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As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

If it weren’t possible to be more pessimistic about the future of Ukraine and its economy, Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s sudden resignation on Sunday is reason to be even more glum. (Facebook)

No one believes more in the possibility of a post-crisis and prosperous Ukraine than Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the country’s prime minister and, too often, its chief punching bag.Ukraine Flag Icon

Never beloved, even among the pro-European Ukrainians who live in the country’s western regions and who resent Russian interference within their borders, Yatsenyuk’s goal since the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has been rightsizing an economy that’s underperformed even by standards of the region, with growth rates dwarfed by authoritarian Belarus, a Russian ally that’s retained Soviet institutions.

Facing few good options, Yatsenyuk simply gave up, hoping that, perhaps, the resignation of Ukraine’s last ‘true believer’ might shake loose enough support for the economic reforms that Ukraine desperately needs to continue its financial lifeline from the International Monetary Fund. Ironically, though Yatsenyuk has personally advocated liberalizing reforms and anti-corruption measures for years, his government is now seen as incapable of delivering reforms and as incorrigibly corrupt.

Yatsenyuk must now know how former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh surely felt after a decade in office (if not quite in power).

It’s not even the first time the pressured premier resigned. His resignation in July 2014 paved the way for fresh parliamentary elections in October 2014 that restored a majority for a pro-western, pro-European government that was ultimately headed by Yatsenyuk. Continue reading As Yatsenyuk throws in the towel, a grim future for Ukraine

Can Poroshenko deliver his fairy-tale promises to Ukraine?

Петро Порошенко

Earlier this year, the two undisputed leaders of the pro-Western camp were Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who had been jailed by the government of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, and Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion who emerged in the 2012 parliamentary elections as the leader of a new reform-minded political party.Ukraine Flag Icon

Moreover, other capable leaders in anti-Yanukovych movement, including other officials within Tymoshenko’s center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина, Batkivshchyna), such as Oleksandr Turchynov, who ultimately became Ukraine’s acting president, and former foreign minister and economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who ultimately became Ukraine’s interim prime minister.

So how did a chocolate tycoon with no obvious prior presidential ambitions find his way not only to the top of the polls in Ukraine’s troubled presidential election on May 25, but gather such an overwhelming lead that he could win the race in the first round with over 50% of the vote?

Petro Poroshenko is campaigning on a platform of greater economic ties to the European Union and a pledge to create more jobs. He’s promised to enact the EU association agreement that Yanukovych  refused to sign, a decision that led to the anti-Yanukovych protests in Kiev’s Maidan square late last year. He’s also promised to bring an end to the separatist protests in eastern Ukraine, by force if necessary.

Despite this threat, the Kremlin is signaling that Poroshenko is a Ukrainian leader with which Russia can work:

With the country still roiled by separatist violence in the east, the growing air of inevitability around Mr. Poroshenko, who has deep business interests in Russia, has redrawn the Ukraine conflict. It has presented the Kremlin with the prospect of a clear negotiating partner, apparently contributing, officials and analysts say, to a softening in the stance of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

After weeks of threatening an invasion, Mr. Putin now seems to have closed off the possibility of a Crimea-style land grab in the east, and even issued guarded support for the election to go forward.

Still, Putin has argued that Ukraine should draft a new constitution that provides for greater federalism before holding new elections. In recent days, he’s urged calm in eastern Ukraine and he even tried to convince separatists to delay the referenda held earlier this month on independence in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. But there’s no guarantee that Putin, who in mid-April referred to Ukraine as ‘Novorossiya,’ or ‘New Russia,’ will recognize the election’s outcome.

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RELATED: How the eastern Ukraine referenda
relate to the May 25 election

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With no serious contenders, and no real national debate during the election campaign, Poroshenko, who has dodged between both pro-Western and pro-Russian governments for the past two decades, and who has ties to some of the country’s most notoriously corrupt oligarchs, seems to be promising everything to everyone — and polls show he’s going to succeed. He pledges to restore ties with Russia, even while enhancing Ukraine’s economic links with Europe. He will somehow reverse what’s been a near-comical bungling effort by the Ukrainian military to subdue a separatist movement that shows no signs of receding. While doing all this, he will create jobs amid an economic crisis that will require more than $15 billion to $20 billion or more in financial assistance from groups like the International Monetary Fund, which will almost certainly demand in exchange tough budget cuts, tax restructuring, the privatization of many  state-owned assets and the liberalization of Ukraine’s economy otherwise, steps that will almost certainly inhibit immediate economic growth that could bring about new jobs in the short-term.  All of this in a country that, among the former Soviet nations, has the absolute worst post-Soviet GDP growth rate.

In short, Poroshenko is arguing that he can do what none of Ukraine’s leaders have been able to do for the past two decades at a time when the country is more divided than ever.

Continue reading Can Poroshenko deliver his fairy-tale promises to Ukraine?

How the eastern Ukraine referenda relate to the May 25 election


It’s hard to know, especially from afar, how to interpret the weekend’s referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine.Ukraine Flag Icon

According to the pro-Russian organizers, 89.07% of voters in Donetsk voted for ‘self-rule,’ on the basis of 74.87% turnout. In Luhansk, fully 96% of the electorate voted for ‘the declaration of state independence’ on the basis of a reorted 75% turnout. Those numbers are all disputed by Ukraine’s central government. 

Adding to the lack of clarity, the referendum questions themselves are vaguely worded, so no one knows exactly what the region’s voters elected to do.

In Donetsk, voters were asked, “Do you support the declaration of state independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” In Luhansk, voters were asked, “Do you support the declaration of state independence of the Luhansk People’s Republic?” The Russian word used for ‘state independence,’ samostoyatel’nost‘, means ‘standing by oneself,’ so no one really knows what the voters were actually asked to choose — it could mean anything from greater autonomy to full independence to, possibly, Russian annexation.

Interim Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov declared the votes a ‘farce,’ and Western observers, including European leaders, have dismissed the referendum as illegitimate in its conception and fraudulent in its execution. Continue reading How the eastern Ukraine referenda relate to the May 25 election

Brussels trumps Washington and Moscow over Ukrainian crisis


Not with a whimper, not with a bang, but with $15 billion in financing. European_UnionUkraine Flag Icon

This is how the acute phase of Ukraine’s political crisis ends — it’s all about bringing the struggling country back on its feet in economic terms, not a  geopolitical fantasy in the minds of Cold Warriors in Washington and Moscow.

With the European Union’s decision earlier today to deploy €11 billion ($15 billion) in aid, Ukraine’s treasury will now pull back from the brink of sovereign default — a catastrophe that would, ironically, have harmed Russian banks far greater than European banks (Russian investors have a cumulative exposure of nearly $30 billion to Ukrainian debt).  That assistance was almost guaranteed from the moment former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled from office after his government unleashed lethal fire on anti-government protesters that had gathered for four months at Maidan Square in central Kiev.  Interim president Olexandr Turchinov and interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk (pictured above with Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs) are firmly committed to economic reform and Ukraine’s turn toward Europe.

Accordingly, it’s the European Union — and not the United States and not Russia — that looks both most sensible and most productive in the aftermath of last week’s showdown. 

Throughout the entire Ukrainian crisis, American and Russian policymakers have routinely disregard the role of the European Union, including some very undiplomatic language from a top State Department official a month ago.

But stabilizing Europe’s expanding periphery is what the European Union does best — and why it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.  The earliest iteration of the European Union sutured the wounds among Italy, France and Germany in the 1950s, midwifing the economic expansion of the 1960s.  It brought the United Kingdom more closely into  Europe in the 1970s, and catalyzed economic reform that transformed Ireland into a high-income country.  It smoothed the transitions of Spain, Portugal and Greece from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, and its embrace of the former Warsaw Pact states in 2004 anchors economic and political growth from Prague to Tallinn to Warsaw.  EU policymakers today are effectively dangling the carrot of EU membership to Serbia in order to bring enduring peace to the Balkans.

Jean Monnet would be overjoyed today to see the European role in ending Ukraine’s crisis, and the promise of extending peace and prosperity more widely beyond the boundaries of Europe’s core. Continue reading Brussels trumps Washington and Moscow over Ukrainian crisis

What comes next for Ukraine following Yanukovych’s ouster?


There’s apparently a limit on what Ukraine’s president can get away with.Ukraine Flag Icon

He could preside over massive amounts of corruption, he could jail his chief political opponent on ridiculously politicized charges, he could swerve disastrously between a pro-Russian worldview and a pro-European worldview, and he could even brazenly change Ukraine’s election law to win more seats.

But when the government of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych became responsible for the deaths of 88 protesters last week, even members within his own Party of Regions (Партія регіонів) were defecting from Yanukovych.  Arguably, until his police force unleashed lethal fire on hundreds of civilians, Yanukovych could point to a relatively legitimate electoral mandate in the previous 2010 presidential election (and, though it was flawed, the 2012 parliamentary elections).


Since Friday, when the European Union seemed to broker a deal between Yanukovych and Ukraine’s opposition leaders, events galloped at a dramatically rapid rate (though apparently not too fast for Ukraine’s leading oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firtash), leaving Yanukovych in hiding in eastern Ukraine, under charges of mass murder.  The country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted in quick succession to elect speaker Oleksander Turchinov (pictured above), an opposition, pro-European politician, as interim president.

It also elected to restore the 2004 constitution, which restores more power to Ukraine’s parliament and away from its president, and set a tentative May 25 date for new presidential elections.  The parliament also cleared the path to free Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a leader of the center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина), who narrowly lost the 2010 presidential vote to Yanukovych.  Tymoshenko (pictured below) was jailed in late 2011 by Yanukovych’s government on charges related to her handling of the natural gas crisis in 2009 during her premiership.  That precedent, ironically, may be one of the reasons that Yanukovych remained so keen on holding onto power in Kiev — having established that he was willing to throw Tymoshenko in prison on politically motivated grounds, it’s Yanukovych who now faces imprisonment on the basis of far more serious charges.  Tymoshenko, who has ruled out leading Ukraine’s soon-to-be-announced interim government, will nonetheless be a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential ballot.  Though she’s been imprisoned throughout the current crisis, she’s also unsullied by having negotiated with Yanukovych, a group that includes another opposition favorite, heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko.


Russia, who had delivered $3 billion of a promised $15 billion bailout, is obviously dismayed.  Though Yanukovych was never quite the Russian puppet that some Western leaders believed him to be, it’s clear that his sympathies lied to the east more than to the west.

So what comes next for Ukraine?  Past experience demonstrates that the story won’t end with ‘happily ever after’ upon the appointment of this week’s new interim government.  As I wrote last December, the Maidan protests — even if they succeed — won’t by themselves end Ukraine’s political crisis.  Just a year after the ‘Orange Revolution’ of December 2004 and January 2005 that brought Viktor Yushchenko power, the pro-European government crumbled into infighting that lasted until Yushchenko left power, massively unpopular, in 2010.  Yanukovych took advantage of the ongoing disunity of the Ukrainian opposition in October 2012’s parliamentary elections, winning largely by dividing the supporters of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland and Klychko’s newly formed Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (Український демократичний альянс за реформи).


Almost on schedule, this morning brings news of serious counter-protests in Crimea, the peninsula that lies in the Black Sea on the southeastern coast, one of the 24 oblasts that comprise Ukraine.   Continue reading What comes next for Ukraine following Yanukovych’s ouster?

What protesters in Ukraine and Thailand are getting wrong

thaiprotest ukraineprotest

The political crises in both Ukraine and Thailand took a turn for the severe last week, as government police forces clashed with protesters with even greater violence.  But what do the protesters want in each country — and can the protests, even if successful, bring stability?  Ukraine Flag Iconthailand

Amnesty: the root cause of the Thai protests

In Thailand, a country of 66.8 million people, anti-government protesters took to the streets in November (pictured above, top) after Thai president Yingluck Shinawatra tried to introduce an amnesty bill that would absolve both her supporters and opposition leaders from the worst charges, including murder, that spring from the political violence that’s engulfed Thailand sporadically throughout the last decade.  The bill died in the Ratthasapha (National Assembly of Thailand, รัฐสภา) after all sides turned against it.  Yingluck’s party, the dominant Pheu Thai Party (PTP, ‘For Thais’ Party, พรรคเพื่อไทย), the third iteration of the party Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, founded in 2001 when he came to power, didn’t want to absolve the sins of their adversaries.  The opposition Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์) opposed the amnesty bill because they feared it would mean the return of Thaksin from seven years in self-exile.

Though Yingluck won the July 2011 parliamentary elections on a promise to de-escalate tensions in Thailand, the amnesty has brought the country back to the familiar standoff between the pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ and the anti-Thaksin ‘yellow shirts.’ 

EU relations: the root cause of the Ukrainian ‘Euromaidan’ protests

In Ukraine, a country of 45.5 million people, pro-European protesters also took their grievances to the streets in late November (pictured above, bottom) after president Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of an association agreement that would have engendered closer cooperation between the European Union and Ukraine.  Initially, the protests, centered on Maidan Square in the capital city of Kiev, assumed the form of the familiar political struggle between the Europe-oriented, Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russia-oriented, Russian-speaking east, which featured prominently in the 2004 ‘orange revolution’ against fraudulent elections that powered Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Yushchenko ended his presidential term massively unpopular, with his pro-Western allies fracturing into various camps, and in the February 2010 presidential race, the pendulum swung back to the pro-Russian Yanukovych, who defeated the EU-friendly former prime minister Yuila Tymoshenko (by 2010, a Yushchenko ally-turned-foe).  For much, much more background, here’s Max Fisher’s explainer today at The Washington Post.

In both cases, the protests have transcended their original rationales, and they now threaten to topple governments in both Kiev and Bangkok. What’s more, Yingluck and Yanukovych haven’t responded incredibly well to the protests. Continue reading What protesters in Ukraine and Thailand are getting wrong