Day: May 23, 2014
Russia’s President Putin says he will respect the outcome of Sunday’s presidential election in Ukraine. This is important, if true.
There is good reason to doubt his word. Moscow in general and Putin in particular have prevaricated throughout the crisis in Ukraine. Underhanded would be a compliment to the stealth Russian takeover and eventual annexation of Crimea. Russian troops remained on the border with Ukraine, despite Putin’s insistence that they were withdrawn. His security services have sometimes led and often fed the takeover of government offices in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, where he could readily create disorder this weekend. His policy has essentially been one of promoting disorder, then complaining about it and portraying Russia as the only hope for preventing harm to Russian speakers.
Why might Putin behave differently this time around? It is hard to know exactly who is saying what to whom, but it appears that the Europeans and Americans have mounted a reasonably credible threat of more severe financial sanctions if Russia or its surrogates disrupt the election. Putin has acknowledged that the targeted sanctions already imposed have hurt Russia. Sentiment in Donbas, as the most affected provinces are known, is mixed, with considerable loyalty to Ukraine.
Both the leading candidates, Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, were rivalrous protagonists in the post-Orange Revolution scandals of 2005. Both also supported the pro-European Union popular uprising that chased former President Yanukovych from office. Putin never had much use for him and has kept him at arm’s length since he abandoned his post in Kiev.
Putin’s acceptance of the outcome of Sunday’s voting would pull the rug out from under the pro-Russian separatists, who conducted an ambiguous “referendum” on the political status of Ukraine earlier this month. But it would only be the start of a long and difficult transition in Ukraine, which is a semi-failed state. Since 1989, it has done not much better than mark time, with an economy that shrank in the 1990s, grew until 2007 and then struggled again. This year will be awful. Energy subsidies and lack of domestic production from ample resources have made Ukraine heavily dependent on Russian natural gas and transit fees for gas shipped to the west.
Governance is even worse than the economic figures suggest. Corruption is rampant. Yanukovych is widely believed to have stolen billions. The administration is still highly centralized, but without the capacity to govern effectively or deliver services in the provinces. The authorities, especially in the relatively industrialized east and south, lack legitimacy with a population that feels deprived and alienated.
The International Monetary Fund and the European Union are stepping in with substantial funding, but they risk throwing good money after bad if they don’t insist on reform. Tymoshenko on this score was an enormous disappointment during her time as prime minister. She is unlikely to win the election. Chocolate King Poroshenko is believed to be the front runner, with some possibility of meeting the 50% threshold required to be elected in the first round.
Putin can live with Poroshenko, who would hopefully attract enough Western support to enable Ukraine to pay its substantial debts to Russia. Moscow will press for constitutional reforms that allow Donestsk and Luhansk to establish themselves as an autonomous region, akin to the all-but-independent Republika Srpska in Bosnia. That would be going too far for the EU and US, but ample decentralization on a non-ethnic, geographical basis is certainly part of the solution in Ukraine. The West will prescribe national dialogue, constitutional reform and parliamentary elections, staples of today’s efforts to re-establish legitimate authority in failed and failing states. That is not an easy road, but if Sunday’s election embarks Ukraine on that path it will be doing far better than if Putin diverts it to more instability and conflict.