Assorted troubles kept me from writing all the interesting posts I wanted this month, but since these troubles are finally over, we can probably do with a short December rundown. If you were scratching your head over what’s happening in Ukraine and is this bad (like the Western journos would like you to believe!), then scratch no longer and strap in. This is going to be an eclectic ride.
Also Sprach Biden
I avoided writing about VP Biden’s visit on purpose, just because so much speculation and wishful thinking was piled up on it that I could hardly stomach it. For some unfathomable reason, ‘the West’ is seen in Ukraine as some almighty force that is always about to come down on our leaders’ heads for… something. Either the reforms are ‘slow’ (i.e. Ukraine’s standards of living did not magically become on par with Switzerland’s), or Shokin, the Prosecutor General, is incompetent and Big Bad Poro just won’t remove him (and put someone of those nice young reform-minded pro-European MPs in charge of the prosecution, instead), or whatever else. It mostly depended on how much that particular speaker or “expert” hated Poroshenko, Yatsenyuk, or both.
It did not turn out to be that apocalyptic. US and Western monetary aid did not stop, Yatsenyuk did not get the boot and Shokin wasn’t sacked, either. Instead, Biden addressed the Rada and spoke at length about fighting corruption in what was a really, really great speech. The MPs probably ignored it outright.
Biden spoke at length about the second chance Ukraine’s got, and he’s right on all accounts: if we fail here, there won’t be a third chance. It took a lot of effort to get the West to back us again, especially after how Ukraine squandered its potential after the first Maidan. Unfortunately, the task of not screwing Ukraine up the second time falls to the Rada, as the legislative power in the land… and the Rada mostly concerns itself with petty factionalism, loudmouthed populism and hanging out at talk shows. It’s a wonder they actually manage to approve anything with that kind of clowning around.
The Americans are obviously taking precautions this time around. One wonders just how much leverage, if any, they’ve got on this Rada.
Snatch the Yats: PM In Trouble
No sooner than a week after Biden’s speech, the Ukrainian parliament promptly went back on its usual behavior – with a twist when an MP tried to bodily carry the PM Yatsenyuk out of the Rada. An epic free-for-all soon developed as Yatsenyuk’s party rallied to their leader’s support. Much neckties were pulled that day.
Fistfights in the Rada are pretty much the norm, celebrated and bemoaned in Ukrainian news, literature and drama as the favorite pastime of MPs everywhere. In fact, one of the widest uses for a Ukrainian MP is as a battering ram. With the new convocation, young up-and-coming MPs have punched and kicked everyone from prosecutors to SBU generals in the face (or, in the latter case, the head). However, assaulting a PM was – so far – something that was simply never done.
The Poroshenko Bloc kicked the offender off the party list, but he reappeared, triumphant, on that evening’s Savik Schuster Show, Ukraine’s premiere political
show circus circus show, telling the audience how he simply had to bodily carry Yatsenyuk out – lest ‘the people’ carry him. This is referring to how pretty much nobody likes poor Yats – and that his party, the second-largest faction in the Rada, apparently has no ratings to speak of.
I’m not particularly in favor of Yatsenyuk, but I’m not particularly against him, either. He could have done better, but he held the country together when it was at its lowest, and he never actually promised everything will be sunshine and bunnies. In a country where parties campaign on such issues as a professional military or lower prices during local elections, this kind of honesty should count for something. Unfortunately, though, this is Ukraine: everyone wants ‘the reforms’ to be done yesterday, and if they’re not, it’s ZRADA. Bring the pitchforks!
Yatsenyuk makes a good scapegoat. I mean, he presides over a cabinet where most of the ministers are appointed by the other party (in this case, the Poroshenko Bloc), yet all the blame at anything the government does (or doesn’t) is directed at him. Therefore, he is convenient, but it doesn’t really make it any easier for him – because everyone wants a slice of that prime ministerial pie, or at least wants to hand that slice to someone more convenient to them. Seeing as Ukraine is a semi-presidential republic and the PM has the most of the executive power, this is a lucrative prize.
So far, though, nobody is going to remove Yats from the premises, bodily or otherwise. This, however, does little to stop the debate.
Which looks more and more like a smear campaign.
The Saakashvili-Avakov fight is probably downright famous by now, not to mention that it launched a thousand more idle speculations about how Ukraine is ‘fractured’ or something. The Western journalists seem to love this one.
In all honesty, this is one of the things that made a lot of Ukrainians (and Poroshenko) simultaneously facepalm in shame. When an oblast governor and a government minister start arguing is one thing, but when they start throwing abuse (and glasses) at each other – and in the middle of a National Reform Council, no less – this is something else.
Russian media, of course, pounced on the matter, so much that even Putin made snide comments about Saakashvili. Not that anybody cares what Putin says, but this kind of thing is a godsend for Russia.
This was even more important since Saakashvili was, at the time, seen as Poroshenko’s man, and Avakov here was standing up for Yatsenyuk, whom Saakashvili likes to loudly accuse of corruption. As events would unravel, it would seem less so. Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk quickly issued a joint statement about unity, but this did not stop the speculation.
Of course, this could all boil down to Avakov being an Armenian, and Saakashvili a Georgian, and since Caucasians pretty much can’t stand each other, locking the two in the same room was bound to end unpleasantly.
You know how it is.
The Evil Visa-Free Regime
Christmas came early when the European Commission gave the green light for EU-Ukraine visa liberalization. I already wrote a piece on the importance of this event, but while this is a victory, certain hurdles still need to be overcome. Ukrainian ZRADA pundits happily latched onto this (again to the delight of Russian media everywhere), but so far the EU may allow Ukrainians to travel without a visa somewhere in mid-2016.
All the funny pictures on this particular topic turned out to be unimaginative Russian caricatures about how EU travel would, apparently, be too expensive for the typical Ukrainian. Which only serves to reinforce the point that Russians do not, actually, know that much about the typical Ukrainian.
I mean, come on. ‘Crisis in Ukraine’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘people hanging out in cafes complaining how life is hard lately’. Then they go out, get into their Western brand car and drive to the nearest mall, clogging the supermarkets and outlet stores like there is no tomorrow.
If this is a terrible crisis, it is an unbelievably cozy one.
Death To Taxes! and Ukraine on a Budget
After much fierce debate, the Rada approved the 2016 national budget right on Christmas Eve, with the speaker herding the MPs like the Pope leads the Midnight Mass. While the budget still has a huge hole smack dab in the middle of it, it is a slightly smaller hole this time, and it will apparently get even smaller.
To go with this, the Rada also approved new taxes, while doing away with the proposed tax reform. We didn’t get the Ministry of Finance’s radical 20-20-20-20%% project, nor did we get the parliament’s even more radical one. Instead we’ve got incremental changes, so no one will be killing Ukraine’s IT industry just yet.
Ukraine’s IT lives and thrives under a simplified tax system: IT companies are officially groups of individual entrepreneurs, who each pay ridiculously small sums in tax. Unfortunately, the government needs money, but when they proposed scaling back the simplified system, IT industry screamed bloody murder. In a country where an IT professional can earn around 20 000 USD (that’s about half a million UAH) and pay 20 USD a month in taxes, this is understandable.
Unfortunately, Ukraine’s chief expense is its overblown social security system, which is neither social nor secure, but is somehow expected to cater to twenty million retirees. Social tithes and taxes ate up roughly half of an average Ukrainian’s salary. Pensions for most Ukrainian retirees are impossible to live on, yet promise to cut back on them and the senior citizens will start screaming bloody murder.
The new tax system would hardly murder Ukraine’s IT, but now it is officially moot: and until a new system is agreed upon, Ukraine will have no choice but to continue finding money somewhere to pay for all those miniscule pensions. Education and healthcare got cuts as a result, since you pretty much can’t cut any more corners anywhere else.
Besides, if you tried, the military would scream bloody murder. And they’ve only began to like all the shiny new toys they got under the last year’s defence budget.
The Boy Who Cried ‘Corruption’
Right before the budget happened, though, Saakashvili turned the tables over by running some overblown Anti-Corruption Forum in Kyiv. I wrote a small piece on it, as well: Ukraine’s corruption fighters are a particularly sore point of mine, not the least because they’re not actually doing anything to fight corruption in the first place.
What people like VP Biden understand, and what most of Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists don’t, is that corruption is not fought by screaming ‘CORRUPTION!’ at the top of one’s lungs. The larger problem, however, is that corruption, while a popular concept, is not a cause: it’s a symptom. To fight corruption, therefore, you have to fight its causes. Shouting about corruption doesn’t do that, however.
Things like civil service reform or government procurement reform, on the other hand, do. Ukraine’s widespread corruption is possible because Ukraine does not pay its civil servants nearly enough: a government minister is expected to survive on 2000 UAH – about 80 USD – a month. His subordinates and rank-and-file bureaucrats get even less. Government procurement was (and still is) handled behind closed doors, allowing interested parties to receive impressive sums in kickbacks or just straight graft – all the way keeping the public oblivious to the actual deals.
Dealing with these issues would remove the cause for corruption, rather than the symptoms. Yet shouting about corruption doesn’t even do that.
Right now, the media are swooning over Saakashvili, praising him left and right and hinting at his (suitably bombastic) entry into Ukrainian politics. This is not entirely unexpected: Saakashvili is a smooth political operator who understands how things are done in a post-Soviet system such as Ukraine’s. But the scope of his actual intentions remain to be seen yet.
Dmytro Yarosh, Russian media’s favorite bugbear, recently announced he’ll be leaving Right Sector for good after stepping down as its leader in November. What’s more, Yarosh now says he wants another go at running nationalist organization, although he did not disclose any details at this time.
Nevermind the fact that modern Ukrainian nationalism sounds suspiciously like Russian nationalism with serial numbers filed off, Yarosh’s problem is that he tried running a nationalist organization and failed at it. Where people like Biletsky and his Azov turned to the government in exchange for their loyalty and not stirring shit up, Yarosh basically franchised Right Sector out to anybody willing to contribute, ending up with a widespread, but disorganized, organization. The organization then promptly decided to go its own way and sidelined Yarosh from the decision-making process entirely.
Right Sector, as of now, is a mess. It basically devolved to rebellous youths, petty criminals and con artists running their own show beyond a thin veneer of ‘nationalism’ and ‘revolution’, blaming the ‘internal occupation regime’ for their troubles. Right Sector’s Volunteer Corps is ran by a Russian citizen. Another former Right Sector member got shot by SBU agents while working with suspected Russian saboteurs. Then there was Mukachevo, where Right Sector people brought a heavy machine gun and several RPGs to a turf fight, and things rapidly went unpleasant. Basically, Right Sector is about done for.
One should wonder how Yarosh is going to fare running a NEW nationalist organization when his last one failed so spectacularly. Even then, though, nationalism is falling out of vogue with Ukrainians by 2016, and even if it didn’t, Azov is currently king of the hill in the strange and unfathomable world of Ukrainian nationalism. Pushing them off that pedestal is going to be a daunting task.
As of this writing, Ukraine slips comfortably into the holiday haze, a time when nothing of consequence is going to happen or get done, and with this we conclude our December highlights section.
Stay tuned for The Ukraine Today: everything and more that you didn’t want to know about Ukraine – but now you do.