In Dmitriy Kovalevich, Ukraine, Ukraine Updates

The first of three original posts evaluating the situation in Ukraine over the last three months, this article covers the current political, social and economic instability of the country.

By Dmitry Kovalevich, July 10, 2018 

At present, the general situation in Ukraine can be characterized by the instability of almost all aspects of daily life. Some of our commentators are increasingly using the term ‘rogue state,’ while comparing Ukraine with today’s Libya, Somalia or Yemen. At the same time, pro-government politicians are increasingly referring to the experience of Latin American dictatorships as a ‘promising model.’ The central political power is relatively weak; it cannot oppose the various paramilitary groups of ultra-nationalists – who impose their agendas beyond any legal procedure – just by force. Meanwhile, economic collapse continues to spiral, compelling millions of  Ukrainians to migrate as a cheap labour force to EU countries, as well as neighbouring Russia and Belarus.

Overwhelming pessimism

All the polls reveal the great dissatisfaction of Ukrainians from almost all factions of society, although the surveys also reveal that the overwhelming majority is somewhat confused, and mainly too scared, discouraged or pessimistic to see any positive alternative. To a large extent, political apathy has penetrated the society (apart from the minority of ultra-nationalist violent groups). Most ordinary people tend to avoid political talks and discussions and equivocate when asked questions about their political views or sympathies. Many former supporters of Maidan have got their fingers burnt and do not associate political struggle as having the potential to result in positive change.

Their former opponents are mostly scared; they also got their fingers burnt, as they realized that any political opposition results in confronting not only armed nationalist paramilitaries, but also the entire state machinery of violence, including the regular army with its tanks and aircraft. A few active opponents of the Kiev regime have chosen to move to the Donbas republics, going there from central and southern Ukraine, realizing that there would be no possibility for them to return in the near future. At the same time, the two rivalling factions of society (pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan) remain relatively isolated from each other, communicating only within the circles of like-minded persons.

A recent survey conducted by the Rating Group Ukraine on behalf of the US International Republican Institute (IRI) reveals that only “20 percent of Ukrainians ages 18-35 believe that that they will have a good future in Ukraine, while less than one third intend to ‘definitely’ vote in the next election.” [1]​

Following Maidan, Ukraine’s political sphere was significantly reshaped, so as to guarantee the future change of personalities in power without any change to the country’s main political course: for example, the continuation of the neoliberal reforms, following all IMF demands, driving Ukraine into NATO and the suppression of the remaining opposition. Forces opposed to the course were either banned or suppressed with the help of extralegal paramilitary far-right groups. Thus, most people don’t see any purpose in participating in politics, even when it comes to the straightforward business of voting.

Roaming gangs of the ‘wild East’

Within the last four years Ukraine has gradually turned into territory of lawlessness, since all criminal gangs and ‘robber barons’ have quickly understood that under the cover of ‘patriotism’ they can do anything they want. The situation is aggravated by the number of demobilized soldiers who often smuggle arms from the frontline, suffer from PTSD and are unable to find a well-paid job inside the country. Therefore, we see murders, assaults or cases of robbery committed by roaming gangs of nationalists or former soldiers on a daily basis. It is enough for them to claim that the victim had ‘pro-Russian’ or ‘separatist’ views, without any evidence to justify such an assault.

Commenting on the recent murder of a police chief in the centre of Kiev during an address to the Kiev government, Andriy Portnov, a Ukrainian human rights activist, noted that this has become the norm for Ukraine.

Another intentional murder has been committed in Kiev. There is not a single day without a luridmurder. What kind of struggle for independence, national identity, aggressor, reforms or NATO are you talking about? There is no country anymore. There is not a single sign of the state; merely a totally doomed territory, existing just on inertia of its past.” [2]

Some provinces of Ukraine are de factocontrolled by local ‘robber barons’; i.e., oligarchs who create their private armies, while the state structures do not dare to confront them. An indicative case is that of the so-called ‘Amber Republic’ [3] – some districts of West Ukrainian Zhytomir and Rivne regions – where gangs of illegal smugglers extract amber, ruining local forests and leaving the land devastated. The police do not dare confront their illegal businesses and if an attempt is made to stop them the smugglers just shoot back, claiming that they are ‘patriots’ and no one can forbid them anything. Furthermore, the insecurity of property rights remain one of the major factors for foreign investors avoiding Ukraine; they consider investing in its enterprises a far too risky business.

In case you weren’t aware, in our country there are dozens of illegal municipal formations simulating the state law enforcement agencies at the local level. In different cities they have different names. In some places they are called municipal police; in others, the municipal guard, or just a ‘security company’. But in fact these are small armies created by local authorities to please their regional barons” [4]

– a recent claim by one of the Maidan leaders, a pro-EU MP Mustafa Neyem.

Similar gangs are active all over Ukraine, either involved in smuggling weapon or illegal logging. Since 2014 Ukraine has suffered from mass deforestation. The state structures continue to be inefficient in confronting illegal logging, while long trains carrying timber daily cross the border with the EU, even though the export of unprocessed wood is officially banned in Ukraine. [5] In other words, we can say that the appropriation of the Ukraine’s natural resources takes place in the same way as it does in many countries of Africa and Latin America.

Far-right terror

In addition, far-right terror prevents any real opposition force from emerging or functioning. For instance, on July 5ththe ultra-nationalist organization C14 intervened and disrupted a conference of the new party ‘Reasonable force’, calling it pro-Russian. The leaders of the party were assaulted and severely beaten. On July 7th2018, Ruslan Reidel, a Lviv activist of the [banned] Communist Party of Ukraine was brutally murdered. [6] Such assaults happen regularly under the same pretext – any group or force voicing opposition is assaulted and labelled as ‘pro-Russian’. Even when it concerns clashes between rivalling Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups, both rivals call the opponent ‘pro-Russian’, as they have learned that this works and actually justifies any their action. [7]

C14 also commits regular assaults on Roma people in their encampments [8]LGBT meetings or suspected ‘separatists’ and it always avoids responsibility, even in cases of their attacks on the police, who tend to stand back and not interfere. At the same time, as a paramilitary group, C14 receives funding from the Ukraine’s public budget.

The far-right radical group C14, who are responsible for a string of attacks on the LGBT and Roma community, will receive thousands of dollars in funding from the Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sport […] Two other successful organizations also have links to the far-right – the  Educational Assembly was founded by C14 leader Yevhen Karas, and Holosiyiv Hideout was founded by members of the ultra-nationalist political party Svoboda”. [9]

As their leaders openly claim, the main reasons for such privileges are that these ultra-nationalist groups cooperate with the Ukraine’s security service. [10] As a matter of fact it means that Western NGOs, the US, EU or IMF are financially supporting the Ukraine and are also giving money to the Ukrainian far-right or neo-Nazi groups.

Although the neo-Nazi and ultranationalist groups don’t have much representation in the Parliament, they impose their power and agendas extra-legally, threatening to depose the current government, while evoking their key role in the Maidan events of 2014. Moreover, a significant part of the police force is actually the far-right. Previously integrated within the ‘police reform,’ they are definitely unwilling to confront their friends in paramilitary groups. The ruling Kiev politicians are entirely aware that far-right groups are the main pillar for preserving their power, given the unpopularity of neoliberal reforms, while recognising that far-right and neo-Nazi groups would like to get all the power in their hands.

Mass exodus

Given the far-right terror, roaming gangs, the general insecurity of life and economic collapse, millions of Ukrainians are fleeing the country, heading to Europe and Russia in the search for jobs and relative security. Earlier this year Pavlo Klimkin, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, claimed that some 100,000 Ukrainians are leaving the country every month. He said,

“And the issue is not only high salaries. It is a broad understanding of the future and of the quality of life.” [11]

According to a study by the Expat Insider, the number of Ukrainian migrants living abroad is eight million. According to the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine, at present nine million Ukrainians are working outside the Ukraine, a figure that includes seasonal workers. [12] These are mostly middle-aged men and women. Thus, Ukraine is facing a lack of labour to maintain even the most basic infrastructure. Although there are plenty of job opportunities throughout the country, people are not prepared to work for wages of $150-200 per month, as this is not sufficient even to pay for food and utility (gas/water/electricity) bills. In provinces (especially rural areas) mainly elderly people and children remain, living on remittances sent by relatives working in the EU or Russia.

The need to find a cheap labour force drives some crooks to resort to what can literally be described as slavery. As recently as June 2018, police released 30 Ukrainian slave-labourers from a packing factory in southern Ukraine and in 2017 the Ukrainian police reported approximately 340 cases of slavery. [13] According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, in 2017 remittances from labour migrants provided 8.5% of Ukraine’s GDP. The National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) cites the figure of 8.3% GDP (in the region of $9.3 billion). [14] There is another sad fact about the way of life on remittances. Tens of thousands of children, who are cared for only by their elderly grannies, have become an easy target for various neo-Nazi groups that groom for them various activities, gradually brainwashing these underage children and using them as ‘cannon-fodder’ in numerous clashes and violent assaults.

Deindustrialization has become another trigger for the mass exodus. As Ukraine’s government proudly claims that we should become an ‘agrarian superpower’, the country has lost most of its machine-building, ship-building, car-assembly and aircraft industries. Skilled workers have mostly moved to Russia and China (being there on demand in many development projects), while most unskilled workers have become seasonal labourers in Poland or the Czech Republic. Approximately 30% of all the jobs that advertised daily are for work in foreign countries, while many TV programmes focus on the ‘advantages’ of life in other countries, where “you can easily find a job, or at least sell some souvenirs to tourists on the streets and beaches of European countries”.

Political mapping

As all polls reveal, the sad record of recent years has made the current Ukrainian rulers rather unpopular. The level of support for mainstream politicians varies between 1 and 6%. The only exclusion – Yulia Tymoshenko – a right wing populist politician who managed to garner some 10-11% of support from among those who had the intention to vote, according to most of the polls. She was convicted by the former government, before being released by Maidan, and until recently she remained on the side lines.

Her background, as reported by the International Boulevard in 2014, recalls that

In the mid-1990s, [Tymoshenko] built a fortune in the natural gas industry with the help of her mentor, the former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko, himself convicted of money laundering, wire fraud and extortion in Switzerland in 2000, and then in the United States in 2004. Lazarenko was released from a California prison in November 2012, after serving eight years.” [15]

Most of the current nationalist mainstream politicians and Maidan leaders, like A.Yatsenyuk, O.Turchynov, came out of her party.

Another political leader who is actively promoted by the Ukrainian media is the former Defence minister, Anatoly Hrytsenko, an active supporter of NATO membership for Ukraine. Some Ukrainian journalistic investigations have stated that Anatoliy Hrytsenko has been involved in corruption schemes involving the selling of military encampments and other military objects. [16]

Even these politicians face a relatively low level of support and most polls show that Ukrainians are tired of the same cohort and are demanding ‘new faces.’ Some elements of the Ukrainian media have begun to promote Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a Ukrainian pop-singer without a clear political platform, who is currently being trained at the US Stanford University within the programme ‘Emerging Leaders for Ukraine’, led by the well-known neoliberal thinker, Francis Fukuyama and sponsored by the investment company Dragon Capital. [17]

There is also the so-called Opposition Block, which actually represents a group of rich men – a split from the former ruling Party of Regions, formerly headed by the deposed president, Yanukovich. But these men are in fact distrusted by their former electoral base and have not won the sympathies of nationalists. The neo-Nazi leader A. Biletsky, a founder of the notorious Azov National Corps, made claims concerning their ambitious plans to take power: promising to mobilize their forces, which were formally integrated into the National Guard while still preserving their autonomy, has a tendency to ignore orders from public authorities.

Anatoly Matios, Ukraine’s general military prosecutor, recently openly said that they are thinking about a Ukrainian version of Pinochet to get out of the crisis. He said,

There are healthy forces in our country, which are not yet united and still haven’t settled on their Augusto Pinochet, but he [Pinochet] is already knocking at the door. He is searching for a stadium [place of mass executions]. I’m convinced of it.” [18]

Since Ukraine’s political sphere has been cleansed of any real opposition and the majority of ordinary people are discouraged and apathetic, we are going to face three possible scenarios for future elections:

  1. A competition between equally pro-NATO nationalist and neoliberal politicians.
  2. A coup, led by the far right and escalation of the internal chaos in Ukraine (a possible pretext for intervention).
  3. The indefinite delay of elections.

Given the numerous crimes (including war crimes) committed in Ukraine with the complicity of political leaders, preserving power has become a matter of life and death for the president. Cornered, political leaders could commit any new crime to save their lives. Any new president would certainly blame their predecessor for all the faults and crimes, even continuing the same policy. Therefore, one of the possible scenarios could be an indefinite delay of elections but the Constitution allows it only in case of martial law. All this would require the escalation of the war in Donbas, or provoking military conflicts in other regions, while predictably blaming Russia.

Dmitriy Kovalevich is a Ukrainian-based journalist and Left activist


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