situation is with the replacement of managerial ranks and law enforcement units in eastern and southern oblasts. One year ago, precisely because they had not been replaced in time in the Donbas, these ranks largely went over to the enemy and catastrophic events followed. What’s more, little has changed since then. The officials and police officers who were hired when Party of the Regions dominated what was then still Ukrainian-controlled Donbas and other eastern and southern regions are now merely tolerating the “Maidan” government in the current critical situation until the first opportunity arises for them to become the basis for a vengeful comeback.

Lately, this fact is more and more frequently being brought to light through scandals in public office. For instance, on April 20, Volodymyr Rzhavskiy, advisor to Donetsk Governor Oleksandr Kikhtenko, resigned “because he disapproves of the pro-Ukrainian and state-building position of the President.” This came on the heels of a scandal over Kikhtenko’s open lobbying of the interests of the terrorists running DNR and LNR: he had called for lifting restrictions on movement, transportation and communication, and of the financial and economic blockade of the territories currently under their control. Meanwhile, Kharkiv continues to be run by Ghennadiy Kernes. Separatist forces and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov are also becoming more active in Zaporizhzhia.

RELATED ARTICLE: Roadblocks in deoligarchization

Even in what was until recently a key line of defense against Party of the Regions in the east, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, the influence of another despicable functionary from Yanukovych days has been growing slowly, the man contended with Serhiy Arbuzov to replace Mykola Azarov as Premier, Oleksandr Viklul. Indeed, during the Euromaidan, he was linked to the organization and financing of anti-Maidan rallies and bands of titushky or petty thugs, both in the regions and in Kyiv. Not long ago, the former Deputy Governor under Ihor Kolomoyskiy, Ghennadiy Korban, wrote an open letter to the President, Prosecutor General, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the current Dnipropetrovsk Governor, drawing their attention to a number of suspicious rulings by the Oblast Appeals Court, which in recent days began systematically setting free individuals who had been arrested for taking part in organizing the beating of Dnipropetrovsk Euromaidan participants on January 16, 2014. These include men connected to Oleksandr Vilkul, such as the one-time Deputy Governor of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Rostyslav Botvinov and one-time Deputy Chair of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Council Viktor Naumenko, as well as a slew of managers of state and community enterprises from that time. Meanwhile, Kolomoyskiy’s other deputy, Borys Filatov, announced that the former deputy governor under none other than Vilkul has now been appointed advisor to current Governor Vadym Nesterenko.

In recognition of public demand to see the country cleaned of reactionary forces, the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast Council made a populist ruling on April 17 that prohibits the registration and activity of Party of the Regions, the Communist Party of Ukraine, the Opposition Bloc of former PR members, and the Development Party of Yuriy Miroshnychenko, another one-time PR member. The Council explained its decision as intended to make any comeback by “anti-democratic, criminal political forces whose founders and members are known to have been involved in criminal activities” impossible. It also ordered the regional justice department and state registrar to withdraw all registrations of branches of these parties by the Council’s next session after the decision was published

Still, this decision is in violation of Ukrainian law and the Constitution, which state that only a court can ban the activities of a political force. In short, other than bringing the problem to public attention, this decision will not have any legal consequences. On the other hand, given that most benches were appointed during the Yanukovych regime, the classic mechanisms for banning reactionary parties that were the main supports of that regime are ineffective for obvious reasons: the protracted and so far fruitless process of banning the Communist Party of Ukraine in court has dragged on for more than 6 months.

Pushing for a snap election

At the end of March, one-time “Regionals” formed a shadow Cabinet headed by Borys Kolesnikov, a close associate of Akhmetov. They have begun to actively criticize the current Administration and to develop a clear alternative to its policies. To counter what they call the “coalition war,” they are calling for “peace at any price” and proposing a moratorium on socially unpopular measures to reduce the budget deficit and bring utility rates up to justified market levels. Instead of the government’s plans to decentralize power by devolving it to the local level, they offer the putinesque model of “federalization,” which involved mechanically handing Kyiv’s powers to regional governments. For voters, this will not change anything, because it will simply set up each oblast as a quasi-state where it will be much easier to stir up separatist sentiments, leading to destabilization and the collapse of Ukraine as a country.

The “deoligarchization” announced by the current Administration is unashamedly opposed by the Opposition Bloc’s publicly declared intentions to preserve the oligarchic model. Among others, this is being openly lobbied by Serhiy Liovochkin, one of the Bloc’s current leaders. Chief-of-Staff under Yanukovych and the younger partner of one of the leading agents of Russian influence in Ukraine for the last year, oligarch Dmytro Firtash, Liovochkin cynically interchanges the terms “oligarch” and “Big Business” as though they were identical. “The modern world has demonstrated that destroying Big Business is synonymous with the degeneration of an economy and the failure of modernization policy,” he has been quoted as saying. “On a civilized market, Big Business is the driver of economic growth and the source of innovation.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The Union of Donetsk and the Kremlin

What’s more, the Opposition Bloc makes no bones about the fact that their primary goal is to bring the ruling coalition down and to force a snap election as early as this fall, in addition to the local elections that are already scheduled. The reality is that the current composition of the Verkhovna Rada makes any serious comeback impossible, as the Opposition Bloc won only 27 out of 450 seats in the last election based on party lists. A further 71 former PR members or other members of the pro-Yanukovych coalition in the previous Rada gained seats in single FPTP ridings. In the current Rada, 40 deputies from the Opposition Bloc, the entire Vidrodzhennia [Renaissance] 22-deputy faction, 15-18 “independents” and a similar number from Volia Narodu [Will of the People] could potentially form a reactionary coalition, but they don’t even add up to 100 foot soldiers. And although there is a sizeable number of fifth columnists in the current ruling coalition, they still don’t add up to more than 30-40 deputies. In short, there is not enough of the old guard to even form a “blocking group” of 151 deputies, never mind a majority. Unless something truly extreme happens, there simply aren’t enough potential crossovers for pro-Russian forces to come up with the numbers.

So the most realistic option for the reactionary forces in the legislature is to bring down the ruling coalition. Evidence of this can be seen in a spate of recent press commentary to the effect that “President Poroshenko no longer needs Arseniy Yatseniuk to govern the country,” based on a sharp fall in the PM’s ratings and corruption scandals hitting the Government. But if Narodniy Front quits the coalition, it will collapse. The one possible alternative to the Front might be that same Volia Narodu faction, which is de facto associated with the coalition. But this means that all the other coalition members would have to agree to join forces with deputies who once voted for the draconian January 16 laws in 2014. Since that is highly unlikely, the break-up of the Poroshenko-Yatseniuk team would probably lead to a snap election—something that many of the minor parties in the current coalition might also be interested in seeing happen because their ratings have been steady or improved since the last campaign.

Predictions for a cold, hungry electorate

A snap election would be dangerous not only for some members of the ruling coalition, but also to pro-European parties, who may be unable to regain a firm majority or even fail altogether. Their success in the previous election was at least partly assured by the temporary demoralization of traditionally pro-Russian voters, leading to a low turnout in southern and eastern oblasts (32-42%) and a conversely high turnout in western oblasts (60-70%).

In October 2014, the five pro-European parties that went on to form the current Constitutional majority received only around 10.9 million votes from 30.4mn registered voters. If we add Svoboda, Hrytsenko’s party and Praviy Sektor, which did not meet the threshold to gain seats in the legislature, the number is 12.4mn. The fact that the pro-Russian trio (Opposition Bloc, CPU and Sylna Ukraina) only had 2.6mn ballots does not guarantee that at the next election they won’t have two or three times more as the pro-Russian electorate mobilizes again. At the same time, disenchantment among voters oriented towards Europe could lead to a much lower turnout.

A snap Verkhovna Rada election called for spring 2016 would be the most timely for a comeback of the reactionaries and the most dangerous for the country’s pro-European course. That’s the point at which most Ukrainians will have run out of surplus savings and patience alike, and when the impact of the (so far) triple decline of the hryvnia on prices and rates will be fully felt: two waves of electricity rate hikes will have passed and a third will be on the way for March 2016, while gas and heating rates will be maxed out after the winter. The pressure on consumer demand will be highest, leading to a collapse of domestic sales and services, which will affect small and micro-business the worst. At the same time, real and hidden unemployment alike will reach their peak.

RELATED ARTICLE: The origins of Donetsk separatism

The explosive potential of all these factors will become that much higher with an anticipated restructuring of the coal industry, leading to at least a few tens of thousands of dissatisfied miners alongside the expected demobilization of at least 70-80,000 Ukrainian participants in the ATO at the beginning of next year. Returning home after a lengthy absence, these fighters are likely to feel the depth of the decline in living standards among their families and the absence of much-expected positive changes in relations between the government and ordinary Ukrainians far more sharply than if they had been at home all this time. On the other hand, their families and neighbors will hear from the proverbial lion’s mouth what the situation was really like in the war. Meanwhile, the government will be trying insistently to bring the economy out of the shadows by taxing savings and cash income affecting, not oligarchs, Big Business or the top officials who are determining the “logic” of the current reforms, but the middle class and SMEs, and radicalizing this driving force behind both of Ukraine’s “revolutions.”

In short, spring 2016 will be the ideal moment for reactionary pro-Russian forces to strike and make a comeback at the national level. They are unlikely to succeed in unbalancing the situation enough to force VR elections to be scheduled with local ones in October 2015 because the protest potential is unlikely to peak by then. The key role will be played by the predicted “cold and hungry winter of 2015-2016.” So the local elections will more likely be a “test drive,” as actual election results provide the truest “opinion poll” results, as was illustrated more than once by the results of PR and BYT in 2006, Svoboda in 2012, and Narodniy Front/Samopomich/OP in 2014, where the actual results were 1.5-2 times higher than the best predictions by pollsters prior to the vote. The same thing was seen with the disenchantment with Nasha Ukraina in 2006, with UDAR in 2012 and with Sylna Ukraina and the Poroshenko Block in 2014. This means pushing for a snap VR election will be more to the point after the results of local elections are in.

Low ratings not the whole story

During the 2014 VR election campaign, OP, CPU and SU won around 57% of the vote in the districts in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts that were under Ukrainian control, 45% in Kharkiv Oblast, 39% in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, 38% in Odesa Oblast, 33% in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, 32% in Mykolayiv Oblast, and 25% in Kherson Oblast, covering the entire south and east of the country. The latest opinion polls show that support for the reactionary trio has fallen somewhat. For instance, in the East, of the 63% who have decided for whom they would vote locally, only 28% would vote for them today, which is half of what they had last fall. Indeed, only 18% would vote for OP. In the Donbas, these same indicators 46%, 20% and 11%. Still, an unusually large proportion of voters surveyed in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas (39%), southern (31%) and eastern Ukraine (20%) still don’t want to exercise their electoral right, while 3%, 6% and 2% say they will spoil their ballots.

Unfortunately, the key political positions of the Opposition Bloc mentioned earlier here match the expectations of a clear majority of residents in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas and neighboring Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts. To a lesser extent, they also appeal to voters in the remaining southern and eastern oblasts.

RELATED ARTICLE: The echoes of the Famine in today's separatism in South-Eastern Ukraine

A March 2015 Razumkov Center poll showed that in the East, 38% of respondents say that DNR and LNR are not terrorist organizations but actually “represent the people residing in the territories they control.” This is less than the 41% that consider them terrorists, but given the internal differences registered earlier among residents of Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, it is likely that the proportion of those inclined to consider DNR and LNR as legitimately representative most likely dominates in the last two. Even adding in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, more than half the residents of Eastern Ukraine consider the conflict in the Donbas, not as defense against Russian aggression but as either a “civil war among pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian residents of Ukraine” or a “conflict between the RF and the US over spheres of influence, taking place on Ukrainian soil.” Fully 56% of residents of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts living in Ukrainian-controlled areas think the same.

Only 24% of residents of eastern Ukraine, including Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, want to see the ATO continue until Ukraine has complete control over all the territories in Donbas currently occupied by Russian forces; only 11% of residents of Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts do. On the contrary, 58% of southern Ukrainians, 56% of eastern Ukrainians and 70% of Ukrainian-controlled Donbas residents want to see the conflict frozen by granting independence or “special status” to the occupied region. More than half the residents of the East and Ukrainian-controlled Donbas are against cutting socio-economic links with the territories occupied by DNR and LNR terrorists.

Moreover, the share of those prepared to suffer material hardship for the sake of reforms for at least some period of time is far smaller than those who are not prepared to do so: 35% vs 54% in southern oblasts, 23% vs 74% in eastern oblasts and 34% vs 63% in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas. Should this electorate consolidate itself under a single anti-Ukrainian bloc with a name like “For peace and stability,” as the Kremlin is suggesting, and given the share of voters who did not cast ballots last time but might well vote for such a united opposition because of their dissatisfaction with the worsening socio-economic situation, this political force would likely take a majority of the vote. Or, which is no less likely, their support for this political force could be assured with the assistance of tried-and-true methods of vote rigging.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Anatomy of Power: Yanukovych era

For a national comeback by reactionary forces, next year will be ideal for one more reason: to wait any longer would be dangerous. If current trends continue and no extreme situations arise, the situation will bottom out in 2016, both in terms of real decline in living standards and in terms of voter perceptions of this decline. By the end of 2016, beginning of 2017, utility rates will have all reached market levels, economic growth will likely resume against a very low base, commercial activity should pick up pace and employment should begin to rise again. Some Ukrainians will have adapted themselves to the new realities better, others worse, but optimistic outlooks will begin to prevail—if nothing else because of a general feeling that “the worst is behind us.” By then, a growing share of voters will be less interested in reactionary rhetoric making hay over belt-tightening economic difficulties and driven by nostalgia for the past, than in those who will offer more attractive alternative strategies for growth—sprinkled, of course, with just a dash of populism.

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