By Max Gevers
THE crisis in Ukraine, Russian armed intervention in the Crimea and instability in the eastern part of Ukraine, has highlighted how poisonous corruption, so wide-spread across the former Soviet Union, combined with politics and a popular uprising to create a crisis between Ukraine and Russia.
What can be done to solve the crisis?
First, the level of corruption in Ukraine was gargantuan, dwarfing that in many other countries. The state was a vehicle for plundering the nation on an unimaginable scale. Truly, criminals may go to jail, but when in control of land are called politicians and steal with impunity. In Ukraine, corruption and theft, already endemic, became the essence of the political system. The state was bled dry, power used exclusively to increase and safeguard one’s massive gains; a thief using police to protect his loot and put victims conveniently in jail, corruption of a different dimension that became the very ‘raison d’être’ of politics, not just carrying out functions of state and skimming a bit off the top.
Second, the exorbitant corruption in Ukraine made Mr Yanukovich, who politically suited Moscow, highly unpopular at home. He lost power because of his greed, his deliberate choice for closer ties with Russia, and, finally, because of the outrage at his attempts to put down the uprising by killing protesters. No dark machinations from the West here. Losing power he made Russia lose influence and its prospect of a Eurasian Union more remote. When Mr Yanukovich fled, the Kiev agreement for a unity government lost its value. Moscow acted, not because of his corruption, it couldn’t care less about that, but because its own direct influence was at stake.
Third, considering Moscow’s reaction, a few aspects are significant.
The interest of people is only an issue in Russia, if and when the state can use it insidiously to justify its actions, like now in Crimea. People of Russian origin are used and exploited as pawns for political purposes by Moscow. Many are indeed sympathetic towards Russia, especially in Eastern Ukraine. Because of its past, many areas outside Russia today have a majority Russian population, often thanks to Stalin’s policies, looking to Moscow instinctively in times of uncertainty, or on purpose when provoked.
These groups, often implanted Russians, are used as pawns to justify policy when developments evolve against perceived Russian interests. Russia used the presence of a large Russian population in Crimea, which was never menaced, as an old style excuse with drummed up imaginary threats. There is also no threat against people in Eastern Ukraine.
Although Russia has developed immensely in the last 25 years, the feeling of insecurity is endemic and the urge to play power games remains. At a minimum, in order to justify its actions, it must search for imaginary common enemies, usually found abroad, as convenient excuse to justify unpopular policies. Power politics comes naturally; anything else is perceived as softness and frightening. Russia shows international indifference towards others when its own narrowly perceived interests are at stake.
Fourth, for Moscow, the fact that events in Ukraine were the result of a popular resentment and uprising was totally immaterial. What counted was that almost any future government in Kiev would opt for a Western oriented course and move away from the sweaty embrace of a ‘Eurasia’ Union dominated by Russia.
Moscow seems unaware, or doesn’t care, that crude power politics do not increase its appeal to other than dictatorships. A pity, as Russia has so much else to offer the world than the tragic examples of its history: a unique and extraordinary culture, absolutely unmatched on a global scale. That is what should be exported with its concomitant increase in mutual knowledge, away from the heavy emphasis on political body building.
Fifth, diplomacy has a good chance. Ukraine should be helped in a relentless diplomatic drive to find compromises. Russia did much to dissuade the United States from attacking Syria, but will now likely try to establish total control over the Crimea, maybe even over Eastern Ukraine by stealth, attempting to blackmail Ukraine into ‘Eurasia’.
Russia is unlikely to engage in full scale war, but its policies would certainly increase the appeal of NATO, the EU, Western institutions and thus Ukraine’s orientation to the West. There is, therefore, plenty of room for negotiations. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is beyond dispute. It is a full-fledged member of the United Nations.
The Trilateral Statement on nuclear security between Russia, Ukraine and the US and the Budapest Memorandum, both of 1994, give assurances (not guarantees!) to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Using the presence of Russians should not be an excuse for blackmail. Equally, negotiations maybe in the framework of the Vienna Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe should allow Mr Putin a proper face-saving way out. Ukraine should not shy away from seriously negotiating with its own opposition, even if the situation has changed dramatically since the agreement in January.
Finally and most of all, taking the sting out of the situation Kiev must make clear that, whatever political course it may take, it shall remain on close friendly terms with neighbouring Russia. If necessary, elections should be moved forward. By setting an example of what democracy and a free economy can look like, its appeal to the rest of the country will increase. It should continue on its path towards democracy. It has suffered from dictatorships for many generations. Heeding popular appeal, Kiev should be encouraged towards a more modern style of politics, seeking redemption through the development of the nation and its citizens. It must forget Mr. Yanukovitch and look to the future, not its tragic past.