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Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

9 April 2014

Ukraine: How To Avoid a War

On one hand, eastern Ukraine appears to be slipping out of the government’s control, as pro-Russian groups seize control of official buildings in big eastern cities like Donetsk and Luhansk and demand referendums on union with Russia. They almost certainly do not represent majority opinion in those cities, but the police stand aside and people who support Ukrainian unity are nervous about expressing their opinions in public.

On the other hand, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has just announced that the EU, the United States, Ukraine and Russia will all meet somewhere in Europe next week to discuss ways of “de-escalating the situation in Ukraine.” That will be the first time that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has agreed to meet with a representative of the Ukrainian government.

So is this crisis heading for a resolution or an explosion? It still depends on whether Russian President Vladimir Putin thinks that the annexation of Crimea is enough compensation for the humiliation he suffered when his ally in Kiev, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by a popular revolution. And clearly Putin hasn’t yet decided that himself.

Rationality says take your winnings to the bank and quit the game while you’re ahead. Putin’s action has guaranteed that almost any imaginable Ukrainian government will be hostile for the foreseeable future, but the NATO countries will be willing to forget about Crimea after a while if he goes no further. Does he really want the United States, Germany, France and Britain as his enemies too?

Yet the temptation is there. Putin’s agents are everywhere in eastern Ukraine, he has 40,000 troops ready to go at a moment’s notice just across the frontier, and all the Russian navy’s amphibious assault ships are now in the Black Sea – he could grab the Ukrainian coast all the way west to Odessa at the same time. The Ukrainian army would fight, but could not hold out for more than a day or two, and NATO would not send troops. Why not do it?

There are lots of good reasons not to. Putin would face a protracted guerilla war in Ukraine (he would call it “terrorism”, of course). He would find himself in a new Cold War that Russia would lose much faster than it lost the last one: it has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and now depends heavily on Western markets for its modest prosperity.

He would find new NATO military bases opening up in various countries on Russia’s borders that joined the alliance for safety’s sake, but have so far not allowed  foreign (i.e. American or German) troops to be based permanently on their soil out of consideration for Russian anxieties. He really shouldn’t even consider grabbing Ukraine, but he is a man with a very big chip on his shoulder.

So what sort of line should the Europeans, the Americans and the Ukrainians be taking with Russia next week? This is about hard power, so appeals to sweet reason are pointless. “Sanctions” are also irrelevant: this has now gone considerably beyond the point where gesture politics has any role to play. The economic and strategic prices that Russia would pay need to be big and they need to be stated clearly.

But at the same time, Russia’s own legitimate concerns have to be addressed, and the main one is its fear that Ukraine might some day join NATO. That requires a firm commitment that Ukraine will be strictly neutral, under international guarantee. Russia will also try to get a promise that Ukraine will be “federalised”, but that is none of its business and should be rejected.

In the meantime, the shambolic Ukrainian provisional government needs to get a grip: not one of its leading figures has even visited the east since the revolution. In particular, it needs to take control of the police in the east (whose commanders were mostly Yukanovych’s placemen), and restore the chain of command from Kiev to the local municipalities.

Then it will be relatively easy to take back the occupied government buildings without violence. Just stop all movement in or out, turn off the water, and wait. None of this stuff is rocket science, but it’s not being done, and so the situation gets steadily worse.

Finally, money. Russia, under relatively competent authoritarian rule, has a GDP per capita of about $14,000. Ukraine, after a quarter-century of incompetent and sporadic authoritarian rule, has less than a third of that: $4,000 per head. It helps that Russia has a lot of oil and gas, but the contrast is huge, and Ukrainians are aware of it – especially in the east.

Ukraine needs lots of money, in a hurry, to stay solvent while it holds an election (on 25 May) and sorts itself out politically. And if all that is done, then maybe Putin will settle for Crimea and put up with the prospect of having to live next door to a neutral but democratic Ukraine.

Otherwise, it’s going to get quite ugly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. (“In the meantime…in the east”)

Ukraine After the Revolution

23 February 2014

Ukraine After the Revolution

From a Ukrainian point of view, the priority is not to throw their revolution away again like they did after the Orange Revolution ten years ago. But from everybody else’s point of view, the priority now is to avoid an irreparable breach between Russia and the West. One Cold War was enough.

The Yanukovych era is finished; the former president will not make another come-back. He has killed too many people, and the vulgar ostentation of his former palace (whose architect understandably chose to remain anonymous) has shocked Ukrainians even though they already knew he was deeply corrupt. Besides, Russia will not bet on this horse again.

On the other hand, the various opposition leaders will have great difficulty in deciding who leads their coalition, if indeed they can even agree on a coalition before the promised election on 25 May. But they’ll still win the election, because Yanukovych never allowed any plausible rivals to emerge in his pro-Russian Party of the Regions, and Russia will not be able to find and groom a suitable replacement in time.

This will frustrate people in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, who did not take part in this revolution and do not share the desire of the Ukrainian-speaking half for closer ties with the European Union. They worry that free trade with the EU will threaten their jobs, and it will require much tact to reassure them that their interests will be protected. But they will not split the country: very few Ukrainians want to be part of Russia.

Who will emerge as Ukraine’s next leader? Yulia Tymoshenko, newly released from prison, is the obvious choice, and that would certainly ease matters on the Russian front. She got along reasonably well with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, when she was prime minister last time. But many Ukrainians who backed the revolution don’t trust her.

Tymoshenko is dogged by questions about how she got so rich after the Soviet Union collapsed, and she bears some of the blame for the chronic in-fighting that discredited Ukraine’s first attempt at running a democratic government after the Orange Revolution of 2004. None of the other potential candidates, however, is acceptable to Putin.

Then there is the wild card: what if Yanukovych goes on trial for ordering the killings, and the prosecutors get their hands on his secret communications with Putin? It would not serve justice well, but it would be better if Yanukovych and his leading henchmen make it safely into exile, having first destroyed all evidence of criminal acts that would implicate the Russian government.

The best that can be hoped for in the short run, therefore, is a cold peace between Kiev and Moscow, which means that the $15 billion Putin promised to lend Yanukovych’s regime will not now be forthcoming. But the money has to come from somewhere, and the only alternative is the West, probably in the shape of the International Monetary Fund.

It is not clear if the United States and the EU are willing to come up with that kind of money. If not, then the upheavals in Ukraine will resume in fairly short order. And in either case Putin will work to sabotage the attempt to entrench a strong democratic system with effective anti-corruption laws in Ukraine.

President Barack Obama can tell Putin that Ukraine is not a square on a Cold War chessboard, but the Russian president does see it as a zero-sum game, and in terms of his own purposes he is right. His pet project to restore the Soviet Union in a non-Communist version by creating a “Eurasian Union”, for example, dwindles to nothing but Russia and a bunch of Central Asian dictatorships if Ukraine isn’t a part of it.

More importantly, Putin does not want to have a large, prosperous and democratic country with strong EU ties on Russia’s own border. Especially if it is another Slavic country that also used to be part of the Soviet Union, and it got its democracy as the result of a largely non-violent revolution carried out in the main square of the capital city. The example would be very dangerous to his regime.

There’s no risk of that sort of thing happening on Red Square in Moscow at the moment, but Putin thinks long term. Russia will therefore continue to meddle in Ukraine in an attempt to abort such a dangerous outcome

Confronting Moscow directly over this sort of thing would be a mistake, and could lead us all down the path that ends in a new Cold War. Russians, for historical reasons, do not see themselves as “outsiders” in Ukraine (although most Ukrainians do), and they will react very badly to attempts to exclude them entirely.

The better and safer path is to support the Ukrainians with trade and aid, but leave it to them to deal with Russian interference in their politics. They are perfectly capable of doing this for themselves, and they can also prosper without joining either the European Union or NATO. But they do need a whopping great loan, right now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“This will…Russia”; and “Then…government”)

Ukraine: Yanukovych’s Last Throw

19 February 2014

Ukraine: Yanukovych’s Last Throw?

When a government announces that it is going to launch an “anti-terror operation,” that generally means that it has decided to kill some people. That was what the police said at 6 pm local time Tuesday in Kiev, as they launched their assault on the protesters who have occupied the main square of the Ukrainian capital for eleven weeks – and sure enough, people started to die.

Other people had already died in clashes elsewhere in Kiev on Tuesday, including some policemen, and the more excitable observers have started speculating about the forcible imposition of a police state in Ukraine or even civil war. But the likeliest outcome is that the president will be forced out without a civil war.

President Viktor Yanukovych has not just had a bad two months; he has had a bad three years. He won the 2010 election narrowly but fairly, and ever since he has been trying to straddle the gap between Russia and the European Union. Both Moscow and Brussels have been courting Ukraine with trade-and-aid deals, and neither one was willing to let Yanukovych have it both ways.

Yet if he opted for either one, half the country was going to condemn him, for Ukrainians are split almost fifty-fifty between those (mostly Ukrainian-speakers in the west of the country) who want closer ties with the European Union and those (mostly Russian-speakers in the east and south) who want stronger links with Russia. Finally, in late November, he came down off the fence and chose Russia.

He did so because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was offering a massive financial bail-out if he joined Moscow’s new “Eurasian Union”– and threatening to turn off the gas that keeps Ukraine’s economy functioning if he did not. He also did it because his own voters are mostly Russian-speakers in the east. But he didn’t do it happily, because he knew there would be a backlash.

What he didn’t reckon with is the strength and duration of the protests, and the fact that they would expand beyond the simple Brussels-or-Moscow issue to take in the massive corruption that has flourished under his government. (Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr, a dentist by training, has become one of the country’s richest men in just three years.) And now his back is against the wall.

For the first two months of the confrontation, the protests were mostly peaceful, the riot police were kept on a short leash most of the time (although five people were killed), and you would have taken an even-money bet that Yanukovych could ride it out. Then he made the error of passing severe anti-protest laws, some of the protesters (especially on the nationalist right) started to use violence, and he began to retreat.

Within a week he was repealing his new laws in parliament, and accepting the resignation of his hard-line prime minister. Then he was offering the opposition leaders places in a new cabinet (they refused), and granting amnesty to protesters who faced criminal charges. Then he proposed constitutional reforms that would reduce the power of the president – but on Tuesday he postponed the debate on those reforms in parliament.

That was when the killing started – in front of the parliament, not on “Euromaidan”, the main square that the protesters have held since late November – between the right-wing nationalists of Praviy Sektor and a pro-government crowd imported from eastern Ukraine.

The protesters claim that the government infiltrated agents provocateurs into their crowd to start the violence, and the police certainly fought alongside Yanukovych’s supporters in the street battles there. More than a dozen people were killed, including six police, but the fighting in front of parliament was over by mid-afternoon.

It might have stopped there, but Yanukovych decided to use this calamity as an excuse to clear Euromaidan by force, although there had been no fighting there. That was when the police announced that they were launching an “anti-terror operation,” and the main assault began around six in the evening. The death toll by morning was at least twenty-five, and the protesters still hold most of the square.

Even if the current truce collapses and they subsequently lose control of the Euromaidan, they will not give up now. What is happening in Ukraine is no longer a non-violent protest against a particular government policy. It is a revolution in which both sides are starting to see violence as legitimate, and Yanukovych’s problem is that most people in the capital, though they don’t approve of the violence, support the other side.

Yanukovych now has a lot of blood on his hands: if he loses this battle, he will end up in jail or in exile. Protesters are seizing control of city centres in western Ukraine, while his supporters in the east and south are not lifting a finger to help him. And the country’s most powerful oligarch (some would say king-maker), Rinat Akhmetov, has just declared that there are “no circumstances that would justify the use of force against peaceful citizens.”

Yanukovych has run out of options. It is hard to see him staying in office unless he turns Ukraine into a full-scale police state, and it’s not easy to see how he could make that stick. The opposition is probably going to win. Then they’ll have to figure out what they want, apart from an end to Yanukovych.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 12 and 13. (“Other…above”; and “Even…citizens”)

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

2 January 2014

EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard

By Gwynne Dyer

New Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quieted down after all the drunks eventually staggered off home – and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day. We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance (as the dole is now known). But they never showed up.

It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1st, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.

The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for unemployment benefit.

Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens among the member countries should be changed to curb “mass populations movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to come to Britain and look for a job, “There is not freedom to come and claim.”

This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claiming unemployment pay, social housing, and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon actually exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it did.

But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t actually change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.

It is doing so entirely to ward off the challenge from its emerging far-right rival, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been poaching alarming numbers of right-wing Conservative voters. With an election due next year, Cameron is running scared, and has got into a “nastier-than-thou” bidding war with UKIP.

The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.

Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400,000 in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still actually have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport, and the average jet-setter wants more for his money.

A US passport is no longer so desirable, because US tax and reporting requirements apply to American citizens no matter where they live in the world, and many countries impose tit-for-tat visa requirements in response to US border controls. Moreover, it’s getting easier to obtain an EU passport.

Last November Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a programme that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay the government 650,000 euros ($885,000). It’s a quite reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and also offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States.

There was an outcry by offended Maltese patriots, but they were mollified when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government raised the price to 1.15 million euros ($1.6 million) a few days ago. So now we know the real value of an EU passport.

Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese: 248 out of 318 residence permits issued by Lisbon in the past three months to people who invested 500,000 euros ($680,000) in Portuguese property went to Chinese nationals. And there is no shortage of potential customers: a Bank of China survey revealed that almost half of the Chinese citizens with assets worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) are considering moving abroad.

Any EU passport – Portuguese, Latvian, Irish, whatever – gives its holder the right to live anywhere, work anywhere, set up a business anywhere in a community of 28 countries with a total population of more than 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.

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Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 13. (“It is…UKIP”; “A US…passport”; and “Who…abroad”)