Will Ukraine Ever Change?

Mikhail Palinchak/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters
President Petro Poroshenko with soldiers in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, April 2017

Denis Voronenkov, a former member of the Russian parliament, was walking out of the Premier Palace Hotel in Kiev on March 23 when he was killed in a hail of bullets. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko immediately blamed the Russian state for his murder. Voronenkov, a former supporter of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine who was accused of corruption in Russia and then fled to Kiev last year, had been a controversial figure. After his defection, he was given Ukrainian citizenship, denounced Putin and his policies, and, perhaps crucially, testified against Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president, who had fled to Russia when he was driven from power during the Maidan revolution of 2014.

Russian officials denied involvement in Voronenkov’s death, but made clear they had little sympathy for a man they regarded as a traitor. He was just one more casualty of Ukraine’s revolution and its continuing war with Russia.

Three years after the uprising in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, much remains uncertain. Under Poroshenko, who has led the country since June 2014, the post-revolutionary government has done more than many at home or abroad give it credit for. Though his popularity has declined steadily, Poroshenko stabilized an economy in freefall, secured loans from the International Monetary Fund, prevented Russian-backed rebellions in vulnerable regions such as Odessa, and above all created a serious military force out of the weak and disorganized one he inherited. Russia, via its proxies, still controls parts of the east, but Ukraine’s soldiers have managed to stop them from taking more territory.

Meanwhile, closer relations with the European Union are beginning to yield rewards. On April 6, the European Parliament approved a bill that will allow Ukrainians to travel visa-free to Europe’s Schengen zone. If, this summer, Ukrainians do indeed begin to travel freely to most of Europe for the first time in their lives, that will be seen as a huge achievement of the revolution—and something to be envied by the ordinary citizens of Putin’s Russia.

Yet in other ways, the country has not moved on. Though the revolution was set off in part by disgust at the corruption and systematic abuses of power of the Yanukovych government, no senior officials from before or after the revolution have been tried for misusing funds or for the deaths of those shot during the revolt. In 2016, in Transparency International’s ranking of countries from least to most corrupt, Ukraine was tied with Russia in 131st place; it had hardly budged from the dismal position it occupied before the revolution. And now the Ukrainian authorities, led by Poroshenko, have begun a crackdown on anticorruption NGOs, calling into question how committed he and they are to deep and genuine reforms, especially in the judiciary.

Rivne, a town of a quarter-million people in western Ukraine, a four-hour drive from Kiev, is a good place to take stock of this ambivalent progress. Walk around and you could easily get the impression that things are going far better than the country’s official statistics indicate they should be. To a certain extent this is not surprising: economists calculate that between 40 and 50 percent of Ukraine’s economy is off the books, because so much of it is cash-based and it is easy to evade taxes. But a closer look at Rivne tells another story. Along with lots of new houses, one sees fancy new SUVs driven by beefy, shaven-headed men who are accompanied by glamorous high-heeled girls—one of many indications of the extent to which the town has been taken over by organized crime.

Yuri Dyuh is not one of those men. A thirty-year-old anticorruption activist and Rivne native, he took part in the Maidan revolution. “We expected a miracle, but it did not happen,” he said. It is the system that is corrupt, he continued, and “to change it you have to have the support of people inside it.” Getting significant numbers of people dedicated to reform into the local administration, let alone the national government, was going to take a very long time indeed.

When war broke out in the east of Ukraine in the spring of 2014, Dyuh and his friends began collecting donations from ordinary people to buy uniforms, socks, and food for local soldiers who had been sent to the front, since the army was not supplying them. Then they realized that the local branch of Ukraine’s intelligence services was at the center of a huge scam. State property in Rivne was being reassigned to the intelligence service, which was selling it to businessmen who then developed it and paid kickbacks to the intelligence officials.

At about the same time as the revolution, the world price for amber, which is found around Rivne, was soaring because of surging demand from China, where it is thought to bring luck and good health. Thousands of villagers in the area began destroying local woodlands and the surrounding countryside in search of it. Soon, mafia clans began clashing for control of the business. Dyuh said that there are now plans to legalize and regulate the amber trade, but so many people are making so much money from it, apart from the state of course, that those involved have conspired to prevent this from happening. Money from amber, Dyuh told me, “flows like a river up to Kiev,” referring to deputies in parliament who were blocking regulation efforts.

In videos on YouTube you can see gangs of armed men clashing in amber turf battles. “If someone is killed,” said Dyuh, “the authorities say it is a ‘domestic dispute,’ but everyone knows what is going on.” Meanwhile, those who make money from stealing state property or trading in amber are investing in real estate. This accounts for many of the new houses, the construction of which has boosted employment and injected money into the local economy. Little can be done to stop this, says Dyuh, because the authorities themselves and the police and intelligence services are so closely involved. He told me that he and his friends had filed three corruption cases over local abuses but did not expect anything to come of them.

Rivne is not unique. Everywhere in Ukraine there are similar stories. It is a depressing picture, but the situation is not as hopeless as it may seem. According to Daria Kaleniuk, who runs the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, an influential NGO in Kiev, a crucial change since the revolution is that it is far harder to hide misdeeds. For example, because of legislation passed in March 2016, by last October, 100,000 politicians, civil servants, and judges—including 423 members of parliament—had made online declarations of their assets. Another one million people were supposed to have done so by April 1 of this year, though we don’t yet know how many have. It is a criminal offense to make a false declaration and close family members must be included so that, in theory at least, property can no longer be hidden under the name of a spouse.

Ukrainians have long been resigned to the fact that their politicians and civil servants, whose official salaries are often only a few thousand dollars a year, have major property portfolios, art collections, and sometimes millions of dollars in the bank. But, says Kaleniuk, the fact that more and more of this information is publicly available is a huge step forward. These transparency requirements came about thanks to pressure from civil society activists who emerged from Maidan, combined with pressure from the IMF and aid-giving foreign governments, who made further support contingent on them. Many Ukrainians think that their country is more corrupt than before, she says, but that’s not true; it’s just that corruption is now much more out in the open.

The problem today is that there is very little anyone seems to be able to do about it. For all the stories, there have been few arrests on corruption charges, though in early March Ukrainians were stunned when Roman Nasirov, the country’s top tax official, was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement. (It may well be that Nasirov, who is close to Poroshenko, was targeted by the new National Anti-Corruption Bureau as part of a struggle with the president, whose administration has been trying to rein in the power that the new agency has been given.) In April, two more public figures were detained for suspected embezzlement: Mykola Martynenko, who had chaired the energy committee in parliament, and Sergiy Pereloma, a high-ranking executive at the Ukrainian national energy company. When Dyuh talks about changing things over the long run, he means that he and other activists must educate citizens to understand that they can vote corrupt officials out of office.

Why have there been so few prosecutions for corruption or for the deaths that took place during the revolution? Why hasn’t the law regulating the amber trade been passed? Why has the corrupt judiciary not been cleaned out? The answer is that too many politicians are doing too well and are wary of reforms that could send them to jail. When Ukraine’s widely respected economy minister resigned in February 2016 (along with his entire team), he said he did not want to provide “cover” for government corruption and pointed a finger at people close to Poroshenko.

For the president, however, demands for broad reform must also be weighed against the need to maintain a strong government in Kiev and prevent the Russians and the rebels from taking more territory. Opinion polls show that hardly any politicians in the current government and parliament are popular, so further unrest could create opportunities for radicals and nationalists to destabilize the political system. (On March 16, three of Ukraine’s far-right groups—Svoboda, Right Sector, and National Corps—joined forces to sign a manifesto calling for “establishing and developing a great national state.”) For this reason the country’s Western partners are not pressuring the government on reforms, an approach that activists say has only encouraged abuses.

“The lack of will to fight corruption,” Kaleniuk said, “is even more dangerous than the war in the east.” She and others I spoke to suggested that corruption itself could return Ukraine to direct or indirect Russian control: all the Kremlin needs to do is wait for the ruling class to provoke another revolution—perhaps with minimal help from Putin.

Hakan Caliskan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev at a celebration of Crimean Tatar Flag Day, Kiev, June 2016

There is also a widespread assumption in Ukraine that Putin needs the country’s reforms to fail so that he can protect his own corrupt regime. A video recently posted to YouTube and watched by millions of Russians shows Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny describing how Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, has control of assets worth $1.9 billon. Soon after the video was released, there was a brief upsurge in anticorruption protests in Russia, some of them directed at Medvedev, which subsided only after hundreds were arrested. While Russian news organizations ignored the protests and are full of the glories of Putin and Russian military prowess, many Russians might still wonder why their politicians don’t have to declare their assets like Ukrainian politicians do.

But the Ukrainian government seems unlikely to take these reforms further. On March 27 Poroshenko signed a law requiring anticorruption activists like Kaleniuk and Dyuh to file asset and income declarations (though their income doesn’t come from Ukrainian public funds); clearly it is intended to intimidate and discredit them. Meanwhile the company that had been in charge of the financial disclosure statements for politicians and civil servants has declared that it is overwhelmed, and for now the system has ground to a screeching halt.

Hanna Hopko is one of the few genuinely pro-reform politicians who have been elected to parliament since Maidan; she is now head of its foreign affairs committee. She told me that when Donald Trump became president of the United States, his initial Putin-friendly statements led to panic in Kiev. After strong statements by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in support of continued sanctions against Russia, and with the recent standoff between Washington and Moscow over Syria, those fears have now subsided. Still, Hopko said, uncertainty about continued US support has led her and some of her colleagues to conclude that Ukraine needs to do much more to resolve the conflict in the east, which is now entering its fourth year.

The current template for peace, the second version of the so-called Minsk accords, has not been implemented and is unpopular among Ukrainians. Though the agreement would return all of the rebel-held areas of the east, which contain some two million people, to Ukrainian sovereignty, it leaves in doubt the extent of Kiev’s control over them. Crimea would also remain in Russian hands. Poroshenko signed the accords in February 2015, when Ukraine was at a disadvantage: it was fighting for and losing Debaltsevo, a town a couple of hours’ drive northeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, to Russian-backed rebel forces. Since then, Ukraine’s forces have become much stronger but a low-level war grinds on. Every week a few soldiers die as shooting and shelling continues. Occasionally, as in January of this year, there is a major flare-up of fighting.

One of the central flaws of the Minsk accords is their ambiguity. “I know that if you want to solve a conflict you have to [make a] compromise,” says Hopko, “but what kind?” If the price of peace, she said, was implementing the deal in the way Russia wanted—by giving the Russian-controlled territories in the east an effective say in determining Ukraine’s future, and especially its foreign policy—then it would be better “to remain with a frozen conflict.” On the other hand, the longer the territories remain completely cut off from Kiev, the greater the likelihood that, sooner or later, they will be annexed by Russia or develop an independent identity, which would make it very hard for them to be reintegrated into Ukraine.

According to the UN, almost 10,000 people are believed to have died in the east since fighting began. There are 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers on the front, and they are now a serious force. In the past three years, they have received training and advanced equipment, like targeting systems, from several NATO countries. If it would not provoke a response from Russia, the Ukrainians could almost certainly roll back the separatists. They have learned how to fight and are better able to deal with Russia’s relentless propaganda and cyberattacks. Now military men from NATO countries are coming to Ukraine to study its counterinsurgency efforts with “great interest,” a diplomat told me.

Kiev’s trendiest place is Izolyatsia, a nonprofit cultural foundation situated in an old port building on the banks of the Dnieper River. It houses a gallery and a workspace for young entrepreneurs. But it belongs to a company that made tar pitch in Gorlovka (Horlivka in Ukrainian), a town in the east that is now under rebel control. The company used to employ seven hundred people but with business killed off by the war, only about twenty remain on the payroll. Oksana Sarzhevskaya, the exuberant thirty-five-year-old director of Izolyatsia, whose husband was murdered by separatists, gives work to the company’s former employees when she can. This was how I met Vitaly, aged thirty-six, to whom she had offered a job as a security guard at an exhibition of tapestries by Grayson Perry, the prominent cross-dressing British artist.

In this slightly surreal setting Vitaly told me that about half of Gorlovka’s population had left. Many men joined the separatist army simply because there was no work. He, his brother, and their families had moved to Ukrainian-controlled territory but they started returning to Gorlovka when there was work for them as security guards at the tar pitch factory. Now he said that many there want the town to return to Ukrainian control; he would not go back because it was a “sad place” and the only way to earn a living was in the separatist militia. I got the impression that a considerable number of people on both sides don’t really care who controls the territory, as long as the war ends and life returns to normal.

Life in occupied Crimea is different. There has been no war there but the cost of living is high and it is far from the paradise that many hoped it would be under Russian rule. The region has become heavily militarized and dissent is not allowed; pro-Ukrainian activists have been jailed. During much of last year, when Ukraine was still supplying its electricity, it suffered lengthy power cuts. Now Russia is supplying more of it. A majority of people in Crimea, where two thirds declared themselves Russian before 2014, may still favor Russian rule, but there is no sure way of knowing.

Meanwhile, the region’s indigenous people, the Crimean Tatars, who comprise about 12 percent of the population, remain strongly opposed to rule by Moscow. In 1944 Stalin deported virtually all of them to Central Asia, and it was only toward the end of Soviet rule, under the longtime advocacy of the Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev, that Tatars began to return to their native land.

Now Dzhemilev is in exile again, this time in Kiev. In his modest apartment, Dzhemilev told me of the pressures the Tatars were under. The Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar representative body, has been banned. Twenty-two Tatar activists and others have disappeared, most of them early in the occupation, and only seven bodies have been found. This has had a chilling effect. The Russian police conduct frequent searches in people’s houses but, Dzhemilev said, ordinary Tatars are reluctant even to talk about these things. The shadow of 1944 hangs heavily over them: they are afraid of losing their homeland again.

According to Dzhemilev, Ukraine is pursuing the right policy toward Crimea. It cannot afford to open a second front there and the Tatars cannot give Russia an excuse to expel them, so they will have to hold out for better times. Putin might be anticipating that Ukraine will implode, but Putin’s Russia could crumble too. Dzhemilev said, “The Soviet people were obedient, but the USSR still collapsed.”

So Ukraine and Russia are locked in a standoff, waiting to see which side will give way first. It is possible that were Russia’s economic strains to become acute, it might seek to make peace with Ukraine if it considered maintaining its current hold on power more important than endless news about “victories” over Kiev and the West. A darker possibility is that the Ukrainian government, buckling under economic stagnation, mismanagement, and constant military pressure from Moscow, might accept a peace that is favorable to the Kremlin. For the moment, no one seems to believe that the Minsk process will continue in a meaningful way, especially now that US–Russian relations are so bad. The most likely course seems to be more conflict—and more corruption.

—April 27, 2017