Ukraine Drifts Towards Dangerous Shores

A volunteer makes borscht on the Maidan in 2014. Some are wondering whether discontent over the slow pace of reform might fuel a third Maidan. Photo: M. Bociurkiw

A volunteer makes borscht on the Maidan in 2014. Some are wondering whether discontent over the slow pace of reform might fuel a third Maidan. Photo: M. Bociurkiw

By Michael Bociurkiw

Most people have the common sense not to provoke a sleeping tiger. Not the beleaguered administration of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Last week, after a botched attempt, Ukrainian police finally managed to arrest ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili on charges that he colluded with Ukrainian businessmen tied to Russia. It’s an odd turn of events, considering that Poroshenko invited him to Ukraine, granted Ukrainian citizenship and handed him the governorship of corruption-ridden Odessa.

It could be that Poroshenko felt he had no choice after the Georgian made public calls for his impeachment - citing widespread graft and a dangerous slide towards the old days when corruption was a way of life in Ukraine. Those calls - along with other provocations such as setting up a huge protest camp in the middle of the highly secure government quarter - crossed an invisible line.

The almost comical saga continues: earlier this week, after eight hours of court hearings, Saakashvili is free once again and vows to continue hammering the government for corrupt practices. While he still faces charges, he will continue to be a thorn in Poroshenko’s side. The unfolding drama could also play into Russia’s hands by portraying Ukraine as an unstable neighbour that needs to be tamed. (In fact just today - Thursday - at his annual press conference - Russian President Vladimir Putin mocked Saakashvili for creating havoc in Ukraine). 

Poroshenko, who has failed to fulfill many election promises appears increasingly isolated and out-of-touch with ordinary Ukrainians.

Western diplomats are watching the situation with intense scrutiny. For all his faults, Saakashvili, who famously stood up to Vladimir Putin’s forces as Georgian president in 2008, remains a media darling and maintains friendships in high offices around the world. The United States is believed to have pushed him onto Ukraine as a catalyst for reform. 

The high-level, cat-and-mouse game to arrest Saakashvili capped a tumultuous week when Ukraine seemed to take an abrupt U-turn on anti-corruption reforms. In exchange for massive Western loans, Ukraine had pledged to maintain and resource an anti-corruption agency, establish a special corruption court and bring in reforms on pensions, agricultural land and healthcare.

That’s why it was a surprise last week when pro-government allies attempted to dismember something Western donors had been aggressively pushing for - the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU). Ukraine’s backsliding unleashed a barrage of criticism - even prompting calls to cut US assistance to Ukraine and talk of cancelling the much-coveted visa-free travel status with the EU. After strong, external pressure, the independence of NABU was preserved, but Poroshenko and his administration remain under suspicion by many western donors and capitals.

How did we arrive at this awkward point, literally, overnight?

There are a few explanations. Ukrainian officials are starting to gear up for the 2019 presidential elections, when protecting the obscenely wealthy oligarchs who traditionally bankroll campaigns takes precedence over pleasing Western donors.

Moreover, the Ukrainian government seems convinced it can act with impunity in exchange for fighting back pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country. In his foreign travels, Poroshenko, who has been particularly tone deaf to the demands of the corruption court, appears immune to criticism because his country is at war with Russia via its proxies in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. That stance runs up against public statements by US officials that fighting the rebels isn't a free pass for ignoring corruption and introducing badly needed reforms.

There’s another possible explanation for the government to backtrack on reform efforts and, in the process, risk its relationship with major backers and allies.

Western-backed anti-corruption non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and agencies have become so brazen in their efforts to nail the bad guys that they’ve managed to push top politicians and oligarchs against the wall. Some are out for blood, and as one senior Western diplomat told me, they won’t be satisfied until they see the corpse of a corrupt oligarch or leading politician hanging from a tree. That is a dangerous scenario for the weeks and months to come - especially since Ukraine is still very much mired in an ugly conflict with Russian-backed rebels that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people and displaced about 2million.

Poroshenko, who has failed to fulfill many election promises - including selling off his multi-million dollar chocolate business and national TV station - appears increasingly isolated and out-of-touch with ordinary Ukrainians. Over the course of 10 days, in which I travelled from east to west and back, it was almost impossible to hear anyone praise the oligarch-turned-president. Western donors and partners too are beginning to question whether they may have backed the wrong guy after the Maidan revolution of 2013-2014 that forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Moscow.

Not all is cause for despair. The country’s books are more balanced than they’ve ever been, key pension and healthcare reforms have been passed by a fractious legislature, and Ukrainian forces have managed to prevent rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk from gaining more territory. Ask the average Ukrainian, and they will tell you they haven't been harassed by the cops for a bribe in a long time.

And as for Saakashvili? If history is any guide, threats of incarceration or deportation will not silence him. Although he lacks widespread popular support, his rhetoric could very well ignite the fuse of popular discontent against a government that is showing itself either unwilling or unable to meet the demands of the Maidan protesters.

Michael Bociurkiw