In Background, Feature Articles, Ukraine

By Robert Cheda, July 15, 2015, translated from Polish original by J. Hawk of Fort Russ, July 15, 2015

The weekend Mukachevo shoot-out does not instill optimism in Ukrainian democracy’s future. What appeared to be bandits settling scores became a political crisis which exposed the level of anarchy in the country and which is yet another alarm bell both to the authorities and the civil society. What is worse, nationalistic fever and the government’s desire to crack down on the region may wake up another demon of separatism.

Ukraine army patrol in Mukachevo (Alexander Zobin, AFP)

Ukraine army patrol in Mukachevo (Alexander Zobin, AFP)

First the facts. On July 11, there was an armed clash in Mukachevo between the Right Sector and Rada deputy Vasiliy Lanio. According to RS press secretary Artiom Skoropadsky, RS local leaders arrived at a city cafe to discuss Lanio’s cigarette smuggling activities. The other side claims the meeting was held to organize rest for RS volunteer wounded on the Donbass. Regardless of intentions, nationalist militants allegedly shot one of Lanio’s bodyguards in the head. When Lanio summoned local police, RS used high-caliber machine guns and RPGs, then withdrew into the mountains. The outcome of the talks? A number of killed and wounded, plus burned police cruisers.

Poroshenko dispatched MVD and SBU units to the site. RS leader Yarosh responded by ordering mobilization and warning he would withdraw his so-called Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (UVC) from the front lines. RS supporters are demonstrating in Kiev, Tarnopol, and Lvov, while UVC units took up positions on roads leading to Mukachevo.

Bandits settling scores

Poroshenko called the event a criminal act motivated by profits from the unusually lucrative cigarette smuggling to the EU. PM Yatsenyuk fired the entire Transcarpathian customs service on Monday, and promised a purge of the local police.

In any event, Yarosh claims his men hindered smuggling because of their patrols on the EU border which provoked the bandits to attack. He accused two deputies, Lanio and his boss Viktor Baloga, of holding Transcarpathia hostage to his criminals. Yarosh listed a number of conditions in order to resolve the crisis, including putting the deputies on trial, a complete purge of regional government and services, and the dismissal of MVD head Arsen Avakov.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian media soon assailed the smuggling explanation. Transcarpathian writer Andrey Lubka expressively described the fusion of local authorities and organized crime, claiming that everyone in the region is participating in the smuggling. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise, since the profit from one truck of cigarettes smuggled to Italy is 500 thousand euro, and there are dozens of such shipments. Moreover, such large-scale smuggling by the mafia is only possible with extensive involvement by government institutions created to fight against it. Everything is under the watchful eye of Kiev–absent political protection, regional criminal groups would not enjoy such impunity, and they have everyone in their pocket, up to the governors.

If the Rada forms yet another “Stop Smuggling” committee, we may be assured its members will be the liaisons between mafia and Kiev, claims Lubka. If contraband is seized, cameras rolling, on the border, it doesn’t mean that the customs is working efficiently, only that we’re seeing another reapportionment of the turf. The whole of Ukraine lives off regional alliances between politicians, bureaucrats, and criminal businesses. Regional crime organizations decide who will win local elections and how the economy will function. Although Kiev denies it, the Mukachevo battle has a clear political dimension.

Political hell

Ukraine is to hold local government elections this fall, in which the society is placing its hopes. Democratic election of local officials is the centerpiece of the promised political decentralization which will place extensive financial, economic, and political authority in the hands of the citizens. It’s an open question who will actually exercise all that power? Because it’s a question whether the people’s representatives will be chosen in an honest manner.

Mukachevo revealed how Ukrainian authorities function. The Baloga-Lanio duo de-facto rules Transcarpathia, unaffected by the long procession of governors, presidents, and two Maidans. They used criminal methods to take over both politics and economy of the region, automatically becoming the people any Kiev government has to court. In return for Kiev’s blank cheque, they delivered Transcarpathia’s votes through intimidation or bribery, first to Yushchenko, then to Yanukovych, and now to Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk.

People like those, or the deputies from single-member districts, keep their districts in thrall and  represent an influential faction in the Rada. There is no guarantee that the fall elections will change anything because all of Ukraine’s regions are governed in this manner. The Right Sector did not become involved in these local alliances by accident.

Yarosh continues to say that the RS does not want to destroy the state, only function as a societal sanitation service. At first blush, it’s hard not to agree with him. Extreme nationalists pushed through the screening legislation, threw corrupt officials into trash bins, and organized the Leninopad (destruction of Soviet-era monuments). But, according Vladimir Fesenko from the Penta Political Research Center, the red-black RS banners and its patriotism conceals its desire to take over the criminal schemes.

What is worse (even though it could hardly get worse), Right Sector operations promote anarchy because these hurrah-patriots use unacceptable methods. Every student familiar with the theory of state and law knows that only the state has the monopoly on justice and violence. But it’s different in Ukraine because the weak state allowed its prerogatives to be usurped, with the ensuing privatization of the means of violence. How else can we call the UVC, or 10 thousand armed militants participating in a business war several hundred kilometers from Donbass frontlines? And not only in Mukachevo, but also in Lvov, Tarnopol, Kiev, and many other cities.

This is the effect of pretend anti-corruption and justice reforms, or creating a genuine National Guard. The Guard was supposed to integrate volunteer battalions into the UAF and MVD and therefore use the militants in the pursuit of the common good. Nothing came of it, because Kiev was frightened by the citizen army and it simply redesignated the existing MVD troops as the National Guard.

Yarosh wants to retain control over his battalions and demands autonomy. What is more, he is thinking of a parallel military with command structures independent of the General Staff. Formally the corps is part of the army, but in reality that’s a fiction, with thousands of armed men doing whatever they wish without any supervision. The RS Mukachevo group fought over smuggling profits, perpetrating a classic turf war against a rival criminal group. The militants, however, are just as willing to hire themselves out to the oligarchs, which is yet another dimension of Ukraine’s political hell.

Feudal fiefdoms

Poroshenko proclaimed de-oligarchization a priority, with the aim of separating business from politics. Meanwhile, Wadim Karasyev from the Globalization Strategy Institute says that the oligarchs have easily adapted to wartime Ukraine. They are now able to finance feudal armies, or volunteer battalions, as means of protecting their assets, in addition to their usual arsenal of buying elections, parties, and the parliament. The armed forces are used to establish spheres of influence, which means fighting competitors and blackmailing the state.

Ukraine’s media has long speculated about the close ties between Yarosh and the influential oligarch Igor Kolomoysky. RS fighters protected Kolomoysky’s most lucrative assets, namely Ukrnafta, the port in Odessa, and his TV channel. The first two assets were seized by the state after Proshenko’s forceful intervention. Kolomoysky also lost his job as Dnepropetrovsk governor. He is now planning a counterattack, organizing a new political movement with RS participation. Some Ukrainian political scientists referred to Mukachevo as a coup d’etat false start. They believe Kolomoysky and Yarosh aim to create a political crisis which would force early parliamentary elections.

In the meantime, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are inexorably losing popularity. The country’s mood is also changing. Ukrainians, tired by the war and economic crisis, are less Maidan-minded, less pro-European, and less pacific. The street is becoming radical and angry, which spells trouble for democracy’s and civil society’s stability. In any event, the explanation that Kolomoysky ordered the Right Sector to show Poroshenko in Mukachevo just how illusory his authority is. Now everything depends on the president’s reaction.

Somalization or a turning point?

When in the spring, Poroshenko stripped Kolomoysky of his assets in a very similar situation (which did not escalate to gunfire), the press praised Poroshenko for his decisive actions which strengthened the state’s prestige and the society’s trust. However, the usually well informed The New Times reported that the decision was forced by the West. US and EU diplomats visiting Poroshenko asked him whether they need to discuss Ukraine’s future with him or with Kolomoysky.

Right now, Kiev is limiting itself to sending MVD troops against the RS, and it did not take any radical measures aimed at curbing armed formations or smuggling. Mukachevo was a great opportunity for a turning point. It would have been enough for Poroshenko to issue an ultimatum to the Right Sector: integrate with the army and disband the UVC. His indecisiveness was interpreted by many Maidan supporters as a sign that political power in Ukraine is now laying in the street waiting to be picked up. By whom?

There are two options. It will be picked up by regional criminal-political clans supported by great oligarchs, plunging Ukraine into a Somalia-like state. The fate of citizens of a European country will be decided by mafia clans. Which will no longer feel the need to maintain parliamentary appearances.

The second option posits that, once again with oligarch support, the armed nationalists organized into a veteran lobby will organize a third Maidan and seize power, using the example of Armenia. The veterans’ lobby veto on the peace agreement with Azerbaijan is the reason why Armenia is an economically blockaded, impoverished country completely dependent on Russia.

There is also a third option, typical for Ukraine’s oligarch elites, which may be called a “swamp.” In spite of his bombastic declarations, Yarosh is avoiding an open confrontation with Kiev, and Kiev has responded in kind. Right Sector general mobilization fizzled. On the other hand, Yatsenyuk and Avakov have declared their sympathy with the militants’ cause. It would appear that the ruling coalition is avoiding the prospect of a break-up, hoping to attract the Right Sector to their side. Which means that the extreme nationalists have become a serious political force in oligarch battles. They tip the proverbial political scales. This approach might yield temporary stabilization by defusing a confrontation with the veteran lobby, but it would be a strategic defeat for Ukraine.

Mukachevo is only 50km from the EU border, and  the deadly firefight has hardly helped the cause of Ukraine’s eurointegration. To put it bluntly, it and the revealed scale of smuggling and political criminalization has put an end to the efforts to bring Ukraine into the Schengen Area. Anarchic Ukraine is not so much a desirable partner but rather a security threat, which of course benefits Moscow.

A new separatist demon

Now we have to ask some basic questions of our and Western politicans. Whom is the EU assisting financially–Ukrainians or criminal interest groups? And whom are the Polish and US military instructors training–Ukrainian volunteer soldiers or future gangsters operating in the EU?

War-torn Ukraine’s centrifugal forces are growing stronger. Transcarpathia with its Hungarian minority has an even weaker attachment to Kiev than the Donbass. Nationalist fever and the government’s desire to crack down on the region may well awaken another separatist demon. Moreover, Budapest is closely watching events and the Hungarians rather can’t be described as sympathetic to Ukraine. Or perhaps the “swamp” strategy also applies to Transcarpathian clans.

Therefore the fall 2015 local government elections are becoming illusory, together with the plans to decentralize the country’s politics. Unless the elections are preceded by screening and an country-wide anti-corruption operation, for which there is no time, the elections will be a sad joke just as the country’s other reforms. Or maybe this is what the Kiev princes want? All hope now rests in Ukrainians themselves, because one can no longer sweep under the rug the armed nationalists’ freelancing or, especially, the regions’ criminalization.

* * *

Translator J. Hawk’s comment:

Ishchenko wins! Notice that Cheda comes to exactly the same conclusions, on the basis of the same facts, as Ishchenko [see ‘Read also’, further below]. They both agree that, whatever happens, Moscow will benefit. The only difference is that Ishchenko welcomes the prospect and Cheda does not. But the fact that two serious, astute, well-informed political observers arrived at a similar conclusion strongly suggests this is the correct interpretation of the events.

Notice, by the way, what is missing from both Ishchenko’s and Cheda’s analyses. The Hand of the White House. This mirror image of The Hand of the Kremlin is supposed to be behind anything and everything that happens in Ukraine. But in reality it isn’t. The US is not in control over what’s happening. Never has been. It has influence, but influence and control are two different things. Likewise the Kremlin has influence, but not control, over Novorossia.

Because if the US did have a strategy of “controlled chaos” in which the RS is playing a starring role, then why did the US side with Poroshenko against Kolomoysky who was one of the biggest benefactors of that organization?  In fact, I suspect Kolomoysky was auditioning with the US to replace Poroshenko, only to be snubbed. And he was snubbed because neither the US nor the EU (to whose desires the US actually defers–for example, no lethal weapons to Ukraine, still and to this day) want Ukraine to go down in flames and become a Somalia right on EU’s eastern border. US and EU consistently oppose anything that might undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity because Ukraine is supposed to be of economic benefit to the West. And that’s the strategy. Notice, by the way, that Poland, an EU and NATO member and a close US ally, fears Ukraine descending into chaos like nothing else, short of a direct Russian invasion. However, it also means the West is stuck with Poroshenko because at this point any transfer of power might be Ukraine’s last. And that gives Poroshenko considerable amount of autonomy. He has become indispensable.

He is indispensable, however, only because neither the US nor the EU have the first clue on how to achieve the goal of Ukraine’s stabilization (no more than they did in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the list goes on and on…) and, to make matters worse, they don’t want anyone else to have a go at stabilizing Ukraine either. Because that “someone else” would be Russia whose status would be greatly enhanced if Ukraine drifted into its orbit. But if Ukraine can’t be stabilized in the West’s orbit, it will become a sort of a “scorched earth neutral zone”, the European equivalent of Afghanistan of the 19th century when it separated British and Russian Empires.

But of course Afghanistan was really far from everything of value, whereas Ukraine is not. Therefore EU’s leaders will soon be placed before a choice. Which is worse: a stable Ukraine in Russia’s orbit, or a Somalia right on EU’s eastern flank? I suspect the Kremlin is banking on the Europeans eventually opting in favor of a stable Ukraine, even if it has to be a Russian ally.

Read also:
Right Sector vs. the Junta: The events in Mukachevo, by Rostislav Ishchenko, July 13th, 2015, translated from by Joaquin Flores for Fort Russ


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