UKRAINE is in turmoil—again. Protesters are blocking streets and chanting Bandu het! (“Bandits out!”). Smoke again permeates Kiev’s chilly air. The police are again trying to clear out protesters’ tents. The scale is smaller than four years ago, when demonstrators on Maidan square overthrew the corrupt regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. But once again, Ukraine’s viability as a state is at stake.The catalyst of the latest upheaval is Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia who entered Ukrainian politics after the Maidan uprising to help fight corruption. After serving as governor of the Odessa region, Mr Saakashvili turned against Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, who responded by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship while he was abroad. (He had already lost his
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UKRAINE is in turmoil—again. Protesters are blocking streets and chanting Bandu het! (“Bandits out!”). Smoke again permeates Kiev’s chilly air. The police are again trying to clear out protesters’ tents. The scale is smaller than four years ago, when demonstrators on Maidan square overthrew the corrupt regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. But once again, Ukraine’s viability as a state is at stake.
The catalyst of the latest upheaval is Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia who entered Ukrainian politics after the Maidan uprising to help fight corruption. After serving as governor of the Odessa region, Mr Saakashvili turned against Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, who responded by stripping him of his Ukrainian citizenship while he was abroad. (He had already lost his Georgian citizenship.) Bundled through a border post by his supporters, the stateless Mr Saakashvili defiantly re-entered the country and, on December 3rd, staged a rally calling for Mr Poroshenko’s impeachment.
Two days later Ukraine’s security services came to arrest him. Mr Saakashvili climbed to the top of an eight-storey building and rallied his supporters from the roof. When agents grabbed him, the crowd blocked their van and freed him. With one wrist still dangling a handcuff, Mr Saakashvili led his supporters to the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, to demand Mr Poroshenko’s resignation.
Mr Poroshenko’s attempted show of force ended up exposing his weakness, as well as that of a state plagued by secret deals and graft. The root of the crisis lies in the failure of the governing elites to meet the Maidan revolution’s main demand: ending the country’s oligarchic system.
The hope that Ukraine’s corrupt elites could themselves reform Ukraine and introduce the rule of law was never high. But their dependence on Western support, and the West’s alliance with Ukraine’s thriving civil-society activists, gave some cause for optimism. Both these factors have since weakened. Civil society has failed to build political muscle, while the European Union is suffering Ukraine fatigue. Most important, says Yulia Mostovaya, the editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly, is that America no longer has a comprehensive Ukraine policy.
American policy now focuses on security, giving short shrift to internal problems. President Donald Trump has little interest in state-building in Ukraine. (He may also resent Ukraine for helping American investigators to indict Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager.) No senior official keeps watch over Ukrainian politicians. “It is a test of Ukrainian democracy without America,” says Ms Mostovaya.
Over the past few months the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated. Anti-corruption activists and opposition politicians are under pressure. Mr Saakashvili’s allies have been harassed. Some journalists fear for their safety. Exhausted by war and still lacking functioning institutions, Ukraine risks descending into feudal violence. Oligarchs are now measured not just by their money, loyal MPs and private TV channels, but also by the size of their armed forces.
One of the most powerful figures is Arsen Avakov, the interior minister and a business tycoon. Mr Avakov controls the police and the national guard, as well as a television channel. Formally Mr Avakov is in coalition with Mr Poroshenko, but in fact he views him as a rival oligarch. Mr Avakov wants to shift Ukraine towards a parliamentary system that would give each power player his due.
Ukraine’s squabbling elites take little responsibility for their state, uniting only to battle the civil activists and independent institutions that threaten their oligopoly. The most critical battle is around the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), the sole credible institution that pressure from civil society and Western backers has brought into being. Trained by America’s FBI, NABU started to attack serious vested interests in Ukraine, provoking an inevitable counter-attack.
The fight escalated in October, after NABU detained Mr Avakov’s son in connection with the suspected embezzlement of $521,000 through a contract to supply backpacks to the interior ministry. Mr Avakov perceived this as a declaration of war by Mr Poroshenko, and dispatched national guardsmen and police officers to block roads in Kharkiv to prevent his son’s arrest. Mr Avakov, who previously backed NABU as a counterweight against Mr Poroshenko, withdrew his support, leaving it exposed.
On November 29th the prosecutor general’s office, controlled by Mr Poroshenko, disrupted a sting operation investigating the deputy head of the immigration service, who had allegedly offered to sell Ukrainian citizenship to foreigners for $30,000. NABU’s undercover agent was in the process of handing over a “bribe” when she was arrested by the prosecutor general’s men. The agent was later released, but the operation had been foiled. Artem Sytnik, the head of NABU, says his agency is outmatched: “All we have is our integrity and our conviction that we are doing the right thing.”
Both the EU and the American government issued strongly worded statements. “These actions appear to be part of an effort to undermine independent anti-corruption institutions that the United States and others have helped support,” the State Department said. The ruling coalition responded with contempt, crippling NABU by removing its main political backer, the head of the parliament’s anti-corruption committee, from his post. It also tried to push through a law to remove NABU’s independence, but backed down in the face of protests from civil-society activists and the IMF, which funds Ukraine’s debt.
The oligarchs are confident that America lacks the will to back up its rhetoric. Admitting that Ukraine is corrupt and dysfunctional would prompt uncomfortable questions among American voters about their country’s involvement and sanctions against Russia.
Mr Poroshenko, whose popularity rests on the war with Russia, casts his internal opponents as Russian agents. His prosecutor general accuses Mr Saakashvili of trying to mount a coup on Russia’s behalf. In fact, the coup is being mounted in Kiev, whose rulers are pushing their country away from the West. As Mr Poroshenko’s approval rating falls, Ukrainians’ positive attitudes towards Russia are rising. Mr Putin must be enjoying the show.