Ukraine’s War Behind the Headlines

August 21, 2014
A pro-Russian woman brings flowers to a Police station stormed by Ukrainian militias, killing many pro-Russia militants in Mariupol, May, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/Manu Brabo

Although the Ukrainian army is progressing, the war in eastern Ukraine is still far from decided. It is never too soon however, to examine the situation in Ukraine behind these rapidly developing headlines, and to explore what might be ahead of Ukraine if a Ukrainian reclamation of the Donbass region succeeds. Because even if the pro-Russian militants retreat, Ukraine’s war is far from over.

First, there are significant levels of distrust between some populations in the east the government in Kiev. The Dutch correspondent Floris Akkerman visited Mariupol, the first city where the Ukrainian army successfully ousted the separatists on June 13, and provided an insightful account of life for the people in this city.

The predominantly Russian speaking Mariupol set the stage to the ‘Mariupol massacre’ on May 9, when violent clashes between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army led to a still-unknown amount of civilian casualties.

[Click here for our liveblog on the events in Mariupol on May 9]

Especially the death of civilians still fuels some of the inhabitants’ distrust of the Ukrainian government, each other and the media. Despite the eviction of the militant separatists, a division amongst the citizens remains. Although only few will now dare to admit this:

“For now, the pro-Ukrainians have the upper hand. Where they were scared and kept silent when the separatist’ ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ paced the city’s rhythm, now the pro-Russians are,” Akkerman reports.

“In this climate, no separatist wants to speak. A search leads to nothing. Except for the small group of people at City Hall, that only wants to speak on the basis of anonymity. They feel restricted in their options. “So this is democracy?” they say frustrated. “Aren’t we allowed our own opinion?”

Ukraine has indeed tightened its grip on Pro-Russian information spread recently, so the passerby’s remark is not entirely unfounded: As part of an ongoing struggle between the Ukrainian government and Russian state-operated propaganda channels, on August 19, the country banned 14 Russian television channels from its cable networks. This happened under a law of which RFE/RL warns that “is currently considering legislation that could set the country back to Soviet-era levels of censorship,” giving the authorities extensive control over what messages are transmitted, and which aren’t.

Time will tell to which extent Ukraine is going to enforce this law.

The power of Ukraine’s oligarchs

In the meantime, in Mariupol the Pro-Ukrainians are reasserting themselves. Maria Podybailo, one the organizers of ‘New-Mariupol’, a patriotic volunteer organization, told Akkerman that tensions may again surface amongst harbor and factory workers, a situation the separatists could capitalize. “Mass layoffs at the local steel factory of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov shocked the city,” Akkerman reports.

To break the power of the oligarchs, Podybailo suggests that companies which fail to provide for the social needs of its workers should be nationalized –small and medium-sized enterprises — as a counterweight for the oligarchs’ mammoth corporations.

This brings to light another of Ukraine’s future difficulties, on that does not only affect the East: the oligarchs. In order to reduce the power of the Ukraine’s wealthiest, the country cannot simply expand the control of the government – it is first necessary to curtail the tycoons’ power there.

While the Euromaidan revolution was ignited by the Ukrainians discontent with the nefarious corruption of their government,[1. – Pre-Maidan Ukraine was listed in the 144th (of 177) place at Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, sharing the near-bottom platform with Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.] no real bottom-up power flow has occurred. The struggle withing the country is even used by people like Igor Kolomoisky, to reaffirm their influential position once again: Kolomoisky funded his private militia to fight against the separatists. In April he announced a $10,000 bounty for each separatist caught by the battalion.”

Also the recent dispute between premier Yatsenyuk and the Verkhovnaya Rada can be seen as an example that there are a number of wealthy men in Ukraine’s leadership who are not willing to give up this position just yet. The resignation of ‘Maidan heroine’ and journalist Tetyana Chornovol from her position at the head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee enforces this concern. 

“It became clear to me, that my stay [in the government] was for NOTHING. Ukraine does not have the political will to wage an uncompromising, large-scale war against corruption,” Chornovol wrote in a blogpost for Ukraïnska Pravda, clarifying her departure.

It is hoped that this will be addressed in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. But Foreign Policy’s Sergii Leshchenko predicts the opposite:

“Kolomoisky’s spectacular rise increases the likelihood that the next parliament will be controlled by oligarchs behind the scenes,” Leschchenko writes

While ousted President Yanukovych’ rule was marked by a pyramid structure, with the former president and his confidants on top, the near future predicts a scuffle between oligarch-controlled factions for Ukrainian politics.

At a recent Legatum Institute Transitions Forum panel discussion on Ukraine, Oliver Bullough, author of ‘Looting Ukraine: How East and West Teamed up to Steal a Country,’ suggested that a special, albeit perhaps painful, role for the West in helping Ukraine build their future: a phlebotomy of the stolen money from their banks.

“In general people don’t steal money if they can’t keep it. And they’ve been keeping it here [in the West], and not there, and if we keep that from happening, the incentive to stealing will be much lower.”

It is still to soon to predict what the future holds, but if a united country is in Ukraine’s future, this is a prelude to the topics that will need to be addressed.