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Ukraine: Nothing Left to Lose

Ukraine has a new president, and he’s a comedian! Oh, wait a minute, that’s not such a big deal. Guatemala was the first country to elect a comedian as president: Jimmy Morales, back in 2015. Although Morales turned sort of serious once he took office: he’s a right-wing nationalist who supports the death penalty and opposes abortion. Whereas Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t turned.

Right through the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Zelensky avoided speeches. Mostly he just toured the country with a comedy troupe, performed in skits, and did stand-up. And he’s not just a comedian, he’s a Jewish comedian, the very best kind. His style is south Ukrainian, sort of vaudeville, with a distinctive Jewish inflection, and people love it.

Congratulations to Ukraine, by the way, for having Jews as both president and prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) at the same time, in the heart of traditionally anti-semitic Eastern Europe, and not even making a fuss about it. But what is Zelensky going to do for Ukraine now that he has been swept into office with a landslide majority (73 percent)? Nobody actually knows, and this may include Zelensky himself.

When Zelensky did offer more than jokes, in the short videos he released from time to time during the campaign, it still wasn’t policies. More like mood music, really.

“He’s from a family of Jewish Soviet intellectuals from a Russian-speaking industrial region [in eastern Ukraine],” Vyacheslav Likhachev of the National Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group in Kyiv told the Haaretz newspaper. “He has repeatedly made fun of over-the-top [Ukrainian] national patriotic discourse.”

“Zelensky might make some symbolic gestures toward nationalist sentiment to fend off accusations that he’ll sell us out to Russia,” Likhachev continued, “but that seems unlikely to me. He probably realizes that it’ll be hard for him to win over the most nationalist-oriented part of society, so he’ll wash his hands of them so as not to alienate the majority.”

That will be a welcome change after five years of the pompous nationalist bilge of billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who won the presidency in 2014 after a popular revolt overthrew the pro-Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych.

In a video Poroshenko released just before the sole presidential debate in Kiev’s huge Olympic Stadium last Friday, he tried to play the patriotic card: “There’s no room for jokes here. Being a president and supreme commander is not a game… it means being responsible for the people, for the country.” It would have sounded more persuasive if Poroshenko had done something about the corruption that has made oligarchs like him rich.

Zelensky’s response was lethal: “I’m not your opponent. I’m a verdict on you. I am the result of your mistakes.” And by a majority of almost three-to-one, Ukrainians voted to put their future in his hands. Although, to be frank, most of them doubt that he can really deliver the future of peace and prosperity that they hope for.

The only evidence they have of Zelensky’s dedication, honesty and wisdom is the television series he writes and stars in, ‘Servant of the People’. It’s a heart-warming story of a humble high-school history teacher whose rant about the dreadful state of the country is secretly recorded by his students, and goes viral when they upload it to You Tube. So he is elected president of Ukraine.

Zelensky is not a high-school teacher; he is a show-business millionaire with his own production company. He may be just as warm and sincere in person as Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, the former teacher and accidental president whom he plays in ‘Servant’. (It’s one of Ukraine’s most popular series, and is now nearing fifty episodes). Or he may not be.

Journalists are now working their way through all the box sets of ‘Servant of the People’, trying to glean some clues about what the new president has in mind. But that’s a thankless task, because a lot of the show is sheer fantasy (like the sequence where the frustrated Holoborodko machine-guns the entire parliament).

Ukrainian voters are not fools. They know they are buying a pig in an poke. But they calculate that things MIGHT change if Zelensky becomes president, whereas they certainly wouldn’t change if any of the usual suspects won the presidency. And things are certainly not good now.

Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe – far poorer than Russia. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country seeking work in Poland or Russia, and the low-intensity war against the Russian-backed separatists in the east drags on endlessly. No post-Soviet leader of Ukraine has made even a dent in the corrupt rule of the oligarchs. Indeed, most of them have been oligarchs themselves.

So why not vote for Zelensky? Most Ukrainians feel that they have nothing left to lose.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Zelensky…majority”; and “Journalists…parliament”)

Ukraine Election

Unlike comedian Alec Baldwin, who is famous for his impersonation of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for playing the anti-president, an accidental hero who sweeps into the presidency of Ukraine and cleans up all the corruption. He used to play it for laughs, and now he’s playing it for real.

Zelensky is now leading in the opinion polls for the Ukrainian election on Sunday with 25% of the vote, well ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (12%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (18%). (She’s the one who used to wear her hair in braids wound up around her head.)

The other third of the voters are currently divided between 36 other presidential candidates who will be eliminated in Sunday’s vote, which will also decide whether Poroshenko or Tymoshenko goes up against Zelensky in the two-person run-off three weeks later. Baldwin will never be the US president, but there’s a good chance that Zelensky will be the Ukrainian president.

What a heart-warming story, I hear you murmur. Humble comedian plays even humbler high-school history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, whose classroom diatribe against the corruption of Ukrainian politics is secretly filmed by a student. It goes viral on the internet, and humble teacher is instantly elevated into the presidency by a grateful public.

The story gets even better. In real life, ‘Servant of the People’, the TV show about the teacher-turned-president, plays on the country’s biggest television channel, 1+1, and is a nationwide hit. Then the guy playing the teacher, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, decides that he has a chance of working the same miracle in real life. So he puts himself up for the presidency, and lo! The public agrees.

This is not art imitating life; it is life imitating art. But if you are a nasty old cynic who suspects the worst about people’s motives, then you are probably right, at least in this case. Zelensky is not just a simple comic who got lucky.

A little background. Ukraine is one of the less fortunate post-Soviet countries, with ageing heavy industries, few natural resources, and barely a third of Russia’s per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity). It has been mired in a low-intensity war with Russian proxies in its eastern provinces for the past five years, and has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

You might think that, in these circumstances, political debate would concentrate on ending the war and raising popular living standards, but the war is barely mentioned and the main economic debate is about ‘corruption’.

That debate would make sense if it was really about cleaning up an extremely corrupt political system dominated by the ‘oligarchs’ (who also control most of the media). In practice, it is mainly a struggle between rival oligarchs, using accusations of corruption to target each other when in fact they are all corrupt almost by definition.

Poroshenko, a leading oligarch who won the election after the 2014 revolution, was at daggers drawn with Ihor Kolomoysky, the second-richest man in Ukraine, from the beginning of his presidency. In 2016 he nationalised Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank, the largest bank in the country, and Kolomoysky went into self-imposed exile in Israel while fighting Poroshenko’s actions in the courts and the media.

It was at this time that Kolomoysky and Volodymyr Zelensky, already a successful comedian with his own production company, began developing the TV series about the accidental president, and it went on air on Kolomoysky’s 1+1 channel two years ago. It was an instant runaway hit, and now Zelensky is the leading candidate for the real presidency.

Is Zelensky just a stalking horse behind which Kolomoysky can take control of Ukraine away from Poroshenko? Not necessarily. The two men may have a pragmatic alliance but their own separate agendas. But it is noteworthy that Zelensky showed up at Kolomoysky’s birthday party last year and was introduced as “our president”.

That large numbers of Ukrainians should fall for a fake maverick (who doesn’t even offer much in the way of concrete policies) is a measure of their disappointment with the status quo of rule by oligarchs behind a facade of democracy. Russia’s relative prosperity is mostly due to its oil, but it also owes much to the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought its oligarchs under control. In Ukraine, their rivalries still dominate everything.

There is not much reason to believe that Ukraine will finally turn the corner in this election and escape from the miseries and failures of its first three decades of independence. On the other hand, it’s not getting any worse either, and for the moment the war in the east seems encysted and confined. Hope dies last, and maybe Zelensky will surprise us.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“That…everything”)

Orthodoxy: the New Great Schism

6 January 2019

If you live long enough, almost anything is possible. It is now possible, for example, to hear the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, describe a former KGB agent and avowed atheist as a “miracle of God”.

The miracle in question, Vladimir Putin, made his career in the Soviet secret police before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which meant he had to be a member of the Communist Party. As a loyal Communist, he had to struggle against the evil influence of religion, the ‘opium of the people’, and as an ambitious careerist he did just that.

But the regime changed in 1991, and Putin had to carve out a new political career in a post-Communist Russia. So he got religion, or at least pretended to, and made an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s why he is now warning that there may be bloodshed if the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is allowed to break away from the Moscow patriarchate.

The president of Russia got the best education the Soviet state could provide, and his private opinion about the Russian Orthodox Church is probably not far from that of Pussy Riot (although they would agree on little else). But the Church has always served the interests of the Russian state if it is allowed to, and as the embodiment of the Russian state Putin feels obliged to return the favour.

What has upset Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues is that last weekend Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted a ‘tomos of autocephaly’ to Metropolitan Epiphanius of the newly formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Which probably needs a bit of translation.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is the head – or rather, the ‘first among equals’ – among the heads of the various national Orthodox Christian churches. ‘Constantinople’, actually now Istanbul, is still the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity although it has been under Muslim control for over 500 years.

The Ukrainians had asked Patriarch Bartholomew if they could have their own church back, and after due consideration he decided that they should. The tomos of autocephaly (independence) was the document that contained his decision. He was just putting things back the way they were.

Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, was the first capital of the Russian state, and naturally the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church as well. But Kiev was destroyed in the Mongol invasion of 1240, and for centuries afterwards the new centres of Russian civilisation were in the forests far to north.

In 1686, when Muslim slave-raiders from Crimea were still operating regularly in the vicinity of Kiev, the patriarch in Constantinople officially transferred the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev to Moscow. All that’s really happening now is that Kiev is getting its own patriarch back.

The people who live in this area now are called Ukrainians, speaking a language somewhat different from Russian. Normal Orthodox rules say that each national group is entitled to its own national church, so what’s the problem? Politics, of course.

For three centuries after 1686, Ukraine was part of the Russia empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. It was the Russian Orthodox Church that made the religious decisions for everybody, and received the revenues from the 12,000 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine. But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all that has been in question.

The question became more urgent with Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since then. Moscow wanted to keep control of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, since it was a way to influence Ukrainian opinion in Russia’s favour. But for the same reason, it was a priority for Ukrainian nationalists to expel the Russian influence.

Ukraine won, and Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, thanked Patriarch Bartholomew last weekend “for the courage to make this historic decision….Finally, God sent us the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” (Is Poroshenko really a believer? Maybe, but he’s certainly running for re-election in March.)

Putin and Poroshenko are both using religion for their own purposes, but Bartholomew just did what was right. That has a cost: the Russian Orthodox Church accounts for almost half of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, and the hierarchy in Moscow has now broken off relations with the patriarchate in Constantinople. This is a schism that may take a long time to heal.

But Pussy Riot should have the final word. As they said in their famous ‘punk prayer’ in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 (for which two of them did serious jail-time):

The Church praises rotten leaders

The march of the cross consists of black limousines

Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin,

Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God!

Virgin birth-Giver of God, drive away Putin!

Drive away Putin, drive away Putin!
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“The people…course”; and “But Pussy…Putin”)

Ukraine: No Big War

The Russian-Ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not going to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the existing members won’t let it join. Why? Precisely because that might drag them into a war with Russia.

Russia doesn’t have any real military alliances either. Various countries sympathise with either Ukraine or Russia, but none of them have obligations to send military help, and they are not going to volunteer.

Secondly, there’s not even going to be a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine because Ukraine would lose. Russia has more than three times the population and its economy is ten times bigger. The Russian armed forces are far bigger and vastly better armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Russia regardless of the provocation.

The Russians obviously have more options, but conquering Ukraine is probably the furthest thing from their minds. It has no resources they need, and if they occupied the country they would certainly face an ugly and prolonged guerilla war of resistance. They have nothing to gain.

They actually have a lot to lose, because a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would trigger a Western reaction that would come close to bankrupting Russia. NATO would conclude that this was the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reconquer all of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and start re-arming in a very big way. The Russians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

They did go broke trying to keep up with Western military spending back in the Cold War, and in the end the entire Communist system collapsed. Russia is now a largely de-industrialised country with half the population of the old Soviet Union, and the collapse would come a lot faster – probably sweeping Putin away with it. He knows that, because he lived through the collapse last time.

So what we have here is really just a local crisis. The Russians started it in order to make a specific local gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face major Western retaliation because it’s just not a big enough issue.

The actual clash on Sunday saw three Ukrainians injured, 29 others arrested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were trying to pass through a Russian-controlled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a relatively shallow body of water (maximum depth 14 metres) that is about the size of Switzerland.

Until the Russians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Russian territory on one side and Ukrainian territory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that
both countries had free access to the Sea of Azov and their respective ports along its coasts, no permission needed.

In 2014, however, Russia infiltrated troops into Crimea who pretended to be a new local militia. They took control of the entire peninsula and its two million people, staged a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia, and won it. The Ukrainian government protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to resist the takeover by force.

Russia tried to justify its action by pointing out that the great majority of the people in Crimea spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and that it has been part of Russia for centuries until a Soviet leader with strong Ukrainian connections handed it over to Ukraine in 1954.

International law does not accept border changes imposed by force as legitimate, and Russia has been under severe Western sanctions on trade ever since it annexed Crimea. Its economy is in serious trouble, but the annexation was immensely popular in both Russia and Crimea, and Putin will not reverse it.

Since there was no land connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, Putin decided to build an 18-kilometre bridge joining the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy coincidence, that would also give him the ability to control or even block shipping trying to get to Ukrainian ports on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is exercising that option. The Ukrainians tried to send their (rather small) warships through to show that the treaty of free passage signed in 2003 still applies.

The Russians didn’t actually deny that, but said that they were closing the strait temporarily for operational reasons. The Ukrainian warships pushed on, and the Russians attacked them.

The Russians are legally in the wrong, but they are going to win this one because Ukraine had almost no navy left and nobody wants a bigger war. Ukraine has imposed martial law in areas that border on Russia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly window dressing. There may be further sanctions against Russia, but that’s as far as it goes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“They did…time”; and “Russia…1954″)